Obstacles to Overcome – Building the Polaris Submarine

Note: Artists conception from 1958 before the first SSBN deployed… For the purists: It probably didn’t actually look like that

Obstacles to Overcome – Building the Polaris Submarine

It is a well-known fact among the submarine community that the USS George Washington started out life as the fast attack submarine Scorpion. Building the new boat was driven by the need for a platform for the Polaris missile system.

Normally when a new submarine or ship is imagined, a complicated process of ship design and approvals has to meander through a very complex system. At the time, Bureau of Ships (BUShips) was the agency that was responsible for new ship design and development.

But the Cold War and the shock of Sputnik created a circumstance that was enough to push the limits of any system. This story is about the obstacles faced while the hull selected was prepared for her new role as an SSBN.

I spent plenty of time on Helmsman and Planesman on the George Washington years later and got a chance to learn how to feel the impact of the movement of the planes and rudder. Most of the time, the boat was a slow moving turtle practically crawling through the murky depths. We were rotated through the stations during a normal six hour watch so that each of the three planesmen could be the helmsman (controlling both the rudder and the fairwater planes), the Outboard planesmen who controlled the larger stern planes and a messenger who had a variety of functions including getting coffee for the dive team and making wakeups. That last part was my least favorite of the three jobs.

I also spent a lot of time working on the hydraulic equipment that supplied the planes. I learned on two patrols that the unthinkable could happen with them as well. We managed to survive an actual fairwater planes emergency and a loss of rudder emergency at sea and on patrol. More about those stories another time.

A lot of thought was put into the equipment that would be needed to upgrade a fast attack hull to a boomer. This article talks about some of the challenges. It is the mark of greatness in our people that they were able to make all of this happen in the speed that they did. In some ways, it is also the greatest of luck that things didn’t go horribly wrong.

From the 1959 BuSHips Journal September 1958 Issue:

“During the fall of 1957 the launching of Sputnik added impetus to missile developments in the United States. The Polaris Program was no exception. The desired date for completion of the first submarine was advanced by 2 years. The only way this speed-up could be accomplished was to start out with a new ship design that could take advantage of components, material, and equipment already under procurement. This plan reduced the long lead time required for purchasing items such as the reactor and the main turbines.

A new preliminary design, designated SSGN (FBM)598, was begun on December 20. The fundamental concept worked out during the previous period of study was adhered to. The ends of the ship were redesigned to accommodate machinery and torpedo tubes under procurement for the SSN-588 class. With this and other necessary changes, the SSGN-598 class will be very fine ships, well able to carry out their assigned missions.

On January 8, 1958, the SSGN (FBM) 598 preliminary design was completed and turned over to the Contract Design Branches for preparation of contract drawings and specifications. The fact that portions of the design of the SSN- 588 could be used did not ease the problems. In many cases it complicated the design, since the new systems had to be matched up with equipment already under purchase.

An example of such a situation is the rudders and diving planes. Since the SSGN (FBM) 598 is larger than the SSN-588, it requires larger planes and rudders. The problem was to make the planes and rudders large enough to control the ship and yet be moved by rams and control equipment under procurement. This required a tremendous effort by Bureau engineers and the staff of the David Taylor Model Basin. A model was built, tested and the results were analyzed so that rudders and planes could be designed. This portion of the design could not have been accomplished without the excellent cooperation between the Bureau and David Taylor Model Basin.

Another place where exceptional cooperation paid off was in those parts of the design that are closely related to the missile. Many details of handling, servicing, and firing of the missiles had to be worked out with the Special Projects Group and their contractors. These details involved many of the Bureau’s technical codes. There were particularly knotty problems in the air conditioning and electrical areas. Many conferences were held to hammer out the philosophy and details of these plans.

The Machinery Design Branch had to investigate such things as the auxiliary power systems to determine whether existing equipment was adequate to carry the additional loads. Additional equipments were required which caused rearrangement of machinery and changes in specifications. The Nuclear Power Division was consulted about the rearrangement of the auxiliary machinery spaces.

There was not enough time to circulate the contract plans and specifications throughout the Bureau in normal fashion. All the people involved had to review them as they were prepared. This method of review reduced the time to complete the plans and specifications by 4 weeks.

A revolutionary new navigation system known as the Ship Inertial Navigation Systems (shortened to SINS) will enable the commanding officer to know precisely where he is at all times whether surfaced or submerged. The fire control system that determines the flight information for the missile from the ship’s location, speed, and course and the target location is a computer that will rival many in the research centers which have received so much publicity. The interconnection of this equipment is so complex that the wiring on an ordinary submarine is simple by comparison.

When completed in accordance with the contract plans and specifications, the Polaris submarine will be a fantastic new weapon that will influence all naval operations for years to come. It will cross the ocean, remain on station, fire its missiles, and return—entirely submerged. It will be able to remain submerged far at sea and deliver missiles to targets hundreds of miles inland. The missiles contained within its hull have a destructive potential many times that of the entire bomb load of our largest carriers of a few years ago.

At present, FBM submarines authorized for construction, are SSGN (FBM)598* and 599, at Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation, and SSGN (FBM)600, at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

The first of these submarines will join the Fleet in I960. In addition, contracts have just been awarded for two more FBM sub- marines, one to Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company and one to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.”

*Latest designation: SSBN-598.

There were a lot of proposals competing for attention during those very hectic days of the Cold War. Some never made it past the concept stage. One that I had never heard of was the atomic submarine sea plane tender. Apparently, the race for Polaris bumped it off of the drawing board.

Mister Mac


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