Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarines in 1964

Nuclear Submarines at Ten Years

This article from ALL HANDS MAGAZINE did a very nice job capturing the development of the Nuclear Submarine Navy during the first ten years. Looking back nearly fifty five years later, it is stunning to see what was accomplished considering the technology they had available at the time. Think about it: designs were still being done using paper blue prints and slide rules. Computer aided design was just a fantasy in some far distant future. Calculators were cumbersome and used paper tape. Email did not exist so actual memos had to be circulated with every design change. The paper that must have been exhausted to complete these tasks in unfathomable.

Yet somehow, it all came together. Submarines and weapons systems were built and deployed in record breaking time. Submariners were trained in an equally record breaking time. The Navy developed a unique capability that still stands alone in the history of technological advancements. Most importantly, in all the patrols that were conducted, no weapons ever needed to be fired in anger.

That is the real testament to greatness.



Nuclear Subs: The First Decade

WITH THE ADVENT of the Polaris missile (see ALL HANDS, September 1960), the nuclear-powered subs were soon to become a mainstay of our national defense strategy.

Guided missiles opened up a new field in submarine warfare. For the first time, submarines would have a capability of destroying enemy submarines and surface craft at their bases and of neutralizing the building yards and supply depots.

Realizing the missile would offer I. powerful and new offensive weapon, the Navy developed two submarines which were equipped to launch the Loon missile. Its potential -was dramatically demonstrated in 1949 when, on maneuvers, a sub successfully launched a Loon.

The Loan was followed by the Regulus, an air breathing guided missile that can deliver havoc to any enemy. USS Halibut (SSGN 587) was constructed to deliver five of these missiles and, with four conventional Regulus launching submarines, has seen a member of our nuclear deterrent force for the past five years.

On 28 Nov 1955 the Navy announced plans for having nuclear submarines, capable of firing missiles from submerged positions, operational by 1962. Preliminary work was started, but in 1957 the Secretary of Defense gave the program urgent priority, with a target date of 1960.

Faced with a race against time, a navy contractor redesigned plans for an existing nuclear attack submarine, adding a I3O foot missile compartment and providing space for highly sophisticated navigational, stabilizing and fire control systems. At the time, much of this equipment had not even been designed. Space aboard the submarine was allocated and manufacturers were advised to build the equipment to fit the space, m unorthodox procedure that worked because of the close cooperation of the Navy-industry Polaris team—a team of more than 11,000 industries across the country.

When designs were approved, the shipyard began construction of George Washington (SSBN 598), the first Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine. The ship, one of the most complex ever built up to that time, was launched just 18 months after work was started, and was commissioned in another six months, marking an unparalleled shipbuilding accomplishment.

THE MOST significant milestone in the program came on 20 July 1960, when George Washington fired two Polaris missiles from a submerged position off Cape Kennedy. The ship wired the President: “Polaris, from out of the deep to target . . . Perfect.”

Since then, every Polaris submarine in commission has made successful submerged firings, and one, USS Ethan Allen (SSBN 608), launched a live missile during 1962 atomic tests in the Pacific.

It was not until Ethan Allen, launched in 1960, that the Navy had an FBM submarine designed as such from the keel up. Following the Allen class was the Lafayette, a longer and heavier class which incorporated ideas resulting from patrol experiences. One of the principal features of this class is greater habitability to ease the rigors of Polaris patrols, which last for about 60 days.

From a military standpoint, the Polaris-armed submarine offers certain unusual advantages as a deterrent and retaliatory weapon. Its launching position cannot be zeroed in for a surprise attack. Its angle of missile fire cannot be calculated in advance for aiming a counter missile, should such a weapon be developed. The target represented by a submarine is mighty small for attack by ballistic missile—even if that target’s approximate location were known in advance.

By moving around, such a submarine can completely upset attack calculations applicable to fixed launching positions. Its very mobility, as well as its underwater concealment, calls for wide dispersal of enemy search forces.

ANOTHER FACTOR that greatly increased the capabilities of the submarine is deep submergence. When the third dimension of depth is greatly increased, the anti-submarine tactical problem is made more difficult. Antisubmarine weapons must be designed to travel faster and farther underwater and have enhanced guidance and target-seeking capabilities.

On board Polaris subs, the crews work under conditions that can only be described as luxurious by early submarine standards. Interior space is roughly twice as great as that in conventional subs, as we mentioned earlier. In addition, due to the ability and, in wartime, the necessity, to stay underwater indefinitely, great care has been taken to make the submarine’s living spaces particularly suited for around-the-clock occupancy.

If the long leap to nuclear power for submarines has been swift, the events which have followed in the 10 years of nuclear propulsion have been no slower. In this decade 92 nuclear submarines have been authorized by Congress, of which well over a half have been launched and over a third commissioned.

What’s most important is the mating of the nuclear submarine with the Polaris missile, thus giving us one of our primary deterrent weapons—the nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine.

–Bill Howard, JOI, USN


Its easy to take for granted how far we have come even since those early days. May they ever sail in our memories and in peace.

Mister Mac

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