How MAD were we?

In January 1963, the world was on edge.

The recent Cuban Missile Crisis had shown how close we were to Mutual Assured Destruction on a scale never before seen. The arms race of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had pushed the east and west closer to global confrontation since the end of the Second World War.

Advances in airpower, missiles and submarines were the byproduct of mistrust between the two sides. By 1963, a small number of the 41 for freedom boats were already operation or nearly so.

But more were on the way

From a January 14th Washington Evening Star article:

Navy Seeking $650 Million for A-Subs

By the Associated Press

The new defense budget going to Congress on Thursday will Increase the Polaris missile-firing submarine program toward the $7 billion mark.

The budget is expected to include about $650 million to complete financing of the final six boats in a planned fleet of 41 nuclear-powered Polaris craft.

For the present at least, the Navy apparently is stopping at 41 Polaris submarines —a force due to be fully deployed at sea by 1967.

The Navy’s chunk of the budget for the bookkeeping year starting next July 1 will stress purchase of destroyers and other craft vital to antisubmarine warfare.

Some Disappointment

Some Navy sources familiar with the still-secret budget figures indicated disappointment. They said they had hoped for a big spurt on modernization of the fleet, but that the funds being allocated will just about enable the Navy to tread water in its struggle against ship obsolescence.

Analysis of figures furnished by the Navy showed that a total of $4.1 billion has been spent or committed so far for construction of Polaris submarines. Another $267.7 million has gone for four special tender ships, missile test vessels, and conversion of a floating dry: dock and a cargo ship that will be used to support a Polaris squadron when it moves into the Pacific.

In addition, the Navy said it cost $1.6 billion for research and development work before the first Polaris sub the George Washington, went on patrol in November, 1960.

Missile Costs Extra

All this does not include the price of Polaris missiles, at $1 million apiece, the expenses of subsequent development operations, crew training and maintenance and other associated costs.

So far, the United States has sent nine Polaris subs to sea. One other is in commission but not yet deployed, and seven have been launched. Another 18 are in various stages of construction.

Beside these 35 boats, the Navy this year received $76.7 million to pay for long-lead Items that will go into the final six Polaris craft. The first three—the George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Theodore Roosevelt—cost about $136 million each. But the next group of six, covered in 1959 appropriations, dropped to an average of 113 million each. The following 10 financed in 1961 carried a price tag of 112 million apiece. In 1962, the cost rose to 116 million for each of 10 subs. And the going rate for six Polaris boats funded this year comes to about $120 million per sub.

Part of the Triad

With all of this new hardware, the public must have been concerned about how safe the systems were. After all a rogue commander or crew could unleash hell on earth and what assurances were there that it would not come to pass?

A comprehensive piece in the Washington Evening Star, January 27, 1963, out lined how many safeguards were in place with the Strategic Air Command. At the end of the article was a shorter explanation about the systems in place on board Polaris submarines.

From the article:

The Navy is equally diligent in controlling its forces. No U.S. submarine may launch any of its 16 deadly Polaris missiles until it has received a coded “Go” message from the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, in Norfolk, Va. Three different officers, the captain, the executive officer and the communications officer, must separately decode this message and verify it.


In order to fire, all 130 officers and the enlisted men aboard the submarine must co-operate. Back aft, the men in the engineering department must keep the submarine at a certain depth and speed for the launching. On the three decks of the missile department, a number of secret activities must be carried out in precise sequence. The navigation department has to adjust some very sophisticated apparatus, and the submarine control center must fix the trim. Up forward in the missile control center, technicians have to conduct an electronic checkout on every missile.

Even the fire control officer, who sits at a vast console full of lights and dials, can’t set off a missile by himself. He must phone the captain, “Request permission to fire.” The captain has a panel in front of him with a big red button marked “Fire.” When the countdown reaches the proper stage, he must take out a key, unlock a padlock, and open the panel to press the button.

The Polaris

No mishap can launch the Polaris by mistake. The electronic system is an additive one. A failure anywhere suspends the entire operation.

Could some insane sailor try to ignite a war? No. No Polaris man is ever left alone with a nuclear weapon. SAC goes to great lengths to check its personnel for emotional stability. It keeps an eye on them on and off duty from their marital problems, their debts, anything that could influence their actions. Early last year, the Air Force inaugurated a brand new “Human Reliability” program, under which all its men get a psychological screening when they enter the service and at regular intervals thereafter. By regulation now, no officer or airman who manifests emotional instability can be given or can retain an assignment involving nuclear weapons. It can be disclosed here that three SAC officers and 102 airmen were reassigned to less sensitive positions for psychological reasons in the first six months of the “Human Reliability” program.

The Navy is not as scientific as the Air Force in this respect. Nevertheless, it does weigh emotional factors before it assigns a man to a Polaris submarine, and a psychiatrically trained doctor is aboard whenever one of these vessels puts to sea.

Check all orders

What if the Commander-in-Chief of SAC were to become unbalanced and attempt to start a war?

SAC has thought of that too. General Power has instructed the SAC Control Center not to accept any executive order including his own without being positive of its authenticity. The command post must check the validity of any orders received.

The Navy is as careful. It has set up a system under which the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be instantaneously informed of any “Go” order sent by the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic or Pacific Fleet. If the order were unauthorized, the JCS could countermand it in time.

SAC’s “Positive Control” system and the Navy’s safeguards have been 100 per cent successful for the past 16 years. Despite all the rumors to the contrary, not one U.S. missile has been fired by accident, not one U.S. bomber has been launched by mistake. The world need not fear the United States will ever start an accidental war. “I hope that the Soviet Union has as good a system,” General Power declares. THE END

Man Battle Stations Missile

I still have dreams about manning battle stations missile on both the George Washington and the Ohio. I do not remember ever seeing a psychiatrically trained doctor on either boat. But I served in the seventies and the eighties so thy must have figured out they weren’t really needed at that time. I do know the difference between the Polaris A-3 missile and her capabilities and the Trident Missiles we test fired. I always assumed that if we ever fired in anger, there wouldn’t be much left to come home to anyway.

Accidents were the wild card

The coming years would find flaws in nearly every system deployed on both sides of the conflict. 1963 would see the first major nuclear powered submarine tragedy with the loss of the Thresher. The Russians would suffer a number of setbacks in their fleet as well. But the Armageddon that was feared was kept in check. The real question today is that with so many rogue nations capable of building and deploying nuclear weapons, how long will we have until someone pushes the wrong button?

Mister Mac

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