Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


As the POLARIS missile fades into retirement, old timers are apt to reminisce about the early struggles for its birth and the several battles it had to fight as it proved its worth. One such battle never received much publicity. Yet it may have been one of the most crucial in the early survival of that significant contributor to nuclear deterrence.

In 1960 the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was the dominant force in nuclear deterrence and was pushing for the establishment of a Strategic Command that would incorporate all strategic nuclear delivery forces. That would include POLARIS which was about to become operational. This idea was received with little enthusiasm in the Navy, which was not willing to have POLARIS come under the operational command of some other service. General Power was the bead of SAC at the time. He frequently stated that although he had no great personal preference, he felt that since the nuclear war plans of the nation called for SAC to deliver about 90 percent of the megatonnage, it seemed logical that the new Command be headed by an Air Force officer, — the head of SAC. Thi8 really drove naval officers up the wall. President Eisenhower finally resolved the issue by creating the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) reporting directly to the JCS but colocated with SAC and the Staff headquarters in Omaha.

This compromise solution directed the new Staff to coordinate all strategic nuclear weapons targeting for u.s. units and to integrate such planning with that of NATO forces. CINCSAC and the Director of the JSTPS was a dual-hatted Air Force general, with a Vice Admiral as the Deputy Director of the JSTPS to assure the joint nature of the Staff.

The SAC targetting system, adopted immediately, required the development of various probability factors for each type of weapon system — for launch reliability, in-flight reliability, weapon detonation reliability and so on. Two of the most significant factors were weapon accuracy and survivability of the launching platform. All of these factors were combined into a simple mathematical value called damage expectancy (DE) which was computed for every weapon used in the target plan. It was obvious that a submarine system could enjoy a high survivability rating -enabling it to score high mathematically in its contribution to the total deterrent effort. A weapon such as an ICBM with good accuracy but a relatively low probability or survival on its launch pad was not going to score as well as the less accurate POLARIS system that enjoyed a survivability factor or 1.0.

A survivable POLARIS was a threat, not only to the Soviet Union but in some ways to the position enjoyed by several or the weapon3 systems of SAC. General Power now became concerned with the POLARIS ability to perform. In the spring of 1961, the General directed that a war game be conducted by the JSTPS, aided by the SAC starr. The objective or the game was to test the survivability or the POLARIS system. Was the factor or 1.0 really justified?

To conduct the game, a chief umpire and associated supporting players were equipped with a couple or dice and the appropriate probability tables. A scenario was constructed to bring the Red and Blue forces together. Basically, the scenario called for the Blue force or POLARIS subs to be on missile launch stations in the Norwegian Sea, with Red forces deployed as their commander saw fit. Game time was started a few hours before “E” Hour — the time for the launch of all POLARIS missiles. The test was to see if the POLARIS submarines could survive Red search and attack operations — through the launch cycle itself. Any failure to do so would detract from the survivability factor and overall effectiveness of the POLARIS system.

Force composition was interesting. The Blue force consisted solely of three POLARIS submarines with 16 missiles each. The Red force was formidable: nine surface action groups with ASW capability equivalent to u.s. Navy equipment of the time; 1000 trawlers, each with a limited ASW capability allowing short range detection; 50 BADGER-type shore based bombers, 10 of which were loaded with 10 kiloton nuclear depth charges. The pilots of these aircraft were given the high altitude capability of seeing a POLARIS weapon emerge from the ocean surface, at night, from ninety miles away. Further, these pilots were then able to home on the succeeding launch of POLARIS weapons and deliver an attack against the mother submarine, using nuclear depth charges. Additionally, and very significant to the Red force, were 40 diesel and 9 nuclear attack submarines (SSNs). All Red submarines were given sonar capability equivalent to their U.S. counterparts and the Red nuclears had greater speed capability than the POLARIS boats. Neutral forces included 600 merchant ships that were plying the waters of the game area.

Since it was difficult to accept a Red force of such magnitude with virtually equal capabilities, there was considerable discussion as to the validity of the threat being used. However, submarine officers in the game felt confident about the invulnerability of the POLARIS force and acceded to the excessive claims of the SAC intelligence specialists who had constructed the threat. The submariners reasoned that the surface and air threats would not be a factor; that the game would hinge on submarine detections and since the u.s. platforms were much quieter, the likelihood of a Red submarine being in trail, within weapon range at “E” Hour, approached zero. A ground rule was that neither side could shoot bef~re the start of hostilities at “E” Hour.

With the stage set, the game got underway. A period of almost six weeks was necessary to accomplish the few hours of wargame action involved. That action was an interesting experience, highly educational to those who participated and with a rather surprising outcome.

To commence the play, the Red and Blue team members located the units of their forces. The umpire team positioned the neutral force of merchant ships. One might expect that given the size of the Norwegian Sea and only three POLARIS boats to conceal, it would be highly improbable that any of the nine Red team SSNs would be located near a Blue team unit. Yet when Red and Blue team unit positions were compared by the umpires, a Red SSN and Blue POLARIS boat were in the same spot. The luck of the drawl The players of the game, not aware of this, were told by the umpires to move back on their tracks for a number of hours and the game was then commenced with the opposing submarines approaching each other for that chance encounter and tactical interaction which no one on the Blue side had ever expected a submerged dog fight. POLARIS was in trouble!

Both submarines, unaware of each other, approached the same position. They could only deviate by a logical command decision, taken after evaluation of sensor intelligence which was supplied by the umpire team. Their patrol plans would take them through the common point unless tactical circumstances provided cause for a diversion. The capability factors, so readily agreed to before the start of the game, were now in control. Probability of detection, equipment performance, sonar and environmental conditions, and external influences all became subject to the roll of the dice — applying separate chance probabilities to each participant’s perception of the situation. The Red and Blue submarine commanders were controlled in their actions by the information they were provided by the umpire team, who kept track of the movements of all units in a separate war room remote from the impending battle. Both commanders werP being watched very closely for the correctness of their decisions -decisions that might be interpreted as affecting the hazard to POLARIS. The real antagonists were now emerging, SAC versus the Navy, with potentially high political stakes riding on the outcome of a well-crafted wargame.

With the assumed equal sonar capabilities even though Blue was operating more slowly and quieter, both submarines made sound contact on each other at considerable ranges. By the time the opposing skippers had evalutated the meager information they were provided, they were within a few thousand yards of each other. The choice was clear, evade for Blue and trail for the Red. The latter knew that he could affect the strategic balance if he could trail for the few hours until “E” hour and get a kill, whereas the Blue had to evade to be able to return to his routine “alert” status. Although Blue was unaware of an impending “E” hour, he knew that maximum alert time was critical in his patrol. The level of strategic warning as provided from simulated intelligence reports had risen significantly due to increasing international tensions. So he felt a strategic as well as tactical urgency as he started to evade.

Fortunately for the POLARIS skipper, one of the 600 merchant ships (large, fast and noisy) had entered the area on a normal sea-lane track which happened to pass between the now tense submarines. The merchant noise, increasing as it closed range, drowned out the almost silent submarines. Blue, seeing a good thing and not yet willing to test his evasion skills against a potential enemy, left the area, masking his movements under the noisy merchant ship. He stayed with the merchantman for some time, heading in a southwesterly direction, then pulled out to the west to reestablish his alert status. He assumed that the probable nuclear contact had either never made a detection or was helplessly confused by the merchant gambit.

The Red skipper, frustrated by the merchant ship, quickly checked the local area. Unable to regain contact, he then followed the ship’s noises in hot pursuit. He soon realized that he would never detect the Blue leaving the merchant ship’s cover and decided to take the long view by setting up an expanding search which would give a reasonable chance of regaining contact before “E” hour. He first headed south for an hour or so and then west for several hours, assuming correctly that Blue would clear the area to regain alert status. Only the umpires were aware that the latitude line on which Red headed west, was the same line Blue had chosen earlier and where he was now sitting, in a passive alert status.

Blue, on hearing the searching Red closing from the east, decided to move slowly and qu1etly south off the track, far enough to let Red pass clear — a routine patrol evolution. It became apparent, however, that Red was closing faster than expected and Blue, while comfortably off the track, felt it wise to reduce his noise level even further. Accordingly, he shut down his nuclear plant — not a routine patrol maneuver.

Suddenly Red did the unexpected and turned south, on the exact longitude line on which Blue was positioned. Bingo — a POLARIS on battery power, about to be run down by the opposition. The probability that the Red SSN would pick, for both its west and south search legs, the exact latitude and longitude lines on which the POLARIS boat had made his exit from the merchant ship should have been extremely low, but the unexpected happened once again. Red was heading directly for Blue. (Some players on the Blue team cried foul and mild expressions about collusion were heard, but they were ignored by the umpires).

It was only a matter of time until both subs were again in contact with each other. Correct management of the nuclear power plant became a crucial item for Blue, with the procedures for lighting off becoming an issue, challenged at every turn by the umpire team. Thus Blue was constrained to evade on his small capacity battery through the entire time it took to employ “safe” light-off procedures.

Full evasion, with no power for speed, presented a unique challenge to the Blue skipper. Decoys — which helped confirm target presence to Red — were used. Eventually, Red took the bait and followed a noise maker just long enough to open beyond his sonar redetection range before he realized his mistake. Blue had broken sonar contact and was finally “underway on nuclear power.” In time, the independent evasion and search maneuvers of the two submarines resulted in separation beyond that of even chance detection. POLARIS was free once again.

Nothing more significant occurred until “E” hour at which time all three POLARIS subs were on station and commenced firing their missiles. By this time, it was nightfall and the sky was full of Red BADGER aircraft, watching for POLARIS launches. The first launch from one POLARIS was eyeballed by the crew of a high flying BADGER about 90 miles from the launching submarine. Instantly evaluating the sighting, the BADGER turned directly toward the target submarine, descending in a high speed gliding attack, homing in on the periodic launches of the missiles. The Badger arrived in the vicinity of the submarine and dropped one of the ten kiloton nuclear depth charges, just as the twelfth of sixteen missiles was being fired. Then the umpire team became involved in a detailed damage assessment exercise, determining the exact location of the explosion of the depth charge, the exact location of the submarine, and the resulting damage. It was determined that while the submarine was able to survive, it was not possible to launch the last four missiles.

In the initial action of the Strategic Planning Staff in determining acceptable reliability factors for POLARIS, it had been agreed that launch and in flight reliability of missiles was 75 percent, that three fourths of the missiles (12) in each submarine should be successfully launched and reach the target. So it now became necessary for the umpire team in this game to throw the dice and see if the twelve missiles that had been fired were those that would impact on their targets. It was logical to assume that at least one of the twelve that had been launched would fail, thereby reducing the overall effectiveness of the POLARIS system. Just as the probability factors had worked against POLARIS in tbe early part of the game, they worked on the positive side in this monte carlo exercise. In the throw of the dice, all twelve missiles were deemed to be successful and the 75 percent reliability factor was attained. Since there were no detections of the other two Blue submarines, they attained their survivability factor of 1.0 and reliability of 75 percent was assumed.

The box score for the exercise was 36 missiles of a possible 48 launched, successfully reaching their assigned targets. This maintained the 75 percent reliability factor established in development and operations tests conducted at Cape Canaveral. Survivability of 1.0 was maintained, the misfires being the result of missile launch and in flight reliability, not submarine vulnerability. In short, POLARIS had survived the “search and destroy” efforts of a rather impressive enemy force. The Blue team had won, but not without a lot of frustration and unusual tactical actions — not to mention some luck, both good and bad, which one will always encounter in combat.

At the conclusion of the exercise, briefing material was prepared and the umpire group presented the results of the war game to General Power. He listened intently. Upon hearing the conclusion, he commented calmly that the game had merely showed the results that could be obtained from one set of circumstances; that nothing conclusive about POLARIS survivability could be determined from that particular exercise.

An early battle won, POLARIS continued enjoying a survivability factor of 1.0 — a significant achievement for ballistic missile submarines and seems to come. that has destined to persisted for over 25 years continue for many more years

Jerry Miller, Lou Neeb,

Kent Lee, Peter Fullinwider

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League