The countdown for the GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER’s qualification test firing of a ballistic missile began at 2200 on Friday, August 9, 1985. As noted in an earlier Submarine Review, such firings can be viewed from the range ship which monitors these missile demonstrations. Consequently, two hundred and forty invited guests were on hand next morning to board the USNS RANGE SENTINEL for the viewing at sea, of a POSEIDON C-3 missile launch from the SSBN 656 — the GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER — in its shakedown operations.
At 0815 — T-240:00 and counting — the GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER was hauled from her pier and out into midchannel by two tugs. From there a harbor pilot guided her exit to the open ocean. The RANGE SENTINEL, 15 minutes behind, followed the CARVER towards a 300 fathom spot in the ocean, 55 miles off Cape Canaveral.
The SSBN was in the fourth phase of her qualification-handling and firing of a ballistic missile. In Phase I, the missile with a nonnuclear warhead was loaded aboard. In Phase II, the “prep” sequence was begun. This gave the crew 10 days to refit and effect preventive maintenance on the missile and its allied equipment. Then Phase III was begun — first with two days in port then with five at sea. During this period 80 “faults” within four to six countdowns per day, were pumped into the system to test the crew’s readiness to handle virtually every imaginable emergency. A “fault” might be: a missile hatch which fails to open; a loss of “spin up” power on the missile’s navigation system; a shut down of a computer; loss of ship control due to a trim pump failure; etc. With the successful handling of these “faults” the SSBN moved into Phase IV, the Launch Phase. This is the certification phase -that proves the submarines’ capability to verity the quality and performance of the missile through preliminary tests and then to get it away and flying to its full range to a specific target position.
At T-30:00 and counting, the RANGE SENTINEL is gliding into gentle swells, two miles off the starboard quarter of the GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER. A blistering-hot sun and masses of white cumulus clouds overhead promise ideal conditions for the missile launch. But launch must be made in allweather conditions once the countdown has started. Sea conditions cannot be a major factor for scrubbing the mission. So, the spectators expectantly line the port-side rail of the range ship to observe the GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER easing under the sea, first to get a good trim, then to remain motionless and balanced under the surface of the ocean. But the sub’s telemetry mast remains out of the water.
The man “conning” the submarine is not its skipper, but rather is the Assistant for FBM Operations, Test and Evaluation of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program Office in Washington. His presence for all such ballis~ic missile tests during the 10-day countdown is mandatory.
Helicopters from nearby Patrick Air Force Base scour the area around the submerged submarine to spot and chase away any boats close to the launch position. Missing from the scene are the usually present Soviet trawlers that constantly try to monitor our submarine operations. When word comes from the two helo crews that the area is all clear, they head westward back to Patrick.
At T-10:00 and counting, way down range, two planes high above the test area are ready to track the POSEIDON missile when it is airborne. Eastern Test Range transmits their “Clear to launch” directive. With two minutes to launch all systems are “go.” At T-1:30 a “Permission to fire” is given by the “man from Washington.” Aboard the range ship cameras and binoculars are at the ready. The loudspeaker on the RANGE SENTINEL breaks the silence: “Ten . . . nine . . . eight.” The launch is certain. “Four . . . three . . . two . . . one IGNITION.” With that a huge 34-foot, 65,000 pound POSEIDON C-3 breaks the water — gas ejected from its launch tube. Once clear of the water’s surface, the missile’s first stage rocket motor ignites into a maze of orange, white and red. The missile’s data system is now functioning.
Shortly, the only evidence of the C-3 in flight is the trail of white smoke rising miles above the submerged submarine. Within 15 seconds, a shock wave of sound generated by the light-off of the booster hits our ears. The sea around the telemetry mast — still jutting above the water -is sea-green mixed with white disturbed foam, the product of the gasses ejected from the submarine’s missile tube.
About ten minutes later we hear the announcement over the public address system that, “The missile is running hot, straight and normal” — as though we’re still in the age or straight running steam torpedoes. After a rew more minutes, the GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER slowly surfaces, then heads back to base. RANGE SENTINEL takes up position one mile astern of the submarine and follows her home. At 1715 the evolution is completed as both ships are docked. Final word is that the missile launch was perrect and the D1issile hit its mark down range.
This is the best proof of the deterrence value of our strategic nuclear weapons. They work, and they’re ready to be launched by a weapon system that can’t be destroyed beCore Ciring. And that’s why an enemy isn’t likely to use his missiles first, and why “nuclear war deterrence” should become a dinosaur in the English language.
Larry Blair[Ed note: U.S. citizens may witness such a submarine ballistic missile launch by contacting Ms. Pat Hicks, Public Relations Director, COHSUBGRU 6, NOTU Cape Canaveral, Florida 32920. Phone (305) 853-7971.]