he foundation of the Special Projects Office is cast in a bed of political, inter service, technical, and as always, controversial decisions. In 1953, World War II, the Berlin Airlift, and the Korean police action were over but the Soviet Union was increasing its strangle hold on the Iron Curtain countries, and it continued its successful development of nuclear weapons. The United States prepared to counter this threat.
To accomplish this, separate roles were assigned to the U.S. armed services as specified in the 1948 Key West Agreement. The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was assigned to the Air Force; the Anny was authorized to develop a 1,500 nautical miles intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), but the Navy had no assigned role.
In 1955, President Eisenhower approved the effort of the Killian Committee that had been convened to review U.S. defense posture. The study recommended a 1,500 nautical miles IRBM be considered for both land and sea basing. With this decision, the Navy obtained a role in the strategic missile arena.
Politics, technical details, service rivalry, as well as mission requirements then came to the fore. The Navy wanted to participate in the Air Force’s development of their Atlas and Titan missiles (ICBMs) as well as their Thor (IRBM) but was discouraged-there were too many technical changes needed for a sea-based IRBM. The Navy then teamed with the Army for development of a sea-based Jupiter IRBM program.
At the same time, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) and Bureau of Ordnance (Buord) were developing sea-based missile technology, but responsibility and direction were divided. In September 1955, the Secretary of Defense established a Joint Anny-Navy Ballistic Missile Committee to proceed with development of the liquid-fueled Jupiter IRBM for Navy use.
A decision had to be made by the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as to what Navy bureau would be responsible for this program. Admiral Arleigh Burke, who had been appointed CNO just months before, solved the problem by establishing the Special Projects Office and selected Rear Admiral William Red Raborn, USN, an aviator, as the Special Projects Director.
Captain Levering Smith, an ordnance specialist, was assigned as the Special Projects Technical Director. He and Raborn selected officers and civil service engineers to round out the Special Projects organization. In short time, the Special Projects Office determined that a modified liquid-fueled Jupiter IRBM would be too large for efficient submarine use. Studies initiated by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) predicted a dramatic weight reduction of nuclear warheads for acceptable yields, which meant that a smaller, more efficient solid-fuel missile could be designed and used to carry the desired payload. What followed was an extraordinary technical effort to develop, design, build, and test all the subsystems to support the missile-guidance, navigation, fire control, launcher, and most important, the submarine itself. The Special Projects Office was directed to put the system to sea in 1963. This date was advanced to December 1960 after the Soviet Union launched Spumik in 1957-resulting in the worldwide perception that the United States was behind the Soviets in space technology.
The deployment of USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (SSBN 598) in November 1960 was the start of several successes for the Special Projects organization. A total of 41 SSBNs were built, tested, and deployed with 16 missiles each between 1958 and 1967. Three variants of the Polaris missile were produced-the Al, with a range of 1,200 nautical miles; the A2 at 1,500 nautical miles; and the A3, at 2,500 nautical miles. This entire effort was managed, directed, and supported by Strategic Systems Programs (SSPs), the current name for the Special Projects Office.
In 1962 President Kennedy and England’s Prime Minister Harold MacMillan executed the Nassau Agreement in which the Royal Navy would purchase the Polaris weapons system and build four SSBNs for the North Atlantic Treat Organization (NATO) support of nuclear deterrence. This treaty and its technical exchanges have been managed by SSP since its inception and remain in place today as the Royal Navy transitions to Trident II with four new SSBNs. With the development and deployment of Poseidon, Trident I, and Trident II missiles, along with the design and construction of the 24 missile Trident SSBNs, the program continues to be a valuable asset to our nation’s defense.