The Cold War spanned the entire period of our years of service–from the end of WWII to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What follows is an account of the part we played in creating and maintaining a sea-based strategic nuclear deterrent that for over 50 years helped keep the Cold War cold and allowed it to die in a whimper, not a blast.
In the winter of 1947, three classmates, Jack Fagan, George Foglesong and Bob Wertheim, received secret orders to report to Sandia Base for duties in connection with the “military applications of atomic energy”. We later learned that we had been selected by the Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, RADM William S. Parsons, to be members of the Navy’s first nuclear bomb assembly team. RADM Parsons, who had been Dr. Robert Oppenheimer’s deputy at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, wanted to include three young officers who might build their future careers in nuclear weaponry.
As it turned out, each of us did just that. All three of us went on to take ordnance engineering postgraduate degrees in nuclear physics at MIT. Jack’s later career as a submariner led him to command two nuclear submarines: the attack sub USS SHARK, and POLARIS anned SSBN USS LEWIS and CLARK. George left the Navy after graduating MIT, but spent much of his later career designing nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. As an Ordnance ED, I was shanghaied very early on into the new Special Projects Office (SP) and its Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) program. Most of the remainder of my Navy career was spent at various levels of responsibility for the FBM systems described below.
First, let’s set the stage: In 1955 U. S. intelligence reported rapid Soviet progress in their nuclear program and there was grave concern that the U. S. might find itself facing a nuclear ICBM threat with no comparable capability to counter it.
A presidential commission under MIT’s James R. Killian Jr. recommended that the ongoing Air Force ICBM development program risks be hedged by deploying the Anny’s 1500 nm JUPITER IRBM at sea in order to bring Soviet targets within missile range as soon as possible. In response to this charge, the CNO, Arleigh Burke, created the Navy Special Projects Office in December 1955, and named a newly selected Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) Red Raborn to carry out the Navy’s role in this shotgun wedding with the Anny. SP was less than 6 months old when I reported for duty in June of 1956, with the joint Anny- Navy program by then well underway.
A moment to describe the Anny’s JUPITER missile: A large, single stage, liquid propellant rocket, carrying a 3500 pound payload to ranges of up to 1500 nm. It was being developed under the technical direction of the Gennan rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun and his team who had developed the V-2 during WW II.
The Anny Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville was responsible for modifying their land based JUPITER, working with the Navy’s SP who had responsibility for developing launching and handling, navigation, fire control, test instrumentation and other ship systems necessary to adapt Mariner class merchant ships to take this weapon to sea. The system was to be available for operational evaluation in 1960.
Once into the program however, the Navy set its sights on ultimate replacement of the liquid missile with a solid propellant version of JUPITER that would be suitable for submarine deployment. The solid propellant would alleviate the serious handling and storage problems associated with liquids at sea. The goal was to have such a system ready for evaluation by 1965.
The JUPITER (S) would have been huge: over 41 feet tall, 10 feet in diameter and weighing over 80 tons. A specially designed submarine carrying four of these monsters would have been the largest in the world to that date. It would have had to come to the surface to elevate and launch missiles–a hairy proposition, at best. Meanwhile, during that summer of 1956, the Office of Naval Research sponsored a study on undersea warfare. It was at that meeting that Dr. Edward Teller asked a provocative question: “Why is the Navy designing a 1965 weapon system with 1958 technology? He then went on to project dramatic improvements in the yield-to-weight ratios of nuclear weapons that would permit reduction in the weight of a megaton warhead by almost a factor of three. If Teller’s prediction could be realized, the potential implications for making a dramatically smaller solid propellant missile were electrifying.
Admiral Burke asked Ra born to provide an independent assessment as quickly as possible. To perforation the trade off studies and to define the envelope parameters of a new system, teams were assembled for each of the weapon subsystems, including the missile, its launching and handling system, fire control and guidance, navigation, test instrumentation and the submarine itself. My responsibility was to lead the re-entry body team doing the studies of missile payload size and performance factors, including weight, accuracy and warhead yield.
In three months of intensive work, SP with its supporting contractors and government agencies defined a completely new system concept we called Polaris. The payload my reentry team proposed was reduced from the Jupiter’s 3,500 pounds to less than 850 pounds. Along with the promise of a smaller and lighter guidance system by MIT’s Charles Stark Draper and by applying new high energy solid propellant motor technology, the overall missile size and weight was projected to come down by more than a factor of four. Such a missile would be small enough to be carried vertically within the pressure hull of existing nuclear attack submarines. (As it turned out, the first SSBN, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON was originally laid down as an SSN, USS SCORPION which had a 133 foot hull section inserted for the POLARIS launchers and missiles.) We considered conceptual submarine designs with as many as 128 missiles. The final choice of 16 was a compromise between cost effectiveness which argued for more, and operational flexibility and construction risks which argued for fewer missiles per submarine.
In December 1956, the Secretary of Defense authorized the Navy to proceed with Polaris and terminated the joint Army-Navy program for Jupiter.
Program success would require breakthroughs in a number of technical areas including: development of a small, proven then nonnuclear warhead, high-energy solid missile propulsion, underwater missile launch, and precision navigation, fire control and guidance to accurately strike strategic targets at ranges up to 1500 nautical miles from a moving platoon at sea.
Each of these and many more were successfully achieved, and on November 15, 1960, GEORGE WASHINGTON, the first of the 41 for freedom, departed Charleston on operational patrol with 16 nuclear anned POLARIS A-I missiles–just under 4 years after the program was authorized. To give you a feel for the kind of support this project had from on high, this is a quote from a 1955 letter, then classified Top Secret, that Admiral Burke wrote to Raborn: .. If Rear Admiral Ra born runs into any difficulty with which I can help, I will want to know about it at once along with his recommended course of action for me to take. If more money is needed, we will get it. If he needs more people, those people will be ordered in. If there is anything that slows this project up beyond the capacity of the Navy Department we will immediately take it to the highest level and not work our way up through several days. In taking this type of action we must be reasonably sure we are right and at least know the possible consequences of being wrong because we will be dis- rupting many other programs in order to make achievement in this one if we are not careful. That is all right if we really make an achievement. “The Air Force has got a tremendous amount of enthusiasm which they demonstrate behind their project and we must have even more. The awards should be made to companies as soon as possible and our major contract awards, I think, should be made by the 15th of December.” The letter was dated 2 December 1955.
Suffice it to say that the project was conducted under intense schedule pressure. The initial operational availability date for the system was advanced from 1965 to 1960 in the wake of the Soviet launch of SPUTNIK in October of 1957; a year before the first flight test of a U.S. ICBM.
The only way to make such a compressed schedule was by doing everything in parallel, including pursuing alternative technical approaches and releasing designs to production long before development testing was complete. (Such concurrency is all but forbidden under today’s government procurement regulations.)
In any event, as our early test missiles were raining from the sky over Cape Canaveral, we learned to use a new code. For example: Successful launch could mean “didn’t blow up until after leaving the launch pad” Successful first stage flight might mean “went out of control and was destroyed during second stage flight” and so on and on.
We had six such flight tests before the first one flew far enough to get out of sight of the launch area. Of the first 17 POLARIS flights, only 5 flew as planned. (The program would probably have been cancelled if today’s policies and regulations had applied. So far as I know, this was never even considered.)
Of absolutely central importance to FBM program success was the relationship that SP was able to establish with its contractors. The notion of a government-industry/civilian-military team was for real, not just lip service. SP was allowed to use cost plus fixed fee, level of effort contracts; we pioneered automated planning tools; we focused on exception reporting-never shooting the messenger but rather encouraging the bearers of bad news (in Rabom’s words these were always challenges, never “problems”); and we had the support of everyone from the President and the Congress to the media and on down to the most junior military and civilian employee in the field.
Like ADM Rickover’s Naval Reactors, Special Projects retained cradle-to-grave responsibility for each of its successive generations of FBM systems. POLARIS A-1, A-2 and A-3, POSEIDON C-3, and TRIDENT C-4 and D-5 provided increased reliability, range, payload and accuracy in response to perceived Cold War Soviet ASW and ballistic missile defense (BMD) threats and to meet new targeting requirements. For the initial operational missile, POLARIS A-1, schedule had overriding priority when making trade-offs with system performance. As a consequence, the missile deployed on GEORGE WASHINGTON in 1960 was less reliable, had a shorter range and a lower warhead yield than the goals that had initially been set for a 1965. Those performance compromises were all recovered in the 1500 nm POLARIS A-2 which commenced deployment on ETHAN ALLEN 18 months later.
Desire for increased operational flexibility and hedging against postulated Soviet ASW and BMD threats were reflected in the 2500 nm range and the multiple warhead payload of POLARIS A-3, first deployed in DANIEL WEBSTER (SSBN 626) in September of 1964. The A-3 was also made available to the United Kingdom under the tens of the US-UK Polaris Sales Agreement and was deployed in the 4 Resolution class SSBNs.
When in 1964 the Soviets unveiled their ABM system for the defense of Moscow, we were annealed to find that the system could be vastly more capable than had been postulated. Because of the combination of radar frequencies, interceptor warhead size and engagement altitude, all existing U.S. missile penetration aids would have been ineffective. This led to the development and in March 1971 the first deployment on JAMES MADISON of POSEIDON C-3. POSEIDON had improved accuracy and double the payload of A-3, and with multiple independently guided reentry vehicle (MIRV) capability, it provided unprecedented flexibility to trade off range for payload as needed to assure penetration of potential defense systems.
The genesis of TRIDENT was the 1966-67 sponsored “Strat X” study of alternative future strategic missile basing systems. The measure of effectiveness used was life cycle costs for a given amount of surviving effective payload on target in a worst case second strike scenario. The clear winner in that contest was a large, very stealthy new submarine carrying many large missiles with intercontinental range. Such range capabilities were first provided in October 1979 by deployment of TRIDENT C-4 in existing SSBN’s (starting with FRANCIS SCOTT KEY and later in the new OHIO class TRIDENT subs) that eliminated the need for tenders overseas and made vast new ocean areas available for alert patrols. The C-4 was followed in 1989 by the large new Trident D-5 which could only be carried by Ohio class Trident SSBNs. With a combination of greater range, accuracy and payload, the Trident D-5 weapon system can hold at risk the full spectrum of strategic targets. So this is the end of my Cold War story.
The original 41 POLARIS submarines have now all been retired–replaced by a numerically smaller, but far more cost effective force of 14 Tridents.
What was once an “oh, by the way” Navy hedge against delays in ICBM development, has become the dominant leg of our strategic triad, and now constitutes over 50% of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force. The consequent deterrence of major warfare between advanced states has been a crucial 20th century success story, and members of the class of 1946 were important contributors to it. As for the future, I quote from the year 2000 congressional testimony of Admiral Rich Mies, Commander in Chief, U.S.Strategic Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Ballistic missile submarines will continue to carry the largest portion of our strategic forces … With approximately two-thirds of the force at sea at any one time, the SSBN force is the most survivable leg of the triad, providing the United States with a powerful assured retaliatory capability against any adversary … “