Owen R. Cote, Jr. is the Associate Director of the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP), and Harvey M. Sapolsky is Professor Emeritus at MIT and the former Director of the MIT Security Studies Program.
The Navy’s ship naming conventions have become quite flexible, recognizing changes in both technology and politics. Battleships have left the fleet, but not the need to honor the states of the union with namesake warships. State names were given to Trident ballistic missile submarines, but not exclusively so, as one is named the USS HENRY M. JACKSON, after the late senator from Washington State. The Seawolf class originally continued the tradition of naming attack submarines after fish, but then came USS CONNECTICUT and then USS JIMMY CARTER, our 39th president, and the Virginia class now has a USS JOHN WARNER, the former Navy Secretary and Senator from Virginia. There are aircraft carriers named after presidents of both political parties, members of congress who fought for the defense budget, and the two great theater commanders of World War II, Admiral Nimitz and General Eisenhower.
Once destroyers were named after our war heroes, although that is no longer totally the case, as soon there will be USS LYNDON B. JOHNSON, a Zumwalt class destroyer named for our 36th president. The newest Independence class Littoral Combat Ship is to be USS GABRIELLE GIFFORDS, named for the Arizona Congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt. And each of the sites attacked on 9/11 – New York, Arlington, and Somerset County—are recognized in the name of an amphibious warfare ship.
The Navy does more with ship names than honor national geography, experience, and politics. It also honors its own history in the perpetuation of heroic ship names such as ENTERPRISE and KEARSAGE and the recognition of naval leaders like Burke and Zumwalt. It is fitting too that the Navy now honors its technological leaders with ship names, people who helped create the modern Navy. USS HOPPER (DDG-70) recognizes the important contributions of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who helped develop early computer hardware, programming languages and the first computer networks. USS WAYNE E. MEYER (DDG-108) honors Rear Admiral Meyer who shepherded the Aegis system through its development and onto our main surface combatants. And there was USS HYMAN G. RICKOVER (SSN-709), named after the admiral who led the effort to develop nuclear propulsion for the fleet.
In this vein, it is time to honor the naval officer most responsible for the successful development of the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) which is the mainstay of our nuclear deterrent, the weapon system that has assured our national survival against our most dangerous adversaries for nearly six decades: Vice Admiral Levering Smith. There have been six versions of the FBM, the POLARIS A-1, A-2, and A-3, the POSEIDON, and the TRIDENT I and II, the first five of which were developed under Smith’s direction. To take these missiles to sea, the Navy acquired 41 Polaris SSBNs and later 18 Ohio class SSBNs. In addition, there were bases in Scotland, Spain and Guam as well as the United States, tenders, test ranges, and related communications systems that had to be developed and built. It was and still is a massive undertaking.
In 1955, the Navy lacked authorization for its own ballistic missile when the US began racing the Soviets in that new means of long range nuclear strike capability, and it was forced to team with the Army to build a sea-based version of Jupiter, the Redstone Arsenal’s liquid fueled intermediate range ballistic missile. The thought of this giant missile on a ship or submarine with its highly combustible liquid fuels concerned then Captain Levering Smith, who joined the Special Projects Office (now the Strategic Systems Projects Office) soon after its establishment, and he began pushing SP and the Navy to start what became Polaris, a smaller, safer, solid fueled missile. Then, as SP’s Technical Director, he managed the complicated development effort to integrate the missile and its fire control system on a nuclear powered submarine, all of which was done to an exacting schedule. The first SSBN, USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, went on patrol in November 1960, five years after the official program start. A line officer converted to aviation engineering duty, Levering Smith served almost 22 years in SP, the final 12 as its Director, retiring as a Vice Admiral. Despite the race with the Soviets, there were many who did not believe it was the Navy’s task to enter the ballistic missile arena. Yet without the Polaris innovation, our nuclear forces likely would have remained vulnerable and the balance of terror delicate.
The Air Force’s switch from liquid to solid fuel missiles was provoked by Polaris, and together the much improved survivability of Polaris and Minuteman then enabled the accelerated retirement of SAC’s vast but inherently vulnerable force of intermediate range B-47s, leaving the more survivable, intercontinental range B-52 as the mainstay of the bomber leg of what we now call the Triad. Levering Smith therefore played a central role not only in the FBM program but also in the general transformation of our nuclear force structure that occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s.This was Levering Smith’s greatest contribution.
Decades after Polaris, we still depend upon the FBM system for our ultimate security. In fact, the Navy’s new class of ballistic missile submarines is its number one priority. The Ohio Replacement Program is a costly but vital undertaking. It may seem to be too soon to start naming boats in this new class of SSBNs, but it is well past time for a USS Levering Smith.