Wednesday, October 7, 2020

First in Peace: USS George Washington (SSBN 598) and the Polaris Missile

USS George Washington (SSBN 598) crest, with the ship's motto "First in Peace" reinforced by the Polaris missile for nuclear deterrence. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Thomas Grubbs
Guest Contributor

As the nation’s first president, George Washington has long been remembered through the practice of naming various places, from high schools to the forty second state, after him. This fact, combined with President Washington’s early and vocal support for the establishment and maintenance of the United States Navy, led to no fewer than sixteen American ships being named after him.  Four, including a pair of battleships, have been named for the state named for him. Of all of these ships, perhaps the most powerful, and least well known, is the ballistic missile submarine with the pennant number SSBN 598. 
USS George Washington on the surface while on patrol (Wikimedia Commons)

The first use of sea-based missiles came immediately after the end of the Second World War, utilizing captured German technology. Such weapons were not confined to the surface fleet. Beginning in the early 1950s, advances in missile technology gave submarines the capability to launch surface to surface missiles.  At first simply armed with conventional high explosive warheads, these missiles were soon paired with a far more terrifying weapon: the atomic bomb.  
A Regulus missile fired from USS Tunny (SSG 282) (Wikimedia Commons)

Given the submarine’s inherent ability to remain both mobile and hidden, both the United States and the  Soviet Union began to base a proportion of their nuclear arsenals aboard submarines.  It took less than fifteen years for science and technology to realize their full potential, and by the 1950s, missile boat technology had reached a point where a single nuclear armed missile submarine could launch up to five nuclear warheads from more than five hundred miles away. Beginning in 1957, the United States Navy conducted nuclear deterrence patrols using a pair of World War II-era diesel submarines modified to carry a pair of Regulus nuclear-capable cruise missiles.  They were soon supplemented by a pair of purpose-built Greyback-class vessels and the nuclear-powered USS Halibut (SSGN 587). These five boats provided valuable real-world experience in operating a seaborne nuclear deterrent.  However, the effectiveness of the subsonic Regulus missile, with its limited range, a host of guidance limitations, and vulnerabilities to enemy defenses and countermeasures (both the missile in flight and the submarine having to surface to fire), was soon outpaced by technology.  To overcome these drawbacks, the Navy turned to a new and more advanced weapon, the ballistic missile.    
Polaris missile launch in July 1960 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The first workable submarine-launched ballistic missile used by the United States Navy was introduced in 1960. Named Polaris, after the North Star, the missile grew from experiments by noted physicist Edward Teller that allowed for miniature hydrogen bombs to be fitted on missiles for anti-submarine warfare as part of Project Nobska in 1956. Drawing on experimental experience with the Army’s liquid-fueled Jupiter missiles, the two-stage solid fueled Polaris made its operational debut for the United States Navy in February 1960 after just four years of testing and development.  Found in thirty-one of the forty-one ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that were in commission for the United States Navy between 1960 and 1990, it proved both a long lasting and valuable component of the United States nuclear triad during the Cold War. Larger (32ft 4in) and heavier (35,700lb) than the previous cruise missiles, Polaris could deliver three W58 thermonuclear warheads with a total yield of 600kt out to a distance of 2,500 nautical miles. Surprisingly accurate, each 200kt W58 warhead could land within 3,000 feet of its intended target, impressive for 1960s technology. Launched from a mobile and submerged platform and possessing a top speed of 8,000 miles an hour, Polaris was all but utterly immune to interception prior to launch and impossible to hit afterwards with the technology available at the time. The more powerful and longer ranged Trident and Trident II missiles eventually replaced the Polaris missile, and are currently carried by the Ohio-class SSBNs.
A view of the missile compartment "Sherwood Forest" aboard USS George Washington (Naval History and Heritage Command) 

Polaris first went to sea aboard the world’s first purpose-built SSBN, the USS George Washington, which was built at the Electric Boat Corporation of Groton, Connecticut. On the morning of November 1, 1958, workers laid down the keel of a new attack submarine to be named USS Scorpion (SSN 589). Modified while under construction by the addition of a 130-foot-long missile compartment and renamed USS George Washington (SSBN 598), the former Scorpion, now the world’s first ballistic missile submarine, slid into the water on June 9, 1959. It formally joined the fleet on December 30 of that year. A true underwater leviathan, Washington, affectionately nicknamed “Georgefish,” displaced 6,800 tons, measured 381 feet long, with a beam of 33 feet, and required a crew of 112 officers and men. Armed with sixteen Polaris missiles and six  torpedo tubes, George Washington would be the first of a planned five Washington-class ballistic missile submarines.  
Loading a Polaris missile aboard George Washington for testing in July 1960. Pictured is the outer fiberglass "sleeve" around the missile. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After sea trials and under the command of Commander James Osborn, the boat set course for Cape Canaveral, Florida in June 1960, where the crew took on a pair of Polaris missiles for testing purposes. On July 20, 1960, USS George Washington became the first submarine to launch a ballistic missile while submerged on the Atlantic Test Range. At 12:39 PM, Osborn sent the message “POLARIS - FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT” to President Eisenhower. Less than two hours later, the missiles hit their target some 1,300 miles away. The successful test, carried out under the personal supervision of Polaris project director Rear Admiral William Raborn, marked a new, and more terrifying, world order.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Rear Admiral Raborn (center) aboard the submarine after the successful Polaris test launch in July 1960 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After this brief flirtation with fame, USS George Washington settled into the repetitive duty of deterrence patrols near the coastline of the Soviet Union.  In 1970, the submarine reported for a refueling at Charleston, South Carolina in 1970 after having traveled some 100,000 nautical miles the previous decade. Next, George Washington reported to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for service with the Pacific Fleet. The submarine concluded its final deterrence patrol in 1982 prior to disarmament as a SSBN the next year in compliance with the terms of the SALT I Treaty.  It briefly served as an attack submarine after the removal of its Polaris missiles. 
Sail from SSBN 598 at U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum (Wikimedia Commons)
USS George Washington was decommissioned on January 24, 1985, and later scrapped at Puget Sound Naval Yard.  The submarine’s sail, or conning tower, is on display in Groton, Connecticut, at the Submarine Force Museum, where it can be seen today.  Preserving peace, yet constantly prepared for war, USS George Washington carried some of the deadliest weapons ever devised by man. Similarly, the current submarine fleet, as well as future Columbia-class SSBNs being built will be charged with maintaining the sea-based nuclear deterrent for the United States of America and with it, the balance of terror that has kept the peace for the last seventy-five years.  

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