Polaris Out of the Deep:
Birth of the Ballistic Missile Submarine
by Nick T. Spark
World War II had seen the emergence of three groundbreaking weapons: the missile, the submarine, and the atomic bomb. Just after the end of the war, certain American naval officers began to suggest that a submarine capable of launching a nuclear missile would be an awesome weapon, and one which should be developed rapidly. Few believed, given the technology of the day, that such a weapon would be feasible.
Nevertheless beginning in 1946 an effort was made to develop a missile submarine. German V-1 “buzz bombs” were launched off the deck of the submarine USS Cusk. Nine years later, the submarine USS Tunny launched the Navy’s new nuclear capable cruise missile, the Regulus I. Finally, America had entered the nuclear missile submarine age.
Yet the Regulus had a great many shortcomings. It had a short range — 500 miles or less — had to be guided to its target by radio control, and most significant of all, the submarine carrying it had to surface to launch it. While surfaced, the submarine would be vulnerable to detection and attack by an enemy.
Clearly another type of submarine was needed, one armed with ballistic missiles which could be launched from underwater, and which would fly to a target by themselves. The technological hurdles such a system would involve were almost too numerous to mention, but nevertheless in 1955 the Navy committed to the concept.
In 1957, Rear Admiral William Raborn Jr., an extremely capable and forceful man, was appointed to what became known as the Polaris program (Navy missiles are often named after stars) . He was given a status level unprecedented for a peacetime military leader: “Brickbat One.” What it meant was, whatever Raborn wanted, he got. He’d need it.
Joining Raborn in the effort would be the irascible and brilliant Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover. Rickover had just overseen the construction of the Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, and would later become known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” To him would fall the task of modifying the Nautilus-type propulsion plant so that it could propel a massive, ICBM-toting boat.
The first major area of concern was the development of a missile that could be stored in a submarine, and launched underwater. Tests in the mid-1940’s with German V-2 rockets, the predecessors to all ICBMs, showed that they did not do well at sea. The V-2, like all other missiles of its time, was liquid fueled. In even slightly rough conditions the volatile fuel would shift, threatening to damage the airframe or cause a terrible mishap. The Jupiter missile, then under joint development by the Air Force and Navy, seemed likely to have the same shortcomings.
The solution, Raborn believed, would be to develop a solid fueled missile. While solid rocket fuel did exist even during WWII, its use had been limited due to manufacturing problems. Engineers had discovered that the larger the solid rocket, the more likely it would contain an air bubble or other flaw that would produce uneven burning and, in many cases, a devastating explosion. After a great deal of work, the Polaris program produced a breakthrough: a highly reliable solid rocket motor which used powdered aluminum to ensure stable burning. It would be nearly large enough to boost a nuclear warhead — but not quite big enough.
An amazing turn of events then allowed Raborn’s team to capitalize on the discovery. In 1956 during a conference with physicist Edward Teller, the “Father of the H-Bomb”, Raborn learned that new atomic warheads were being developed which were much smaller than those previously available. This would allow a Nautilus-type submarine to carry not just a few nuclear missiles as originally envisioned, but up to 16. That would make it not just a localized threat like the Regulus submarines, but a true power projection tool capable of wiping out a nation.
Raborn’s engineers then turned their attention to the next daunting problem: how to eject a gigantic missile from a launch tube while the submarine was still submerged. The inventive, diligent and tough-minded Dr. John P. Craven was tasked with developing this system, and after many months of effort he came through. Craven’s incredible launching system forced the Polaris airframe out of the missile hangar encased in a gigantic bubble of compressed air. Literally thrown out of the water, its engine would start a few seconds later. The missile itself never even got wet.
Meanwhile, scientists at M.I.T. and CalTech worked feverishly to resolve one of the most daunting issues with putting a nuclear ballistic missile on a submarine: how to make it accurate and allow it to find a target without radio guidance. The problem was that in the 1950’s it was always difficult for a ship at sea to know its precise location without taking a sextant reading. (For a submarine, this would mean they would have to surface or use a periscope reading). A missile launched from sea might end up hundreds of miles off target as a result. The solution to the problem was the inertial guidance system, which had first been explored during WWII. Now the bugs were worked out and it became a deployable system. Inertial guidance, which used gyroscopes to track the exact position of the submarine from the moment it left port, would make Polaris deadly accurate.
Finding solutions to the hundreds of problems that faced the program was, as can be readily seen, far from easy. At each step, there were significant failures. The entire first series of tests of the solid rocket Polaris missiles ended in disaster; and any number of the ejection tests went awry. Yet even while criticism in the press and Congress mounted, Raborn stuck to his guns. He was convinced that in the end it could all work, and was so feisty as to move up the deadline for the deployment of Polaris not by months, but by two years.
He had his reasons, and what it all came down to was that Raborn was on a crusade. Tensions with the Soviets were mounting on what seemed to be a daily basis. The idea that America might be caught in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets, perhaps even the victim of a first-strike attack, put fear into all Americans but especially Presidents Eisenhower and later Kennedy. Both saw Polaris as a security system for the American nation, one of the utmost priority. Raborn needed no convincing. He knew what Polaris might mean to the free world, and he was duty-bound to deliver it.
While Raborn and his staff feverishly worked to resolve the technical problems with the missile, Rear Admiral Rickover worked his own staff hard at the task of modifying a submarine to accompany it. Inspired by Raborn’s corner-cutting techniques, the normally cautious Rickover proposed taking a nuclear submarine that was already being built, the USS Scorpion, and converting it into the first Polaris boat. The Navy agreed, and a few months later Rickover had the unfinished Scorpion’s hull cut in two. Inside the gap he placed a 130 foot long section which could hold eight pairs of missile launching tubes.
Rickover was not just concerned with the overall design of the Polaris submarines, but obsessed with the details. During the run-up to the construction of the Nautilus, Rickover had asked everyone from psychiatrists to teachers to medical doctors about the potential problems inherent in life aboard a nuclear submarine. He’d designed the Nautilus to make life aboard it tolerable, even comfortable. The Polaris boats would be no different, and even more deluxe owing to their size. Rickover saw to it that they were outfitted with libraries, activities rooms, deluxe sleeping quarters, and a medical staff trained in psychology and counseling. Crewmen were given uniforms that made them look like astronauts, and they were treated as such. In an unprecedented move, the Navy announced that each Polaris boat would have two alternating crews: the Gold Crew and the Blue Crew. This would allow the boats to patrol constantly, and save wear and tear on crews.
On December 30, 1959 USS George Washington, the first Polaris submarine, was launched. And in July of 1960, it made its first underwater firing of the missile. This message was flashed to President Kennedy at the White House: “Polaris, from out of the deep to target. Perfect.” Polaris was ready for deployment.
It turned out to be just in time. In 1962, when tensions with the Soviets reached a boiling point over Cuba, America’s six operational Polaris submarines were on patrol. Standing on station in the Atlantic, they could have struck the Soviet Union with as much force – and probably more force – than the Soviets had on Cuba. Certainly, these weapons contributed in part to the peaceful settlement of the crisis.
Just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral. He might have challenged America to reach for the moon and had a keen interest in the space program, but Kennedy’s purpose that day was to watch underwater test firings of Polaris missiles. He told his aides that their presence filled him with hope for the security of the future.
Eventually 41 Polaris submarines were built. All of them, except for those operated by the United Kingdom, have now been retired and replaced with the mighty Trident SSBN boomers. The Polaris boats’ legacy, however, is with us still.
SOURCES / SUGGESTED READING
(Note: These books are out of print. You can find usually copies of them through Amazon.com used books.
You can use the box below to search for them.)
Missile Base Beneath the Sea by J.J. DiCerto. St. Martin’s Press 1967
Polaris! The Concept and Creation of a New and Mighty Weapon by James Barr and William Howard. Harcourt Brace 1960.
Atomic Submarines by Norman Polmar (the dean of submarine writing!) Van Nostrand Company 1963.
The Seas and the Subs by Ed Rees. Van Rees Press 1961.