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Commander Paul H. Backus, USN (Ret.) (1917-1984)

Commander Paul H. Backus, USNBased on three interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell from October 1981 through April 1982, the volume contains 509 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1995 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has placed no restrictions on its use.

During and after his years at the Naval Academy, Backus served as president of the class of 1941. Upon graduation, he served briefly in the destroyer USS Jarvis (DD-393). He was in the crew of the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) when she capsized during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He subsequently spent much of World War II in the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57). Following postgraduate education in ordnance, he served in the USS Mississippi (BB-41) during her conversion to a test ship. Then he was gunnery officer in the light cruiser USS Huntington (CL-107) under Captain Arleigh Burke. After duty in the research division of the Bureau of Ordance, Backus commanded the destroyer USS Isherwood (DD-520) during two deployments to the Mediterranean. Next he was an assistant naval attaché in London, interacting with the Royal Navy and doing clandestine intelligence collection on the Soviets. Commander Backus wound up his career with a long tour of duty on the staff of Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke. He had an instrumental role in the OpNav aspects of developing the Polaris ballistic missile system, including such aspects as operating schedules, communications, and submerged navigation.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this clip from his third interview with Paul Stillwell at his home in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, on 22 April 1982, Commander Backus speaks of Admiral Arleigh Burke, putting Polaris missiles on surface ships, and the cancellation of the SSM-N-9 Regulus II cruise missile program.

Artist's conception of USS Long Beach (CGN-9) fitted with Polaris missiles.Commander Backus: Anyway, Gates picked up the idea. He thought it would be a neat thing to do to put a nuclear-armed ballistic missile in a nuclear-propelled ship. So this is what caused the Long Beach to come to the fore. There were plans drawn up for the modification of the Long Beach, as I recall, to add four Polaris missiles to its armament in vertical launch tubes. I've forgotten exactly where they went, but plans were also drawn up to modify the Albany-class heavy cruisers with a similar type of installation.[1]

I still thought it made no sense tactically, strategically, or anything else–for the same reasons I gave earlier. First, a conventional surface warship has to close the enemy in order to carry out most of its functions and mission. Secondly, the Navy had limited resources, and since the submarine platform was by far the most optimum from the point of view of strategy and anything else you wish to consider, we should focus our available talent and facilities on it and not get bogged down in a twin program.

Admiral Burke was supporting this surface ship program. One day when I was in his office alone with him–and I was privileged to get in to see him whenever it was necessary–I asked him, "Admiral, why are you buying this? It's unlike you. I don't think it makes sense for several reasons." I reiterated them.

He said, "Paul, you've forgotten what my job is. I have to consider the balance of power within the Navy. The way this is going now, in effect, we've given the submariners a new mission, and as we look down the road, it's going to become an even more important and bigger mission and a bigger chunk of responsibility for the Navy that's going to be assumed by submarine officers. I don't think this should happen, because the Navy will become unbalanced. Although I might or might not agree with you on your reasons for being against Polaris on Long Beach, I've got to think about putting it there, because I want to balance this power within the Navy. I want the surface ship people to have some say in strategic missions."

I couldn't argue with that. I couldn't argue with that a bit. It was perfectly logical, and as I look back on it now, he was a brilliant man to foresee this, because I think the Navy is way out of balance today and has been for a number of years because of the way the ballistic missile program has been handled by the Navy. I don't think we had to put it on surface ships to cause this to be balanced. I think it could have been handled in another way within the organizational structure. But they chose not to do this. They chose to give in to the submariners when I left the Navy, and they moved the office in OpNav over into the submarine part of the Navy. I think that was a basic mistake right there.

Anything more on this?

Paul Stillwell: Admiral Burke was involved in another aspect–the decision on the cruise missile to commit the resources to Polaris rather than the Regulus.[2]

Commander Backus: Yes, this was a difficult decision. It comes back to what we were talking about earlier, and that was the environment in which the Navy had to operate in those days. This was, again, the time of the fixed-percentage budget, where the Navy–regardless of the number of missions it had–got a fixed percentage of the money made available to the Department of Defense. If the Navy got an additional mission, such as Polaris with a new mission for the Navy–strategic bombardment, if you will–it did not get any extra money. The money that was allocated to Polaris from within the Navy had to come out of other things that ordinarily would have gotten that support. So this meant that the Navy had to look for sources of funds from within its own program to support and to accelerate the support of Polaris.

SSM-N-9 Regulus II cruise missile There were some people within the navy who thought that Polaris and the Regulus II basically were for the same mission. As a consequence, Regulus II was canceled, and Admiral Burke approved this decision. Given the circumstances in which he had to operate, I don't think he could have done anything else. Now, I think it was a wrong decision for the United States. As it turned out, it was a wrong decision because look at what the Soviet Union has done with air-breathing missiles. They have outperformed us by a major margin. They have a lot of them deployed in their ships, and they certainly are a threat to our carriers and to our other surface ships.

Now we're coming along with the cruise missile in several different versions. We've gotten the Harpoon, and maybe we'll catch up if there's time.[3] But we've lost so many years. And Regulus II was in an advanced stage of design at the time that it was canceled. But the people in the military are forced to make a lot of decisions like that, which are not thoroughly understood by many of the people in the service, and certainly not by most of the people outside of the service.

[1]The USS Oregon City (CA-122), USS Albany (CA-123), and USS Rochester (CA-124) were commissioned in 1946. Each was 675 feet long, 71 feet in the beam, had a standard displacement of 13,700 tons, and was armed with nine eight-inch guns. The Albany was later converted to a guided missile cruiser and recommissioned as CG-10 in 1962.

[2]The two Regulus missiles were designed to be fired from surface ships. Regulus I was 34 feet long, weighed 12,000 pounds, and had a speed of Mach 0.9 and range of 500 miles; Regulus II was 57 feet long, weighed 22,000 pounds, and had a speed of Mach 2.0 and range of 1,000 miles.

[3]The Harpoon turbojet antiship missile, capable if being fired from aircraft, surface ships, and submarines, was introduced to the fleet in the 1970s. It is 15 feet long, weighs 1,500 pounds, and has a range of 60 miles.



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