Developing a new weapon system in the United States today takes about 10 to 20 years. Some, such as the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and the Joint Strike Fighter have had extremely lengthy development times. But one of the most revolutionary and complex naval weapons of the Cold War had a development period of just over four years.
Fifty years ago the U.S. Navy embarked on a program to send the Jupiter ballistic missile to sea in merchant-type ships as a strategic deterrent. Some Navy studies were also addressing the feasibility of surfaced submarines launching missiles. But, on 15 November 1960, the USS George Washington (SSBN-598), the first U.S. nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, went to sea on deterrent patrol with 16 Polaris missiles. This event occurred in record time.
In the summer of 1956 the U.S. Navy’s leadership was strongly opposed to taking ballistic missiles to sea from a cultural viewpoint. First, from the late 1940s both the Bureau of Aeronautics and the Bureau of Ordnance were—separately—developing cruise missiles that could be launched from submarines against land targets; neither bureau wished to divert scarce resources to a new ballistic missile program. Second, the Navy had lost the B-36 bomber-versus-carrier controversy to the Air Force in the late 1940s. That loss had cost the Navy prestige and cancellation of the first postwar aircraft carrier, the United States (CVA-58).1 The Navy’s leadership wanted to avoid another inter-service battle over strategic missiles. Indeed, Admiral Robert B. Carney, Chief of Naval Operations from 1953 to 1955, had placed restrictions on Navy officers advocating sea-based ballistic missiles. There was another issue that was very real—the fear of having to pay for such new weapons out of the regular Navy budget.2
Navy opposition to a sea-based ballistic missile force ended when Admiral Arleigh A. Burke became Chief of Naval Operations in August 1955. According to his biographer, “Burke’s most significant initiative during his first term [1955-1957] was his sponsorship, in the face of considerable opposition, of a high-priority program to develop a naval intermediate-range ballistic missile.”3
Fearing that the project would be given low priority within the Navy and doomed to failure if left to the existing Navy bureaucracy, Admiral Burke established the Special Projects Office (SPO) to provide a “vertical” organization to direct the sea-based missile project separate from the existing technical bureaus (e.g., Bureau of Ships). Heretofore, all major naval technical developments as well as production had been directed by the technical bureaus, an organizational structure that dated from 1842. In these actions Burke was strongly supported by Secretary of the Navy Charles S. Thomas.4
The Polaris missile system that went to sea in the George Washington in 1960 truly was a revolutionary weapon system. The term “revolutionary” denotes a weapon system that makes a significant technical advance in a given area or has a major impact in combat or on defense policy. Although the Soviet Union had sent ballistic missiles to sea before Polaris, the American weapon system was revolutionary in three spheres: submarine, missile, and operational concept.
On 8 November 1955, the Secretary of Defense established the joint Army-Navy intermediate-range ballistic-missile (IRBM) program based on the Army’s planned Jupiter missile. The sea-based Jupiter program, given top national priority along with the Air Force’s Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Army’s Jupiter, progressed rapidly toward sending the missile to sea in converted merchant ships, each to carry three Jupiter IRBMs. (There appears to have been some “magic” in the number three; the first Soviet purpose-built, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) submarines of the Project 629/Golf and Project 658/Hotel classes also carried three missiles.) During 1956 a schedule was developed to send the first IRBM-armed merchant ships to sea in 1959. Some studies were also addressing the feasibility of submarines launching the Jupiter IRBM from the surface, also with three missiles per boat.
But the Navy had severe misgivings about the use of highly volatile liquid propellants on board ship and studies were initiated into solid-propellant missiles.5 Solid propellants had a low specific impulse—less thrust than comparable liquid-propellant rockets—a major shortcoming. The biggest boost for solid propellants came in mid-1956 when scientists determined that it was feasible to miniaturize thermo-nuclear warheads. Dr. Edward Teller suggested in the summer of 1956 that a 400-pound warhead could provide the explosive force of one weighing 5,000 pounds. The Atomic Energy Commission in September 1956 estimated that a small nuclear warhead would be available by 1965 with an even chance of being ready by 1963.
Thus, in the summer of 1956 the Special Projects Office began working on a smaller, solid-propellant weapon for submarine use. The smaller warhead coupled with the parallel development of higher specific impulse, solid-fuel propellants permitted a break from the Army’s Jupiter program in December 1956, the formal initiation of the Polaris SLBM program, and a shift from surface ships to submarines as the launch platform.
There was little remarkable in the initial SSBN design—basically that of the highly successful Skipjack (SSN-585) was “stretched.” This added 130 feet in length to permit the installation of special navigation, missile control, and other mission support equipment as well as 16 launch tubes for the 28-foot-long Polaris missiles. The result was the largest submarine built by any nation to that time, except for the nuclear-propelled, radar picket Triton (SSRN-586). That submarine, however, was a one-of-a-kind craft, conceived by then-Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, to test a two-reactor propulsion plant.
Significantly, the admirals involved in the Polaris project feared Admiral Rickover’s participation “would lead to domination of the new project” by his office.6 Admiral Burke excluded him by simply directing that the Skipjack’s S5W powerplant would be used. Admiral Rickover did gain one concession: the requirement for Polaris submarines to operate under the Arctic ice pack was deleted from the SSBN requirements. (Two years later, however, Admiral Rickover would tell a congressional committee that the Polaris submarines “will be able to operate under the polar ice cap.”)
Among the most important submarine components were the fire control and navigation systems. The latter was particularly critical in view of the range of the missile and the need for the submarine to remain submerged, except for masts and antennas raised on a periodic basis. Recalling that this was in the period before the availability of navigation satellites, the Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS) developed for the Polaris program was also a remarkable technological achievement. SINS could provide accurate position information regardless of surface and atmospheric conditions.
No less important were improved life support systems needed to provide oxygen and potable water while submerged with a sealed atmosphere for a crew of 150 to 160 officers and enlisted men for 60 to 70 days. Those were vital for an effective submarine.
Thus, at the time of their construction the Polaris SLBM submarines were the largest and most complex submarines yet built by any nation.
The principal criterion for judging a warship should be its weapons payload. Here the Polaris submarine was truly revolutionary. The initial Soviet SLBM submarines each carried two or three missiles, the latter number also being planned for the U.S. Jupiter IRBM-armed merchant ships and possibly submarines.7
The decision was made early in the program to arm the Polaris submarine with a large number of missiles—16 being the ultimate number. While some participants in the project argued that putting “so many eggs in one basket” would put at risk a large number of missiles if a submarine were located and sunk, the estimated survivability of the submarines coupled with the large numbers of missiles envisioned—several hundred—made the 16-tube submarine a cost-effective design. The installation of 16 missiles in a single submarine was also a major feat in ship design, especially when one considers that the first Polaris submarines were modified from a smaller attack submarine design.
The Polaris missiles themselves were the world’s first long-range missiles with solid-propellant rockets. The initial A-1 missile’s range, however, severely restricted the ocean operating area of the SLBM submarines if they were to target inland locations such as Moscow. The 1,200-nautical mile A-1 missile was considered an interim weapon from the outset of the solid-propellant program, with longer-range versions already in development. The A-1’s range limitation was accepted to compress the deployment schedule. The A-1 went on patrol in the George Washington in November 1960; the 1,500-nautical mile A-2 version went on patrol in June 1962 in the USS Ethan Allen (SSBN-608), and the 2,500-nautical mile A-3 in the USS Daniel Webster (SSBN-626) in September 1964. Thus, within a period of four years the missile’s range more than doubled. All three versions of the Polaris had approximately the same dimensions.
The underwater launch of the missile, permitting the submarine to remain completely submerged during the process, created additional technical problems, among them development of a means to have the submarine remain virtually motionless in the water column, eject the missile from its launch tube, propel the missile to the surface (for its rocket engine to ignite above the surface), and compensation for the loss of weight when a missile was launched, a critical factor in submarine depth control.
Subsequently, 31 of the 41 Polaris submarines were rearmed with the more capable Poseidon C-3 and 12 of those submarines with the Trident I C-4 missiles, further demonstrating the flexibility and excellence of the Polaris systems design.
The Operational Concept
Early in the development of the Polaris system the decision was made to operate the submarines with two complete crews (each of about 160 men) to permit the maximum amount of submarine time on deterrent patrol. This concept was labeled “Blue and Gold,” with the first crew (Blue) taking the submarine to sea for a patrol of some 60 days. Upon returning to port the second crew together with the first would have a period of about 15 to 30 days to replenish the submarine and make ready for another patrol. Then the second (Gold) crew would take the submarine to sea for a 60-day patrol.
The crew ashore would have about 45 days for leave and training (on simulators). This Blue-Gold crew concept has worked successfully for the 41 Polaris/Poseidon submarines, permitting more than half of the total force to be at sea at any given time. (From a mathematical viewpoint the at-sea time should have been approximately 3:1; however, the submarines periodically underwent overhauls, had missile test periods, etc., that reduced time at sea on patrol.)
For those submarines operating from the overseas bases established in Holy Loch, Scotland; Rota, Spain; and Guam in the Marianas, the crews were flown back and forth to their home bases in the United States.
The Polaris project was undertaken on several promises—that smaller warheads could be developed and produced, and that solid-propellant propulsion would work. The development time of the Polaris SLBM system—that is the submarines, missiles, navigation gear, life-support systems, training devices, and a multitude of other components—was truly remarkable. It has probably not been equaled since with any U.S. weapon system of similar complexity.
To ensure that all of the pieces fit together on schedule, Rear Admiral William F. Raborn Jr. adopted the then-innovative Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) scheduling system. The biographer of the Polaris program observed, “The Special Projects Office has gained an international reputation for the innovativeness and effectiveness of the management control system it has employed. . . .”8
As the Polaris system was being developed compromises were made in schedule and performance to achieve earlier operational dates. In late 1957 the Navy plan called for six Polaris submarines to be at sea by 1965. The George Washington went to sea in late 1960 and there were six Polaris submarines operational by mid-1962 with the sixth, the Ethan Allen, carrying the upgraded A-2 missile; all 41 submarines were completed by 1967.
As a result of concerns over indications of massive Soviet developments in bomber and missile technology, in the mid-1950s the United States initiated the Polaris SLBM and land-based Minuteman ICBM. The Polaris submarines when deployed were completely invulnerable to the existing Soviet countermeasures. This survivability, according to then–Secretary of Defense Harold Brown meant that “the SLBM force contributes to crisis stability. The existence of a survivable, at-sea ballistic missile force decreases the Soviet incentives to procure additional counterforce weapons and to plan attacks on United States soil since such attacks would not eliminate our ability to retaliate.”9 In response to the Polaris, the Soviets initiated several major antisubmarine programs.
The Polaris SLBM was a revolutionary weapon. First, it involved major technical advances with respect to submarines and missiles with the almost unprecedented growth potential of the system—from Polaris A-1 to the A-2, A-3, Poseidon C-3, and Trident C-4 missiles—being carried by essentially the same submarine design. Second, the missile provided a highly survivable strategic system, which had a major impact on U.S. defense policy. Third, it was developed in a remarkably short time.
If one looks at the subsequent Trident SLBM system, the concept was approved for development in the early 1970s with the first submarine being completed in November 1981—ten years later, and at a much slower construction rate than originally planned. Although the development time was significantly longer than the Polaris, one can demonstrate that the Trident was far less innovative than its forebearers—most elements of the new system were improvements of previous SLBM components. The longer gestation period appears to have been caused by the enlarged Department of Defense and Navy bureaucracies, the lack of the highest national priorities for SLBM development in the 1980s akin to those of the “missile gap” period, and the extensive involvement of Admiral Rickover in the Trident effort.
The final factor in the lessons of Polaris is why it was developed.
As astutely observed by Dr. Harvey M. Sapolsky, the guiding elements were the need—i.e., the Soviet threat—coupled with technological opportunity. Atomic Energy Commission historians Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan note that, fearing the Air Force’s Thor missile would be operational by 1960 and a reduction in defense funding, Admiral Burke “was now  hoping the Navy could catch up with Thor by having the first Polaris submarine ready by late 1959 or early 1960.”10
The reasons for the Polaris development were important, and led to its being a truly revolutionary weapon system.
1. The United States (CVA-58) was laid down at Newport News Shipbuilding on 18 April 1949 and cancelled by the secretary of Defense on 23 April 1949. She was to have had a full-load displacement of approximately 80,000 tons.
2. Initially additional funds were provided to the Navy for SLBM development, but by 1959 the Navy was forced to cancel development of the Regulus II land-attack cruise missile and the P6M Seamaster flying-boat bomber, and to delay construction of an aircraft carrier to help pay for the Polaris project. At the time all three of these programs were viewed by the Navy as strategic strike weapons.
3. Dr. David A. Rosenberg, "Arleigh Albert Burke" in Robert William Love, Jr. (ed.). The Chiefs of Naval Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980), p. 277. Admiral Burke served an unprecedented six years as CNO, from 1955 to 1961.
4. The organizational/management history of SPO is found in Dr. Harvey M. Sapolsky, The Polaris System Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972). Also see Graham Spinardi, from Polaris to Trident: The Development of US Fleet Ballistic Missile Technology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and D. A. Paolucci, USN (Ret.), "The Development of Navy Strategic Offensive and Defensive Systems," in "Naval Review," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1970, pp. 204-223.
5. A Polaris warhead weight of 600 pounds (compared to a Jupiter warhead of 1,600 pounds with a similar explosive yield) is cited in Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan, Nuclear Navy, 1946-1962 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 309. The lower weight has been cited in other documents.
6. Hewlett and Duncan, Nuclear Navv, p. 309.
7. The early Soviet SSB/SSBN programs are described in N. Polmar and Kenneth J. Moore, Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines (Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2004), pp. 103-114.
8. Sapolsky, The Polaris System Development, p. 94. PERT was more of an innovation in form than in substance.
9. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, "Department of Defense Annual Report Fiscal Year 1979," 2 February 1978, p. 110.
10. Hewlett and Duncan, Nuclear Navy, p. 314.