During most of the early Cold War era, the “Space Race” held much of the attention of the American public. However, there was another and possibly more significant race being waged between the Super-Power Navies of the United States and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR). And that race was a secret, stealthy and potentially deadly one that would determine which country would win control of the seas. As well, it ushered in the era of the military doctrine, strategy, and national security policy known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would result in the obliteration of both the attacker and the defender. It’s based on the theory of deterrence, which embraces the theory that the threat of the use of over-powering weapons against an enemy forestalls his use of those same weapons. The strategy was a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once mutually armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.nge ability, high survivability and capability to carry multiple nuclear missiles, submarines could provide a reliable and effective response to an immense first strike. But, if only one side were able to achieve this capability then they would garner a huge strategic advantage over the other. And so, with both adversaries cognizant of this reality the race was on.
The strategy of MAD was fully adopted in the early 1960s and it assumed that there was the very real possibility that one nuclear power could attempt to eliminate another nation’s nuclear retaliatory forces with a surprise and devastating first strike and theoretically “win” a nuclear war while remaining moderately unscathed. The true second-strike capability was achievable only when a country had a guaranteed ability to fully retaliate after a first-strike attack.
The United States had achieved a quasi-form of second-strike capability with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) flying B-52 Stratofortress nuclear bombers on a 24/7 basis. Although this gave the US a retaliatory capability even after a devastating first-strike attack, that approach was expensive and otherwise challenging because of the high cost of keeping enough planes aloft and the possibility they could be detected and shot down by Soviet anti-aircraft missiles prior reaching their targets. Also, a missile gap had developed between the US and the Soviet Union, so the US was giving increasing urgency to deploying ICBMs over bombers. Therefore, the trump card was the ability to deliver nuclear weapons from a platform that couldn’t be easily detected or attacked. And, the ideal platform for that was a submerged submarine.
And so, the deployment of a fleet of ballistic missile submarines would establish a certain second-strike capability because of their stealth making it was highly improbable that all of them could be targeted and preemptively destroyed in contrast to a land based missile silo that could be targeted during a first strike. Given their long ra
Consequently, the USN laid the foundation to build the world’s first missile firing Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine (FBM) the USS George Washington SSBN-598. But, at the same time, the USSR was developing its own submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The R-13 missile was a single-stage storable liquid-propellant missile with a separable mono-block reentry vehicle. The reentry vehicle had a nuclear warhead with a yield estimated in the west at 1.2 to 2.0 MT. And, it had an inertial guidance system and a circular error probability (CEP) of 1 to 2 nm according to western intelligence estimates.
Western intelligence in the early1960s was somewhat confused by the relationship between the Soviet R-13 R and their R-11FM missile programs. Therefore, the U.S. believed that the Soviets were on the verge of obtaining SLBM capability and so they must accelerate the completion of George Washington. Hence, instead of building George Washington from scratch, the attack submarine USS Scorpion SSN-589 was cut in half during construction and was lengthened by the insertion of a 130 ft. long ballistic missile compartment and then renamed George Washington. Then another submarine under construction at the time, but further behind in the construction cycle, was designated with the name and hull number of Scorpion. Tragically, that Scorpion was later lost at sea with all hands-on May 22, 1968. And, inside George Washington’s forward escape hatch, a plaque remained bearing her original name Scorpion.
The George Washington would deploy the UGM-27 Polaris missile a two-stage solid-fueled nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) built during the Cold War by Lockheed Corporation for the United States Navy.
USS George Washington SSBN-598 armed with 16 of the Polaris A-1 missiles entered service in December 1959 and conducted the first SSBN deterrent patrol in November 1960 through January 1961. George Washington also conducted the first successful submerged SLBM launch of a Polaris A-1 on 20 July 1960. But, just forty days later, the Soviet Union made its first successful launch of a submarine ballistic missile in the White Sea on 10 September 1960.
USS George Washington was also the first piece of what the US needed in order to complete a “Nuclear Triad” which refers to the nuclear weapons delivery of a strategic nuclear arsenal consisting of three components; land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic nuclear bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). And, its mission is to significantly reduce the possibility of an enemy destroying all of a nation’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack, and it ensures a credible threat of a second strike, and thus increases a nation’s nuclear deterrence.
The first Soviet SSBN armed with 16 missiles was the Project 667A Yankee class, which first entered service in 1967 with 32 boats completed by 1974. By the time the first Yankee was commissioned the US had built 41 SSBNs and nick-named them “Forty-One for Freedom.” And, they were designed to deliver the first generation of sea-launched Polaris SLBMs to enemy targets in the event of a nuclear war. The Forty-One For Freedom Fleet Ballistic Missile program ran from the deployment of the USS George Washington in 1960 until the deployment of the first of the Ohio-class submarines in late 1981.
Ballistic missile submarines play two roles in the event of a nuclear war. First, they are a hidden, mobile force specifically deployed so that in case of an enemy attack, the nation being attacked will have a surviving reserve of weapons with which to retaliate and/or counterattack. Second, they can be employed in a surprise first attack or a preemptive strike to destroy enemy targets to attempt to eliminate their ability to counterattack before the enemy has a chance to respond. And, their missiles can reach targets within enemy territory within fifteen minutes or less, rather than the 30 to 45 minutes a land-based, long-range ICBM would take. Their global mobility also makes them more desirable and much more effective than land-based, short-range ballistic missiles. The US program was undertaken because of their growing anxiety over Soviet nuclear superiority that was driven chiefly by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and by the Soviets’ own deployment of submarine-based missiles starting in 1959. Prior to the space race, nuclear weapons could be delivered solely by air, but the development of ballistic missiles during the space program moved nuclear forces onto land and sea. So, the Space-Race was more about developing ballistic missiles to deliver weapons and less about getting to the Moon
The submarines in the Forty-One for Freedom program were all built over a span of seven and a half years and were a key part of the US nuclear deterrent throughout their service lifetimes. They all began their service lives fitted with the Polaris missile. However, boats of the larger Lafayette, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin classes were upgraded in the 1970s to carry the longer-range Poseidon. Each could carry sixteen missiles, and each missile had a range of between 1200 (Polaris) and 2500 (Poseidon) nautical miles. Their vertical missile tubes were located aft of the sail and the missiles were launched while the submarine was submerged just below the surface. They were launched by pressurizing the missile tube via a gas generator and upon launch, the missile rose to the surface in a bubble. Rocket ignition didn’t occur until the missile was above the sea surface; the missile didn’t even get wet. The Poseidon C-3 missiles that the newer FBM’s carried were particularly lethal because they had longer range and were more accurate than the Polaris, and they could carry up to fourteen MIRV warheads. All of them have now been replaced by eighteen Ohio-class SSBNs, each of which carries 24 Trident missiles.
The short range of the early SLBMs dictated their basing and deployment locations, and the USN was much more fortunate in its basing arrangements than the Soviets. Thanks to NATO countries cooperation and the US possession of Guam, USN SSBNs were permanently forward deployed at Advanced Refit Sites in Holy Loch, Scotland; Rota, Spain; and Guam by the middle 1960s, facilitating short transit times to patrol areas near the Soviet Union. With two rotating crews, a Blue and Gold per SSBN, they could be on patrol 365 days per year around the globe. The typical Blue/Gold crew rotation involved the relief crew being flown first class from the US to their foreign home port after completing a two-week R&R from their last patrol. Then, they underwent a two-week period of training and maintenance on-board the boat followed by a 60-day submerged deterrent patrol. Subsequently, upon their return, they would turn-over the boat to the other relief crew.
The Soviet bases, in the Murmansk area for the Atlantic and the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky area for the Pacific, required their SSBNs to make an extended transit through NATO-surveilled waters in the Atlantic to their mid-ocean patrol areas in order to hold the continental United States (CONUS) at risk. This resulted in only a small percentage of the Soviet force occupying patrol areas at any time, and that was a strong motivation to develop longer-range Soviet SLBMs to allow them to patrol closer to their ports. The newer missiles had increased range and eventually Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) that could hit an individual target.
The Forty-One for Freedom FBM submarines have now been decommissioned from the United States nuclear arsenal. However, some of them were converted to other roles later in their careers including as attack submarines for Special Forces operations and they were operating until very recently. The last active ship, the USS Kamehameha SSBN-642, was converted for use in an attack role but was later placed in stand-down in October of 2001 in preparation for decommissioning.
They and their crews served America with valor and dedication during a critical era in world history and certainly lived up to the principles of their namesakes such as USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602), USS Theodore Roosevelt (SSBN 600):, USS Lewis And Clark (SSBN 644), USS Daniel Webster (SSBN 626), and USS Tecumseh (SSBN 628). As well, they exemplified the essence their own creed;
Forty-One for Freedom.