Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs).
Like Nautilus before, another revolution in submarine warfare came with the commissioning in 1959 of USS George Washington SSBN-598 that provided the U.S. Navy with the capability of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and completed America’s nuclear triad; the three-pronged military force structure that consists of a nuclear armed missile capability utilizing land-launched missiles, missile launching submarines, and strategic long-range bombers armed with nuclear bombs. Specifically, these elements consisted of land-based U.S. Army intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from subterranean silos, USN submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 Strato-Fortress bombers that, through continual rotation, remained airborne 24/7 over sixty years.
The objective for having a tri-nuclear capability was to support the MAD doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” that was presented in the early 1960s, by United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara whose supposition was that a grave danger existed when a nation having nuclear weapons capability could attempt to eliminate another nation's retaliatory forces with a surprise, devastating first strike thereby hypothetically "winning" a nuclear war while remaining comparatively unscathed. And, that a true second-strike capability could be only be achieved when the targeted nation processed the ability to launch an equally devastating retaliatory attack. And, that ability became possible for America and was provided for the U.S. by the USS George Washington.
Prior to George Washington, the USN retrofitted submarines with nuclear tipped Regulus cruise missile capability when between 1959 and 1964 a total of five submarines commenced the first nuclear weapons deterrent patrols. They were the diesel-electric powered USS Tunny SS-222 and USS Barbero SS-317 that were later joined by another pair of purpose built Regulus diesel boats, and later-on nuclear powered USS Halibut SSGN-587. However, the early use of Regulus in a deterrent role revealed multiple limitations; as a cruise missile was vulnerable to interception by fighter aircraft, it was limited to subsonic speed, had a range of less than 625 miles, and the largest of the Regulus armed boats could carry only a maximum of five missiles
Contrastingly to the Regulus boats, the Washington's sixteen Poseidon SLBMs could be delivered to multiple targets while the boat remained submerged making it far less likely to being detected or destroyed prior to firing. As well, its nuclear power plant enabled George Washington's patrol duration to be limited only by crew and equipment endurance and provisions. Consequently, Ballistic missile submarines carrying Polaris missiles eventually replaced all other strategic nuclear systems in the Navy and nuclear deterrent patrols have been successfully completed by FBM submarines on station 24/7 for the past sixty-one years.
The George Washington class, along with the later Ethan Allen, Lafayette, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin classes comprised a group of submarines designated the "41 for Freedom" that was the Navy's primary nuclear deterrent force against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War that lasted from 1960 through the late 1980s. The commissioning of USS George Washington on 30 December 1959, its first submarine Polaris launch on 20 July 1960, and her maiden deterrent patrol November 1960-January 1961 were the culmination of four years of intense effort. Because the Navy had initially considered a sea-based variant of the US Army Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile, projecting four of the large liquid-fueled missiles installed per submarine. However, it was later concluded that a compact one-megaton nuclear warhead could be mated to the existing and smaller solid-fueled Polaris missile and that prompted the desertion of the Jupiter program to concentrate all Navy strategic research on Polaris. Subsequently, the difficulties of submerged launch, designing a submarine fitted with sixteen missiles, precise navigation for accurate missile targeting, and the numerous other challenges were resolved quickly. Therefore, an effort was made to accelerate the Washington’s completion by utilizing the original SSN Scorpion boat then still under construction. So, it was lengthened by the insertion of a 130 ft long missile compartment and renamed USS George Washington. Hence, another submarine also under construction at the time was re-designated USS Scorpion SSN 589 that later became the second USN nuclear submarine to be lost at sea with all-hands on 22 May 1968; the first being USS Thresher SSN- 593 on 10 April 1963. Inside George Washington's forward escape hatch remained a plaque bearing her original name in honor of the crew of Scorpion.
Post commissioning the Washington got underway from Groton CT on 28 June 1960 in route to Cape Canaveral, Fl, where she was loaded two Polaris missiles then proceeded out to a missile test range in the Atlantic where she successfully conducted the historic first ever Polaris missile launch from a submerged submarine on 20 July 1960. Afterward at 12:39, George Washington's commanding officer sent President Dwight Eisenhower the message: “POLARIS - FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT.”
Following, the boat got underway again from for Naval Weapons Station Charleston from Groton CT on 28 October to load her full complement of sixteen Polaris missiles and where she was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation, after which her Blue crew conducted her initial nuclear deterrent patrol completing it after sixty-six days of submerged running on 21 January 1961.
In 1970, George Washington transferred to the United States Pacific Fleet and a new home port at Pearl Harbor, HI. Then after successfully completing fifty-five deterrent patrols in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans over her twenty-five-year career, in 1982 she returned to Pearl Harbor from her final missile patrol. And later in 1983, her missiles were off-loaded at Bangor, Washington to comply with the SALT I Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers. However, she continued service as an SSN attack submarine until her decommissioning on 24 January 1985, she was stricken from the Naval Vessel Registry on 30 April 1986, and scheduled for disposal through the Ship-Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Her Recycling was completed on 30 September 1998, but her sail was preserved and is currently on public display at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton CT. The only other submarine of the class was USS Abraham Lincoln SSBN-602, Commissioned on 11 March 1961 and decommissioned on 28 February 1981.
The George Washington Class submarines were followed by the Ethan Allens, the first boats designed from the keel up as Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines carrying the Polaris A-2 missile. They were functionally similar to the George Washingtons, however longer and more streamlined with torpedo tubes reduced to four rather six like Washington. In the early and mid-1970s, they were upgraded to Polaris A3s. Subsequently, to comply with the SALT II treaty limitations and as the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines entered service in the early 1980s, the Ethan Allens were refitted and re-designated as SSN Fast Attacks and are frequently referred to as a "slow approach" boats. The Ethan Allen-class submarines were decommissioned between 1983 and 1992 and all were disposed of through the nuclear Ship-Submarine Recycling Program 1992-1999. The submarines of the Ethan Allen Class were; USS Ethan Allen SSBN- 608, USS Sam Houston SSBN-609, USS Thomas A. Edison SSBN-610, USS John C. Marshall SSBN-611, and USS Thomas Jefferson SSBN-618.
Next came the Lafayette Class with the lead ship SSBN-616 that was the third ship of the United States Navy to be named to honor Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, the French military officer who fought alongside the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. They were an evolutionary development from the Ethan Allens, slightly larger and overall improved and having a hovering system to manage depth and trim control more efficiently during missile launches that improved the missile rate of launch from one per minute to four per minute. The Lafayettes were decommissioned between 1986 and 1992, due to a combination of SALT II treaty limitations and as the Ohio class SSBNs entered service, end of service life, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The submarines of the Lafayette Class were; USS Lafayette SSBN-616, USS Alexander Hamilton SSBN-617, USS Andrew Jackson SSBN-619, USS John Adams SSBN-620, USS James Monroe SSBN-622, USS Nathan Hale SSBN-623, USS Woodrow Wilson SSBN-624, USS Henry Clay SSBN-625, and USS Daniel Webster SSBN-626,
Next in the evolution of SSBNs came the James Madison class that were indistinguishable to the Lafayettes except for being initially designed to carry the Polaris A-3 missile instead of the earlier A-2. However, In the early 1970s all were modified to deploy the Poseidon C-3 missile. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, six boats were further modified to carry the Trident I C-4 missile along with six Benjamin Franklin-class boats. These were the USS James Madison, Daniel Boone, John C. Calhoun, Von Steuben, Casimir Pulaski, and Stonewall Jackson.
The James Madisons were also decommissioned between 1986 and 1992. The submarines in the James Madison class included; USS James Madison SSBN-627, USS Tecumseh SSBN-628, USS Daniel Boone SSBN-629, USS John C. Calhoun SSBN-630, USS Ulysses S. Grant SSBN-631, USS Von Steuben SSBN-632, USS Casimir Pulaski SSBN-633, USS Stonewall Jackson SSBN-634, USS Sam Rayburn SSBN-635, and USS Nathaniel Greene SBBN-636.
Then came the Benjamin Franklin-class submarines that were in service into the 2000s and were advanced over the earlier James Madison class having quieter mechanical systems and other enhancements. A subset of this class was the re-engineered 640 class starting with USS George C. Marshall and having the primary difference that they were built under SUBSAFE guidelines adopted due to the loss of USS Thresher. While earlier boats of the class were retrofitted to meet SUBSAFE standards which was the Submarine Safety Program of quality assurance implemented to maintain the safety of the nuclear submarine fleet; specifically, to provide maximum reasonable assurance that submarine hulls and sea water systems would maintain watertight integrity, and that crews could rapidly recover from flooding emergencies. Benjamin Franklin-class submarines were built with built Polaris A-3 ballistic missile capability and in the early 1970s were converted to carry the Poseidon C-3 missile. Then during the late 1970s and early 1980s, six boats were further modified to carry the Trident I C-4 missile, along with six James Madison-class boats.
The current Ohio class of Trident FBM submarines includes the United States Navy's fourteen SSBNs and its four SSGN boats. Each displacing 18,750 tons submerged and are the largest submarines ever built for the U.S. Navy. Too, they are the world's third-largest submarines behind the Russian Navy's Soviet designed 48,000-ton Typhoon class and 24,000-ton Borei class. And the Ohios carry a larger payload with 24 Trident II missiles apiece, versus 16 by the Borei class, 20 by the Borei II, and 20 by the Typhoon class. Additionally, although the Trident missiles haven’t any preset targets they can be assigned target data quickly from the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska using secure and constant radio communications links through very low radio frequency (VLF) systems. The lead submarine of this class is USS Ohio and all the Ohio-class submarines, except for USS Henry M. Jackson, are named for U.S. states which had been traditionally reserved for battleships and cruisers. The Ohio class includes; USS Ohio SSGN-726, USS Michigan SSGN-727, USS Florida SSGN-728, USS Georgia SSGN-729, USS Henry S. Jackson SSBN-730, USS Alabama SSBN-731, USS Alaska SSBN-732, USS Nevada SSBN-733, USS Tennessee SSBN-734, USS Pennsylvanian SSBN-735, USS West Virginia SSBN-736, USS Kentucky SSBN-737, USS Maryland SSBN-738, USS Nebraska SSBN-739, USS Rhode Island SSBN-740, USS Maine SSBN-741, USS Wyoming SSBN-742, and USS Louisiana SSBN-743.
The Columbia-class submarine, formerly known as the Ohio Replacement Submarine or the SSBN-X Future Follow-on Submarine is and up and coming class designed to replace the Ohio-class. The first submarine is scheduled to begin construction in 2021 and enter service in 2031, The Ohio submarines will be decommissioned, one per year, beginning in 2027 and the Columbia class will assume the role of submarine presence in the United States’ strategic nuclear force. General Dynamics Electric Boat is co-designing and building them along with Huntington Ingalls Industries/Newport News Shipbuilding Company, and a total of twelve submarines are planned. Each submarine will have sixteen missile tubes loaded with one Trident II D5LE multi-warhead missile, and will be 560 feet long and 43 feet in diameter.
FBM submarines differ from attack submarines and cruise missile submarines in that Attack submarines mission-focus is combating “enemy” vessels including submarines and merchant shipping, and SSGN cruise missile submarines are designed to attack large warships and tactical land based targets. However, the primary mission of the FBM submarine is nuclear deterrence. Accordingly, their mission profile dictates that they maintain stealth rather than actively pursue and track other vessels. However, in time of a hot war, they will launch their missiles against enemy population centers, and they have the awesome fire power to destroy entire continents.
In recognition of their distinguished service to American FBM submarine sailors are authorized to wear the SSBN Deterrent Patrol Insignia awarded to those who have completed strategic deterrent patrols. It is different from and is in addition to traditional submarine dolphins worn by all qualified submariners since WWII. The design of the SSBN pin features a silver Lafayette-class submarine with a superimposed Polaris missile and electron rings which signify the armament and nuclear-powered characteristics of the Fleet Ballistic Missile Deterrent Force. A scroll beneath the submarine holds up to six award stars, with one gold star authorized for each successful patrol, or a silver star for five successful patrols. After twenty successful patrols completed the pin is upgraded to a gold finish design. The insignia qualifies the sailors' combat veterans making them eligible for membership in the VFW.
Regardless of which mission type of submarine one is assigned, the men and woman of the United States Navy Submarine Service are charged with awesome responsibility initially at a youthful age. So, each and every crewman from the lowest ranking seaman up to and including the Commanding Officer must be of the highest caliber in intelligence, dedication, personal integrity, and courage. And, above all, they must be a good shipmate and able to get along with their submarine family under difficult and trying circumstances during extended operations in a hostile environment beneath the sea. Nothing less is acceptable in the Silent Service because America is counting on them.