U.S. Navy's First Operational Ballistic Missile Submarine Launched

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U.S. Navy's First Operational Ballistic Missile Submarine Launched

USS George Washington (SSBN-598)
Undated US Navy photograph, photographer unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 9, 1959

As the Cold War continued, the United States was seeking more flexibility in the deployment of its ballistic missiles. As the third leg of America's nuclear deterrence, it was decided to place ballistic missiles on submarines. The nation's first truly operational ballistic missile submarine was the USS George Washington (SSBN-598).


The first nation to field ballistic missile submarines (SSB) was the Soviet Union, whose first experimental SSB was a converted Zulu IV class diesel-powered submarine equipped with a single ballistic missile launch tube in its sail (the portion of the sub formerly known as the conning tower). They were followed by a series of 23 specifically designed Golf class SSBs completed between 1958 and 1962, with three vertical launch tubes incorporated in the sail/fin of each submarine.

The US Navy began using submarines in the nuclear deterrent role in 1957, when a pair of World War II vintage diesel-electric boats converted to be able to carry a pair of Regulus cruise missiles, began operating deterrent patrols. Research into nuclear-powered subs carrying ballistic missiles began shortly afterward, when the limitations of cruise missiles became apparent. These drawbacks included:

  • vulnerability to interception by fighter aircraft;
  • limited to subsonic speed;
  • range of less than 1000km;
  • the largest of the Regulus armed boats could carry a maximum of five missiles;
  • submarines had to surface to launch a missile, and
  • the missile was guided by a radio signal transmitted from either ship, aircraft or ground station.


A New Class of Submarine Ordered, Delivered

The Navy ordered a class of nuclear-powered submarines armed with long-range strategic missiles on December 31, 1957, and tasked General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Connecticut with converting two existing attack submarine hulls to ballistic-missile-carrying boats to quickly create the deterrent force. [The Electric Boat division of General Dynamics built the first U.S. Navy submarine, the USS Holland (SS-1), in 1899. It also built the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) in 1954.] After seven months of construction, the George Washington was launched on June 9, 1959 and commissioned on December 30, 1959.

USS George Washington during its launching ceremony, June 28, 1959; U.S. Navy photograph, photographer unknown
USS George Washington during its launching ceremony, June 28, 1959
U.S. Navy photograph, photographer unknown

George Washington left Groton on June 28, 1960 for Cape Canaveral, FL where she loaded two Polaris missiles. Standing out into the Atlantic Missile Test Range she successfully conducted the first Polaris missile launch from a submerged submarine on July 20, 1960. At 12:39 pm, George Washington's commanding officer sent President Dwight Eisenhower the message: POLARIS - FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT. Less than two hours later a second missile from the submarine also struck the impact area 1300 miles (2000 kilometers) downrange.

During its service, George Washington carried 16 Polaris A1 (later Polaris A3) ballistic missiles. It also had six torpedo tubes for more mundane tactical use. The ship initially performed its deterrent patrols in the Atlantic, and in 1970 (after re-fueling its nuclear reactor) its patrols were shifted to the Pacific. During its service, George Washington performed a total of 25 deterrent patrols. Its final ballistic missile patrol took place in 1982. In 1983, under the conditions of the SALT I treaty, George Washington's nuclear missiles were removed, and it was converted into an attack submarine.

Footnote #1: George Washington was decommissioned on January 24, 1985, stricken from the Naval Vessel Registry on April 30, 1986, and scheduled for disposal through the Ship-Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Recycling of the ship was completed on September 30, 1998.

Sail of the George Washington outside the Submarine Force; Library and Museum at Groton, CT; Photograph by Wikipedia user victor-ny
Sail of the George Washington outside the Submarine Force
Library and Museum at Groton, CT
Photograph by Wikipedia user victor-ny

Footnote #2: During the course of George Washington's recycling, its sail was removed and sent to Groton, CT where it is currently on display outside of the Submarine Force Library and Museum. Other exhibits of interest at the Museum include a Japanese midget submarine, and the original USS Nautilus, decommissioned in 1980, and opened to the public in 1986. Two other items of interest at the Museum include an original 1870 edition of Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and a model of the fictional submarine Nautilus from the novel.

Footnote #3: George Washington was the lead ship of a class of submarines, with a total of five submarines constructed. All of these vessels have been decommissioned and scrapped.

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