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Work Chronicles History at Fleet Ballistic Missile Program Event

By Amaani Lyle DoD News Features, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, October 3, 2015 — The Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile Program has a six-decade record of safety, reliability and “pure operational excellence” that is extremely hard, if not impossible, to match, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said last night at the program’s 60th anniversary celebration in Falls Church, Virginia.

Work said he discussed with his British counterparts the U.S. partnership with the United Kingdom’s Continuous At Sea Deterrent program during a recent visit there, and he noted that program began with aa historic 1962 meeting between President John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, which led to the Polaris Sales Agreement.  

The close partnership in nuclear deterrence continues today, the deputy secretary said.

“Just a few weeks ago, one of our missile boats, the U.S.S. Wyoming concluded a successful visit to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde in Faslane, Scotland,” Work said, adding that it was the first U.S. fleet ballistic missile submarine to visit to a foreign port since 2003. “These visible examples of the deep cooperation and mutual support between our two countries do not go unnoticed by our adversaries.”

Despite the scope of deterrence provided by the U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force today, Work said, he finds it hard to believe the Navy came close to being without a strategic deterrent mission.  

In the late 1940s, he said, the Navy attempted to develop a supercarrier that could handle the nuclear bomber, a program canceled by the Truman administration just as the keel was laid for the first of those supercarriers. 

‘Revolt of the Admirals’

A public disagreement known as the “Revolt of the Admirals” occurred in protest of plans to shrink the Navy and instead augment the Air Force’s strategic nuclear bombing role as the primary means of the nation’s defense, Work said, and the Navy didn’t fare much better in the early years of the Eisenhower administration, which diverted funding for nuclear weapons to the Air Force and the Army.  

Work credited the foresight and determination of Adms. Arleigh Burke and William F. Raborn, part of a small but influential group in the Navy, who he said believed it was possible to safely launch a long-range nuclear missile from a submarine.

The Navy established special projects office, with Raborn in charge, to push what would become the Polaris missile program. The project became a high priority, and required overcoming various hurdles to incorporating ballistic missile capability into submarines, Before the Polaris, the deputy secretary said, nuclear warheads weighed 1,600 pounds, missiles stood six stories tall, and the idea of liquid rocket fuel sloshing around inside a submarine was a frightening thought.

Pushing Boundaries

Scientists such as Harold Brown, who would later become defense secretary during the Carter administration, and physicists such as Edward Teller continued to push the boundaries of nuclear weapons design and innovation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Work said.

“They developed a smaller, lighter nuclear warhead that could be put atop a missile carried vertically inside a silo,” he explained. “And the Polaris warhead’s radical new technology was an absolute turning point in nuclear weapon design, establishing breakthroughs that have been adopted in almost every subsequent warhead we have developed.”

As the new warhead was taking shape, Raborn’s Special Project Office finalized the design of a solid-fuel rocket motor.  

Still, Work noted, challenges remained for the Polaris missile’s development. He cited Rear Adm. Robert Wertheim, the fourth director of Strategic Systems Programs, who was present at last night’s event. 

“As our early test missiles were raining down from the skies over Cape Canaveral, we learned to use a new code,” he quoted from an article Wertheim had written. “For example, ‘successful launch’ would mean ‘didn’t blow up until after leaving the launch pad.’ Or, ‘successful first-stage flight’ meant ‘went out of control and was destroyed during second-stage flight.’”  

Of the first 17 Polaris flights, only five flew as planned, Work said. Today, he added, with that record, the program probably would be cancelled. But that was never even considered back then, he said. That faith is vindicated today, with 155 of 157 Trident missile launches being successful, Work said.

Operational Missile Boat

As problems were being resolved with Polaris, the Navy still needed a submarine to carry it, Work noted. “In 1957, long before the bugs were even worked out in the Polaris A-1, Burke declared the Navy was going to have an operational missile boat in three years.”

So, Work said, Navy officials at the submarine yards at Groton, Connecticut, cut the hull of the attack submarine Scorpion in half and added a missile compartment. On July 20, 1960, at 12:39 p.m., the first Polaris missile was fired from the George Washington, Work said. Since that day, the U.S. Navy has conducted more than 4,035 strategic deterrent patrols, he said.

Defense Department Commitment

Today, Work said, the Defense Department remains committed to maintaining the fleet’s strategic weapon system in the Ohio replacement program.

He acknowledged the program will be a “heavy lift” in today’s budgetary environment, but he pledged that it will continue, because the nation’s security depends on a survivable and reliable second strike capability that only ballistic missile submarines provide.  

“The end of the Cold War did not end great-power politics,” Work said. It’s  been reawakened with a vengeance. “We see it plainly in Russia’s aggressive actions in Eastern Europe and Syria, and we see it in China’s emergence as a military power and its belligerent actions in the South China Sea.”

(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)