Polaris Missile Fired - History

Polaris Missile Fired - History

(7/20/60) The United States Navy test-fired a Polaris Missile from a submarine. The successful firing of the Polaris allowed the United States to base a substantial portion of its nuclear deterrent forces on submarines, where they were safe from a successful first strike by Soviet forces.


On this date 60 years ago, the first test missiles were successfully launched from a submerged submarine. The newly commissioned nuclear-powered U.S.S. George Washington fired two Polaris missiles from a depth of about 50 to 60 feet, 30 miles off Cape Canaveral, Florida. The successful test kicked off a new age of ballistic missile submarines.

An enormous gust of compressed air pushed the 18-ton, two-stage Polaris A-1 missile .

. from the submarine’s missile tubes to the surface, where the missile’s ignition system took over.

The first test missile emerged from the water at an odd angle, but its internal guidance systems quickly corrected that.

Both first and second stages of the Polaris A-1 used solid-fuel propellant made of polyurethane.

The missile reportedly hit its target, 1,300 miles away — as did a second one, fired three hours later. (Photos: Universal Newsreel/National Archives)

(Credit: U.S. Navy)

The captain of the George Washington radioed President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “From out of the depths to target – Perfect.” The George Washington would deploy in November 1960 with a full complement of 16 Polaris A1 missiles.

The Washington would be retired in 1985 and then scrapped at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1998. The name USS George Washington now applies to a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier commissioned in 1992.

Induction Heating

Soon after WWII the US Navy was funded to build a nuclear engine for warships. On the 17 th of January 1955 Commander Dennis Wilkinson sent the historic message, "Underway on nuclear power," from the USS Nautilus. On the 3 rd of December 1956 the Navy began the development of the Polaris missile submarine.

In 1957 after the launch of "sputnik" Congress authorized the AEC to speed up funding for a factory located in as abandoned railroad repair station (round house) located in the strip coal mines outside Hazleton, PA to produce beryllium for the atomic bomb race. Funds were short so the Agriculture Department made a wheat for burl ore barter agreement with the Brazilian government. The Navy terminated the Regulus missile program to free funds for the Polaris project.

0n the 3 rd of August 1958 the Nautilus passed beneath the North Pole on a 1,830-mile voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. My three-year career in the vacuum melting of superalloys came to an end as funds for purchasing jet aircraft were shifted to missiles.

In early November 1958 for Beryllium Corporation assigned to the task of vacuum melting beryllium beads mixed with beryllium fluoride to produce a pure beryllium ingot. The furnace was a standard 500-pound steel (100-pound beryllium) vacuum melting built by FJ Stokes and the power supply was a 100kW Inductotherm system. Near the unit was installed another Inductotherm system used to sinter beryllium oxide powder to make the refractory lining.

The thermal looses through the beryllium oxide lining were very high and we were had just enough power to make the metal liquid. I did not ask permission to change the refractory to magnesium oxide but it worked like a charm with the magnesium levels lowered because we could make the metal hotter and the remaining magnesium fluoride slag coated the magnesium oxide walls. The management did not know if they should fire me or reward me but for sure my assigned job was finished.

The company was able to produce enough quality beryllium ingot in a short period to meet the stockpile requirement of the AEC and were allowed to bid on the finished products made by hot pressing beryllium powder in to blocks that were machined into shapes for atomic bomb parts. Every person at that facility was checked by the FBI and given the AEC "Q" clearance. Based on the need to know most of the people never saw what was done behind the walls of the machine shop.

The company had a pilot plant for converting beryllium ingot to chips before they were ground into powder. The powder was pressed into a cylindrical shape using a hydraulic press with a die made of steel that was placed into a vacuum chamber to be heated to about 200 degrees F using metallic heating elements. I understood what was being done but did not agree with the methods being used. I wanted to use a graphite die but the company was afraid that it would react with beryllium to form beryllium carbide.

The company assigned me to the engineering department to design a larger hot pressing unit. The task of designing was well beyond my meager capabilities so the company hired a local young man of Italian decent named Joe Lona.

Joe received his degree in mechanical engineering in 1957 from Penn State and right away went to work for DuPont in Newark, Delaware as a design draftsman working on piping systems for polyethylene production. This project was completed in December 1958. He was looking forward to using unemployment insurance and shooting darts with his buddies at the local bars until he found his next job. The unemployment office sent him for an interview and Beryllium made him an offer. He refused because the pay was much less than he received at DuPont. The employment officer at Beryllium threatened to tell the unemployment office he had refused an offer. Joe started his new job just before Christmas in 1958

Joe was soon to learn that the "hillbilly" had grand visions but had no clue of the details required to make things work.

I knew how to operate an induction system and that graphite could be heated by induction without difficulty. I knew how to turn on vacuum pumps and where to buy them. I also had met Henry Rowan the president of Inductotherm a few months earlier.

While Lona was designing the mechanical portion I contacted Rowan for help on the induction system. Rowan worked with Lona to design the chamber to be fitted with an induction coil including the required thermal insulation. He provided us with a quotation for the whole system including the induction coil that was priced at $750. Even before he was out the door I decided we could use the power supply made redundant when we changed the refractory of the vacuum-melting furnace to magnesium oxide. For all his efforts Rowan's efforts he received an order for $750.

The first submarine combining nuclear propulsion with the Albacore hull (to store Polaris missiles) was commissioned while we were in the processes of building the prototype induction hot pressing facility. (The first of the "41 for Freedom" Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines.)

Beryllium Corporation received the green light from the Navy to build a facility to produce Polaris parts including the nose (Nag), the cone section (CAT), and the flare section (Fox) using beryllium metal.

In the end it would turn out that his was a major technical error in material selection but the Russians were beating us at every turn in the race for control of space. I was also a political year where the Republicans had selected Nixon and were fighting Kennedy who was preaching a "missile gap".

The company gave me a numbered requisition pad that could be used to commit the company to save time in building the facility. Lona was transferred from the drafting board to supervise the existing construction staff to get the first prototype up and running. The first order was placed with Penn Iron in Reading for the chamber using sketches that Lona drew on a cloth napkin at the Medvich Hotel restaurant.

During the start up we ran into a peck of trouble caused by induction heating of the surrounding steelwork. Rowan offered to send Jess Cartlidge for $50 per day to help us out. He solved our problems in a couple of days and first test run to produce a part 8-inches round and 16-inches long was perfect.

We needed a larger part right away so Jessie spent another day helping us design a larger coil and to prevent the chamber from heating he introduced us to iron shunts attached to the chamber wall. Jessie went home that day as a salesman with two orders. One for a larger induction coil for $1250 and $450 for shunts. My meager understanding that iron shunts could be used to prevent stray induction heating of a chamber was the clincher that allowed me to sell a very large but unsuccessful facility for testing rocket motors to NASA in 1963.

On the 20 th of July 1960 while submerged off the coast of Cape Canaveral, a Navy submarine successfully fired two Polaris A-1 missiles with a range of 1,200 miles. On the 25 th of August 1960 the USS Sea Dragon charted the Northwest Passage and surfaced at the North Pole where the crew played baseball.

Lona and I completed the fabrication department at Beryllium in the fall of 1960 that included induction furnaces that used 60-inch graphite.

With the experiment to use Beryllium dead in the water as a failure I moved on to become a salesman for Ajax Magnethermic in April 1961.

Polaris A3

The Polaris A3 missile was the first to have a range for 2,500 miles, and, while like the A2, it was 31 feet long (1.5 in. longer than A2) and four-and-a-half feet in diameter, it weighed 35,700 pounds--4,000 more than the A2. The design of the POLARIS A3 was restricted in size by the volume available in the submarine's (SSBN) launch tube. Thus the A3 was limited to being approximately the same size as A2 but was to fly 2500 nm versus 1500 nm. Therefore, the A3 was basically a new design missile, rather than an evolution, as was A1 to A2.

The first stage (24,600 lb) usd a fiberglass motor case and nitroplasticized polyurethane propellant (21,800 lb). The second stage (10,800 lb) also used a fiberglass motor case composite modified double base propellant (9,000 Ib), EJC (Hercules), and a Mk 11 guidance system (80 Ib). The reentry system consisted of three reentry vehicles which tilted outboard and are ejected by small rocket motor.

The A3's first test flight took place at Cape Canaveral on August 7, 1962,k and the first A3s went on patrol on September 28, 1964, when the USS Daniel Webster began its initial deployment from Charleston, South Carolina. The A3 was the first Polaris to have multiple reentry vehicles.

The 2500 nm range of the POLARIS A3 extended FBM submarines operations to the Pacific Ocean, providing greater sea room and operating area to offset the expanding Soviet anti-submarine capabilities. Another consideration for the POLARIS A3 was the need for improved accuracy from the longer-range and increased-penetrability capability against the Soviet's emerging anti-ballistic missile defense.

To meet these objectives, the A3's design included reentry vehicle concepts, improved guidance, fire control, and navigation systems penetration aids (PenAids) and missile trajectory shaping techniques. New technologies were also considered such as, advancements in propellants, electronics, materials, and TVC concepts.

Several A2X test vehicles were launched in late 1961 and 1962 for the purpose of testing improved guidance systems and reenty vehicles for the A3. So even before POLARIS A2 became operational, POLARIS A3 design and component testing was underway.

Two POLARIS A1 missiles, AlX-50 and 51, were reconfigured for tests of an advanced TVC system based upon injection of high-density fluid (Freon 114) into the exit cone of the nozzle, creating a shock pattern and causing the main exhaust stream to deflect. On 29 September 1961, this system was successfully demonstrated during second stage flight and, after a second test 2 months later, was chosen as the baseline TVC system for the A3 second stage. The outstanding advantages of the fluid injection system were its low effective inert weight, its insensitivity to the propellant flame temperature, and the negligible constraint imposed on primary nozzle design. At this time, the rotatable nozzle concept was retained for the first stage.

Guidance required significant development with the systems weight and volume allocation set at less than half that allowed in the earlier A1 and A2 missiles. Increased component accuracy was also a requirement at the longer A3 ranges. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the new inertial instruments and a simplified computer mechanization, the proposed system was flown with excellent results on seven special A2 tests during a 1-year period, starting in November 1961.

An attempt was also made to obtain data on reentry vehicle materials. A special A2 flight test missile evaluated the nylon-phenolic ablative heat shield which had been selected following an extensive ground test program.

Also included in the innovations which provided the major gain in performance of the POLARIS A3 over the A2 were improvements in propellants, chamber materials, and alternate velocity control techniques. The first stage chamber material was changed from steel to high-strength resin-impregnated glass roving, and the propellants were changed to formulations with higher specific impulse and density. Another significant development was the replacement of the single warhead with three reentry vehicles at fixed spacings for more efficient target coverage and reduced vulnerability to possible defenses.

The first A3 flight test was conducted at Cape Canaveral on 7 August 1962. Considering the challenge and redesign involved in the development of the A3 missile, it was not until the seventh development flight that complete success was achieved. It was during the A3 development program that the concept of incorporating production components/processing was first introduced into the development phase of a program (A3X- 18) . (This approach was later to be called "production disciplines.")

During June 1963, the A3X was successfully tested for the first time in a tube-launched firing at sea from the USS Observation Island (EAG-154). The first launching of a POLARIS A3 missile from a submerged submarine, the USS Andrew Jackson (SSBN-619), took place on 26 October 1963.

The A3X flight test program started on 7 August 1962 and was completed on 2 July 1964. There were a total of 38 flights, of which 20 were successful, 16 partially successful, and 2 failures. Of the 20 successes, only 15 had successful reentry vehicle operation and ejection. It was only until the 15 A3X flights that the program began to have a continuous series of success.

The first stage at Aerojet was plagued, in early phases, by a most negative reaction between the propellant and the nozzles. The inability to retain a set of nozzles for full duration in static firings delayed the beginning of an examination of nozzle rotation. By using a "cooler" propellant ANP 9969 (about 6000 F flame temperature) and by beefing up the nozzles to massive proportions, using tungsten throats, the nozzle erosion problem could be solved, but at the loss of some 90 rim in range. A3X-14, which was launched from EAG-154, suffered "brain scrambling" of its guidance computer, resulting in early dumping of the missile (command destructed at 17 sec). This anomaly was given the code name of CLIP. The phenomenon was found to occur at the time of umbilical disconnect and to be generated at the missile/ground support interface.

The A3X Reentry System had a series of problems which required a major effort to correct. For one, the heatshield (between ES and reentry vehicle structure) lacked structural integrity. On A3X-33 it failed, no doubt due to the thermal environment created by the reentry vehicle rocket blasts, which were more severe than originally calculated. The severe environment was confirmed in heatshield tests at Rye Canyon, under simulated altitude conditions. Deriving from these and other tests, extensive modifications were made to the heatshield to make it stronger.

The POLARIS A3 missile became operational on 28 September 1964 when the USS Daniel Webster (SSBN-626) began her initial operational patrol with 16 A3 missiles. And another milestone was reached on 25 December 1964 when the USS Daniel Boone (SSBN-629) departed Apra Harbor, Guam and began the first Pacific Ocean operational patrol. With all the Eurasian land mass covered by the 2500-mile range of the POLARIS A3 missile, the FBM System became, for the first time, a true global deterrent.

The POLARIS (A3) Operational Test (OT) program which began in September 1965 had effectiveness results which were significantly less satisfactory than those of the A3 DASO. The POLARIS A3 OT program was suspended in January 1966 and on 17 March 1966, RADM Levering Smith (Director, SPO) convened a special A3 Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate. The Blue Ribbon Committee findings and recommendations were providedduring 29 August to 2 September 1966. Preparations to implement the recommendations were conducted between September and December 1966. The POLARIS A3 Blue Ribbon Phase II Recertification (corrective action implementation) program began at POMFLANT, Charleston, South Carolina, on all delivered/deployed A3 missiles in February 1967 and was completed prior to the start of the POLARIS A3T conversion program (October 1968). The POLARIS A3 OT program resumed in November 1967 with greatly improved results.

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Adm. Raborn Visits the Polaris Assembly Line

In the clip below from his September 1972 oral history interview at his home in Arlington, VA, Admiral Raborn discusses a visit to the assembly line for Polaris SLBM components at the Hughes Aircraft Company.

Admiral Raborn: We wanted to have an alternate supplier for the guidance package, which includes the inertial table and the electronics. So we chose to team Honeywell and Hughes Aircraft. Honeywell was to build the stable table, and Hughes to build electronics. Well, in due time, as was my custom, I made regular tours of the industry team who were making the parts and I went by Hughes and our old friend L. A. “Pat” Hyland — he’s still out there and running a good show — he said, "Would you like to see your work.?" I said, "Sure."

So we went down and there on this very large floor was a Block of about 300 girls working, and they, were in assembly lines making the electronics that were going on this small inertial table in the missile guidance. I noticed as I walked through the line, being escorted by the supervisor, who was a woman, that all the girls at the work. benches were dressed in red, white, and blue middy blouses and skirts, I remarked on this and said, "Why is this that they're all in this patriotic uniform?" And she said, "We're so proud to be a part of the Polaris family that we decided on our own that we’d go buy these and we wear them every Wednesday.”

I said, “Gee, but this is Thursday.” She said "Well, we heard you were coming." "So we wore them to show you how proud we are to be a part of the Polaris program!”

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Naval & Nautical Blog

Since the early postwar years, a naval strategic nuclear capability using carrier-launched bombers had existed, and by the mid-1950s this was being expanded by the addition of the A3D Skywarrior, with supersonic follow-on designs projected. However, the day of the manned bomber seemed to be waning, and the USN was increasingly interested in sea-based ballistic missiles.

Early studies on a sea-based IRBM had been conducted as part of the Jupiter program, the Navy having been mandated to work with the Army in the hopes of producing a common weapon system. The idea was basically unworkable, as basing the large, liquid-fueled Jupiter at sea would have been a nightmare, and in any case only a small number could be carried by freighters and large submarines. An attempt was made to combine parts of the Jupiter with the solid rocket motor technology of the day Jupiter-S, as the new concept was termed, would hardly have been much of an improvement, weighing in at a projected eighty tons and standing over forty feet tall. Really, the only holdover feature would be the Jupiter RV, as the S-model airframe would consist of a core solid motor that would serve as the second stage, this being surrounded by six first-stage motors. This was still not what the Navy was looking for, and by late 1956 the partnership with the Army was dissolved in favor of developing an all-new missile.

Planning for a more practical FBM system was made possible by several factors, all concerned with the miniaturization of components. More powerful solid fuels opened up the doorway to smaller missile airframes, which in turn could be fitted with lighter inertial guidance systems and new, smaller nuclear warheads. Such a weapon would be smaller than either Jupiter model, yet have equivalent range and firepower. This was the true genesis of the Polaris program, headed up by Admiral William F. Raburn, with the overall contract going to Lockheed.

A key requirement for the Polaris system was that the missiles be launched from underwater, thus vastly reducing the launch submarines' vulnerability. As igniting the first stage within the launch tube itself would destroy the submarine, it would be necessary to expel the weapon with a gas charge, ignition only taking place after reaching the surface. Surface test shots of dummy missiles were carried out at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, while underwater tests were conducted off San Clemente Island. The first underwater launching of a Polaris mockup took place on March 23, 1958.

While design work on the Polaris was still underway, key technologies for the program had to be demonstrated in flight. Solid motors were tested with small rocket firings from the California coast, but it was also necessary to show that the Polaris' jetavator thrust vectoring system would work. The nose cone designs also needed flight verification, and these would be the tasks of the Polaris Flight Test Vehicles, which were actually Lockheed X-17 research rockets. FTV firings began in January 1958, and showed that the jetavators worked later FTVs were successfully flown without the standard X-17 fins. The first real Polaris test article was situated at Cape Canaveral for the first test flight on September 24, 1958. Although the missile was launched, it self-destructed more than six miles overhead. Later test launches in the AX series fared little better, putting the program's future in jeopardy it would not be until the sixth flight that a success would be scored. The first Polaris launch from a vessel took place on August 27, 1959 the test ship USS Observation Island, a refitted former transport, stood out to sea off Cape Canaveral for the shot, which successfully flew 700 miles down the Atlantic Missile Range.

While work on the missile system itself went ahead at a driven pace, another potential bottleneck loomed, as there was no way that a launch submarine designed from a blank sheet of paper would be ready in time. There was, however, an alternative. Construction had just begun on the Skipjack class of nuclear attack submarines, these being the first SSNs to use the high-speed “teardrop” hull pioneered by the diesel powered USS Albacore. Adding a missile section to this design was practical, and the first of the resulting SSBNs could be ready in time, as many long-lead time components were already being built. Construction had actually begun on Scorpion, the second unit of the class when the order came through to stop work, with the boat being restarted as the USS George Washington (SSBN-598).

The “Georgefish's” sisters were built from the keels up as SSBNs, although they did appropriate materials intended for the later Skipjack boats. George Washington was commissioned on December 30, 1959. By mid-1967, the entire class would receive the Polaris A-3, but this would be the last major update to the missile battery installing Poseidon would have entailed a complete rebuild, which would not have been cost-effective.

Although the 900-mile ranges achieved by test missiles could be bettered by taking out nonoperational systems, it was admitted that the 1,500-mile range requirement was incompatible with a 1960 in-service date. Thus, the initial service, the UGM-27 A1, would only be an interim model pending deployment of a more developed missile.

Despite the obstacles that had faced the program, Polaris would indeed go into service in 1960 as planned. The first submarine launchings, fraught with anticipation, were conducted down the AMR by the George Washington on July 20, 1960. Both shots were successful, and in November of that year SSBN-598 set off on the first operational FBM patrol.

At first, the Soviets had no direct counterpart to the Polaris system, as their contemporaneous Hotel SSBNs and Golf SSBs could only fire short-ranged SLBMs from the surface. It would not be until the late 1960s that the Project 667 Navaga/Nalim (NATO Yankee) class SSBNs would enter service these had the same general configuration as the Polaris boats, although the Soviet SS-N-6 Sawfly SLBMs used storable liquid fuel. Polaris A-2 and A-3 models replaced the A1s fairly rapidly, and the last UGM-27As were withdrawn in 1965.

The first improved version of the Polaris, the UGM-27B A2 model had actually been started well before the A1 had been put into service, as part of the effort to reach Soviet targets from further out at sea. A2 resembled the UGM-27A, and had an identical diameter, but was thirty inches longer thanks to a stretch of the first stage. The boost of the A2's range to 1,700 miles was due both to this increase in first-stage propellant, and a new second stage with high-energy fuel within a lightweight fiberglass housing an alternative metal design had also been looked at. The second stage jetavators were also replaced by a rotating nozzle design.

The UGM-27B/A-2 flight test program began with a pad launch on November 10, 1960. A sea launch was conducted from Observation Island on March 2, 1961, and the first firing from a submarine, Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) occurred on October 23, 1961.

In order to maximize the time spent at sea, each Polaris boat would have dual crews (Blue and Gold) that would take turns deploying their subs on strategic patrols. However, even with the double crew system, allowances had to be made for boats to be unavailable for refits, and each time this happened, sixteen warheads would not be available. Ultimately, it was decided that a total of forty-one SSBNs would be bought - the “Forty-One For Freedom” as the buy was nicknamed. This would allow a substantial number to be on patrol at any given time. Overseas bases at Guam and Holy Loch, Scotland would also allow subs to spend less time in transit to and from their patrol areas.

While the George Washingtons were building, work was underway on a new, purpose-designed SSBN, the Ethan Allen class, which would be armed with the A2. The basic configuration remained the same, but the Ethan Allens were longer and heavier, as they were based on the Thresher-class SSNs, which used an elongated variation of the teardrop hull form.

Polaris A2 will probably go down in history as the only American ballistic missile to be operationally tested with a live nuclear warhead. Although Thors and Redstones had lofted weapons as part of tests, the Polaris test, codenamed Frigate Bird, and part of the Dominic series of tests, was intended to be an operational evaluation of an armed SLBM. Frigate Bird was conducted using Ethan Allen as the launch platform, and on May 6 1962 a single missile was fired at a target spot near Christmas Island in the Pacific.

Despite the arrival of the A3 model, A2 served for more than a decade, not being finally retired until late 1974. Some A2 launches were used to test features and technologies slated for the A3 system.

The ultimate Polaris model, the UGM-27C A3 bettered the original range requirement substantially, being able to hit targets 2,500 miles away. Achieving this increased range with a missile no longer or wider than the A2 meant that significant weight reductions would have to be made. Both A3 stages would have glassfiber motor casings, and the guidance electronics were made smaller and lighter. The A2's first stage jetavators were replaced by a rotating nozzle design, while the second stage used fluid injection for steering. The “front end” was entirely new, as A3 was the first US ballistic missile to have multiple warheads. The three Mk2 RVs, each with a W58 200kt warhead, had to be delivered into one general target area and hence were not MIRVs, but could ensure the destruction of large cities and other spread-out targets.

The first submarine firing of an A3 took place on October 26, 1963 from the USS Andrew Jackson. This boat was one of the Lafayette class, which was closely based on the Ethan Allen type, although the later boats were slightly longer and heavier. Nineteen “standard” Lafayettes were built, followed by a dozen improved boats sometimes known as the Benjamin Franklin class. The first-generation American SSBN force was complete by July 1967, when the 41st Polaris submarine, the USS Will Rogers, fired an A-3 in preparation for her first patrol that fall.

Polaris remained in USN service into the 1970s, although by the end of the decade only the oldest SSBNs were still fitted for the older missile. The end was not far off, however, as the older boats were now reaching the twenty-year mark, and were running out of hull life. There were proposals to use the Polaris tubes as Tomahawk launchers, but the new weapon's service introduction was too far off to make this practical. Polaris finally ended its service with the US in 1982, when the Robert E. Lee offloaded her missiles. The -598s were kept in service for a time as SSNs, but were not suitable for use as frontline combatants given their age and design, being used instead mainly for training. Even this use was short-lived, as the class soon went into mothballs George Washington herself was the last of the 598s to go, being decommissioned in 1985. A few launches of surplus A3s as targets for missile defense tests have occurred, with the former SLBMs having been refitted under the STARS (Strategic Target System) designation.

Although the Royal Navy had been interested in Polaris from early on, no concrete action on procuring the system had taken place until the Nassau Conference, where Harold MacMillan opted for buying Polaris rather than proceeding with a British-only Skybolt. Under the terms of the deal, the US was to provide only the missiles, leaving construction of the warheads and launch submarines to the UK. This would allow the British to retain national control over the weapons (although planning would be coordinated with the US) while the American side could claim that there had been no export of nuclear arms. In reality, the British Polaris front-ends used American-built RVs, and the warheads themselves are said to have been based on the W-58 to save the cost and development time needed to procure a new design.

France was offered a similar deal, but President Charles de Gaulle formally turned it down early in 1963. Rebuffed by the US years earlier when it had sought nuclear gravity bombs for use at Dien Bien Phu, France had by the early 1960s settled on building its own independent triad of bombers, IRBMs, and missile submarines, although only the first part of this force would be in service before the 1970s. Even with the French refusal of a Polaris deal, there were still serious plans to export further missiles to the NATO alliance for deployment in Western Europe. The Multi-Lateral Force (MLF) concept would have put 200 Polaris A3s to sea aboard surface vessels crewed by multinational NATO crews. A total of 25 destroyer-class ships would be built new for the role, and the Italians actually demonstrated the hardware side of things, taking the old heavy cruiser Guiseppe Garibaldi and putting four Polaris tubes in the place of her ripped-out aftermost gun turret, the other aft mount giving way to a Terrier launcher. MLF never materialized, Garibaldi never operated with SLBMs, and plans for road-mobile Polaris derivatives for NATO basing also came to naught.

As the third nation to employ nuclear submarines, the UK was well able to build its own SSBN force, although the boats would incorporate some US technology. Just as the American Skipjack class formed the basis for the George Washington SSBNs, the British used their Valiant-class attack sub design as a springboard to the Resolution-class SSBN. In terms of overall dimensions, the Resolutions were all but identical to the American Lafayettes, although the British boats were slightly heavier and had their dive planes fitted to the forward part of the hull. Original plans called for five Resolutions, but the major defense cutbacks instituted by the Labour Government in 1965 kept the fifth boat from being completed. The return of the Conservative Party to power in the early 1970s would briefly revive hopes of going ahead with a fifth boat as well as a Poseidon refit for the existing subs, but these programs would not be carried out.

Even as the Resolutions were entering service, the UK Polaris force was facing a potent threat to its viability, namely the development of Soviet ABM defenses. The USN was responding to this problem by developing the MIRVed Poseidon missile, but although the Royal Navy subs could have been refitted with the larger weapon, fiscal restraints vetoed proposals to do this. The UK also had the major disadvantage of an SSBN force that was less than one-tenth the size of that of the US with only four boats, only one could be counted on to be on station at any given moment. Clearly, barring the procurement of new missiles or additional submarines, neither of which was likely, a means had to be found to maximize the effectiveness of the existing Polaris system.

By the early 1970s, the Royal Navy had embarked on the Chevaline program to produce a new Polaris front-end. Chevaline actually resulted in the lowering of the number of warheads available, as one warhead per missile was sacrificed to make room for dummy RVs and other penetration aids. The warheads themselves are believed to have been rebuilt as well. Chevaline is thought to have started flight testing in 1977 with a pad launch from Cape Canaveral like their US Navy counterparts, the British SSBNs conducted Polaris launches down the AMR.

By the time that the Chevaline program was nearing completion, the missile airframes themselves were hitting the twenty-year mark, and as Trident was still some time away, a program to rehabilitate the motors was carried out. Given the relatively low number of warheads that were available, and their unsuitability for attacking hardened targets, its seems entirely probable that the British Polaris fleet was tasked with holding major cities at risk in the case of a concentrated strike on a single area, for example, a salvo of missiles could have been fired in short succession to overload any ABM defenses encountered.

The Resolutions were formally decommissioned between 1992 and 1996, although several had essentially been out of service before this. The Royal Navy finally retired Polaris in May 1996 with the offloading of HMS Repulse, the boat then being decommissioned in August of that year. As of 2000, the Resolutions were still in existence as hulks at Faslane.

Magazine Articles
“Boost for Polaris” Aviation WeekOctober 28, 1957 p.30

“Polaris Begins Underwater Tests” Aviation Week November 4, 1957 p.34

“Compressed Air to Shoot Polaris From Submarine to Surface” Aviation Week April 21, 1958 p.31 3

“Polaris Test Vehicle Launched” Aviation Week May 19, 1958 p.28 2 illustrations

Photo Sequence: Launch at Cape Canaveral of Polaris test vehicle. All Hands January 1959.

“Missile-Firing Sub” U.S. News & World Report October 5, 1959 p.4 1 illustration (USS Patrick Henry launching)

Photo: Polaris U.S. News & World Report December 14, 1959 p.45

William S. Reed “Lockheed Trims Polaris Vehicle’s Weight” Aviation Week February 8, 1960 p.52-59 4 illustrations

“Polaris A1X14 Test Vehicle Flies 900mi.” Aviation Week April 4, 1960 1 illustration

“Navy: Is Polaris Warhead Too Weak For Its Job” U.S. News & World Report July 11, 1960 p.40

Photo: Polaris U.S. News & World Report July 11, 1960 p.41

Edward H. Kolcum “First Polaris Launched From Submarine” Aviation WeekJuly 25, 1960 p.32-33

“Navy Asks Evolution of 2,500 mi. Polaris” Aviation Week August 1, 1960 p.27

“A New Weapon Enters the U.S. Arsenal” U.S. News & World Report August 1, 1960 p.58 two illustrations.

“Polaris Test Vehicle Destroyed After Flying Off Planned Course” Aviation WeekAugust 8, 1960 p.34

Photo: “Polaris Fired From Submarine” Aviation Week August 15, 1960 cover

“Navy Fires Polaris IRBM From Submarine” Aviation Week August 15, 1960 p.81 Four illustrations.

“Polaris A2X Readied For First Firing” Aviation Week October 3, 1960 p.37-38

Photo: Polaris launch U.S. News & World Report October 3, 1960 p.75

“Navy Plans to Begin Polaris A2 Testing” Aviation WeekNovember 7, 1960 p.27

“U.S. Gets A Polaris Sub Base Abroad” U.S. News & World ReportNovember 14, 1960 p.14 3 illustrations.

“Polaris Sub Heads For Sea Duty” Aviation Week November 21, 1960 p.29 1 illustration

“A New Era In Warfare” U.S. News & World Report November 28, 1960 p.6 2 illustrations (SSBN)

“Atom Sub Launched - As Pacifists Protest” U.S. News & World ReportDecember 5, 1960 p.16 1 illustration (USS Ethan Allen launching)

[Photo: Polaris launch] U.S. News & World Report January 23, 1961 p.62

Photo: Polaris & SSBN U.S. News & World Report January 23, 1961 p.63

“With The Polaris On Guard Near Russia” U.S. News & World ReportFebruary 13, 1961 p.48-49 5 illustrations

[Photo: Polaris] Aviation Week March 13, 1961 p.181

Photo: USS Patrick Henry U.S. News & World Report March 20, 1961 p.14

“Navy Plans to propose Sea Scout Again” Aviation Week April 10, 1961 p.27

“Polaris Mk.1 Inertial Guidance Package” Aviation Week May 22, 1961 p.85 1 illustration

Photo: Polaris U.S. News & World Report June 26, 1961 p.51

“’Early Spring ‘ Progress” Aviation Week July 17, 1961 p.38

Photo: SSBN advertisement Aviation Week & Space Technology August 7, 1961 p.20

“Underwater Launch Stand Installed” Aviation Week & Space TechnologyAugust 14, 1961 p.93 2 illustrations

“Problems May Cut Polaris A3 Range Goal” Aviation Week September 4, 1961 p.31

“Lockheed Polaris A-3 Tests Slated” Aviation Week & Space TechnologyApril 2, 1962 p.23

“First Polaris A3 Test Is Partly Successful” Aviation Week & Space Technology August 13, 1962 p.29 1 illustration

“Submerged Sub Fires Polaris A-3” Aviation Week & Space TechnologyNovember 4, 1963 p.32

“A-3 Firing From Sub Shown” Aviation Week & Space Technology November 11, 1963 p.33

"Anti-Satellite Polaris Being Developed" Aviation Week & Space Technology September 28, 1964 p.18-19

“Air Force Cites Good Test Data In First STAFF System Flight” Aviation Week & Space Technology April 19, 1965 p.36 1 illustration

Photos: Polaris A1/A2/A3X-0 advertisement Aviation Week & Space TechnologyApril 19, 1965 p.56

"Polarisville, U.S.A." All Hands September 1965. Article on the USN base at Charleston includes photos of USS Proteus (AS-19) being refitted, SSBN receiving a Polaris tube lining, and Polaris Missile Facility Atlantic (POMFLANT) training facilities for FBM crews.

“The Navy Fires a Dummy Polaris From an Underwater ‘Pop-Up’ Launcher” The New York Times April 12, 1958 p.1 2 illustrations

“Missile Launcher Simulates A Ship” The New York Times October 11, 1958 p.14

“Polaris Is Launched From a Ship at Sea” The New York Times August 28, 1959 p.1 c.8

Hanson W. Baldwin 𔄚 Polaris Missiles Fired By Submerged Submarine Hit Mark 1,150 Miles Off” The New York Times July 21, 1960 p.1 c.1 2 illustrations

𔄙,300-Mile Flight Sets Polaris Mark” The New York Times August 5, 1960 p.8 c.6

“Polaris Rocket Tests Begin” The New York Times November 18, 1966 p.34 c.1

Hanson W. Baldwin “A Perfect Polaris Shot Ends a Missile Chapter” The New York Times August 1, 1967


Polaris, named after the North Star, was a two-stage ballistic missile powered by solid-fuel rocket motors and controlled by a self-contained inertial guidance system. It was designed to be launched from a submerged submarine. On July 20, 1960, Polaris became the first ballistic missile to be launched from a submarine under water. (In 1942, Germany had successfully test-fired mortar rounds from partially submerged mortar tubes, but no missile had ever been launched from a submerged submarine.) A second A1 Polaris missile was fired three hours later, demonstrating that multiple wartime missile launches were feasible. The Polaris program was the culmination of an intensive four-year program by the Department of the Navy.

There were three versions of the Polaris, designated A1, A2, and A3. Each modification of the missile improved its range, accuracy, target flexibility, and throw weight. Polaris was launched from three classes of fleet ballistic missile nuclear-propelled submarines (SSBNs): the George Washington class, the Ethan Allen class, and the Lafayette class. The first Polaris A2 launch occurred on October 23, 1961, and the first Polaris A3 launch took place on October 26, 1963. Polaris A1 had an initial range of 1,200 nautical miles, and the A2 missile had a range of 1,500 nautical miles. Polaris A1 and A2 carried a single nuclear warhead, and the Polaris A3 carried multiple but not independently targetable warheads. On May 6, 1962, a nuclear-armed Polaris A1 was launched from the USS Ethan Allen while submerged in the Pacific, and its nuclear warhead was detonated over the South Pacific on target. This 1962 launch and nuclear weapon detonation remains the only complete proof test of a U. S. strategic missile ever conducted. The A2 missile became operational in 1962 when it was first deployed on the USS Ethan Allen. The A1 missile was retired in 1965, and the A2 was retired from service in 1974.

The Polaris A3 represented a significantly greater technological advance over Polaris A2, and with an approximately 85 percent new design, it was practically an entirely new missile. With a range of 2,500 nautical miles, it had the ability to reach any land target on the Earth. It also was the only Polaris missile to be equipped with multiple (three) reentry bodies, which were initially intended to serve as a way to penetrate primitive Soviet missile defenses. The first flight test of the A3 was conducted in August 1962, and the A3 became operational in September 1964 when the USS Daniel Webster began its initial operational patrol with sixteen A3s aboard. All Polaris A3 missiles were retired by the U. S. Navy when the last U. S. Polaris SSBN offloaded in February 1982.

The term “Polaris” also is used to describe the submarine on which the Polaris ballistic missiles were deployed. The Polaris submarine was 380 feet long with a 33-foot beam and weighed 6,700 tons. It was designated the 598 class and later the 608 class. There were five submarines in each class. The last Polaris A3 SSBN was reclassified as a nonstrategic submarine and eventually retired from service in 1983.

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