Regulus from Surface Ships

by Norman Polmar

In the mid-1950s, zero-length launchers for the Regulus I surface-to-surface missile were provided to four heavy cruisers and to six aircraft carriers with each ship carrying several missiles. This would provide cruisers with a nuclear strike capability and increase the nuclear strike capabilities of carriers.

The cruisers could accommodate three Regulus I or two Regulus II missiles; additional missiles could be carried if pre-loading “marriage” of the warhead and missile were accepted (as was done in Regulus-equipped submarines). The Regulus missiles could be stowed below decks in the large stern hangar of the cruisers, originally provided for floatplanes for gunnery spotting and scouting. The first Regulus launch from a cruiser occurred on February 15, 1955, from the cruiser USS Los Angeles (CA-135).

The Regulus could be launched with preset guidance to guide the missile to specific coordinates, or under the “real-time” the command of surface ships or submerged submarines using the “Trounce” system. In the first joint cruiser-submarine Regulus operation, on November 19, 1957, the cruiser USS Helena (CA-75) launched a Regulus missile and guided it for 112 nautical miles; the fleet submarine USS Cusk (SS-348) then assumed guidance control for 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers); the guidance was then given over to the submarine USS Carbonero (SS-337), which guided the missile for the last 90 nautical miles to its target. The missile landed about 150 yards of the target point. The CEP (Circular Error Probable) for the Regulus I was reported to be 300 yards in a 1957 Navy evaluation.

Beyond the several heavy cruisers fitted to carry the Regulus I missile, several new construction cruisers and older ships being converted to surface-to-air missile cruisers were planned for Regulus II installation. These included the nuclear-propelled cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN-9). Cancellation of the Regulus II ended that plan.

In the 1950s, 12 attack carriers were planned to carry the nuclear-armed Regulus missile: Three of the super carriers of the USS Forrestal (CVA-59)-class, the three large carriers of the USS Midway (CVA-41)-class, and six smaller USS Essex (CVA-9)-class ships. In the end, only the six Essex-class ships were actually fitted with Regulus although the larger USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42) and USS Saratoga (CVA-60) also launched Regulus missiles. The missiles were later removed from the carriers as the A-3D Skywarrior and A-4D Skyhawk attack aircraft—both developed specifically for the nuclear strike role—became available in large numbers.

There were advocates of a much larger Regulus program. For example, George Fielding Eliot, then dean of American military correspondents, in 1958 published a small volume entitled Victory Without War 1958-1961. The book, published by the semi-official U.S. Naval Institute, advocated the procurement of massive numbers of Regulus II missiles, whose range he wrote could be extended to 2,000 miles, and placed aboard aircraft carriers:

“Let us imagine 20 of these missiles grouped on a Forrestal-class carrier, ready to be fired from her four steam catapults—five missiles to each catapult. Each group of five missiles is programmed for a different target. The rate of fire can be as fast as one missile from each catapult every two minutes.

The logistics of the Regulus system is not complicated. We can, during 1958, take three older carriers from the reserve fleet (the Boxer, Franklin, and Bunker Hill) and fit them as missile transports. These ships have the speed, fuel capacity, and sea-keeping qualities to accompany task forces in all weather conditions. Each missile transport could provide stowage for as many as 400 Regulus II missiles. Each [carrier] could operate from her flight deck a number of helicopters which could be used to deliver the missiles to the [attack] carriers as the tactical situation might require.

A further growth factor of sea-based striking power might be gained by fitting the missile transports themselves with one or two steam catapults apiece, which would give them an attack capability of their own.”

Cancellation of the Regulus II missile—primarly to help fund the Polaris program—led to removal of the Regulus I missiles from cruisers and carriers as well as submarines. There was no nuclear-capable weapon provided to the former ships.

Editor’s note: This article is based on Mr. Polmar’s recently published book Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events—Volume II, 1946—2006 (Potomac Books, 2008). Also see David K. Stumpf, Regulus: The Forgotten Weapon (Turner Publishing, 1996).

image, USS Growler (SSG-577)
(Above)Launching Regulus from USS Princeton (CVS-37) at sea.
U.S. Navy photo.
(Right)Regulus I shot from from USS Hancock (CVA-19).
U.S. Navy photo.
image, USS Growler (SSG-577)

Mr. Polmar is a noted naval analyst and author based n Washington, D.C.


image of the cover