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(Above) A missile canister is lowered into place over the hull of
George Washington(SSBN-598) at a pier in Charleston, S.C. U.S. Navy Photo.

George Washington was the U.S. Navy’s first SSBN and, with her inception, submarines became a vital linchpin in the nuclear triad. Ballistic missile submarines’ groundbreaking capabilities would forever transform the U.S.’s land, air, and maritime forces. With George Washington’s entry into service in December 1959, the U.S. Navy instantly gained a powerful deterrence weapon — a stealth platform with enormous nuclear firepower.

As the first SSBN, George Washington’s innovative concept and capabilities advanced U.S. Navy ballistic missile systems, paved the way for the rotating two-crew concept, foreshadowed the model of forward presence as a key part of U.S. maritime strategy, and laid the ground work for our present day SSBN to guided missile submarine (SSGN) conversions.

The third ship named after the first U.S. president and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army embodied the ideals put forth by her namesake. George Washington believed as early as the Revolutionary War that, “In any operations, and under all circumstances a decisive Naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend.” The words of General Washington remain true for today’s maritime strategy and were perhaps most realized in the capabilities of his third namesake vessel.

Electric Boat Co., in Groton, Conn., began construction on George Washington — originally an attack submarine named Scorpion — in 1957. However, the name changed when the Navy inserted a 130-foot missile section aft of the bow and finished George Washington as the lead ship in the class of SSBNs. Mrs. Robert B. Anderson helped commission the boat on Dec. 30, 1959. In total, George Washington had a length of 381.6 feet, beam of 33.1 feet, draft of 28.9 feet and a displacement of approximately 6,700 tons submerged. She carried 16 vertical tubes for Polaris A-1 missiles and six 21 inch torpedo tubes. Her crew of 12 officers and 128 enlisted men would assert the U.S.’s new strategic mission of nuclear deterrence from under the sea.

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(Above left) The first U.S. ballistic missile submarine, USS George Washington(SSBN-598) was converted to a missile
submarine with the insertion of a 130-foot section. (Above right) USS
George Washington(SSBN-598) under construction.
Photos by General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Missile System Advancement

Nearly two decades before George Washington’s conception the English author, Herbert George (H.G.) Wells, predicted the development of “long-range air torpedoes with directional apparatus” that would forever change the shape of conventional warfare. The first successful tests of a submarine-based launch platform for guided missiles occurred in Germany on U-boats during World War II with German V1 rockets. This new era of guided missiles encouraged the U.S. Navy to develop the Regulus guided cruise missile program.

The Regulus program was initially successful. However, after its implementation, the Navy quickly discovered a major drawback of the missile launch system. In order to launch a Regulus missile, the submarine needed to surface and remain surfaced during the launch. Unfortunately, submarines were very vulnerable to attacks during surface launches, and could not launch a fully or partially fueled missile on deck without serious hazards to the safety of the crew and the boat. Therefore, in 1959 the U.S. Navy asked Lockheed (currently Lockheed Martin) to begin developing the Polaris — two-stage solid-fuel nuclear-armed, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) — that would replace the Regulus missile on Navy submarines.

George Washington and her Polaris missiles provided a novel stealth capability. She was the first submarine that could remain submerged and safely hidden from reconnaissance satellites during launch. At the time, this nearly guaranteed her immunity from a first or retaliatory strike.

George Washington was equipped with the first version of the Polaris A-1 missiles. Polaris A-1s were two-stage solid propellant missiles developed years ahead of schedule under the leadership of Rear Adm. W. F. Raborn (“Red” — who would later become the seventh director of the Central Intelligence Agency). A-1s had a length of 28.5 feet, a body diameter of 54 in., and a launch weight of 28,800 lbs. A-1s had a range of 1,200 nautical miles, a Mk 1 re-entry vehicle, and carried a single W-47-Y1 600kT nuclear warhead with an inertial guidance system that provided a circular error probability of 6000 ft.

On July 20, 1960, George Washington conducted the first submerged launch of the Polaris A-1 missile system at the Atlantic Missile Test Range in Cape Canaveral, Fla., with Rear Adm. Raborn on board as an observer. Following the successful launch, at 12:39 p.m., George Washington’s commanding officer sent U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower notification of this historic achievement. Less than two hours later, another missile from the submerged submarine successfully launched on another impact area 1,100 miles down range. George Washington helped to forever tilt the scales of nuclear strike capability in America’s favor.

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