By Mary Ryan, Curator, U.S. Naval Undersea Museum
Imagine working for years to design and build something you hope fervently never to use. The U.S. Navy does just that with the nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles that form the foundation of the Navy’s strategic deterrence program. Deterrence strategy aims to prevent a possible nuclear attack by demonstrating the ability to retaliate. To be credible, a deterrent must work exactly as promised; but should one ever be used, deterrence has failed.
In a few weeks, the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum will open a large new exhibit, “Preserving Peace: The Navy’s Strategic Deterrence Program,” that tells the story of this program from its beginnings in the 1950s through today’s modernization efforts. The program’s rich history made developing an exhibit with wide interest and appeal as easy task. The permanent new exhibit weaves together many topics and themes, from Cold War history and missile and submarine technology, to feel-good stories of success against all odds and the personal experiences of submariners who carry out deterrence patrols.
The Cold War transformed nuclear weapons into the symbol of a country’s might, military prowess, and technological capability. As tensions between the United States and Soviet Union escalated in the 1950s, the two superpowers began stockpiling nuclear arsenals. This arms race drove the creation and evolution of sea-based strategic deterrence.
Between 1956 and 1990, the Navy’s Special Projects Office (today Strategic Systems Programs) brought six generations of ballistic missiles to life: Polaris A1 (1960–1965), Polaris A2 (1962–1974), Polaris A3 (1964–1979), Poseidon (C3) (1971–1992), Trident I (C4) (1979–2005), and Trident II (D5) (1990–present). New generations introduced technological advances that made fleet ballistic missiles more powerful. With relatively minor changes in size, the Special Projects Office significantly increased missile accuracy, range, and warhead capability.
Creating an effective sea-based deterrent also meant designing the submarine to launch them. The Special Projects Office fashioned the first ballistic missile submarine, USS George Washington (SSBN 598), by inserting a missile compartment into the middle of a fast attack submarine. In the span of eight years, the Navy built five classes of Polaris submarines (many were later converted for Poseidon missiles) that carried out deterrence patrols between 1960 and 1993. These 41 submarines, named for prominent historical figures, came to be known as the “41 for Freedom.” The 1980s and 1990s brought the newest generation of ballistic missile subs: the mammoth, 560-foot-long Ohio-class.
Although the Cold War ended in 1991, Navy strategic deterrence continues in full force. In September 2014, the Submarine Force celebrated the completion of 4,000 strategic deterrence patrols, a significant milestone that translates to an average of 71 patrols carried out each year since 1960. Navy leadership has written eloquently about the importance of maintaining strategic deterrence capabilities in today’s uncertain world. The Navy is also looking ahead to the future of sea-based deterrence with the Trident (D5) Life Extension Program and the Ohio-class Replacement Program.
Interest piqued? “Preserving Peace: The Navy’s Strategic Deterrence Program” opens August 19 at the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum. Explore the full story and discover how strategic deterrence succeeds every day in accomplishing its sole goal of preserving peace.