The U.S.S. George Washington
(SSBN-598) was the U.S. (and the world's) first operational Ballistic Missile nuclear submarine. Most of us (well, fine, many of us) have grown up with the knowledge that somewhere out at sea live a large number of nuclear weapons on constant watch, this ship was the first to set sail on such a mission. Other than a few weeks of the first year of her operational life, when she was in port between patrols, the United States has always
had at least one ballistic missile submarine
on patrol, playing what has become perhaps the most deadly sober game of hide-and-seek the world has ever seen.
The George Washington didn't begin life as a hidden missile platform. The submarines that would bear her hull number as their class designation (the 598 boats) were the result of a crash program called the Fleet Ballistic Missile program, begun in 1957. The U.S. Navy, for a myriad of reasons, began that year to aggressively pursue a naval strategic nuclear weapon platform. Partially motivated by a need to remain 'relevant' in a world that seemed, more and more, to be dominated by aircraft and missiles, the Navy was also eager to retain operational independence in the shadow of impending consolidation of the strategic mission under 'umbrella' organizations such as SAC. Finally, there was a great deal of budget floating about earmarked for ballistic missile programs, and like any red-blooded military organization the U.S. Navy wasn't going to let that opportunity slip by.
In 1957, the SECDEF authorized the creation of a new office within the Navy, the Special Projects Office (SPO). To head it, he chose a bull-headed charger of a Rear Admiral named William "Red" Raborn. RAdm. Raborn cudgeled his new crew into high gear; the Navy needed a strategic weapons platform ASAP, and it was his job to get it for them. Once it had ben determined that the submarine was the best candidate for such a job, a sub-group (sorry) of the team went to work on what a missile-carrying version would look like.
They were constrained by circumstance and liberated by timing. The crucial components of the long-duration submarine had recently fallen into place under the harsh and demanding leadership of Adm. Hyman Rickover - the nuclear reactor for propulsion, the teardrop hull for performance, and the installation of electrolytic oxygen generators that the limitless electric power of the onboard reactor made possible. From a technology standpoint, they were most of the way to their goal - that of the submarine component of the system.
The problem was that the process of designing and building an entirely new ship, especially one whose type had only been invented less than fifteen years earlier, was a process that could easily consume more time than they had and certainly all of their available resources. As a result, for a time the 'Platform' group had (as a backup, and at times, as a primary plan when things looked bleak) a reserve option. They investigated and did preliminary design work on taking a 'containerized' version of the missile that their colleagues in the SPO and the defense industry were busy designing, and rather than emplacing it on a submarine, retrofitting it (container and all) into an existing U.S. naval vessel - most likely a cruiser.
Their liberation came when a few very bright engineers realized two things. One, the differences between their notional missile submarine and those nuclear submarines currently being built as hunter-killers were limited really to one self-contained section of the boat - the one holding the missiles and launch systems. Furthermore, Adm. Rickover had created a culture of overengineering in the name of safety; as a result, the attack submarines presently under construction were mostly able to handle the extra mass and internal volume systems required to house the new systems.
Consequently, the U.S. Navy command was pressed to 'abort' the construction of one of its new Skipjack class SSNs. This boat, whose keel had already been laid down as the U.S.S. Scorpion, was redesignated as the first SSBN. The keel was cut roughly in half, and the designs altered to accept an additional 130-foot section between the control and navigation areas (forward, with the sail) and the nuclear reactor spaces aft. This section contained the sixteen launch tubes, each containing a pre-packaged Polaris missile. The sight of the sixteen multi-deck cylinders hulking in the midst of the boat gave rise to the nickname Sherwood Forest - a name that survives for the missile rooms of submarines to this day.
Although the George Washington was the only boat to actually require retrofitting, four more boats were laid down with the same design before a purpose-built missile submarine design was complete and put into production. There were a few differences between the new SSBNs and their SSN brethren. For example, the SSBN needed to be able to pinpoint, with extreme accuracy, her position at every moment in order to be able to accurately target her missiles. As a result, the 598 boats were among the first ships to carry a full Ships' Inertial Navigation System or SINS - a set of gyroscopes on a stabilized platform which allowed the submarine to accurately record her accelerations in all dimensions and hence construct her position. While gyrocompasses had been in use for many years, this was the first time a ship was able to keep a positional log based purely on the mathematical integration of vector changes.
While the George Washington and her sisters were not intended to enter combat, they retained the 533mm torpedo armament they had inherited from the Skipjacks. Although their running gear was identical, lessons learned in the operation of these early "boomers" led to the quieting of propulsion systems even further, as well as the much more purposed design of following missile boats.
SSBN-598 was ready for launch not even three years after the initial 'go' for the Polaris program - a feat which even in those days was remarkable, and which today (with five-year build times, never mind design time, for a modern CVN) is practically unbelievable. On November 15th, 1960, the U.S.S. George Washington departed her home port of Charleston, SC on a scheduled 'exercise' - only to submerge quietly and not return for 30 days. The U.S. Navy had just undertaken its first strategic nuclear deterrent patrol - and less than five months later, the SSBN-599 U.S.S. Patrick Henry slipped out of port to join her sister at sea. A year later, the Henry became the first U.S. SSBN to moor at Holy Loch, Scotland alongside the U.S.S. Proteus, a new submarine tender, and make Scotland her 'home away from home.'
The George Washington and her four '598 boat' sisters carried the Polaris A1 missile to sea for the U.S. for five years - and after that time, all five returned to port for overhaul, where they were upgraded to the new Polaris A3 missile, with a longer range and greater payload. They would continue to serve, with occasional upgrades, through the 1980s. In the early 1980s, these first five submarines were retired from the SSBN fleet. However, they were not yet done serving; the George Washington ("G.W."), the SSBN-599 Patrick Henry("Pat Henry") and the SSBN-601 Abraham Lincoln ("Honest Abe") were taken back into the shipyard, where the 130-foot section added in such great haste by the SPO was removed from their frames. Refueled, refurbished and rejoined, these three boats served as SSNs for a few years before finally being retired from service, being struck from Naval lists on January 24th, 1985. The first of her kind, she was also the last of the 598 class to retire.
The sail of the GW remains on display at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, CT, where her younger sisters still quietly ply the channel out to sea on their routine way to play their deadly serious game, month after month, year after year.
Her name, a proud one in the U.S. Navy
, was not permitted to remain idle; in 1994(?) the CVN-73 USS George Washington
, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier
, was accepted onto the rolls.