Development of the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile










Throughout history, navies have made significant impacts in the technological development of human kind. These impacts range from improvements in metal technologies made while perfecting the cannon to the advent of cybernetics, which allowed more precise targeting of weaponry. One of the more sophisticated developments in naval history has been the invention of the submarine. The submarine was born in 1620 as a leather-covered rowboat built by Cornelius Drebbel. After Robert Fulton came up with a more modern prototype in 1800, the military advantages of a nearly invisible warship were quickly divined. However, they remained unrealized for quite a while. Although Fulton probably foresaw that his invention would be used for war, he hardly could have envisioned it launching projectiles with the capability to level entire countries. However, after a series of innovations in nuclear missile and submarine designs, the submarine-launched ballistic missile has become an integral part of our naval weapons arsenal.
To understand the need for the development of nuclear missile submarines, there is a need to examine the political climate of the world in the era after World War II. The realignment of the superpowers after the war resulted in a unique situation. The two major naval powers of the day, Great Britain and the United States, were now allied against the greatest land power in history in the Soviet Union. In the period from 1955 to 1965, the advantage was heavily in favor of the U.S. As the United States had developed the atomic and hydrogen bombs first, they obviously gained a head start which developed into a decisive nuclear advantage. This advantage acted as an effective deterrent to any Soviet movement into Western Europe. However, as the Soviet nuclear arsenal expanded (mostly during the Kennedy administration), it became necessary to effect a balance in the area of conventional warfare or to make more inroads in nuclear weapons development. Before this could be accomplished, however, advancements in submarine technology had to made as well.
The submarines of World War II, although effective in their roles, were rather primitive. A noisy, slow, shallow-diving sub would hardly be a capable missile submarine as it could be easily detected and destroyed. Even so, before the end of the war, there were intelligence reports in America that the German Navy had developed a U-boat capable of towing or carrying V-2 rockets to launch sites near the U.S. east coast. Although these reports turned out to be false, the Germans had been developing a type of submersible barge to tow V-2s. This scare prompted the American development of ballistic missile submarines.
Experiments in submarine design had concentrated mainly on improving the quality of power plants (usually diesel or electric engines), achieving better maneuverability through new hull designs, and developing quieter propulsion systems that achieved better top speeds. A nuclear reactor power plant would meet all of these objectives, but the development of a nuclear-powered submarine was not without obstacles. As the U.S. and the Soviet Union expanded their land-based nuclear arsenals, the weapons-grade uranium needed for missiles was becoming quite scarce. In America, the Air Force actually fought against using nuclear material for Naval submarine reactors, as it would cut into the production of the nuclear missiles that they controlled. After the USSR leveled the playing field by expanding its number of missiles, however, the nuclear submarine desperately needed to be built to tip the balance of power back towards the West.
In 1955, the most advanced submarine in terms of these nuclear developments was the USS Nautilus. With excellent maneuvering facilitated by her Albacore hull design, the Nautilus had virtually unlimited range thanks to her nuclear power plant. In fact, the Nautilus became the first submarine to navigate under the polar ice cap in 1958. It could be said that the range of a nuclear submarine was now only constrained by the physical limits of her crew. In 1960, the USS Triton, a larger version of the Nautilus, circumnavigated the earth, becoming the first ship to accomplish this feat underwater.
Like the submarine, the missiles that would eventually be launched from their hulls underwent a similar development history. The first submarine missiles were simple cruise missiles mounted on the hull. These missiles, like the Loon and the