Peter Lobner, Updated 2 February 2021
On 15 Nov 1960, the FBM submarine USS George Washington (SSBN-598) embarked on the nation’s first Polaris nuclear deterrent patrol armed with 16 intermediate range Polaris A1 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This milestone occurred just 3 years 11 months after the Polaris FBM program was funded by Congress and authorized by the Secretary of Defense. The 1st deterrent patrol was completed 66 days later on 21 January 1961.
The original US FBM submarine force consisted of 41 Polaris submarines, in five sub-classes (George Washington, Ethan Allen, Lafayette, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin), that were authorized between 1957 and l963. Through several rounds of modifications, most of these submarines were adapted to handle later versions of the Polaris SLBM (A2, A3 and A4) and some were modified to handle the Poseidon (C3) SLBM. Twelve of the James Madison- and Ben Franklin-class boats were modified the late 1970s and early 1980s to handle the long range Trident I C4 SLBMs.
A total of 1,245 Polaris deterrent patrols were made in a period of about 21 years, from the first Polaris A-1 deterrent patrol by USS George Washington in 1960, and ending with the last Polaris A-3 deterrent patrol by USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601), which started on 1 October 1981. By then, the remainder of the original Polaris SSBN fleet had transitioned to Poseidon (C3) and Trident I (C4) SLBMs.
The next generation of US ballistic missile submarines was the Ohio-class SSBN, 18 of which were ordered between 1974 and 1990 (one per fiscal year). The lead ship of this class, USS Ohio (SSBN 726), was commissioned in 1981 and deployed 6 September 1982 on its first strategic deterrent patrol, armed with the Trident I (C4) SLBM. Beginning with the 9th boat in class, USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), the remaining Ohio- class SSBNs were equipped originally to handle the larger Trident II (D5). Four of the early boats were upgraded to handle the Trident II (D5) missile. The earliest four, including the USS Ohio, were converted to cruise missile submarines to comply with strategic weapons treaty limits.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported that the US Navy conducted 4,086 submarine strategic deterrent patrols between 1969 and 2017. At that time, the Navy was conducting strategic deterrent patrols at a steady rate of around 30 patrols per year. By the end of 2020, that total must be approaching 4,175 patrols.
In 2020, the US maintains a fleet of 14 Trident missile submarines armed with D5LE (life extension) SLBMs. By about 2031, the first of the new Columbia-class SSBN is expected to be ready to start its first deterrent patrol. Ohio-class SSBNs will be retired on a one-for-one bases when the new Columbia-class SSBNs are delivered to the fleet and ready to assume deterrent patrol duties.
The USS George was defueled and declared scrapped in September 1998. Owing to her place in history as the first US ballistic missile submarine and her successful completion of 55 deterrent patrols in both the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans, the George Washington’s sail was preserved and returned to New London, CT where it is now displayed outside of the gates of the US Submarine Force Library and Museum.
You’ll find much more information on the US nuclear submarine fleet in my post: “Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 – 2018,” at the following link: https://lynceans.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Marine-Nuclear-Power-1939-2018_Part-2A_USA_submarines.pdf
For more information:
- John Gibson & Stephen Yanek, “The Fleet Ballistic Missile Strategic Weapon System: APL’s Efforts for the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Deterrent System and the Relevance to Systems Engineering,” Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Volume 29, Number 4, 2011: https://www.jhuapl.edu/Content/techdigest/pdf/V29-N04/29-04-Gibsonl.pdf
- Hans Kristensen, “US SSBN Patrols Steady, But Mysterious Reduction In Pacific In 2017, Federation of American Scientists, 24 May 2018: https://fas.org/blogs/security/2018/05/ssbnpatrols1960-2017/