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By Charles Apple
The Spokesman-Review

On this date 60 years ago, the first test missiles were successfully launched from a submerged submarine. The newly commissioned nuclear-powered U.S.S. George Washington fired two Polaris missiles from a depth of about 50 to 60 feet, 30 miles off Cape Canaveral, Florida. The successful test kicked off a new age of ballistic missile submarines.

An enormous gust of compressed air pushed the 18-ton, two-stage Polaris A-1 missile ....

... from the submarine’s missile tubes to the surface, where the missile’s ignition system took over.

The first test missile emerged from the water at an odd angle, but its internal guidance systems quickly corrected that.

Both first and second stages of the Polaris A-1 used solid-fuel propellant made of polyurethane.

The missile reportedly hit its target, 1,300 miles away — as did a second one, fired three hours later. (Photos: Universal Newsreel/National Archives)

(Credit: U.S. Navy)

The captain of the George Washington radioed President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “From out of the depths to target – Perfect.” The George Washington would deploy in November 1960 with a full complement of 16 Polaris A1 missiles.

The Washington would be retired in 1985 and then scrapped at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1998. The name USS George Washington now applies to a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier commissioned in 1992.

How the Polaris evolved

Submarine-based Polaris missiles and their descendants have never been particularly accurate – only to within 3,000 feet of a specific target. This made them unsuitable for strategic military targets. However, because submarines could operate under the sea and virtually undetectable, this made sub-borne missiles immune to enemy attacks. Development progressed rapidly through the 1960s and 1970s. The current Trident models can carry MIRVs: multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles – warheads that can then separate and strike multiple targets.

The Navy’s current sub fleet

At last count, the U.S. Navy has 72 nuclear-powered submarines capable of carring modern Trident nuclear missiles or cruise missiles. The giant Ohio class can carry up to 24 missiles.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991 led to the cancellation of the expensive Seawolf Class line after just three were completed. The newest Virginia Class models are expected to remain in service until the 2060s or 2070s.


Entered service: 1976

Length: 362 feet

Displacement: 6,818 tons

Crew: 129

Built: 62

Still in service: 35


Entered service: 1981

Length: 560 feet

Displacement: 18,450 tons

Crew: 155

Built: 18

Still in service: 18

Planned: 24 more


Entered service: 1997

Length: 383 feet

Displacement: 12,139 tons

Crew: 140

Built: 3

Still in service: 3

Planned: 26 more, but those have been canceled


Entered service: 2004

Length: 377 feet

Displacement: 8,700 tons

Crew: 135

Built: 19

Still in service: 19

Planned: 47 more, 11 of those are now under construction

Sources: Federation of American Scientists, “The Submarine: A History” by Thomas Parrish, U.S. Naval Institute, Navy History and Heritage Command,