USS George Washington (SSBN-598)
Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine
The USS George Washington successfully completed the test-launching of Polaris nuclear missiles from underwater on July 20th, 1960.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Cold War became largely a tit-for-tat affair between the Soviet Union and the United States. For every single development allowing one power to gain the upper hand against another, the other power was expected to reveal some new development in turn to regain the advantage. With the rise of nuclear weapons in each inventory, this matching an opponent "pound-for-pound" proved commonplace and, to some extent, a matter of sheer survival. When the Soviet Navy began modifying a collection of its submarines to carry nuclear-tipped missiles to form a mobile delivery platform for these unique weapons, the United States was forced to follow. Initially the Jupiter missile was to be the focus of a new 10,000-ton submarine design but safety issues and operational complexities with this weapon aboard an underwater vessel prompted a shift to the Polaris A-1 series missiles instead.
The first boat of a new fast attack class known as the Skipjack-class was USS Scorpion (SSN-589) and this vessel was already undergoing construction when a new 130-foot section was added to its length. Ordered on December 31st, 1957, her keel was laid down on November 1st, 1958. The new length of hull allowed launch tubes for the new nuclear ballistic missiles to be installed. With this major change in place, it was saw fit to redesignate the vessel as USS George Washington (SSBN-598). The original name and pennant number were reassigned to another submarine undergoing construction at the same time - this vessel joining the aforementioned Skipjack group.
USS George Washington was launched on June 9th, 1959 and formally commissioned on December 30th, 1959. She earned herself the nickname of "The Georgefish" during her time at sea and served to head the five-strong George Washington-class ballistic missile submarines. All were nuclear-powered vessels and intended to serve as a nuclear deterrent force alongside Western allies opposite the Soviet Union. USS George Washington (SSBN-598) was joined by sisters USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599), USS Theodore Roosevelt (SSBN-600), USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601) and USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN-602).
When commissioned, George Washington became the first operational nuclear ballistic missile-carrying submarine anywhere in the world. She displaced 6,055 tons surfaced and 6,815 tons submerged. Her dimensions included a length of 381.5 feet, a beam of 33 feet and a draught of 29 feet. Her crew complement numbered 112 involving twelve officers and 100 sailors divided into a Blue and Gold operating team. Washington's primary armament was her 16 x Polaris A-1 missile set while she also carried 6 x 21" (533mm) torpedo tubes with 12 reload torpedoes.
Her profile was conventional as submarines went. A smooth, tubular hull shape was used which seated the sail noticeably ahead of midships. The missile bay was located aft of the sail and noted by its flattened surface doubling as a platform when the boat was surfaced. The tailfins were of a traditional cruciform arrangement and the propeller unit was mounted aft of this structure.
As a nuclear-powered vessel, George Washington was outfitted with a single Westinghouse S5W (Submarine, 5th Generation, Westinghouse) Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) and showcased 2 x geared turbines outputting at 15,000 horsepower while driving 1 x seven-bladed propeller unit aft. Maximum speed along the surface was 20 knots but it was in submerged travel where the vessel shined - able to made headway at over 25 knots. The nuclear nature of the power supply allowed for an essentially unlimited range for the boat - limited only by crew fatigue and available onboard food stores. She could also dive down to depths over 900 feet - a far cry from World War 2-era diesel-powered attack boats used by the U.S. Navy which dove several hundred feet.
During July of 1960, George Washington successfully test-launched a Polaris missile while submerged. In October she took on her full load of Polaris missiles and began her first patrol in November, this taking her into January of the following year. She completed 100,000 nautical miles of travel in 1964 and, from there, she shifted operations from Atlantic waters to the Pacific when joining the Pacific Fleet out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She continued undertaking deterrence patrols from then on. In April of 1981, she collided with Nissho Maru, a merchant vessel from Japan, in East China Sea waters. The merchant took on water and was sunk with the loss of two crew while George Washington held only light damage along her sail. Thirteen Japanese crewmembers were rescued but criticism fell onto the U.S. Navy for their lack of response to a concerted rescue action and a lack of notification to Japanese authorities - the American boat was well within Japanese territorial waters where the collision occurred.
After some fifty-five patrols spanning a quarter of a century, USS George Washington completed her last sortie in 1982 and was stripped of her dangerous missile fit the year following. While devoid of her missiles, George Washington was retained for a brief period in U.S. Navy service as a basic attack submarine (SSN designation) before being sailed back to the American East Coast where she was formally decommissioned on January 24th, 1985. The boat's name was stricken from the Naval Register on April 30th, 1986 and her hulk was scrapped in September of 1998 (after having her dangerous reactor properly removed and disposed of). Her sail managed to be saved and is on permanent display at the Submarine Force Library and Museum of Groton, Connecticut.
For her time at sea, USS George Washington was a critical component of the U.S. Navy's nuclear deterrent force and headed a group of equally powerful vessels. At the same time, she proved a revolutionary attack submarine design capable of delivering lethal payloads anywhere in the world.