Of ballistic missiles, stealth and teardrops
The early US nuclear boats were limited to a speed of about 20 knots, submerged or surfaced. These early boats had been built around conventional hull forms and were thus limited by the horsepower of their reactor plants and the drag from their hulls. By this time the United States had experimented with a teardrop-shaped prototype diesel-electric submarine, the USS Albacore, which was able to reach submerge speed of over 30 knots. Combining the hull of the Albacore with Rickover`s nuclear power plant, a new class of under sea hunter was born.
Ever since the development of the first atomic weapon the US Navy had sought to develop a weapon system that would allow it to have a role in America’s nuclear deterrence mission. What the Navy really wanted was to merge the new technologies of ballistic missiles, smaller thermonuclear weapons, inertial guidance systems and nuclear submarines into a single weapon system. The program was called Polaris, and it became the top US naval program of the 1950s.
Pushed aggressively, by the late 50s a small, reliable missile known as Polaris A1 was ready to have a platform built for it. The problem was that submarine construction takes time, and the US wanted to deploy the Polaris by 1960.
To accomplish this, Admiral Rickover had Electric Boat split on one of the Skipjacks under construction (she was the original USS Scorpion) just aft of the sail and insert a plug containing 16 Polaris launch tubes as well as all missile launch controls and maintenance equipment. Christened as USS George Washington, SSBN-598, she would become the first ballistic missile submarine- the most powerful deterrence force in history.
When the George Washington successfully test-fire tow of the Polaris A1 missiles on July 20, 1960, of Cape Canaveral, Florida, the system became operational.
Following the Skipjack and George Washington classes boats, the US Navy embarked upon a new direction in nuclear submarine development. It decided, after careful analysis, that high speed (over 30 knots) was not necessarily desirable. Submarines traveling at high speed make a great deal of noise, which can be detected by other submarines and surface vessels. Thus diving depth and quietness would become the qualities characterized submarine design of the 1960s.
The first of the new deep diving/quiet boats was to be the USS Thresher, SSN-593. Unfortunately during sea trials in 1963 she was lost with her entire crew. The class was continued, named after the next boat in line, USS Permit, SSN-594.