A Brief History of Submarine-Launched Nukes
The United States beating the Soviets to the first operational ballistic missile submarine is as much a story of bureaucratic innovation as technological.
Right now, dozens of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines roam the ocean. They are virtually untraceable. Reconnaissance satellites can’t see them, and they can fire their nuclear warheads underwater, allowing them to creep up an enemy coast undetected. These submarines are a technology born of the Cold War, and they form the backbone of mutually assured destruction.
In 1960, the United States Navy rapidly procured, developed, and fielded the world’s first operational ballistic missile submarine, equipped with solid-fueled Polaris missiles. Today, it is taken for granted that the solid-fueled ballistic missile is superior to liquid-fueled, but this was not at all obvious in 1955 when President Eisenhower designated the development of ballistic missiles the highest priority and created four competing programs. From the beginning, the viability of solid-fueled missiles was discounted by the Air Force and Army. Prominent figures like Saturn V rocket engineer Wernher von Braun brushed them off as toys: “the farthest east the Navy could hope to reach with a solid-fueled missile fired from the Atlantic coast of Europe would be the Simplon railway tunnel in Switzerland.”
Initially, the Navy wasn’t even given one of the four ballistic missile programs. This was partly the Navy’s fault, as internal disunity prevented it from rallying around a proposal until too late. After begging to join the Army’s liquid-fueled Jupiter, the Navy later backstabbed the Army and abandoned the Jupiter to make room for Polaris as soon as it had the chance.
The Navy’s triumph - more accurately, the triumph of the Navy’s Special Projects Office (SPO) created to run the Polaris program - is told in Harvey Sapolsky’s The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government. The incredibly boring title belies a superb account of the unique features of the Polaris program that caused it to deliver solid-fueled missiles years ahead of schedule (and only a little over budget). Critically, there was sustained competition from all stakeholders on Polaris:
Contractors were at risk of losing work to other contractors. Lockheed (not yet Martin) is most commonly associated with Polaris, but there was actually no prime contractor on one of the most epic defense acquisitions.
The Navy was at risk of losing funding and priority to the Air Force’s ballistic missile efforts. This intense rivalry propelled the Polaris as well as the Air Force’s Minuteman to greatness.
Civil servants were at risk of losing their jobs if Polaris failed, as the creation of the SPO was supposed to be temporary.
The SPO operated with an unusual degree of financial and program autonomy within the Navy, a status it considered essential to delivering solid-fueled missiles on an extremely compressed timeline. The Department of Defense (DoD) is a bureaucracy that often poses a greater risk to program success than the enemy itself. The SPO was keenly aware of this fact and craftily employed a novel project management system, the Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT), to keep the monkey off its back and obtain a disproportionate amount of Navy funding.
PERT was created within the SPO at the direction of Admiral Raborn, the director of the Polaris program. PERT is a complex R&D planning and scheduling tool that calculates the probabilistic distribution of the expected time for completing critical program activities, using data from bench engineers as inputs. PERT checked all the right boxes for a fancy management system that would impress bureaucrats and outsiders: it was created by Booz Allen Hamilton and included a custom formula invented by a mathematics PhD. Almost as soon as PERT was announced to the public, it was “hailed as the first breakthrough of management science in a decade (pg 111).” It wowed everyone from Harvard Business School to the Secretary of the Navy and gained the reputation as the primary cause of success of the Polaris program.
The only problem? It didn’t work. Everyone internal to the Polaris program thought it was bullshit. Here’s a SPO official on PERT:
It had lots of pizzazz and that’s valuable in selling a program. The real thing to be done was to build a fence to keep the rest of the Navy off us. We discovered that PERT charts and the rest of the gibberish could do this. It showed them we were top managers. PERT made us OK with people who had the money. We did it in spades - computers, the whole bit (pg 124).
Much as a magician uses misdirection to distract an audience, so Admiral Raborn and SPO used PERT to distract comptrollers and auditors from looking too closely at how SPO was actually operating Polaris - namely, with far greater autonomy and far less oversight than any previous weapons program.
The theater of the absurd continues with a plot that would seamlessly fit into Catch-22. Admiral Raborn ensures PERT is nominally in use for the optics of selling the program. When the first Polaris missile is successfully launched, he receives a Distinguished Service Medal for “establishing a single yet forceful management system which encompassed all elements of his responsibility, implementing a totally new management tool, PERT (pg 125).” Shortly after, the DoD and NASA make PERT a department-wide contract requirement.
Humor aside, this is an early example of bureaucratic worship of process over outcome. The DoD latched onto PERT because of the appeal of an omniscient, objective system identifying program delays in advance. The real factors for success - an empowered, accountable program office and continuous competition throughout the acquisition process - were ignored. Today, we still experience the negative reverberations of the DoD’s ignorance of reality, albeit at a much greater scale. There is only one program office for the F-35, so its survival is guaranteed in a landscape without predators. Polaris did not have a guaranteed gravy train. The ballistic missile mission was up for grabs, and inferior projects could and did lose their funding (see the Army’s Jupiter and the Air Force’s Atlas and Thor missiles). Admiral Raborn was an effective PR man for PERT. We need an effective PR (wo)man to bring competition back into the acquisition process.