Polaris (UK nuclear programme)

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United Kingdom Polaris programme
Polaris missile launch from HMS Revenge (S27) 1983.JPEG
Type of project Deployment of Polaris ballistic missile submarines
Country United Kingdom
Established 1962
Disestablished 1996

The United Kingdom's Polaris programme, officially named the British Naval Ballistic Missile System, provided Britain's first submarine-based British nuclear weapons system. Polaris was in service from 1968 to 1996.

Polaris itself was an operational system of four Resolution-class ballistic missile submarines, each armed with 16 Polaris A-3 ballistic missiles. Each missile was able to deliver three ET.317 thermonuclear warheads. This configuration was later upgraded to carry two hardened warheads along with a range of decoys, the British Polaris programme was announced in December 1962 following the Nassau Agreement between the US and the UK. The Polaris Sales Agreement provided the formal framework for cooperation. Construction of the submarines began in 1964, and the first patrol took place in June 1968. All four boats were operational in December 1969, they were operated by the Royal Navy, and based at Clyde Naval Base on Scotland's west coast, a few miles from Glasgow. At least one submarine was always on patrol to provide a continuous at-sea deterrent.

In the 1970s it was determined that the re-entry vehicles were vulnerable to the Soviet anti-ballistic missile screen concentrated around Moscow. To ensure that a credible and independent nuclear deterrent was maintained, the UK developed an improved front-end named Chevaline. There was huge controversy when this project became public knowledge in 1980, as it had been kept secret by four successive governments while incurring huge expenditure. Polaris patrols continued until May 1996, by which time the phased handover to the replacement Trident system had been completed.


During the early part of the Second World War, Britain had a nuclear weapons project, codenamed Tube Alloys,[1] at the Quebec Conference in August 1943, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, signed the Quebec Agreement, which merged Tube Alloys with the American Manhattan Project to create a combined British, American and Canadian project. The British government trusted that the United States would continue to share nuclear technology, which it regarded as a joint discovery, after the war, but the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act) ended technical cooperation.[2] Fearing a resurgence of United States isolationism, and Britain losing its great power status, the British government restarted its own development effort,[3] now codenamed High Explosive Research.[4] The first British atomic bomb was tested in Operation Hurricane on 3 October 1952.[5]

During the 1950s, Britain's nuclear deterrent was based around the V-bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF), but developments in radar and surface-to-air missiles made it clear that bombers were becoming increasingly vulnerable, and would be unlikely to be able to penetrate Soviet airspace in the 1970s.[6] Free-fall nuclear weapons would then no longer be a credible deterrent. To address this problem, the United Kingdom embarked on the development of a Medium Range Ballistic Missile called Blue Streak.[7] By 1959, however, serious concerns had been raised about its own vulnerability.[8]

Royal Navy and Polaris[edit]

Nuclear ambitions[edit]

Admiral Arleigh Burke, the US Navy's Chief of Naval Operations from 1955 to 1961

The Royal Navy began seeking a nuclear role as early as 1945, when the Naval Staff suggested the possibility of launching missiles with atomic warheads from ships or submarines;[9] in 1948 it proposed using carrier-based aircraft for nuclear weapons delivery, although atomic bombs small enough to be carried by them did not yet exist. Its "carriers versus bombers" debate with the RAF resembled the similar inter-service dispute in the United States at this time that led to the "Revolt of the Admirals",[10] the requirement for a nuclear-capable carrier bomber led to the development of the Blackburn Buccaneer;[11] that for a small warhead to the development of the Red Beard.[12] The Defence Research Policy Committee (DRPC) considered the prospect of arming submarines with nuclear missiles, but its March 1954 report highlighted technical problems that it did not expect to be resolved for many years.[13] Studies of nuclear reactors for nuclear marine propulsion were suspended in October 1952 so they did not interfere with plutonium production for nuclear weapons, and by 1954 the Royal Navy had concluded that it would not be possible until the 1960s.[14]

The US Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus became operational on 17 January 1955.[15] Admiral Lord Mountbatten became First Sea Lord in April,[16] and in June he secured the approval of the Admiralty to build a nuclear powered submarine.[14] This coincided with Admiral Arleigh Burke's appointment as the US Navy's Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in August.[17] Mountbatten visited the United States in October, and through his friendship with Burke, arranged for US Navy cooperation in submarine development.[18] Burke's support was crucial, as the United States Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was uncertain about the legality of transferring such technology to the UK, and Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the head of the US Navy's nuclear propulsion project, was opposed. But the United States Department of Defense supported the British request, and Mountbatten won Rickover over during a visit to the UK in August 1956. Rickover withdrew his objections in early 1957.[14]

In December 1957, Rickover proposed that Westinghouse be permitted to sell the Royal Navy a nuclear submarine reactor, which would allow it to immediately proceed with building its own nuclear-powered submarine, the British government endorsed this idea, as it saved a great deal of money.[19][20] The British development of the hydrogen bomb, and a favourable international relations climate created by the sputnik crisis, facilitated the amendment of the McMahon Act to permit this,[14] and the transfer of submarine reactor technology was incorporated in the 1958 US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement, which allowed Britain to acquire nuclear weapons systems from the United States, thereby restoring the nuclear Special Relationship.[21][22]

Polaris development[edit]

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord from 1954 to 1959, and the Chief of the Defence Staff from 1959 to 1965

One of Burke's first actions as CNO was to call for a report on the progress of ballistic missile research, the US Navy was involved in a cooperative venture with the US Army to develop the Jupiter missile, although there were concerns about the viability and safety of a liquid-fuel rocket at sea.[17] To handle the Navy's side of the joint project, the United States Secretary of the Navy, Charles Thomas, created the Special Projects Office (SPO), withRear Admiral William F. Raborn, Jr., a naval aviator as its director.[23] Apart from nuclear propulsion, the technologies required for a ballistic missile submarine—a long-range solid propellant rockets, light-weight thermonuclear warhead, a compact missile guidance system, and an inertial navigation system for the submarine—did not exist in 1955.[24]

A turning point came during Project Nobska in the summer of 1956, when Edward Teller predicted that a 270-kilogram (600 lb) warhead would become available by 1963. This was much lighter than the 730-kilogram (1,600 lb) warhead of the Jupiter, and led the US Navy to pull out of the joint Jupiter project in late 1956 in order to concentrate on the development of a solid-fuel rocket, which became the UGM-27 Polaris.[24] In May 1958, Burke arranged for the appointment of a Royal Navy liaison officer, Commander Michael Simeon, on the SPO staff;[25][26] in 1955, this consisted of 45 officers and 45 civilians; by mid-1961, it had grown to 200 officers and 667 civilians. By then, over 11,000 contractors were involved, and it had a budget of $2 billion. SPO had to overcome formidable technological challenges;[27] but its success was also due to Burke's marketing of Polaris as a second strike weapon. In this role, its capabilities were highlighted and its limitations minimised,[28] the first Polaris boat, the USS George Washington, fired a Polaris missile on 20 July 1960,[29] and commenced its first operational patrol on 16 November 1960.[30]

The idea of moving the nuclear deterrent away from the densely populated UK and out to sea had considerable appeal in Britain, it not only implicitly addressed the drawbacks of Blue Streak, but invoked the traditional role of the Royal Navy.[31] In February 1958, Mountbatten created a working party to examine the effectiveness, cost and development time of Polaris compared with that of Blue Streak and the V-bomber force, the working party indeed saw clear advantages in Polaris.[32] At this point, the Minister of Defence, Duncan Sandys, requested a paper on Polaris, and was given one that strongly argued the case for Polaris.[33] Sandys was cautious about Polaris, as it was still under development, so its costs were uncertain,[32][33] the Air Ministry was understandably alarmed, circulating a paper that refuted the Admiralty's position point by point, attacking Polaris as having the same striking power as having less accuracy and a smaller warhead than Blue Streak, at 20 times the cost. The US Navy had already polished the counter-arguments, noting that second strike weapons only had to target cities, for which Polaris warhead's size and accuracy were adequate. Moreover, it was noted that while the missile was limited in range, the submarine could roam the oceans, and could attack China, for example.[34]


President John F. Kennedy (left) meets with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Macmillan (right), at Government House in Hamilton, Bermuda, on 22 December 1961.

With the cancellation of Blue Streak in the air, the British Nuclear Deterrent Study Group (BNDSG) produced a study on 23 December 1959 that argued that Polaris was as yet unproven, that Polaris would be expensive, and that given the time it would take to build the boats, it could not be deployed before the early 1970s,[35] the Chiefs of Staff Committee therefore recommended the purchase of the American Skybolt, with Polaris as a possible successor in the 1970s.[36] The British government decided to cancel Blue Streak if it could acquire the Skybolt,[37] the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, met with President Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David in March 1960, and secured permission to buy Skybolt. In return, the Americans were given permission to base the US Navy's Polaris boats at the Holy Loch in Scotland,[38] the financial arrangement was particularly favourable to Britain, as the US was charging only the unit cost of Skybolt, absorbing all the research and development costs.[39] Far from taking this as a defeat, the Royal Navy's planning for the eventual purchase of Polaris was accelerated.[40] A June 1960 paper by the Director General, Weapons, Rear Admiral Michael Le Fanu, recommended that a Polaris project should be created along the same lines as the Special Projects Office.[41]

The Kennedy administration expressed serious doubts about Skybolt. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was highly critical of the US bomber fleet, which he doubted was cost effective in the missile age.[42] Skybolt suffered from rising costs, and offered few benefits over the AGM-28 Hound Dog, which was cheaper, more accurate, and actually worked;[43][44] the first five Skybolt test launches were all failures.[45] McNamara was also concerned about the UK retaining an independent nuclear force, and worried that the US could be drawn into a nuclear war by the UK, he sought to draw the UK into a Multilateral Force (MLF).[43] On 7 November 1962, McNamara met with Kennedy, and recommended that Skybolt be cancelled, he then briefed the British Ambassador to the United States, David Ormsby-Gore.[45] At a conference in the Caribbean, Macmillan insisted that the UK would be retaining an independent deterrent capability.[46] Kennedy's offer of Hound Dog was declined; the British government wanted Polaris.[47] Kennedy backed down and abandoned his attempts to persuade the UK to accept the MLF in return for Macmillan's promise to assign UK Polaris boats to NATO, the two leaders concluded the Nassau Agreement, which would see the purchase of US missiles to serve aboard UK-built submarines, on 21 December 1962.[48] This statement was later formalised as the Polaris Sales Agreement, which was signed on 6 April 1963.[49]

Design, development and construction[edit]


The first decision required was how many Polaris boats should be built. While the Avro Vulcans to carry Skybolt were already in service, the submarines to carry Polaris were not, and there was no provision in the defence budget for them,[50] some naval officers feared that their construction would adversely impact the hunter-killer submarine programme.[51] The number of missiles required was based on substituting for Skybolt. To achieve the same capability, the BNDSG calculated that this would require eight Polaris submarines, each with 16 missiles with one-megaton warheads,[52] it was subsequently decided to halve this, based on the decision that the ability to destroy twenty Soviet cities would have nearly as great a deterrent effect as the ability to destroy forty.[53] The Admiralty considered the possibility of hybrid submarines that could operate as hunter-killers while carrying eight Polaris missiles,[54] but McNamara noted that this would be inefficient, as twice as many submarines would need to be on station to maintain the deterrent, and cautioned that the effect of tinkering with the US Navy's 16-missile layout was unpredictable.[50] The Treasury costed a four-boat Polaris fleet at £314 million by 1972–73.[55] A Cabinet Defence Committee meeting on 23 January 1963 approved the plan for four boats, with the Minister of Defence, Peter Thorneycroft noting that this would be cheaper and faster to build.[56]

A Polaris A-1 missile (left) and a Polaris A-3 missile (right) at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii

A mission led by Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, left for the United States to discuss Polaris on 8 January 1963. It included the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Varyl Begg; the Deputy Secretary of the Admiralty, James Mackay; Rear Admiral Hugh Mackenzie; and physicist Sir Robert Cockburn and F. J. Doggett from the Ministry of Aviation,[57] its principal finding was that the Americans had developed a new version of the Polaris missile, the A-3. With a range extended of 2,500 nautical miles (4,600 km), it had a new weapons bay housing three re-entry vehicles (REBs or Re-Entry Bodies in US Navy parlance) and a new 200-kilotonne-of-TNT (840 TJ) W58 warhead expected to become available around 1970.[58] A decision was urgently required on whether to purchase the old A-2 missile or the new A-3, as the A-2 production lines would shut down within two years,[59] the Zuckerman mission came out strongly in favour of the latter, although it was still under development and not expected to enter service until August 1964, as the deterrent would remain credible for much longer.[58] The decision was endorsed by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Carrington, in May 1963, and was officially made by Thorneycroft on 10 June 1963.[60]

While the Zuckerman mission was in Washington, R. J. Daniel of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors led a deep technical mission to the United States to study the latest developments in the design of ballistic missile submarines. They met with Rear Admiral Pete Galantin,[61] Raborn's successor as the head of SPO,[62] and executives at the Electric Boat Company, which was building the American Polaris boats.[61] While it was desirable to hew closely to the American design, this would involve retooling the British shipyards and purchasing American equipment. An alternative proposal was to take the incomplete HMS Valiant, cut it in half, and insert the Polaris missile compartment in its midsection. This was a path that the Americans had taken with the George Washington-class in order to build ships as quickly as possible in order to address the missile gap.[63][64] Daniel was opposed to this on the grounds that it would unduly disrupt the hunter-killer submarine programme, and it would add more new features to a design that already had enough, the chosen design was suggested by Daniel's superior, Sidney Palmer. The reactor section would be similar to that of Valiant, which would be joined with a machinery space to the American-designed but mainly British-built missile compartment, the forward section would be of a new design. The 130-metre (425 ft) boat would have a displacement of 7,600 tonnes (7,500 long tons), more than twice that of HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine.[64] Following British practice, the boats would be identical, with no deviation allowed, the value of this was driven home by a visit to the submarine tender USS Hunley, where the costs of non-standard components were evident.[65]


Polaris Executive Senior Management [66]
Chief Polaris Executive
Technical Director
  • Rowland Baker (1963–1968)
  • Rear Admiral C. W. H. Shepard (1968–1971)
Assistant Chief Polaris Executive
  • Captain J. R. McKaig (1963–1966)
  • Captain P. C. Higham (1966–1968)
Chief Administrative Officer
  • R. N. Lewin (1963–1966)
  • P. Nailor (1966–1967)
  • M. G. Power (1967–1969)
Deputy Director of Naval Construction (Polaris)
  • S. J. Palmer (1963–1967)
  • H. J. Tabb (1967–1969)
Deputy Director, Weapons (Polaris)
  • Captain C. W. H. Shepard (1963–1968)
Polaris Logistics Officer
  • Captain L. Bomford (1963–1969)
Polaris Project Officer, Ministry of Aviation
  • Rear Admiral F. Dossor (1963–1967)
  • S. A. Hunwicks (1967–1969)
Royal Navy Liaison Officer (Special Projects)
  • Captain P. G. La Niece (1963–1969)
  • Captain C. H. Hammer (1963–1969)
Special Projects Liaison Officer
  • Captain P. A. Rollings, USN (1963)
  • Captain W. P. Murphy, USN (1963–1966)
  • Captain J. Love, USN (1966–1968)

The project was formally named the British Naval Ballistic Missile System.[67] The Board of the Admiralty met on 24 December 1962 and decided to adopt Le Fanu's proposal that a special organisation be created to manage the project was adopted, it did not create a replica of SPO, however, but a smaller administrative and organisational cadre.[68] Mackenzie, the Flag Officer Submarines (FOSM), was informed on 26 December 1962 that he would be appointed the Chief Polaris Executive (CPE);[69] the term was henceforth used to refer to both the man and his organisation.[70] Roland Baker, who had been the head of the Dreadnought Project Team, was appointed the Technical Director. Captain C. W. H. Shepard, who had worked on the Seaslug missile project, became the Deputy Director for Weapons, and Captain Leslie Bomford was appointed the Polaris Logistics Officer, the creation of this position was the only significant departure from Le Fanu's original blueprint.[71] Some staff were assigned to the Polaris Executive and responsible only to the CPE; but there were also "allocated staff", who were seconded to the Polaris Executive, but who remained responsible to another organisation, such as the Directors-General of Ships and Weapons; and "designated staff", who were not employed on the Polaris project full-time, and remained part of their parent organisations.[72]

Mackenzie established his own office and that of his immediate staff in London, which he considered was necessary in order to be in immediate contact with the Admiralty, the Ministers, and the key departments, he was initially given two rooms and a closet at the Admiralty. Most of the Polaris Executive was located in Bath, Somerset, where the Admiralty's technical and logistics departments had been relocated in 1938,[73] "the connection between bath, water and boats having not escaped the administrative minds in Whitehall."[74] Initially they were accommodated in the Admiralty complex there, spread over three different sites. To allow the Polaris Executive to be co-located, a block of single-storey prefabricated offices was built at Foxhill on the south side of Bath, which was occupied in February 1964. By 1966, including allocated but not designated staff, the Polaris Executive had 38 staff at the London office, 430 in Bath, 5 at the Ministry of Aviation, and 31 in Washington.[73]

An early issue that arose concerned the relationship between the Polaris program and the hunter-killer programme, at this time point, Valiant was under construction, but the second boat of the class, HMS Warspite was yet to be laid down at Barrow. The possibility of the two projects completing for resources was foreseen, but the Admiralty elected to continue with its construction,[75] the interdependence between the two projects extended well beyond the shipyard; Valiant would be the first boat powered by the Rolls-Royce pressurised water reactor, which would also be used in the Resolution-class. In early 1963 it was still in the prototype stage at Dounreay,[76][77] the overlap between the two projects was sufficiently substantial that in May 1963 it was decided that CPE would be responsible for both.[77]

The Joint Steering Task Group (JSTG) was established by Article II of the Polaris Sales Agreement,[78] it was modelled after the Steering Task Group that oversaw the Special Projects Office.[79] It met for the first time in Washington on 26 June 1963,[80] the respective liaison officers acted as the secretaries of the JSTG.[81] These were appointed in April 1963, with Captain Peter la Niece taking up the position in Washington, and Captain Phil Rollings in London,[80] the agenda for the meetings was normally agreed about three weeks beforehand via an exchange of teletype messages, with position papers were exchanged about a week beforehand. Meetings were normally held over three days. Initially the JSTG met quarterly, but this was reduced to three times a year in 1965, the flow of information tended to be towards the UK. The JSTG was not an adversarial forum, but from the start there were disagreements over the scope of the Polaris Sales Agreement, which the staff of CPE saw as open-ended, but that of SPO saw as limited in nature.[81]


The choice of Vickers-Armstrongs as shipbuilder was a foregone conclusion, as its yard at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria was the only one in the UK with experience in nuclear-powered submarine construction.[82] The firm was thoroughly familiar with the heightened requirements nuclear-powered submarine construction entailed in terms of cleanliness, safety and quality control, and the government had already spent £1.5 million upgrading the yard's facilities.[83] The only concern was whether the large Polaris boats could navigate the shallow Walney Channel.[65] A formal letter of intent was sent to Vickers on 18 February,[84] and its selection as lead yard was publicly announced on 11 March 1963,[77] the question then naturally arose as to whether Vickers should build all the Polaris boats. Given the size of the yard and its labour force, and the desired speed of construction, the Admiralty decided that Vickers would build two boats, and the others would be built elsewhere. Tenders were invited from two firms with experience in building conventional submarines, Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, and Scotts in Greenock, on 25 March. Cammell Laird was chosen, and a letter of intent was sent on 7 May 1963,[84] some £1.6 million of new equipment was required to prepare the yard for Polaris work. Two berths and the jetty were rebuilt, and works were also necessary on the roads and river wall. A 9.4-metre (31 ft) cofferdam was built to allow construction of a new slipway and other works to be carried out in dry rather than tidal conditions. New facilities were also added in Barrow, and the Walney Channel was dredged.[85][86]

Traditional battleship or battlecruiser names were chosen for the Polaris boats, signifying that they were the capital ships of their time.[87] All were named after ships that Mountbatten had served on,[88] the first boat, HMS Resolution, was laid down by Vickers on 26 February 1964;[64][89] the second, HMS Renown, by Cammell Laird on 26 June 1964.[90] They were followed by two more boats the following year, one at each yard:[64] HMS Repulse at Barrow on 16 June 1965,[91] and HMS Revenge at Birkenhead on 19 May 1965.[92] Resolution was launched on 15 September 1965, and commissioned on 2 October 1967.[64] Resolution conducted a test firing at the American Eastern Range on 15 February 1968.[93] The first Cammell Laird boat, Renown followed, and was launched on 25 February 1967,[90] the second Vickers boat, Repulse, was launched on 11 November 1967. Concerns about the Walney Channel proved justified; the launch was delayed by half an hour due to a protest by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, leaving insufficient clearance, and the boat became stuck in the mud.[91] The more experienced Vickers yard worked faster than Cammell Laird, and despite labour problems,[64] Repulse was completed on 29 September 1968,[91] before Renown on 15 November 1968.[90] The achievement was all the more remarkable because the Vickers yard still managed to complete Valiant; in 1966 and Warspite the following year.[64] The final boat, Revenge, was completed on 4 December 1968.[92]

Fifth boat[edit]

When the initial decision to build four Polaris boats was taken in January 1963, neither the financial nor the operational implications of this decision were certain, so an option to acquire a fifth boat was provided for, with a decision to be taken later in the year. By September 1963, CPE came to the conclusion that a fifth boat was absolutely necessary. Due to the required refit cycles, a five boat force would, at certain times, only have one boat at sea. Given the standard 56-day US Navy patrol cycle, two boats would be on station 250 days a year. There was also no margin for the possibility of the temporary interruption to service of one boat due to an accident, from an operational point of view, having two boats on patrol meant there was a capability to destroy twenty cites; one would only be capable of destroying seven or eight, based on an assumption of 70 per cent reliability, and Leningrad and Moscow requiring two and four missiles respectively. Two boats also complicate the task of missile defence, as the missiles come from two different directions, the purchase of an additional boat did not necessarily require that of sixteen more missiles, nor even for two more crews, and a second construction line at Cammell Laird permitted work on a fifth boat to proceed impacting schedules for the other for boats. The fifth boat was estimated to cost £18 million; cancellation charges would be less than £1 million.[94][95] The matter was considered by the Cabinet Defence and Overseas Policy Committee on 25 February 1964, and then by the full Cabinet later that morning, and the decision was taken to approve the fifth boat, provided the money could be found elsewhere in the defence budget.[96]

Macmillan was succeeded as Prime Minister by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who campaigned on Britain's nuclear deterrent in the 1964 election.[97] While the issue was of low importance in the minds of the electorate, it was one on which Douglas-Home felt passionately, and on which the majority of voters supported his position,[98] he narrowly lost the election to the leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson.[99] One of the first acts of the incoming Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey, was to ask the Navy for the case for building five Polaris boats, this was furnished by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir David Luce, on 19 October 1964.[100] The government was under considerable pressure to reduce annual defence expenditures below £2 billion, and Healey considered whether three boats would be sufficient. Luce and Mountbatten advised that it would not. Wilson was aware that the government had only a narrow majority, and that Douglas-Home's attack on his party's nuclear deterrent policy had cost votes.[101] Cabinet finally decided on 12 January 1965 that there should be four boats,[102] the decision was officially announced on 15 February.[94] One important matter that SPO raised was that A-3 production would in due course be closed down, and the missile replaced by a new model under development then known as the B3, which eventually became the Poseidon. Thus, a final decision on the number of missiles and spare parts would ultimately be required,[103] this gravely concerned the British government. "True to form", commented Patrick Gordon Walker, "we either buy weapons which don’t exist or buy those destined for the junkyard of Steptoe & Son."[104]


British Polaris missile on display in the Imperial War Museum in London

Under Article XI of the Polaris Sales Agreement, the UK contributed five per cent of research and development costs of Polaris incurred after 1 January 1963, plus any costs incurred as a result of purely British requirements,[105] this added about £2 million to the cost of the system.[106] The government denied speculation that the Nassau Agreement permitted the addition of electronic mechanisms in the missile to give the United States a veto over its use.[107]

The A-3 missile that replaced the earlier A-1 and A-2 models in the US Navy had a range of 2,500 nautical miles (4,600 km) and a new Mark 2 weapon bay housing three re-entry vehicles. This arrangement was originally described as a "cluster warhead" but was replaced with the term Multiple Re-Entry Vehicle (MRV), they and were not independently targeted (as a MIRV missile is) but the three warheads were spread about a common target, landing about 1 nautical mile (1.9 km) apart and one second apart so as to not be affected by each other's radiation pulse. They were stated to be equivalent in destructive power to a single one-megaton warhead, it was believed that the MRV arrangement would also make the warhead harder to intercept with an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) similar to that of the American Nike Zeus system.[108][109]

Testing of the A-3, with its new guidance and re-entry packages commenced on 7 August 1962, and continued until 2 July 1964, some 38 test firings were carried out, with the longest range achieved being 2,284 nautical miles (4,230 km). The first submerged launch was conducted on 26 October 1963. Most of the problems encountered involved failures of the re-entry body to separate correctly, the A-3 became operational on 28 September 1964, when the USS Daniel Webster commenced her first operational patrol.[110]


In the wake of the decision to acquire the A-3, a US-UK Joint Re-Entry Systems Working Group (JRSWG) was created to examine issues surrounding the warhead and re-entry vehicle, the Americans revealed that work was in progress to add penetration aids to the re-entry vehicle, but promised that it would not have any effect on the interface between the missile and the UK re-entry vehicle. The British team did not think they were necessary, and in the end the Americans never deployed them with the A-3, the initial assumption at the Admiralty was that the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston would produce a copy of the W58. However, this would require techniques and equipment not employed in the UK before,[111] and the AWRE Warhead Safety Coordinating Committee (WSCC) reported in December 1963 that the design of the W58 primary did not meet UK safety standards.[112]

The decision was therefore taken in March 1964 to substitute the British fission primary, codenamed "Katie", used in the WE.177B developed for Skybolt. The fusion secondary was codenamed "Reggie", this became known as the ET.317.[113][114][115] Its development involved an increase of about 500 staff at Aldermaston compared to that anticipated for Skybolt, with some 4,500 staff expected to be working on nuclear weapons by 1969.[116] When it came to the Re-Entry System (RES), the US Navy was using the Mark 2 Mod 0 RES, but had a new version, the Mark 2 Mod 1 under development; in order to meet Polaris in-service deadline of May 1968, the components had to be ordered by May 1964. The Ministry of Aviation and the Admiralty therefore opted for the Mark 2 Mod 0 RES.[117]

To validate the design, a programme of nuclear tests was required, which was estimated to cost around £5.9 million. This was authorised by Wilson on 28 November 1963.[118] A series of underground tests were carried out at the Nevada Test Site in the United States, starting with Whetstone/Cormorant on 17 July 1964, the next test, Whetstone/Courser on 25 September 1964 failed due to a fault in the American neutron initiators, and had to be repeated as Flintlock/Charcoal on 10 September 1965. This tested a design of the ET.317 using less plutonium. With four Polaris boats each carrying 16 missiles each with three warheads, there were 192 warheads in total, this modification therefore saved 166 kg of plutonium worth £2.5 million. Additional fissile materials required were obtained from the US,[114] some 5.37 tonnes of UK-produced plutonium was exchanged for 6.7 kg of tritium and 7.5 tonnes of highly enriched uranium between 1960 and 1979.[119] Warhead manufacture commenced in December 1966.[114]


It was originally estimated that Polaris would required 6,000 officers and men,[120] although less than what had been required for the V-bombers, this was still substantial, and the well-trained personnel required had to be found from within the Royal Navy.[121] The First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John, denounced the "millstone of Polaris hung around our necks" as "potential wreckers of the real navy".[122] Even among the submariners there was a notable lack of enthusiasm for lurking in the depths staying out of trouble as opposed to the more active mission of the hunter-killer submarines;[123] in earlier times submarine construction had been low on the Royal Navy's list of priorities, and the Royal Navy Submarine Service had formed, like the Fleet Air Arm, something of a private navy within the Royal Navy. Unlike the Fleet Air Arm though, it had no representation on the Board of the Admiralty such as the Fleet Air Arm enjoyed through the Fifth Sea Lord, and the only submarine flag officer billet was FOSM. Few submariners expected to rise to flag rank, but this was already changing with the ascension of officers like Mackenzie and Luce.[121]

Faslane Naval Base

In March 1963, it was decided that the Polaris boats would be based at Faslane on the Firth of Clyde, not far from the US Navy's base at Holy Loch, the 3rd Submarine Squadron already had a forward base there, with jetties, facilities and the submarine depot ship HMS Maidstone. The design and construction of a new base was undertaken by the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Construction was not straightforward, as the ground was rocky and the rainfall was high.[124] Works included a new jetty, accommodation, recreational facilities, workshops, emergency power sources, a mobile repair facility and a calibration laboratory, the new base opened in August 1968. It was served by a weapons store at nearby Coulport.[93] HM Dockyard, Rosyth, was designated as the refit yard for the Polaris boats, as works were already underway there to support Dreadnought. HM Dockyard, Chatham, was subsequently upgraded to handle the hunter-killer submarines, and Rosyth was reserved for the 10th Submarine Squadron, as the Polaris boats became.[124]

To train the required crews, a Royal Navy Polaris School (RNPS) was built adjacent to the base at Faslane, although it was accepted that training of the first two crews at least would have to be conducted in the United States, and arrangements for this were made with SPO.[125] SPO also convince the US Air Force that the Polaris Sales Agreement meant that the Royal Navy should have access to the Eastern Test Range, for which it was to be charged the same fee as the US Navy,[126] the US Navy had two training facilities, at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. They were not identical, and were oriented towards training in maintenance rather than operations. Shepard's group pushed for the RNPS to have equipment that looked identical to an actual Polaris submarine, and performed or simulated its operation.[125]

On 16 October 1964, in the midst of the election campaign that brought the Wilson government to office, China conducted its first nuclear test. This led to fears that India might follow suit.[127] Consideration was therefore given to the possibility of basing Polaris boats in the Far East. A planning paper was drawn up in January 1965, the Navy Department reported that with five boats it would be possible to have one on patrol in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, but with only four a depot ship would be required, which would cost around £18 to £20 million. A base would be required, and Fremantle in Australia was suggested;[128] in any case, it would not be possible before 1972, when all four boats would be operational. The proposal ran into opposition from SACEUR, who pressed on 2 January 1967 to have the Polaris boats assigned to NATO as promised under the Nassau Agreement;[129] in January 1968, Cabinet decided to withdraw British forces from East of Suez. The prospect of cancelling Polaris was also mooted, but Wilson successful fought for the retention of the Polaris programme;[130] in June 1968 it was finally agreed that the Polaris bots would be assigned to NATO.[129]


The original US Navy Polaris had not been designed to penetrate ABM defences, but the Royal Navy had to ensure that its small Polaris force operating alone, and often with only one submarine on deterrent patrol, could penetrate the ABM screen around Moscow,[131] the Americans upgraded to Poseidon, which had MIRV warheads. Although it suffered from reliability problems that were not completely resolved until 1974,[132] it represented a clear improvement over Polaris, and became the preferred option of the AWRE and the Admiralty. While it could not be carried by the ten George Washington- and Ethan Allen-class boats, it could be accommodated on the British Resolution-class. Zuckerman attended a meeting with Rear Admiral Levering Smith, the director of SPO, and John S. Foster, Jr., the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, at which the provision of Poseidon to the UK was discussed. While the cost was a factor, the main obstacle was political, and the Wilson government publicly ruled out the purchase of Poseidon in June 1967. Without an agreement on improvement, the Special Relationship began to decay,[133] the Americans were unwilling to share information about warhead vulnerability unless the British were going to proceed to applying it.[134]

Diagram showing the deployment sequence of the two Chevaline re-entry bodies

The result was Chevaline, a system that replaced one of the three warheads with multiple decoys, chaff, and other defensive countermeasures,[135] in what was known as a Penetration Aid Carrier (PAC). The system also involved "hardening" the warheads—making them resistant to the effects of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP),[136] the Americans used a material known as 3DPO, a phenolic thermosetting material infused with quartz fibres, in the heat shield, which also acted as a defence against irradiation.[137] The new warhead was designated the A-3TK, the old one being the A-3T;[138] in 1972 it was estimated to cost £235 million.[139] Agreement was reached with the Americans to conduct another series of tests in Nevada, the first of these, Arbor/Fallon, was conducted on 23 May 1974.[140]

By 1975, the cost of Chevaline had risen to £400 million, but it was protected from the budget cuts that affected the rest of defence spending by its own secrecy,[141] its main technical problem was the increase in weight of the PAC, which reduced the reduced the range of the missile. This drove debate about the number of decoys that were required,[142] the Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver suggested giving up on the "Moscow criterion" and re-targeting Polaris to devastate less strongly defended cities.[143] This was regarded as politically and military problematic, but was reluctantly accepted, at the same time, the government elected to press on with Chevaline. Another test, Anvil/Banon, was conducted in Nevada on 26 August 1976.[143] By 1979, the cost had risen to £935 million, with test firings conducted from the Eastern Test Range and the Woomera Test Range, including three off Cape Canaveral by Renown, along with another series of nuclear tests in Nevada.[144]

Chevaline's existence was revealed in January 1980.[145] Sea trials were held in November 1980,[145] some 100 warheads were produced between 1979 and 1982. The system became operational in mid-1982 on Renown, followed by Revenge in 1983, Resolution in 1985, and Repulse 1987. The final cost reached £1,025 million.[146] However, the Public Accounts Committee noted that due to inflation, £1 billion in April 1981 was worth the same as £240 million in April 1972. What disturbed the committee was that a major project had gone on for a decade without any disclosure of its costs to Parliament or any requirement that they should be, the range of the Chevaline system was 1,950 nautical miles (3,610 km) compared to 2,500-nautical-mile (4,600 km) range of the original system, which reduced the sea-room in which British submarines could hide.[147]

The Polaris system was also upgraded through the replacement of the solid fuel motors, this programme commenced in 1981, and new motors were installed in all missiles by 1988.[135]


A Polaris missile is fired from the submerged HMS Revenge off the coast of Florida in 1986

On 15 July 1980, the Secretary of State for Defence, Francis Pym, announced the government's intention to acquire the Trident I C-4 missile then in service with the US Navy to replace Polaris,[148] the legal agreement took the form of amending the Polaris Sales Agreement through an exchange of notes between the two governments so that "Polaris" in the original now also covered the purchase of Trident.[149] Under the agreement, the UK purchased 65 Trident II D-5 missiles that would operate from a shared pool of weapons based at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in the United States.[150] Like Polaris, the UK would manufacture its own warheads and Vanguard-class submarines in Britain, but unlike Polaris the US would maintain the missiles.[151] The first Trident patrol took place in December 1994, and the new Trident boats were progressively introduced into service over the following six years,[152] on 28 August 1996, there was a special ceremony at Faslane to mark the decommissioning of Repulse, the last operational Resolution-class submarine, and the end of the Polaris era.[153] In his speech to mark the occasion, the Prime Minister, John Major, said:

We are here today to pay tribute to the work of the Polaris Force.

The debt we owe is very large, for the last 28 years this Force has mounted continuous patrols that have been vital to ensure this country's peace and security. Because of these patrols any possible aggressor has known that to attack the UK would provoke a terrible response.

In particular, we are here today to pay tribute to the last of the four Polaris submarines, HMS Repulse, which returned from her sixtieth and final deployment in May.

But not only Repulse, of course. I pay tribute, too, to the other three boats and their crews in her Class: the Resolution herself, Renown and Revenge, each has made its own unique and invaluable contribution to the remarkable record of maintaining a Polaris submarine at sea, on deterrent patrol, undetected by friend or foe, every day, of every year, from 1969 until May this year.[154]

During the 1960s, the V-bomber force had consumed up to 6 per cent of the total defence budget. A decade later, Polaris accounted for just 1.5 per cent.[93] The total cost of the UK Polaris programme from December 1962, including running costs, through to 30 June 1974 came to £520 million, the four submarines cost £162 million, the missiles £53 million, and the base at Faslane, including the storage facility at Coulport, £47 million. Adjusting for inflation, the programme cost less than originally envisaged,[155] that the project "was completed on time and on budget" was, The Daily Telegraph claimed, "an unprecedented feat in British naval history."[156]


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