History Book Nightmare: Russia Could Have Nuked Away America's Submarine Fleet

Joseph Trevithick

Key point: Issues of command and control remain important to keeping America's nuclear deterrent secure and reliable.

A key component of the U.S. doctrine of mutually assured destruction — commonly and appropriately known as MAD — was that American troops would still be able to retaliate if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack. But for a time, the Pentagon was seriously worried that its own nuclear missile submarines wouldn’t get those orders in time.

In 1968, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Scientific Advisory Committee found dangerous gaps in the communications network supporting the nation’s so-called Fleet Ballistic Missile boats, or FBMs. The FBM fleet included more than 40 submarines of five different classes all capable of carrying up to 16 Polaris nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, collectively known as the “41 for Freedom.”

The agency included the report in a response to a private individual’s Freedom of Information Act request. The website GovernmentAttic.org published the collection of documents totaling more than 1,000 pages.

Despite being heavily redacted, the report offers a candid and worrisome assessment of one of Washington’s key nuclear deterrents during the Cold War:

1. The Polaris weapon system may be targeted against time-urgent or assured destruction targets.

In the first case, the message to fire must be received [redacted] whereas in the second case a delay [redacted] may be acceptable to allow reliable transmission of the “go” message. Primary reliance for communication of this message to the Polaris submarines is placed [redacted.] Backup is provided by [redacted] as well as by other transmitters [redacted.]

2. When the Polaris weapon system is targeted against time urgent targets, very severe constraints are imposed on the deployment and the command and control doctrine for the system. The Soviet capability for [redacted] a most serious threat to the Polaris command and control system under these constraints. Therefore, it is the opinion of the DIA/SAC that the U.S. cannot depend with high confidence in the present situation on the Polaris weapon system to strike time-urgent targets. On the other hand, the capability of the Polaris system for assured destruction, i.e., for attack of non-time urgent targets, is high.

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