"Forty-one For Freedom" was the name of the US Navy project which commissioned and deployed 41 ballistic missile submarines during the worst days of the cold war. These nuclear powered submarines were designed to deliver the first generation of sea-launched Polaris SLBMs to enemy targets in the event of a nuclear war. The Forty-One For Freedom Fleet Ballistic Missile program ran from the deployment of the USS George Washington in 1960 until the deployment of the first of the Ohio-class submarines in late 1981. All submarines were ordered by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and all were delivered by early 1967.

Ballistic missile submarines play two roles in the event of a nuclear war. One, they are a hidden, mobile force arrayed so that in case of an enemy attack, the nation being attacked will have a surviving reserve of weapons with which to retaliate or counterattack. Two, they can be used in a surprise attack or preemptive strike to destroy enemy targets, in hopes of eliminating their ability to counterattack before the enemy has a chance to respond. The latter role was a particularly frightening one, given that their missiles could reach targets within enemy territory within fifteen minutes or less, rather than the 30 to 45 minutes a land-based, long-range ICBM would take. Their global mobility also made them more desirable (and much more dangerous) than land-based, short-range ballistic missiles. The US program was undertaken because of their growing fear of Soviet nuclear superiority. This was driven largely by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and by the Soviets' own deployment of submarine-based missiles starting in 1959. Prior to the space race, nuclear weapons were delivered solely by air, but the development of ballistic missiles moved nuclear forces onto land and sea. Today, five of the nine declared nuclear powers use ballistic missile submarines as part of their nuclear deterrent, though only the United States has a sizable fleet.

The submarines in the Forty-One for Freedom program were all built over a span of only seven and a half years, and were a key part of the US nuclear deterrent throughout their service lifetimes. They all began their service lives carrying the Polaris missile, but ships of the larger Lafayette, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin classes were upgraded in the 1970s to carry the longer-range Poseidon. Each could carry sixteen missiles, and each missile had a range of between 1200 (Polaris) and 2500 (Poseidon) nautical miles. The vertical missile tubes were located just aft of the sail on all ships, and missiles were launched while the ship was submerged just below the surface. The Poseidon C-3 missles the newer ships carried were particularly deadly, as they had longer range and were more accurate than the Polaris, and could carry up to fourteen MIRVed warheads. All ships continued operations into the 1980s and some into the early 1990s, but they have all now been replaced with eighteen Ohio-class SSBNs, each of which carry 24 Trident missiles.

The Forty-One For Freedom submarines and their missiles have now been removed from the United States nuclear arsenal, most have been decommissioned, and some have been stricken from the naval register and scrapped. Some of these ships were converted to other roles including attack submarine or special forces operations and were operating until very recently. The last active ship, the USS Kamehameha, was converted for use in an attack role, but was placed in stand-down in October of 2001 in preparation for decommissioning. Some of the ships were stricken from the naval register, and their names were given to aircraft carriers: the Theodore Roosevelt (now CV-71), the Abraham Lincoln (now CV-72), and the George Washington (now CV-73). Only one ship, the Nathanael Greene, was "lost" (with no casualties) when it ran aground and sustained heavy damage in the Irish Sea in early 1986. The ship was recovered and towed to port, but wasn't repaired or returned to service.

The following is a list of ships in the Forty-One For Freedom program, with their commissioning and decommissioning dates. What is striking about the list is the rapid escalation in the number of ships and missiles over such a short span of time. The activation of the George Washington and Ethan Allen-class ships coincided with the worst days of the Cold War, just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, and before the Atmospheric Test-Ban Treaty of 1963 which helped to reduce the nuclear threat somewhat. While the bulk of the ships were delivered in 1963 and 1964, most were ordered two years earlier during the time of highest tension.

George Washington-Class: Ethan Allen-Class: Lafayette-Class: James Madison-Class: Benjamin Franklin-Class:

This writeup was inspired by a day trip to the USS Nautilus museum in Groton, CT, a recommended stop if you're in the area. Additional sources:

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