Russell E. Hershey,
INTERVIEW WITH VICE ADMIRAL JOE WILLIAMS JR. - 31.8.1996
INTERVIEWER: First of all, Admiral, can I ask you the hardest question of all -- can we have your name and title for the transcripts.
VICE ADMIRAL JOE WILLIAMS: My name is Joe Williams Jr. and my title is Vice Admiral, United States Navy.
INT: Thank you.
INT: First of all, Admiral, can I ask you why were the Polaris submarines so important during the Sixties?
VAJW: The (inaudible) submarines were extremely important because of the effectiveness of the weapons system and the survivability of the platform. The effectiveness could be established by firing into calibrated ranges we could at any time call a submarine in from sea, pull at random warheads from the submarine's missiles install practice heads send it back to sea in patrol condition and from national headquarters or the lag fleet command or any one of our command posts at some time during the next six or seven days we would send him a random time message to conduct a countdown and fire his practice missiles into the same types of calibrated ranges. Therefore we could verify on a constant basis that the system was capable of performing as designed. It was extremely survivable, assured destruction capability that the Soviets knew they could not destroy and knew that if they conducted a first strike, that system would some day be available to retaliate. It might take some time to get the message to them from a destroyed national headquarters, but at some day the missile warheads would come raining in and they would pay the price.
INT: Interesting point, that. What.. purely as a layman's question, why then was this a survival platform? Why couldn't the Russians retaliate?
VAJW: The nuclear submarines themselves of course were capable of remaining totally submerged for the entire length of the patrol. They could travel freely wherever they wanted within a really large patrol areas and the Soviets just didn't have the SW capability to find them and we continually improved the system over the years to make sure that they could not. We also had what we called an ASSBN defense program that was structured to look at ways that they could possibly be located by the enemy. Very esoteric. We knew they couldn't do it but nonetheless we explored every while. But then we did that on a continuing basis. Over the years, we probably put twenty to forty million dollars a year into the effort of just assuring ourselves that there was nothing that we were doing that.. would detract from the survivability of the systems or enhance his ability to detect them. We used our own attack submarines to call on them, during a patrol now and then to do what we call 'scrub' them -- to look through their area, go back down their track, to determine whether or not any submarines were trailing them and.. we never found any trailing them.
INT: Could you talk me through roughly what it was like, on a personal level, to go out on these incredibly long patrols. What sort of were your feelings at the time?
VAJW: Well, they were very busy from the first patrol of course that I went on the Robert E. Lee in early 1961. We were still learning the boats. None of us had ever been on a nuclear submarine before. We'd never been on a missile ship on patrol before. We had all those systems that we were certain that we knew, you know, the details of but weren't all that sure. We weren't used to using inertial navigators and some of the inertial navigators, for example, in those days were rather rudimentary and it took a lot of effort to keep them within specifications. And so that first patrol went by so fast that I can't, you know, we were back in port before we could turn around. And then we found that were building new ones at such a rapid rate that each one of us that had gone on patrol.. when we came back in had to provide the new ships.. some of our people as supposedly trained experienced people. Even though they only had one patrol under their belt, they were far superior to the ones that the commanding officer had for the boats that were building. So for that first four years we lost one--sixth to one-fifth of our crew every time and so the entire patrol was always concerned with training a new cadre. One part that was, only half qualified because it took a year to qualify them so you would go to sea with a group of relatively untrained people that had been on one patrol, some coming in for their first patrol, and so you just.. I never found it boring. My people stayed busy and if anybody found it boring, then.. they weren't doing the training jobs they should've done and so..
INT: Can you run me through roughly what a patrol would involve and by that I mean that you would go out to various positions.
VAJW: Well, the patrol areas were assigned at random. Of course the first ones were.. all of them were limited of course by the ranges of our missiles and the first missiles were.. counted as being twelve hundred-mile missiles. They might be eleven hundred or they might be one thousand and fifty. It depended on the temperature of the propellant and some other things. No missiles weighed exactly the same. And so you would take.. your patrol areas then were limited by the range arcs to the targets and if they wanted you to cover ranges deep in Soviet territory, then.. you know, those first missiles, we would call.. we said they were sucking mud. We really always stayed in international waters and always observed, other boundary limitations. The Soviets have eleven miles, if I remember correctly. But we didn't have a lot of area in which to roam. Of course there weren't many of us either. There would be three of us on patrol at a time out of that first squadron with the first five, they would ...(inaudible)... But as the missiles increased in range, the A-2 I think went out to fifteen hundred miles and probably the A-13 eighteen hundred miles and then Poseidon, when it came along was a range of three thousand miles and you could back further away. And so you would go into your patrol area, submerged. You would submerge when you left not the Holy Loch, but the what is the body of water that leads into.. the Clyde! When you left the Clyde out there and you went north of Ireland, somewhere in the Hebrides seas, you'd submerge, go on about your patrol, get into your patrol area, get navigation systems settled down and established, your target list. Start covering targets. And then you wandered for sixty days just like Moses in the wilderness, any place you wanted to. You'd take random course changes sometime, roll the dice to see whether you were gonna change course in the next hour or not, and you'd wander and your job was to keep the navigation system within specifications and the, missile system with its specifications and occasionally you would always be in communications with the home base, meaning that you were receiving from them. You were not allowed to transmit. It would've been an extreme emergency if you were to transmit. And then we used a very secure.. for those days, a very secure communications system to do that. And occasionally you would receive what we called a WSRT, a Weapons System Readiness Test, message, and you would go to battle stations and count your missiles down and you would conduct a launch up to the point of opening the missile tube doors. All of that was monitored by tape. Time, performance of every system, every second, during the countdown and that package then became part of your patrol report when you came back and Applied Physics Laboratory John Hopkins University would receive those and analyze your patrol and so that they could tell you that you were in communications receiving communication let's say ninety nine point nine per cent of the time instead of a hundred per cent of the time, that out of the sixteen missile tube launch at 0200 (= O-two hundred) on the sixteenth of January you counted down sixteen missiles, fifteen performed properly, the sixteenth one had this defect or in this system was a defect and so, know, your performance was there for the whole world to see. And you did that.. for 60 days. Trained people, covered targets stayed within communications and occasionally demonstrated that that your missile systems were ready to go. And you had to do the training emergency training for your troops. You'd conduct your reactor scrams at sea, you did all of the things necessary to ensure that your people were trained to handle the ship.
INT: Did you know where your targets were?
VAJW: Oh yes, yes. The target list. I did. And the Weapons Officer did. And my executive officer did, but they... and I don't know whether there's anybody else on that list or not. Probably the Chief of the Fire Control crew in the missile compartment did, but you had the coordinates of the targets and.. the data that you needed.
INT: What sort of targets were they?
VAJW: Well, you have to understand that the Polaris system to begin with was really a city-killer. So if you can target any important city in Russia, those were the cities we covered and we were not a hard target, a weapon system, and never did advertise ourselves to be a hard target, first strike capability as one that can destroy the enemy's intercontinental ballistic missile systems in their hardened silos. As we improved our accuracy of our missiles such that at the three thousand-mile range we were just as accurate -- or even more accurate -- than we were with the first generation of missiles. As the years went on technology improved, navigation systems improved, it was much easier to stay within specs, tolerances were closer, so we became more accurate. If we took the three thousand-mile missile, which met the specifications and the accuracy that we desired for an assured destruction of.. if you move it in closer and closer, it gets more accurate, so you can make a case for the fact that those missiles, if you brought them into a certain range, were a hard target but we never did that because we felt that was destabilizing and of course the Air Force bitterly resented any indication that we were a hard target capability because that would've kind of taken them out of.. that was.. one of the reasons for their existence, which I don't think there was a great reason for anyway, but..
INT: Was there much competition between the services?
VAJW: Lot of competition between Air Force and the Navy in the performance...
INT: What sort of competition was there between the Air Force and the Navy?
VAJW: The competition was for, the coverage of targets. They were very jealous of their prerogative to cover the enemy's missile sites. They had a hard target capability that.. according to the Air Force. They set the they set the requirements as to what constituted a hard target, was how many KTs must I put within so many feet of one of these missiles to ensure that it doesn't destruct. Their problem in the competition was that they, in my opinion, they could never really demonstrate that their land-based missile systems had the same effectiveness, six months from the date that they were deployed, or twelve months, because they took the missiles out of their missile silos along with the crew that would normally fire them, took them to Vandenberg Air Force base, installed them in another missile tube and then fired them and that's not realistic, OK. So you can't put as much faith, I don't think, in the effectiveness but we were continually in competition for the effectiveness. Also intense competition for funding. And any time a missile system, was proposed by one there would be a counter-proposal by the other. We needed to make our system more survivable, we needed to be able to receive our communications from home base at deeper depths. (engine sound in background) We utilized very low frequency, which penetrates water down to a depth of.. thirty five to forty feet. We wanted something that would penetrate the water down to four hundred feet and we could be there or deeper and receive the signal, and ..(inaudible).. that as an extremely low frequency system. When we started lobbying for an extremely low frequency system to be installed at that time in Wisconsin their approach was to say 'yes, we agree, but it has to be hardened' and they made it so expensive that we could never.. (laugh) it took us twenty years to get approval of it! We now have that system and we can talk to our submarines at deeper depths. But that's the type of competition that we're talking.