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Celebrating 124 Years of U.S. Navy Submarines: How SSP Supports the Warfighter, Maintains an Unmatched Strategic Deterrent

11 April 2024

From Lt. Jennifer Bowman

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD - Submarine forces have been long-standing and proud part of the United States Naval forces and a major contributor to our nation’s defense for 124 years.

After more than a century of service, the Navy submarine force—and, in particular, its nuclear deterrence warfighters—continues to be a cornerstone of our nation’s security and a kingpin for America’s Warfighting Navy.

April 11, 1900 marked the inaugural acquisition of the first modern submarine in the fleet’s history, USS Holland (SS 1). Traced as far back as the American Revolutionary War, submarines and submariners have held significant influence on how we fight wars from the sea. These vessels proved valuable in World War II as a significant denier of German U-Boats and gaining decisive wins over the Japanese in the Pacific. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, submarines were responsible for sinking more than 540,000 tons of Japanese Naval vessels, along with more than 4.7 million tons of merchant shipping.

The work of submariners is often dubbed the ‘silent service’, principally because the nature of submarine missions was—and is—not usually telegraphed or broadcasted publicly. The moniker rings particularly true for the Navy’s sea-based nuclear deterrence mission, which remains the most survivable of the three legs of our nation’s nuclear triad. As the submarine forces continued to develop after World War II, new technology and capabilities were advanced and the world’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was born.

The research, development, and provision of a combat capability for these vessels was tasked to a newly-established Special Projects Office (SPO) created in 1955 and led by Rear Adm. William ‘Red’ Raborn. Specifically, SPO would develop, design, and test the first-ever fleet ballistic missile. In 1959, the USS George Washington (SSBN 598) was commissioned and one year later, the vision would become a reality.

July 20, 1960, USS George Washington would execute the first successful underwater launch of a POLARIS A1 test vehicle from a submarine. POLARIS—named for the North Star—was a two-stage ballistic missile, powered by solid fuel rocket motors and guided by a self-contained inertial guidance system independent of external commands or control.

SPO—renamed Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) in 1987—still owns the cradle to grave responsibility for the submarine-launched ballistic missile system. SSP oversees all aspects of research, development, production, logistics, storage, repair, and operational support for the system.

Though SSP’s mission is program management focused, the command has a specific branch dedicated to forming connective tissue between the highly technical side of the command’s mission and the warfighter’s operational readiness needs at sea. The Operations, Evaluations, and Training Branch (SP205) specifically lends its support to the warfighter aboard the Ohio-class SSBN.

“Our branch does all of the execution of flight testing with the fleet… we are one of SSP’s major interfaces with the fleet,” explained the Branch Head Capt. Bill Dull. 

He highlighted how the branch is specifically manned with more fleet personnel than it is Engineering Duty Officers. Integrating fleet personnel at SSP bakes in much-needed institutional knowledge about the day-to-day operational environment and makes translating between SSP and the fleet more seamless.

“When we respond to message traffic from the fleet, we are able to relate the terminology from a fleet perspective into a format familiar to SSP such that we know what the submarine is doing with the directions we’ve sent to the submarine.”

Building this connectivity is only a portion of the responsibilities for which Capt. Dull and his staff are accountable.

“We [the branch] are at the coolest end of what SSP does in flight testing,” he said.

“We execute Demonstration and Shakedown Operations (DASO) which certifies the viability of the ship, its crew, and its Trident II D5LE strategic weapons system, and it culminates in the launch of a test missile.”

This testing is a critical part of ensuring the SSBN’s readiness before operational deployment following the submarine's midlife refueling overhaul or as part of new construction. SSBN’s account for 70% of the nation’s nuclear triad.

Capt. Dull recalled visiting Cape Canaveral and touring the launch complexes and bunkers constructed in the 1950’s that various organizations, including SSP [then-SPO] used to test early missiles [like Polaris] that would eventually be launched from the sea.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven,” Capt. Dull counted down out loud as he described audio narrative emanating from the carefully-catalogued exhibits and pondered what it must have been like to stand up the nuclear deterrence program nearly 70 years ago. His description alone was evidence that Capt. Dull is well-aware of his responsibility to connect today’s fleet to the rich history and culture of SSP—not just where the organization has been, but where it is going.

“It’s amazing we have this brilliant program—with talented people—that can launch a missile from a submarine undersea [to a target] halfway around the world.

The criticality of this work is what makes the strategic deterrence mission so paramount to our nation’s defense. The submariners of America’s warfighting Navy can be absolutely confident in the SWS system on their submarines—and assurance strengthened by the work Capt. Dull and his team execute daily to ensure the SSBN fleet is equipped, ready, and positioned to fight and win at sea. 

“If we get to a point where the U.S. Navy can send only ten ships to sea, they will be SSBNs,” Capt. Dull confidently stated.  

A former Commanding Officer of USS Alaska (SSBN-732), Capt. Dull says the most critical component to the viability of the strategic deterrence mission and the submarine fleet is its people.

“When I was in command, USS Alaska represented a fleet of sailors from roughly 37-39 different states in the Nation,” he said.

“We are a cross section of America that come together to form one team to execute the most important mission of the Department of Defense.” 

Just like the diversity of his submarine crew, SSP’s workforce of Navy civilians and service members come from all walks of life to form the team developing the sea based strategic deterrence capability. In the future, Capt. Dull says SSP’s team must stay one step ahead of near-peer competitors and adversaries in support of the mission.

“It’s not just developing future weapons systems and capabilities, but maximizing the use of what we have currently,” Capt. Dull said, quantifying this point as a hallmark of SSP’s success.

He underscored that the exchange of ideas from the fleet to SSP and vice versa remains essential to innovation and problem solving.

“We need to continue to work within SSP to deliver both Columbia-class and Trident II D5LE2 weapons system training and operational documentation—on time—so that the future warfighter is ready for the challenges we are going to see in the 2030s.”

A lesser-known part of SSP’s mission is the organization’s support to the fleet of OHIO-Class Guided Missile Nuclear Submarines (SSGN). In 1994, the Nuclear Posture Review determined that the United States needed only 14 of its 18 SSBNs to meet the nation's strategic force needs. The four “excess” Ohio-Class boats were converted to SSGNs within five years and are a vital element of today’s Warfighting Navy. Combined, the four SSGNs represent more than half of the Submarine Force's conventional vertical launch payload capacity. They have unprecedented strike and special operations force projection capabilities from a stealth, clandestine platform—which lends extreme flexibility to the mission.

SSGNs sit at the pinnacle of naval integrated and all-domain warfare. The ships, capable of carrying up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, have unique-to-SSGN capabilities to help ensure regional maritime security and stability around the world.

Managing SSP’s critical support to these assets is Martina Sibley, head of the SSGN Strike Program Office. She and the SSGN team support the ship’s missile compartment, equipment maintenance, and any upgrades needed to accomplish the mission.

“To some degree, we are like the Maytag Man,” Sibley said.

She explained that aging infrastructure on the SSGNs can present complex challenges that require advanced problem-solving mindsets. The most important thing to her is providing the best possible service to the submariners.   

“SSGN sailors are immensely dedicated to the mission and because of the crucial mission they serve, I want to help them navigate challenges in the best way that I can,” Sibley said. 

A vital part of her mission is ensuring she can communicate quickly and properly with the ship’s crew—especially if there is any problem that needs to be fixed. That’s where integration with Capt. Dull’s branch is necessary as the conduit to the fleet. 

“The fleet liaison officer I have in the Operations, Testing, and Evaluation Branch is my first line of defense,” explained Sibley.

“If I need to send a message to the SSGN’s crew or coordinate with the (or the sub group commanders) the liaison ensures the naval message is properly formatted, communicated, and understood between SSP and the submarine.”

In Martina’s eyes, supporting sailors aboard these SSGNs is paramount.

“What is so significant about these submarines is that they are deployed at that critical point where you need a show of force.”

In the future—just as the Ohio-class SSBNs are nearing end of life—so too are the Ohio-class SSGNs. And Sibley said outside-the-box thinking on how to transition SSGN capabilities to the new Virginia-class submarines will be crucial in maintaining warfighting advantage.

“To me, it’s a win-win that our small team effectively provides this vital capability to the command while overseeing reclamation of low-use, high-dollar components from these submarines,” she said. 

Every day, SSP’s dedicated staff like Sibley and Capt. Dull remain committed to the mission and to ensuring submarine platforms are ready with the right capabilities, weapons, and sustainment. They take the approach with their eye squarely fixed on the safety and support of the sailors who operate these systems—and the communities these sailors selflessly protect and defend.

“How I feel every day when I leave work is that I am defending the United States,” said Sibley.

“I want to make sure our children and our children’s children are free, and that we have a sovereign nation for years to come.”


SSP wishes a Happy 124th Birthday to the fleet of submariners and their support staff—thank you for your dedication to the mission and for faithfully standing the watch!


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