The Benjamin Franklin class of submarine was an evolutionary development from the James Madison class of fleet ballistic missile submarine. The class was created in the early 1980s when its members, built as James Madisons, were upgraded to an improved propulsion plant and the ability to carry the Trident C-4 missile instead of the earlier Polaris A-2. Together with the George Washington, the Ethan Allen, the Lafayette, and the James Madison classes, they comprised the "41 for Freedom."

In the early 1980s, to make room for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines within the limits set by SALT II, the missile tubes of Kamehameha and James K. Polk were disabled. Those boats were redesignated special operations attack submarines and given SSN hull classification symbols.