Yesterday it was attack subs, so why not missile boats today?

ssgn cruise missile submarineOf the 18 Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines built from 1976-1997, all are still in service. Four of them have been removed from strategic service and have been converted to SSGN cruise missile subs. USS Ohio (SSGN 726) and USS Florida (SSGN 728) rejoined the fleet last year, USS Michigan (SSGN 727) just rejoined the fleet a couple of weeks ago, and USS Georgia (SSGN 729) should rejoin this fall. The remaining 14 Ohios continue to serve as strategic nuclear deterrents much as they did during the Cold War.

Unlike the attack sub force, which has been nearly halved since 1990 with more cuts to come, the missile sub force has not been cut back nearly so much. Though Northrop Grumman’s Newport News recently said it was ready and willing to start designing the next class of boomer, no current plans call for new boats.

If the attack sub fleet finds itself scrambling to justify its existence in an age of asymmetric land warfare, the missile subs have an even tougher task in convincing budgeters of the need for a massive nuclear deterrent in a post-Mutually Assured Destruction world. In fact, the four boats converted to SSGNs were to have been retired beginning in 2002 rather than undergo the upgrade to the D-5 Trident II missile.

How many ballistic missile subs are required to provide the US Navy the deterrent it needs? A study published last year suggests that a force of 10 SSBNs would strike the right balance between capability, cost-savings, and treaty agreements. Current treaty plans indicate a total of around 1440 nuclear warheads for US subs, meaning about 4 per missile if all 14 boats are retained. Each missile now carries up to 8 warheads. The report notes:

This distributes the available warheads across a large force which maximizes survivability but affords little savings in that additional missile airframes must be purchased to outfit a submarine force with a 45-year lifespan. The Navy should reduce the SSBN force to 10 submarines, which would increase the number of warheads per missile to six. Reducing the size of the SSBN force would save money in two ways. First, fewer D-5 missile airframes need be purchased. Second, depending upon the future missions assigned, the cost of continuing to operate four SSBNs in strategic service is eliminated. This second cost savings is reduced as the four submarines removed from the strategic mission would still be put to sea but not with the expense of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

The study also recommends what to do with the four subs removed from strategic service. Two of them converted to SSGNs (bringing the total to six), particularly useful as special operations will continue to grow in importance in the coming years and talk of a intermediate range conventional ballistic missile means no shortage of work for the SSGN force. The other two could be used as training platforms, replacing two retired Lafayette class boats in that role.

Also, two recent columns by controversial Washington Post military blogger William M. Arkin noted the missile sub issue. In What the Weapons Makers Want he likened the boomers to the Air Force’s long-range strategic bombers, and received a response from an officer on an Ohio-class sub claiming that the boats are contributing nothing, nothing at all, to the national security of the United States. Arkin discussed this reponse in More Subs, Fewer Boots on the Ground. Read the letter and the response for yourself and see if there’s anything there. Also, check out Bubblehead’s commentary on the matter.

Cross-posted to Defense Tech.

UPDATE: See more on the submarine force, including Venezuelan plans to buy Russian Kilos, here.


  1. Murdoc, Here’s a repost of my comments from Bubblehead’s blog: ——————– No relevance for the fast attack boats, eh? Maybe someone ought to inform him of China’s 60 conventional boats they’ve been training with? Perhaps someone ought to sit that young fellow down and explain how fleet logistics work, and how vulnerable merchants are to submarines. War with China will eventually come. The question for the US Navy is whether or not we can deal with the Chinese blue-water ss’s. They might be diesal boats, but if they sortie a hundred of them, and with our surface navy’s lack of ASW training, it might well be a hard day for our fleet. It’s not that we CAN’T take them on, but it’s all in the numbers. Do they have more subs than we have torpedoes? Can’t answer that yet. What if, however, they decide to ignore our surface fleet and concentrate on shutting off our logistic support? Cruise missle attacks against shore-based depots overseas, and harbour facilites, backed up by submarine attacks against our AO’s and other supply ships. Hard to sustain a war without bunker, JP and reloads. I’m just tossing out stuff here, but we have planty of missions available for a diminishing SSN fleet. I’m also concerned about casualties (of any type) to the boomers in a reduced number fleet. The problem with more warheads of fewer boats is that, if one gets hit, or has a propulsion casualty, or whatever, we lose a larger percentage of the SLBM strike capability. 1 boat fewer means a 10% reduction in assets. You don’t need such things when confronting an enemy. Of any kind. Respects, ———————- And the fewer the boomers, the more work each has to do when the zombies strike. Stupid boomer JO.

  2. AW1 Tim: You and I spoke about the sub threat at the MilBlog Conferece, and I think I said something to the effect of ‘Of all the things to be concerned about regarding our military at war, the threat of enemy subs against our ships (combat and logistics) is the only one that really SCARES me. Not sure if you caught it, but I wrote about the attack sub fleet levels yesterday. (Also cross-posted to Defense Tech.)

  3. Murdoc, Yup, I agree, and i remember well our coversations (although some other ones tended to blend together as the evening and alcohol wore on). I am just very disconcerted by what seems to me a lackadaisical attitude towards ASW training exhibited by our Navy overall. Ever since the Cold War ended, folks seem to think that threats have gone away. True enough, some have diminished. Yet others have increased, notably China, and we cannot overlook the threats posed by other nations such as North Korea, Iran, etc. Now even Venezuela wants to get in on the diesal-boat binge. Thing is, Iran, for example, only has to get lucky once. If they managed to get a sub or two loose and start sinking tankers, the shock value and economic panic would outweight whatever actual damage they did. Similar to when we were reflagging Kuwaiti tankers back in the 1980’s. Good stuff you are posting here. I like this site a lot. Respects,

  4. I’m of the opinion that we should move our entire strategic detterent to the boomers, as the Brits do, where they are nearly invulnerable to a first strike. Also, the British are planning on replacing theirs with newer boats in the near future, and America should be headed in this direction as well.

  5. Personally, I am dead against moving the whole strategic deterrent to subs. Just say no to all the eggs in one basket. As for their invulnerability – do not be so quick to make such a pronouncement. That said, personally I would convert all of the boomer’s to SSGN status – except each would keep 4 silos for SLBM’s. As of the attack subs, have some with Nuke propulsion and some with air independent propulsion. The nukes being the high sea hunter/killers/ task force protectors and the AI’s being littoral stalkers/ attackers.

  6. I also am against 100% of our nuclear deterrence being on the boomers. It would greatly simplify the job of the Chinese (or whoever) by giving them only one threat to overcome. If they could exploit some unknown weakness and get the upper hand over our missile subs, it would be a potential lights-out scenario for us. As for a mixture of SSGN/SSBN capabilities in one boat, I’ve got some thoughts about that too. I think I’ll toss them up in a new post later today. Though the idea seems to make sense in some ways, I would be hesitant to go with it for a couple of reasons. In the meanwhile, if anyone has anything to say about the concept be sure to post it here so I can reference it if needed.

  7. I think this is the quote of the Washington Post blog article: ‘At the same time, the focus on China is oddly insufficient. After all, if war planners do see China as the enemy, then they are derelict in suggesting that a few submarines and a few dozen bombers are enough to prevail in World War III.’ This is the crux of the issue. If we are so damn ‘transformatiional’ then why are we thinking so conventionally? If, in fact, we need to be thinking about countries like China as a legitimate threat (which I think we do), then why are we allowing our capabilities to dwindle to insignifigance? We need real reform of our military industrial complex, but how is that going to happen when we have stuff like this going on: Boeing Co. on Tuesday named retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, the former head of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, to its board. The appointment is the latest in a line of retired senior armed forces and Pentagon leaders joining defense contractors, underscoring the tight relationship between U.S. arms makers and buyers. Boeing’s main rivals already have former high-ranking servicemen and Pentagon officials on their board. In 2006, Northrop Grumman Corp. appointed retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to its board. The U.S. No. 3 defense contractor has had retired U.S. Navy Admiral Charles Larson on its board since 2002. Lockheed’s board boasts former under-secretary of Defense, E.C. ‘Pete’ Aldridge. We need to put an end to the conflict of interest game. We need to stop paying contractors more to screw up and drag out programs than we do for them to be innovative, timely, and successful. We need to provide financial incentives for them to produce hardware instead of paper. In short, we need real reform. Not this lip service crap we’ve been innundated with for the last 30 years, but real reform. Where is it going to come from, and will it be too late?

  8. Here’s an example of what’s gone wrong in today’s news: Roughly half of the money spent on all federal contracts in 2006 was awarded with little or no competition, according to a congressional report released yesterday. The report, prepared by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for its chairman, Henry A. Waxman, found that the federal government spent $412.1 billion on procurement last year. Of that, $206.9 billion, or 50.2 percent, was awarded through contracts that required either no bidding process, had limited competition or otherwise fell short of ‘full and open competition.’ No-bid contracts alone amounted to $103 billion in 2006, a 43 percent jump from the previous year, the report said. The report also said that audits and investigations had found that 187 contracts, valued at $1.1 trillion, ‘have been plagued by waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement.’ Have we given up on capitalism? How are we going to get better weapons when we don’t even pretend to compete contracts? We’ve doubled the amount of money going to the contractors while cutting the number of soldiers, and the increase has all been in non-competitive. Hell, if we’re going to be socialists, let’s be socialists. Let’s nationalize Boeingsky and Lockmoyan. We will at the very least save $40 million a year in CEO salaries! If that’s not corporate welfare at it’s worst, I don’t know what is.

  9. Defens – Its not just the lack of completion that is at issue (though I fully agree with on the need for real completion). There is a real incest situation going on. or example, lets take the most expensive pound for pound plane ever built. The TR-1 (cost per plane 400 million +) The reason there was never competition for this plane was that you needed security clearance and certifications out the yin yang just find out enough information in order to attempt to make a bid on the project. Since the vendor had to pay for the clearances and like ( which took about year or so and cost around 100K – and this was back in the 80’s) It created a situation where users with the clearances and certifications had an assured 6 figure income upon retirement. So what end up happens, is once a vendor gets a toe hold on a project, the security clearance issue acts as a huge firewall against competion. This also explains one of the dirty little secrets of R&D. Because of the security clearance stovepipe, you cannot share the technical expertise learned from one program to the another. So SAR with near realtime datalinks developed for the TR-1 in the early 80’s had to be ‘reinveted’ for the Global Hawk.

  10. Yeah, I hear ya’, James. It’s just like the way they develop a new avionics system every time they build a new airplane. What the hell, they’re all doing the same thing, why do we need a new one for every new airplane? There should be programs, largely funded by the airplane companies themselves, that continuously upgrade and develop avionics capabilities. After all, today an avionics system is just a set of networked computers with peripherials you don’t find attached to the common desktop (although you do see GPS in a lot of laptops). They developed a new radar for F-22. What they hell does a stealth airplane need a multi-billion dollar radar for? If they’re so determined to advertise their location, why do they need to be stealthy? Why did they not develop the radar for an airplane that could use it, like the F-15?

  11. Defense – You do have a point about the F-22 radar set. Though you can make an argument that the F-22 radar, while allowing general detection, it does not provide a suitable signal source to enable effective targeting solution. Actually, they do have an AESA radar set for the F-15, and the F-18 and the F-22 and the F-35 and of course each has their own version of the radar.