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