More on the subs

USS Alexandria (SSN 757) in Prudhoe Bay-Deadhorse, Alaska, March 18, 2007

Earlier this week we looked at both the attack subs and the missile subs in the US Navy. Here are a few follow-up thoughts, reaction to some comments, and additional news on the subject.

Regarding the place for SSGN cruise missile subs in the fleet, a number of folks wonder about the real feasibility of using huge boomers to perform special operations missions.

There’s no doubt that the sheer physical size of the missile boats works against some aspects of covert operations, particularly close to shore. The failure to field the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) mini-sub certainly hurts this mission, and the current SDV just isn’t good enough. The relative spaciousness of the SSGNs does allow the SEAL teams to have more gear along, though, allowing them a lot more options when it comes time to head out.

Some readers wonder why we need SSGNs as cruise missile platforms when so many current ships are already capable of launching cruise missiles.

The answer here is, of course, that while we don’t necessarily NEED another cruise missile platform, a heavily loaded SSGN secretly deployed to potential trouble spots could make all the difference when it matters. The stealth of the SSGN will allow our missiles to be launched closer to their targets with little warning when compared to surface ships. For instance, while all the world’s attention remains fixed on the aircraft carriers in and around the Arabian Gulf, who’s to say that an SSGN with 154 Tomahawks isn’t in position to strike with no warning? And even if there isn’t, doesn’t Iran have to spend valuable resources defending against the threat anyway?

One commenter suggested switching most or all of the boomer fleet over to SSGNs, except keeping four Tridents aboard each one so that one boat could handle both tactical and strategic missions as needed.

This approach has some definite advantages, but a major drawback would be the fact that a sub with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles would be spending time snooping around the coastlines of enemy nations. While the SSGNs are almost undetectable and nearly impervious to attack, the key words here are “almost” and “nearly”. We’d be running a risk by sending in a strategic deterrence asset to drop of a SEAL team, and firing off cruise missiles would certainly compromise the boats position. We don’t want our ballistic missile subs to be “hidden”, we want them to seem “non-existent”. Mixing the missions would probably hurt more than it would help.

Another suggestion was to rely solely on our ballistic missile sub force as our nuclear deterrent, scrapping the nuclear strategic bomber and ICBM programs.

While it’s likely that the SSBN fleet represents the most survivable leg of the nuclear deterrent triad, it’s always dangerous to put all of your eggs in one basket. With ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers, plus the possibility of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, any potential enemy has to work multiple problems and solve all of them satisfactorily before going ahead and launching their world conquest plan. Though defeating our boomer fleet would be a very difficult proposition for even the most advanced enemy, making their work easier by limiting the threats they face is not in our best interest. The more heads a hydra has, the more dangerous it is.

Concerning the need for a large attack sub force and the perceived atrophication of our anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, take a look at this headline from this morning:

Venezuela Eyes Russian Subs
Chavez said his arms buying spree is necessary to rebuild the country’s outmoded armed forces and to protect against what he brands U.S. imperialism.

In 2006, Venezuela signed more than $3 billion in contracts with Russia to buy 53 Mi-24 armored helicopter gunships, 24 Sukhoi-30 fighter planes and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.

The submarine reportedly under negotiation is known in Russia as the Project 636 and in NATO classification as a Kilo Class vessel.

Modern conventionally-powered subs like the Kilo class could play a major role in a military confrontation with the US Navy. Just the threat of the things could keep our carrier groups from operating where we want them to, and if one were to get through the screen somehow the results could be disastrous. By laying on quiet and waiting for us to pass by, for example. Also, though I believe the results to be strictly classified, my understanding is that the Swedish HMS Gotland, playing aggressor, perfomred quite well against the Reagan group in exercises.

gotland vs. uss reagan Swedish HMS Gotland vs. USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76)

Submarines, particularly cheaper diesels, are the guerrilla fighters in a naval war. Haven’t we had enough trouble with guerrilla-types lately?

Additionally, though shadowing Rooskie nuclear subs isn’t much of a going concern in this day and age, the intel gathering requirements have increased on our attack subs. While their ability to directly intervene in ongoing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere may be limited, there is no shortage of work for the attack boat fleet these days.

I believe that our sub force often doesn’t get the credit it deserves for our victory in the Cold War (which I call World War 3), and to see the force drastically reduced today seems like a dangerous over-correction.

Comments

  1. Were the Navy to lose all her mighty supercarriers in some future war, we’d still possess a powerful fleet of attack submarines to defend this country. Thanks to uavs and cruise missiles, almost every warship is now an aircraft carrier. So why do we need both types?

  2. but a major drawback would be the fact that a sub with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles would be spending time snooping around the coastlines of enemy nations.’ I disagree with your drawback. Basically right now we have 14 or so subs that cruise around and basically add nothing to tactical firepower situation. Additionally, given the deterrence needs of the US, having 14 full time subs each with the firepower to level 192 cities is overkill. First off, we have for years have had nuclear subs prowling the coasts of hostile countries armed with nuclear warheads, so this idea proposes nothing new. However, I would more interested in the SSGN’s conventional deterent value. I would have no issue with the majority of the SSGN’s being tasked in the deterrent role vs being used as SEAL carriers, but retain the ability to be SEAL carriers if needed. I would argue having on station 10 or so SSGN’s would have a far greater deterrent effect, as they could deter both conventional and nuclear ambitions, vs the only time the pure nuke boomer’s would go live, is in the event of doomsday. In which case the boomer’s would of failed their mission. For example: The rise of China. Currently the Chinese are going all out to come up with a counter to the Carriers. However, if we had 4 SSGN’s parked around China, we could literally stop a Taiwan invasion in its tracks or neuter the Chinese land bases capabilities at the outset. The SSGN’s would be an enormous force multiplier for a minimum of cost as each conversion runs in the 400 million range. ( or the cost of a single LCS but with 3 times the cruise missile firepower of the DD(X)) In addition, they would take a lot of pressure off the carriers as any opponent would have devote the resources to counter or contain the SSGN’s. Policy makers would be able to wield a big stick without putting 5000+ sailors in the enemy’s sights.

  3. Our attack boats in a conflict will be busy shadowing any enemy subs or boomers of possible worst case scenario opportunist. Our Nuclear tipped Boomers are not exactly what you want to risk in shallow littorals in the 3rd world for SOF insertion. Especially when it maybe sometime before you can run the proper salvage ops to recover. A conventional cruise missile boomer however would be able to risk such. Not to mention it gives you a wide range of options for X theater, SOF either enforcing current rebels for carrier strikes or outright snatch and grab ops, then of course the cruise missile salvos give you a accurate first strike or limited strike option. On the fly not telegraphed deadly even massive if full alt is required. Bottom line: The small advantage a Attack boat would have over a SSGN in the SOF insertion would not make up for the fact of, overlap with the need of SSGN Strike that would be in theater anyway, and of course the fact that this Attack sub running SOF insertion is sorely needed shadowing either Russian, Chicom, or name your 3rd world dictator running Diesel subs man of the minute.