Making the Case for SSGNs

By Rear Admiral William P. Houley, U.S. Navy (Retired)

It is fairly well accepted that there is no such thing as a cheap nuclear-powered submarine. In this case we would take advantage of up to four Ohio (SSBN-726)-class ballistic-missile submarines built to maintain strategic deterrence in a geopolitical environment now happily in our past. As a result, political and military experts generally agree that all 18 Ohio SSBNs are required no longer for strategic deterrence. Indeed, the 1993 Nuclear Posture Review concluded that a force of 14 Ohio SSBNs would be sufficient to meet U.S. national security requirements. In 1998, the Chief of Naval Operations reaffirmed this position in testimony before Congress.

These ships are relatively young, in superb material condition, and could serve for more than 20 years in support of conventional and special mission requirements for the Defense Department as SSGNs and/or for other purposes. The marginal cost of refueling and converting them would be well under $2 billion, without even considering the savings and opportunity cost avoidance that would be realized in increased availability of other air and naval strike assets for alternative tasking. For example, attack submarines and Aegis cruisers and destroyers could be made available in other required roles, including theater ballistic missile defense, antiair warfare, or antisubmarine warfare. Conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, North Korea, the Middle East, and other troubled regions have illustrated how thinly stretched our military resources are. The requirement to maintain substantive air and naval assets in the Gulf to monitor Saddam is staggering. It is in this context that the investment required to convert four SSBNs can be described as modest.

Our ability to operate and maintain such ships, far from home and with maximum time at sea, has been demonstrated convincingly over the last 40 years. Deployed and maintained judiciously, a force of four SSGNs could provide in effect the presence of two ships forward deployed year round. Under current ship deployment/maintenance policies, this presence would require eight to ten ships. Without even considering the organic capabilities of a converted Ohio SSGN, this represents a more than 100% return on a conversion investment, when measured in the Navy's coin of the realm, forward presence.

Because these submarines can remain invisible and undetectable for weeks at a time, no ships are more worrisome (and hence, highly visible) to defense planners than nuclear submarines. In fact, there are numerous scenarios in which it might serve the National Command Authority well to have an adversary—whether an enemy state, terrorist threat, or international troublemaker—get a good look at a U. S. guided-missile submarine at the ready. Once such an adversary experiences a missile strike "from nowhere," the effectiveness of these exceptional ships would be multiplied in trouble spots around the world for years to come.

The Defense Department's current program of record calls for decommissioning the first four Ohio SSBNs beginning in 2002. If the nation decides to convert and refuel these ships, a two year lead time is required. Hence, a favorable decision this year or next would allow commencement of a conversion effort in 2003.

While anticipating the implications of START is tough, most analysts concur that the SSGN option is doable. Under START I, a submarine missile tube counts against START warhead limits until the tube is removed from the submarine. However, since the START I warhead levels are substantially higher than the entire U.S. inventory, even with the four ex-SSBNs' missile tubes intact, we would be in compliance.

START II, though signed in 1993 and ratified by the U. S. Senate in 1994, is being held hostage by the Russian Duma for a changing set of international and U.S.-Russia policy reasons. START II requires that submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warheads be reduced to 1,750. This limit must be achieved by 1 January 2003, or if the Helsinki Agreement/START II Protocol is ratified, by 31 December 2007. If a waiver or special provision exempting SSGN launcher/warhead accountability is not obtained, then the warheads attributed to the launchers on the four SSGNs would continue to be counted at their declared number of (phantom) warheads—384. For the remaining 14 Ohio SSBNs, the warhead count would be 1,344. These two combined still would be START II-compliant.

Given the vagaries of our turbulent relationship with Russia, coupled with the uncertainty of START II's fate, predicting how the SSGN proposal will affect START III is impossible. To be sure, it would be a significant question, given (presumably) sharp reductions in warhead/tube numbers and Russia's discomfort with the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM)—an offensive capability they do not appreciate much more than our nuclear SLBMs. How this could or should turn out I cannot predict, but it will and should be part of the national debate I suggest is appropriate this year and next.

The idea of having conventionally armed, precision strike missiles deployed on board a ready, robust, and survivable SSGN platform is attractive strategically and tactically. They also would provide a forward visible or invisible presence. Plans provide for seven-missile modules to be fitted into as many as 22 of the ships' 24 tubes (the remaining two tubes would provide lock-in, lockout trunks for use by special operations forces [SOFs]). The fact that one shipload of 154 missiles can be ripple fired within minutes would be of enormous importance to the National Command Authority, the theater commander-in-chief, and the SSGN's commanding officer.

Less well understood is the concomitant advantage of having the capability of launching SOFs covertly from an endless variety of sites. The considerable size of the SSGN hull and dedication of two or more launch tubes for SOF use provide considerable flexibility for as many as 60 personnel and their equipment for extended periods. In fact, while the selling point for converting these ships is most convincing for the sustained ability to launch precision strike missiles (TLAMs, Land Attack Standard Missiles [LASMs], and Navy Tactical Missiles [NTACMs] are candidates), the space available in these hulls could be used for a variety of parallel or alternative tasks. These include—but are not limited to—mine or land reconnaissance using unmanned underwater and (perhaps in the future) air vehicles; mine laying; antiship and/or antisubmarine warfare; or covert electronic and/or communications collection. Other missions would be limited primarily by imagination and perhaps conversion costs. But the advantages of selective stealth (covert when required, overt if desired) apply in each case.

Submariners have proven their adaptability to changing circumstances and the need to coordinate and cooperate with other forces over the post-Cold War period. Thus, earlier concerns on communications-intensive team play are being addressed rapidly. Submarine communications suites are undergoing a sea change in bandwidth and processing power. Submarines in exercises have acted as Tomahawk Land Attack Launch Area Coordinators—the role that stresses connectivity the most in strike operations. Clearly, the Ohio class permits antenna options not as easily accommodated in attack submarines, as well as the space to house command and control equipment needed for large-scale strike or SOF missions.

The SSGN would be a big hit with the theater commanders-in-chief, because it would provide a unique strike and SOF platform tailored to meet the crisis-response and warfighting environment we expect to encounter in the 21st century. The ability to position the platform continuously without sapping the operational resources of our armed forces would be invaluable, more so in that its covert nature—combined with the capability of launching missiles or special forces personnel—would allow coverage of most critical targets and enemy information nodes.

If this is such a wonderful idea, why is it not included in the Navy's budget request? The answer is regrettable, but not surprising: The up-front costs of readiness (personnel, operations, and maintenance) are so great that the Navy has little flexibility to invest in modernization of existing ships, submarines, and aircraft. Just providing for periodic overhauls of our fleet assets, even given the recent increase in the President's defense budget request, is a major challenge.

There are several reasons the program could be funded even if the Navy cannot fit it into its formally recommended program: the case for SSGN conversion of the four Ohio hulls is compelling; the Ohios' cost-effectiveness and operational reliability have been convincingly demonstrated; and the timing is such that the administration and Congress soon will have to fund either the decommissioning or the conversion and refueling of these ships. The nation may not be able to afford all of the ships our operating forces now need, but when an opportunity exists to obtain such broad benefit at relatively low cost, can we afford not to?

Admiral Houley is a former submariner. After retiring in late 1994, he worked for Lockheed Martin Corporation. In March 1998, the Secretary of Defense requested that Mr. Houley lead the Defense Reform Initiative at the Pentagon, a post he held until March 1999.

 

 
 

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