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In light of the recent action of the Nuclear Posture Review confirming the continuing need for strategic submarines, the prospects of this magnificent fleet’s demise appears remote for the present. This fleet will, however, likely diminish in size to the recommended 14 D-5 carrying submarines. This impending action will free four Tridents for either mothballing or, perhaps, other uses.

In the next few years, as some seem to see it, in the Russian threat may continue to decline from the Cold War era. Lurking in the not too distant future, however, is the likely rise of China as a major nuclear power. In the interim we are sure to be plagued by a multitude of relatively small brush fire encounters world wide.

What, then, are we to do as the vagaries of public opinion ebb and flow regarding our worldwide military responsibilities? I suggest that we consider converting the four available Tridents as they come off the line to alternative uses which will serve both the military and civilian needs of the U.S.

As the worrisome Third World nations recognize their ability to antagonize the super powers by nipping at their heels, an ever increasing need will materialize for dealing with them in a non-nuclear manner.

I suggest that there are many reasonable and justifiable missions for which these superb submarine platforms are suited, both now and into the future. The most covert systems in existence, they are capable of moving undetected and with impunity to any part of the ocean world. If one takes a look at all those soon-to-be-empty ballistic missile tubes a number of practical alternative uses suggest themselves. Among the most tantalizing are those employing mini submersibles capable of being launched and subsequently recovered. These may be either manned or autonomous and, themselves, capable of carrying a variety of payloads.

Of particular interest is the ability of the mother submarine to disburse its load of mini subs over a wide stretch of ocean or littoral areas wherein each performs its assigned task with little need for transit capability. The mother would simply use its unlimited mobility to disburse the minis and subsequently rendezvous with and recover them. In this discussion I will address some of the possible missions, the economies and the technologies likely to be considered. Both national defense and alternative uses are discussed.


  • SEAL deployment along extended coastlines
  • Mine field clearance
  • Intelligence gathering
  • Littoral antisubmarine warfare
  • Friendly force support
  • Evacuation of nationals
  • Barrier operations
  • Show the flag
  • Humanitarian supply of food and medical supplies
  • Scientific

An almost endless list may be generated for national defense and for humanitarian, scientific and other needs. Consider, for instance, the potential uses that Woods Hole could generate were they not limited to the current small fleet of research submersibles. The potential of learning considerably more about the deep oceans with its undiscovered secrets is surely on a par with the space shuttle capabilities. We can surely utilize earth resources more economically than those likely to be discovered elsewhere.


  • One nuclear power plant provides all the power needed for extended missions.
  • Conventionally powered mini subs should be relatively inexpensive.
  • Completely submerged operations avoid weather sensitive launch and recovery.
  • The retiring C-4 Tridents will soon be available.


  • Modularity of the mini submarines to provide mission flexibility
  • Powering alternatives to provide adequate mission duration
  • Propulsion and control alternatives for transit and reentry
  • Intelligent processing architectures for the unmanned missions
  • Small submarine habitability
  • Secure and reliable communication techniques
  • Interfacing (access between Trident and tube loaded submarines)

As short term national defense priorities wind down and scientific and social programs accelerate, it would be a waste of existing resources, in this example the excess Trident fleet, not to plan meaningful alternative utilization. Space limitations prohibit the detailed exploration of each of the above suggested missions. Alternatively Jet us consider one military and one scientific mission for applicability:

One of the littoral nations has systematically acquired a substantial military force including some non-nuclear submarines and it is, in defiance of outside pressures, bent upon aggressive action against one of its neighbors. Assume, for practical purposes, that both oil and humanitarian issues are in the balance. Intelligence estimates reveal that a strike is imminent. The UN has called upon the U.S. to intervene in the interest of world order.

The President orders the rapid deployment of one ex-Trident with a full load of 24 tube-launched mini submarines modularly configured for various tasks. Some are configured for a crew of two while others are autonomous (UUVs). On arrival off the coastline after a four day transit from CONUS, the Trident covenly deploys its various minis along the coastline. Some are assigned the task of monitoring harbors for exiting vessels, particularly submarines, while others establish the necessary communication network(s) required to conduct a coordinated mission. Following the slow (1-5 knots) and shon (5-10 miles) transit from their launch points along the Trident’s track, they go about their various tasks. A minefield is detected! The mother submarine is alerted and a special mine hunter mini is deployed to locate and possibly neutralize the mines. Intelligence estimates were off and it is apparent that a longer mission will be required. After 1-3 weeks on station the manned minis are relieved along the track by fresh minis and crews. The UUVs have a 90 day mission time and are only replaced as necessary. More complex scenarios might include deployment of shallow-water surveillance arrays as well as SEAL insertion. Tube dimensions permit minis of the general size of current SEAL delivery vehicles. At the cessation of hostilities, or when directed, the mother submarine recovers the various minis and proceed to CONUS.

Turn your thinking to scientific endeavors. The potential of learning considerably more about the deep oceans with its yet undiscovered secrets is surely on a part with the space shuttle capabilities. For instance:

Woods Hole’s budget is increased to enable them to make effective use of the availability of one converted Trident submarine. A two year period will allow them to acquire a full complement of 24 modularly configured tube launch submersibles, some of the modules capable of maximum ocean depth, while others are designed as shallower manned craft or UUVs. Their first priority is to adequately survey the mid-Atlantic Ridge along its entire length. Fully loaded and deployed, the scientific team launches the first mini at the northernmost portion of the ridge. Taking a southerly course it proceeds to deploy one mini every 10-20 miles until the full load is deployed. The mother submarine then reverses course and proceeds to the location of the launching location of the second mini where it recovers the first mini. Proceeding along the track it subsequently recovers each mini which, in turn, is recharged and readied for another deployment. At the recovery point of the 24th mini it repeats the cycle progressing along the ridge path. In this manner, depending upon the width of the desired sweep path, the mission proceeds at a rate of approximately 240 miles/day obtaining detailed topography and other oceanographic data. The scientific team analyzes each mini’s data when it is recovered. A laboratory aboard the mother submarine would offer a convenient means of having the scientists at the scene and living in comfort. The benefit of on-scene analysis is difficult to exaggerate.

Other equally impressive tasks could occupy Woods Hole’s team of flexibly configured minis for years to come in its quest to learn more about our past-and our future!

Although current planning envisions UUVs for deep ocean research having endurance approaching one year, it is likely that these will severely push the capability envelope of current technology. It would appear more cost effective to utilize a multitude of less costly UUVs supported by ex-Tridents and accept an occasional operational loss of a far less complicated and costly submersible.

Lastly is the fact that much of the technology required to develop and deploy such a fleet of Trident supported submersibles is in hand. Exotic new power storage techniques needed for the
extended mission times of many of the UUVs under consideration are not required. Lead-acid will do just fine as will the Sterling cycle plants. Of all the systems for propulsion and control available, the one most capable of performing the intricate reentry maneuver AND providing silent and efficient mobility appears to be the Tandem Propeller System (TPS) currently under development for UUV tasks. Others requiring dual systems for mobility and maneuvering are either inefficient or incompatible with tube launch and recovery.

Economies of quantity production, particularly with the modular approach, could bring the cost of the typical tube launched mini submarine more in line with that of an upscale automobile. No longer, particularly in the case of the UUVs, is reliability as important an issue as in conventional military hardware. An occasional loss would be more than compensated for by the drastically reduced cost seldom associated with modem military systems. While we still need the Electric Boat and Newport News types with their infrastructures to maintain our military submarine edge, we could easily rely upon the smaller non-military submarine builders such as Perry Tritech, Benthos and others to mass produce the required UUV fleet. At, say, $1M/copy there should be ample competition to ensure a quality product. Those missions demanding a manned version will, of course, require the strict reliability-and higher cost-associated with all manned systems. Computer technology will eventually relegate almost all such missions to UUVs. Meanwhile manned versions will be required for complicated decision-making tasks such as ASW barrier missions.


Use it or lose it! As our Trident submarine force is downsized we should make every effort to imaginatively develop meaningful alternative uses for these most capable platforms.

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