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Merrick Carey is President of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. Loren Thompson directs the lnstilule ‘s defense program.

In December the congressionallly-chartered National Defense Panel released a report entitled “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century,” which set forth the shared views of seven respected defense experts on how the United States should prepare for the military challenges of the year 2020. The Panel’s report was mandated by the same language in the 1997 defense authorization act that directed preparation of a Quadrennial Defense Review, and was conceived by several influential Senators as a sort of sanity check or second opinion on the threat assessment, military strategy and force structure endorsed by the QDR. Among the Senators strongly supporting the need for an independent defense panel was Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, one of the Senate’s most vigorous proponents of submarines, and Senator William Cohen of Maine, now the Secretary of Defense.

As is often the case with high level commissions that part company with conventional wisdom, the release of the National Defense Panel’s report was met with some consternation in official circles. The Panel called for scrapping the current, incremental approach to military modernization and instead embraced a bold transformation strategy to prepare the military for the unprecedented challenges of the future-challenges that it said might include chemical and biological attacks on the U.S. homeland, information warfare, and frequent military operations in the sprawling urban centers of the Third World littoral.

Critics complained that the NDP report was too ready to abandon so-called legacy systems such as large deck aircraft carriers and heavy tanks, while lacking programmatic specifics on what should be purchased instead. The criticism had some validity: many of the Panel’s recommendations were rather nebulous. But on at least one score the defense experts were surprisingly specific about what the Pentagon should be pursuing. In a section called “Near-Term Implications”, the Panel argued that the Navy should 11look closely” at “converting one or more of the four Trident SSBNs coming out of strategic service to alternative missions”.

That recommendation effectively put the weight of informed opinion behind a proposal that has come to be known as Trident SSGN, a concept for equipping Ohio class ballistic missile subs as conventional guided missile and special operations platforms for participation in future littoral operations. Although the idea of Trident SSGN is of recent origin, barely predating an article on the subject by Admiral Hank Chiles in the January 1997 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, it has rapidly gained support as the arsenal ship program was canceled and the full extent of the funding shortfall confronting naval modernization became painfully apparent. The purpose of this essay is to briefly describe the Trident SSGN concept and then explain why the National Defense Panel singled it out for support in an otherwise fairly general report.

Trident SSGN

The basic idea behind Trident SSGN is that nuclear deterrence will require fewer ballistic missile submarines in the post Cold War period than the 18 Tridents presently in service, but that boats rendered redundant by nuclear force reductions are uniquely well suited for conversion to conventional land attack missions. These missions have been growing in importance in Navy and Maine Corps planning since the early 1990s, but as the fate of the arsenal ship demonstrates, acquiring the platforms and technology to execute them effectively is no easy feat. Much of the current force structure was designed for blue water operations that some observers believe have diminished relevance in the post Cold War world, but it is not feasible to rapidly replace that force structure with new vessels oriented to littoral warfare. Aside from the fact that nuclear deterrence, sea control and other traditional missions remain important, the resources to quickly design and build several new classes of littoral warships simply are not available. Even if they were, the desirability of building new vessels specialized in a particular type of naval warfare rather than having broad, multimission utility would be debatable.

Trident SSGN resolves these dilemmas by providing a near term solution to littoral warfighting requirements that is low cost, survivable and highly versatile. In its baseline concept, the SSGN would replace nuclear missiles in 22 of the Trident’s 24 tubes with Vertical Launch System (VLS) canisters that hold six conventional land attack missiles per rube. A single Ohio class boat would carry 132 such missiles, a mix of Tomahawk cruise missiles and the naval variant of the Anny Tactical Missile System known as NT ACMS. The Tomahawk would provide precision strike against interior land targets, while the NT ACMS short range ballistic would provide rapid response against targets closer to the coast, including such time urgent targets as Scud bases. With a full complement of 132 missiles, a single Trident SSGN provides a covert and powerful force to serve as the forward echelon of a Joint Task Force, suppressing defenses and anti-access forces. In addition, the SSGN also serves to make more missile cells in the surface battle force available for anti-air and TMD missions.

But it also could serve as far more than a submerged version of the ill-fated arsenal ship. In the baseline concept, two of the Trident SSGN tubes would be modified to function as lockoutlockin chambers for special operations personnel. The large interior volume of Ohio class boats could accommodate 66 such personnel fur extended periods, and over 100 for briefer spans. In addition, the Trident would retain its existing anti-ship and undersea warfare capabilities, plus its extensive capacity for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering. The Trident SSGN would thus be transformed into a multi-role warship with numerous littoral applications, and at the same time could serve as a test bed for innovative submarine modular payload concepts, ideas that have been inhibited by the traditional 21 inch torpedo tube.

There are many operational advantages in such a concept. First of all, Trident SSGN would be highly survivable, able to nonprovocatively operate near potential littoral adversaries in advance of hostilities without fear of being preemptively attacked. Second, Trident SSGN could operate autonomously throughout all phases of a conflict, collecting intelligence useful in impending operations, preparing the battlespace for the arrival of surface and/or airborne assets, and delivering the first highly precise response to aggression. Third, Trident SSGN also would operate seamlessly as part of a larger Joint Task Force, integrating its capabilities with those of surface, air and land assets to create a multi-dimensional approach to littoral warfare. Fourth, it could operate without requiring local air or sea control, and would require little o,. no protection from other friendly forces because of its combination of stealth and self-defense capabilities. Finally, it would require little logistical support during forward deployments and littoral operations due to its relatively low manning requirements and the remarkable endurance afforded by nuclear propulsion.

These operational virtues are complemented by Trident SSGN’s low cost. New ship construction would not be needed because the vessels would be drawn from the four SSBNs designated for removal from strategic service by the Nuclear Posture Review. Following refueling and relatively inexpensive modification, the four converted boats would be available for 20 years of service. In fact, with dual crews similar to the SSBN operating regimen, two of the four boats could be on station near littoral trouble spots over 80 percent of the time. The cost of new support infrastructure would be minimal, because the present concept is to operate the SSGNs from the existing Trident bases, with two deploying from Bangor, Washington to the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas. and two from Kings Bay, Georgia to the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Aside from its fiscal and operational advantages, the Trident SSGN would have considerable growth potential. At additional cost, tubes could be further modified to carry 12 missiles each rather than the presently planned six. New variants of Tomahawk and NT ACMS can be introduced for attacks against buried command centers and other special categories of targets. Unmanned aerial or underwater vehicles can be employed to enhance situational awareness and targeting capability. Even the number of boats could be increased beyond four if future strategic arms control agreements further reduce the requirement for strategic forces. As the National Defense Panel apparently recognized, Trident SSGN is not only a concept with tremendous near term operational and fiscal appeal, but it has potentially even greater advantages in the medium to long term.

Defense Panel Reasoning

To understand why the National Defense Panel singled out Trident conversion for special mention in its December report, it is necessary to examine the panel’s assessment of future threats and the responses it considered most effective to deal with those threats. Panel deliberations were focused on U.S. military requirements in the year 2020, by which time it was assumed the strategic pause following the collapse of communism would have ended. While the NDP report did not purport to predict the specific constellation of global threats that would confront U.S. military forces in 2020, it argued that current economic, political and technological trends offered good insight into what kinds of strategies and capabilities potential adversaries were likely to pursue.

The Panel assumed that the most threatening adversaries would pursue asymmetric strategies-military plans that did not directly challenge U.S. forces in mission areas where America was clearly superior, such as tactical air superiority or armored warfare. Instead, such adversaries would seek to exploit geopolitical, psychological and technological weaknesses in the U.S. force structure where significant strategic leverage could be achieved. The NDP report cited several examples of asymmetric strategy, circa 2020:

  • Strategies designed to maximize U.S. casualties and thereby weaken American resolve;
  • Strategies employing weapons of mass destruction to “neutralize forward ports, bases, and prepositioned assets”;
  • Strategies targeted on the information systems supporting U.S. forces;
  • Strategies intended to counter U.S. control of the seas by “seeding key straits and littorals with large numbers of mines and by subjecting any forces therein to missile salvos”;
  • Strategies to “counter our control of the air with speed-of-light weapons and extensive anti-aircraft systems”;
  • Strategies to “target fixed installations and massed formations within the range of their weapons and seek greater stand-off capacity with those systems”;
  • Strategies to “deny us access to key regions and facilities.

The National Defense Panel called for a transformation of U.S. military forces that would prepare them over the next generation to cope effectively with the kinds of asymmetric strategies capable adversaries might adopt. It described a series of technological, organizational and tactical steps broadly compatible with the so called Revolution in Military Affairs to remake American forces The Panel described the key characteristics of future U.S. forces as including mobility, stealth, speed, range, precision, automation and a minimal logistics footprint. In addition, it placed great emphasis on network-based force structures exploiting digital technologies to both conduct information warfare and protect their own information systems.

Within this intellectual framework, the Trident SSGN stands out as an especially effective platform-a harbinger of what future naval warfighting platforms will need to look like. First of all, it has the stealth features necessary to survive in the fast-paced, extremely violent environment of future littoral warfare. Second, it has the speed, mobility and range of modem nuclear powered submarines. Third, it has almost no logistics footprint at all once on station in an operational mode. Fourth, its Tomahawk and NT ACMS missiles would provide extremely precise targeting options against a wide variety of assets at considerable ranges-a feature likely to be bolstered with the introduction of advanced missile and targeting technologies. Fifth, the Trident SSGN will operate autonomously rather than being dependent on vulnerable forward bases or surface assets. Sixth, the Trident SSGN will be networked with other naval and joint warfighting elements to be part of a truly network-centric force structure while being largely impervious to attacks against its onboard information systems. Finally, a combination of stealth, intelligence gathering and special operations capability will enable Trident SSGN to conduct its own unique forms of information warfare.

When all of these features are considered, it is clear that no other system likely to enter the near term inventory of any U.S. military service so completely matches the performance criteria of the National Defense Panel as the Trident SSGN. While no one system can provide all of the capabilities required by the NDP’s transformation strategy, Trident SSGN incorporates a remarkably wide range of the features assigned highest priority in the Panel report. Thus it is no surprise that a body that had little to say about the vast majority of current Navy and Marine Corps systems nonetheless focused on Trident conversion as an important step toward more capable military forces.


Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Trident SSGN proposal is that it provides a platform thoroughly consistent with the requirements of the Revolution in Military Affairs not by mounting a leap-ahead development program, but through the inexpensive modification of a proven legacy system. The NDP report underscores this fact, and also points to the broader relevance of submarine stealth, range, endurance and precision in the radically transformed warfigbting environment of the future. As an initial, low cost step in dealing effectively with the challenging demands of that environment, Trident SSGN deserves the support of the Navy and the nation.


30 July-l August 1998, Charleston, SC.

Peter Swiderski
3704 Lighhouse Way
Holiday, FL 34691
(813) 844-0630

USS Thomas A. EDISON (SSBN 610).

September 8-13, 1998, Hagerstown, MD.
John van Gelder
P.O. Box 66
St. Leonard, MD 20685
(410) 586-0466 Fax: (410) 586-0434

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