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The Time is Now for Trident SSGN

Lieutenant Seal’s paper won 1he Naval Submarine League Essay Contest while a student at the Submarine Officers Advanced Course 98050.

An aggressive 1hird World country decides to launch a military campaign (or possibly a terrorist attack) against the United States. In an emergency session, the United Nations decides that sanctions against that country should start immediately. Based on strong U.S. urging, the Security Council follows with the decision to conduct strikes against that country’s military assets. 1he U.S. President promises a rapid strike with minimum casualties and the U.S. takes the lead on planning and conducting the strike.

In a meeting with his cabinet, the President turns to the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor and scans off by asking, “We’ve got a gunboat there already, don’t we?”


The Trident SSGN concept has been in the works for some time now. It started as an idea to enhance fleet strike capability by using four Ohio class SSBNs that must come out of strategic service within the next few years. Conversion from SSBN to SSGN would be accomplished by modifying 22 of the 24 missile tubes to carry a six pack of tactical missiles such as the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile. The remaining two tubes would be modified to support Advanced SEAL Delivery System, the new mini-submarine for driving SEALs to their objective. Conversion costs would be low because relatively little change to the hull, mechanical and electrical systems of the submarine would be required. Rapidly, the concept gained strong support from the submarine community.

Additionally, the Navy was looking at the need for a large capacity strike platform. About three years ago, the surface community was very seriously considering a new surface ship class that became known as the Arsenal Ship. Along with the readily apparent virtues of such a platform, many questions came up. The biggest was, of course, survivability. Would a battlegroup have to protect it? How much stealth could it have? Can we afford to put all our eggs in such a fragile basket?

In March of 1996, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Boorda, asked Norman Pol mar, an established commentator on naval history and current affairs, to discuss the possibilities of a submarine Arsenal Ship. (Editor’s Note: See THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, January 1997, p. 7). Mr. Polmar opined that such a warship would be very desirable due primarily to its inherent stealth. He also discussed other salient points including the fact that submarines can stay forward deployed and on station without the support that surface ships need. Most importantly, he noted that a submarine Arsenal Ship could be made out of a preexisting submarine without designing and building a new class of submarines.

Meanwhile, the Submarine Force, and in particular the OPNA V N87 staff, were working with an unrelated concept that they called Trident SSGN. This concept started when it was apparent that within the next five years, the Navy will have to remove up to four SSBNs (of its current inventory of 18) from strategic service. The driving forces in their removal from service are the Nuclear Posture Review of 1994 (NPR) and the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II). The NPR, the only pertinent study in existence regarding U.S. strategic force structure, reported that 14 D-5 capable Trident SSBNs are necessary to provide the submarine leg of the strategic triad. Then, as START II was proposed, the U.S. offered to have not more than 14 SSBNs in strategic service. Although START II has not been ratified by the Russian Duma (their Lower House of Parliament), START III is already being discussed as a remedy to the problems that Russia faces in implementing START II. However, SSBNs in strategic service under START III will not exceed 14 either. To accommodate START Il and START III, the U.S. Navy will take four SSBNs out of strategic service one way or another. Inactivating four Trident submarines early gives up enormous capability, especially since Trident hull life has now been extended to almost 42 years. Therefore, the Trident SSGN concept begs consideration.

In December 1997, the Congressionally mandated National Defense Panel recommended “converting one or more of the four Trident SSBNs coming out of strategic service to alternate missions … The Trident SSGN concept gained support from members of Congress and various defense study programs during this time. Later, in early 1998, as the Navy was working on its budget submissions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for fiscal year 2000 (Program of Memorandum 2000 or POM 100), the Trident SSGN concept was finally ready. But, due to budgetary constraints, it was not included in the budget submission. Because the Defense Department submits budgets every two years, the next real chance to consider Trident SSGN will come in 2000 when POM 102 is submitted. However, the Navy conducts a Program Review (PR 101) in 1999 that may be an opportunity to fund Trident SSGN. Today, it is still just a concept, not a program.


What can Trident SSGN offer? Here are the basics:

  • 132-154 tactical missiles in six pack or seven pack arrangement using 22 missile tubes
  • Dual Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) placement using remaining 2 missile tubes
  • 66 Special Operations Force (SOF) personnel embarked for extended periods
  • Up to 100 SOF personnel for short periods
  • Nine person lock out chambers for SOF personnel
  • Twenty+ years of utility since Trident hull life spans were extended to a total of 42 years
  • Ready fur advanced missiles-Tactical Tomahawk and Navy Tactical Missile System (NT ACMS)
  • Surging dual crews would allow one SSGN to remain on station 80 percent of the year
  • Two SSGNs could provide 100 percent coverage
  • Stealth, endurance, agility, low logistic requirements … (all the traits of subs today)

Bang for the Buck

Each paragraph below is reason enough to pursue Trident conversion.

At approximately $425M per ship for conversion costs (including the refueling overhaul), one SSGN alone is an extremely cost effective strike p1atfonn for a theater commander. If one compares an SSGN strike to a typical aviation strike, one missile is much less costly (and much, much less risky) than a billion dollar plane with a human pilot. Our Navy cruise missile assets can be covertly delivered, with a small logistics footprint, anywhere in the world’s oceans without any concern for fuel or large supply requirements.

As well, Trident SSGN brings as many TLAMs to an area as all the Tomahawk shooters in an entire battlegroup. One may argue that a battlegroup actually has more missiles, but a surface ship and a battlegroup must carry many defensive missiles, including Theater Ballistic Missile Defense weapons in the future. Thus, only a fraction of surface ship missiles are strike capable. Of course, a battlegroup will have to gain control of the seas and suppress enemy coastal defenses to operate with impunity in the first place, whereas the SSGN will not.

The key point that Mr. Polmar missed entirely was that a submarine is invulnerable to most weapons that can be used against a surface ship. A few years from now, supersonic anti-ship missiles (against which the U.S. Navy has no defeat capability) will be available to any Third World country with a modest military investment. Surface ships will be ineffective in this area until these mobile missile sites are destroyed. Meanwhile, submarines can and will operate with impunity inside the ranges of these shore based defenses.

An SSGN (or two!) in certain high conflict areas of the world would reduce the requirement for many other strike warfare platfonns to deploy. For instance, strike operations in the Arabian Gulf require a certain number of capable cruise missiles (vice cruise missile platforms). SSGN presence would fill much of this requirement and improve OPTEMPO across the fleet. Also, it would allow surface ships to deploy with more anti-air and anti-ship missiles.

United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM, is very interested in funding this. The impending inactivation of USS JAMES K. POLK and USS KAMEHAMEHA leaves no drydeck shelter boats for SOF employment. USSOCOM has therefore agreed to help pay for the SOF delivery role of Trident SSGN.

Those that do not understand the need for submarines in today’s post Cold War climate have often questioned the role of the submarine in influencing the land battle. Today, the Submarine Force must advertise its capabilities. Trident SSGN will under-score submarine relevance to those who doubt.

Acquiring new platforms and weapon systems technologies isn’t an easy process. The Trident SSGN concept comes to the table with preexisting platforms, tried and true weapons, and crews that already know how to drive and shoot. The maintenance and training infrastructure is already in place.

The two submarine-producing shipyards have welcomed this concept. After USS JIMMY CARTER (SSN 23) is complete and the SSN build rate is roughly four over the next five years, Trident conversion will offer more work to help maintain our diminishing technological base. It is not surprising that certain senators and congressmen have urged the Navy to pursue Trident SSGN as a funded program.


A purely offensive strike platform brimming with tactical missiles and unyielding in the face of most threats is not only a tactical asset-it is a strategic asset and it will affect U.S . political intercourse. Gunboat diplomacy is alive and well, but the warfighters (i.e. Fleet CINCs) are struggling to keep it so. As Force structure continues to diminish, Trident SSGN offers a solution to many political situations that we are likely to see in the future. An agile, responsive, potent, single platform with virtually unlimited endurance and a small logistics footprint precisely meets the needs of future engagements whether they are single strikes or Major Theater War similar in intensity to Operation Desert Storm.

Most importantly, conversions must be funded within the next budget cycle, that is, before or during POM 102. With the First four Trident SSBNs scheduled for inactivation in the early part of the next decade (two in 2002 and two in 2003), the time is now. The decision to make Trident SSGN happen may be the single biggest decision the Submarine Force forces today. Converting Tridents to a SSGN role would add more capability to the Navy and to the United States than any other commitment of equal resources.

A few hours later within the anti-ship missile envelopes of the hostile country, USS OHIO (SSGN 726) comes to PD, verifies the over-the-horizon contact picture, and launches 48 Tactical Tomahawk and NTACMS missiles. The on board Strike Party watches the attack center peri-viz as the cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles separate and proceed precisely to their targets. The XO, acting as Launch Area Coordinator, reports “. . .salvo away! on the GNCs Ops Circuit. USS OHIO slips back down and opens down to reposition/or tomorrow’s SOF insertion by twin ASDS. In-flight missile telemetry reports to the shore targeting terminal that all missiles reached their intended targets. Battle Damage Assessment will later show the destruction of 25 military installations including two chemical plants, all mobile missile sites and several deeply buried command and control nodes.

The President reports to the nation and to the U.N. that a precision strike was achieved within one of the U. N. S. C. resolutions and with zero U.S. casualties. The hostile country, faced with economic sanctions and evaluating the unplanned loss of most of its power projection forces, chemical warfare centers and missile defenses, finds itself in an untenable position and renounces its hostilities.

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