Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


“There is nothing so powerful as an old idea whose time has come again.”

Ben Wattenberg

In the last years of the Eisenhower administration, USS TUNNY (SS 282) underwent a conversion that would change her mission profile from an open ocean attack submarine to one of strike warfare-a novel concept for the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet. In 1959 TUNNY began a series of deterrent patrols that changed the submarine paradigm forever-though it was not immediately apparent to many naval strategists at the time. After conversion, TUNNY carried the Regulus 1 cruise missile in a special compartment aft of her sail, and her operational profile now placed her taking a standoff position in relatively close proximity to a hostile shoreline.

Regulus was an evolutionary concept-it’s obvious inspiration being the German V-1 Buzz. Bomb of WWII. It was developed by the Navy and Chance Vought Aircraft after the war, and first deployed in the fleet in 1955. The airframe consisted of an unmanned turbojet powered vehicle, and was capable of delivering a 3000 pound 40-50 kiloton W5 or 2800 pound 1-2 megaton W27 thermonuclear warhead within a range of 500 nautical miles-a substantial payload for those times.

Adapting TUNNY (and later BARBERO (SS 317)) to carry the Regulus was an evolutionary concept as well, both in construction and in tactics. Dry well chambers external to the pressure hull had been used during the war, most notably with the Japanese Sen-Toku I-400 submarine aircraft carriers-relatively large boats that could carry up to three seaplanes in the hanger built into the sail. TUNNY and BARBERO had a similar profile-a bulbous extension aft of the sail, which contained the missile and its launching ramp. The major disadvantage to this arrangement was the fact that the submarine had to be on the surface to launch-a position few submarine commanders were comfortable with.

The designator of the boats in the Regulus fleet changed to reflect the new mission-SSG. The force evenrually grew to include five submarines with the addition of USS GROWLER (SSG 577), USS GRA YBACK (SSG 574), and USS HALIBUT (SSG(N) 587)-the first (and only) nuclear-powered Regulus guided missile submarine. The mission of the SSG as a missile-launching platform, however, then was coming into question. The recently-introduced Polaris intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) carried by the new ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was seen to have much more capability in the high priority Cold War mission of nuclear deterrence. The ability to launch that missile while submerged also made the concept much more appealing to submariners. As the new SSBNs entered the fleet and began their deterrence patrols, the Regulus mission of strike warfare was seen to be far less essential to national security needs at the time. Thus, HALIBUT ended the line for the SSG fleet when she made her last Regulus patrol in 1964. No U .S submarine has been designated SSG since then.

The ballistic missile submarine platform eventually became the mainstay of the nation’s strategic deterrence force. The SSBN today forms the linchpin of the nuclear triad, the other two legs of the triad being land-based ICBMs and the U.S. Air Force bomber wings. Many SSBN submarines were built in the Franklin and Lafayette class, these eventually yielding to the giant Ohio class submarine carrying the Trident missile system, of which eighteen were built.

These supremely capable submarines were a relatively new addition to the nuclear triad; the lead ship of the class, USS OHIO (SSBN 726), was commissioned in 1981. But a decade later the world changed when the Cold War ended, and the needs of national defense and strategic deterrence changed with it. In 1994, the Nuclear Posture Review recommended a two-ocean-based Trident SSBN force-fourteen vessels, all carrying the Trident II (D-5) missile-as sufficient to meet U.S. national security requirements under the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty II (START II). At the time Electric Boat was busily finishing construction of the last Trident hulls, with the final boat-USS LOUISIANA (SSBN 743)-being commissioned in 1997. Eighteen platforms in a force structure that only required fourteen didn’t add up of course, so the Navy was faced with a very unappealing prospect-dismantling four of its most capable submarines and losing the nation’s investment in these platforms. It was ironic that in the 1997 time frame we were successful in extending the life of the Ohio class hull to 42 years.

Fertile imaginations went to work. It didn’t take too much of a stretch to realize that one thing a Trident submarine had in abundance (at least when compared to an attack submarine) was SPACE. The combination of plenty of space, the ability to store and deploy a substantial payload, a powerful nuclear reactor to get from here to there in a hurry, a proven capability to remain on station for a very long period of time, and the all-important characteristic of stealth-all of these factors led to one inescapable conclusion. The Trident submarine could serve as a very capable, and highly adaptable, platform for conventional strike warfare and special operations support.

Having worked since the inception of the SSGN concept during my tour as Program Manager, Strategic and Attack Submarines from 1996 to 1998, I became one of the true believers in Trident/SSGN conversion at an early stage. In that position I was lucky enough to learn from the best and brightest in the field as to what the Ohio class submarine was capable of doing, and that is a long and impressive list. The flexibility of the basic plan of the hull practically begs for modification to accommodate new missions and tactics, in my view.

New Missions for a New Millennium

The Cold War missions of the nation’s submarine fleet have been substantially altered over the past decade, which is as it should be. Intelligent utilization and transformation of our existing undersea warfare assets to meet these new missions is an issue that we are wrestling with. While predicting the future is by definition an exercise in supposition, we can be certain of a few things.

The role of the submarine in strike warfare will grow-the combination of stealth, endurance, and surprise offered by the nuclear-powered submarine is unmatched. This is also true in intelligence collection, surveillance, and recollll3issance-full spectrum information warfare requires high value assets that can go places where others cannot, while remaining undetected.

The tip of the spear for strike warfare will continue to rely upon ground forces. Special operations support is an area where the Navy must do more-national security requirements for Force Protection and Anti-Terrorism demand it. SPECWAR is not so much in the public eye (probably a good thing), but its demand and utility will certainly grow, especially with the ASDS (Advanced SEAL Delivery Ship) coming on line. One special asset is greatly needed for SOF (special Operations Forces) insertion and the like-a platform to support these forces and their equipment. As things stand right now, it is a tricky thing to be covert while deploying more than a handful of special operations forces at any one time. A platform that not only has inherent stealth, but also has the space and power necessary to support significant numbers of special operations forces and their equipment, and has the added capability of strike warfare-all that is offered by a Trident SSGN configuration.

We are moving ahead with this idea; the President has directed the Navy to begin the conversion of 4 Ohio cass SSBNs to SSGNs-Tomahawk land attack cruise missile (TLAM) and special operating force support platforms. This is a decision with major ramifications for our Submarine Force and Navy. Not only does the country get the full benefit of its investment in these great ships, but we also get the opportunity to explore and demonstrate the impact of a large-payload submarine on the way our Navy and Joint Forces fight.

Transformational is the right word to describe this enormous advance in undersea warfare. The Secretary of Defense illustrates one facet of his current efforts to transform America’s Armed Forces to include a reexamination of how we use the resources we currently have available. This is particularly true when it comes to hard, high value assets-weapons, systems, and platforms. Secretary Rumsfeld describes his vision of Transformation as one where we are developing new ways of thinking, and new ways of fighting, using our existing assets in previously unimaginable ways.

From that perspective, the SSGN concept is the definition of Transformation. We are taking an existing platform and remolding it to perform an entirely new mission-one never envisioned by its designers. And by current standards, creating this new capability will be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.

This new capability adds to the utility and flexibility of the assets we can deploy today. What often is missed in discussions about how the SSGN is deployed is the SSGN benefit to its fellow combatants. Specifically, how an SSGN can support battle group surface ships that are geographically constrained, due to the requirement of maintaining a prescribed number of TLAMs within a given area of operation. Consider that when an SSGN arrives on station, carrying at least 154 missiles, those surface assets would be less restricted in their distribution across the battlespace, offering them the ability to perform other missions.

The SSGN program represents a relatively low cost way to leverage the highly successful Trident maintenance and training infrastrucrure and proven two-crew concept to maximize forward-deployed warfighting capability. Having rotating crews allows the ship to be at sea about 70 percent of the year-an operational status that was (and continues to be) a requirement for the mission of nuclear deterrence. This is not new-the Ohio class SSBNs were designed to support a high operational status from the beginning … they were tailor-made for this purpose. This ability to remain on station for extended periods fits in neatly with the vision of the SSGN mission, keeping a massive strike capability within range of the conflict for as long as necessary. Complementing its long station-keeping capability, each submarine will deliver fourteen years of deployed presence during its remaining twenty-plus years of life, compared with seven years out of thirty for traditional Navy ships.

As flexible as manning and support are today, it gets even better when you look at how the SSGN will perform its mission. It has the potential to carry a variety of weapons and other strike missiles. Variety is the key word here … and the payoff with the SSGN platform is very simple-PAYLOAD.

Think of the B-52 as a relevant example. These planes are my age … soon to be 50 years old. If they wore uniforms they could retire with full benefits. But we still keep flying them, most notably in recent times with their successful missions over Afghanistan.

The Why is very simple-they can still deliver one checkup payload-iron bombs, smart weapons, cruise missiles. The B-1B can carry around 125,000 pounds, while the B-2 stealth bomber brings over 40,000 pounds. The aging B-52 has a maximum payload of 50,000 pounds. Few would argue the fact that the Air Force has done very well in recouping its half-century of investment with these planes.

So it’s easy to understand the Why for the B-52 … what is the Why for the SSGN?

What It ls-And Is Not

The SSGN is a Navy Force Multiplier. The most obvious example of that is the simple fact that a deployed SSGN greatly increases on-station TLAM availability. Combined with the Ohio class submarine’s proven history of high operational availability, the SSGN frees up other Naval Forces for priority tasking, such as anti-submarine warfare, controlling the airspace, and even theater ballistic missile defense. What I said earlier bears repeating-consider that each SSGN will spend fourteen of its remaining twenty-plus operational years after conversion forward deployed-an achievement made possible by leveraging the existing Trident maintenance and training infrastructure.

The SSGN will perform its mission with a much lower level of risk than would normally be experienced when deploying this level of capability today. The potentially debilitating constraints imposed by vulnerability and support requirements are far less an issue. By definition, the proven Ohio class platform capitalizes on its existing strengths-endurance and stealth-in maintaining long-term station keeping duty while forward deployed. In addition to having the ability to deploy over 150 tactical missiles, the platform can also be configured to support dedicated accommodations for significant numbers of special operations forces, with their equipment. A possible scenario would involve using missile rubes as air locks for SOF assets to leave the sub and deploy via the Advanced SEAL Delivery System and/or Dry Deck Shelter, also carried by the SSGN. Nuclear power provides station keeping time that is unmatched by conventionally powered warships. All of this, plus stealth. What a concept.

The SSGN will not serve as a simple replacement for existing platforms. Simply put, sometimes you just have to have a visible presence … Showing the flag is a powerful statement in its own right. A submarine of any kind is not an effective vehicle for that mission. Rather, the vision for the Trident SSGN focuses on stealth, payload, versatility, and endurance-a vision that does not lend itself to overt power projection.

Some further discussion on the topic of payloads is instructive. It is important to remember that the SSGN payload concept is being developed to take advantage of technologies and hardware that already exist-again, the essence of transformation as defined by the Secretary of Defense. At this stage of the game we are not seeking to create new weapons to support the mission of the SSGN-the beauty of it is that we don’t have to. Aside from the aforementioned use of the proven Tomahawk, other payload options are being designed to support weapons and sensors that are already in use. These designs are by definition modular, providing a flexible interface between the sea and the ship.

Development and demonstration of flexible payload modules and capsules is currently being funded to enable rapid insertion of outboard systems and technologies developed by others for SSGN. For example, we are funding an upcoming demonstration of the deployment of an existing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnoiters-sance unmanned airborne vehicle (ISR UA V) from an expendable capsule, with the implications of the use of UAVs for battlefield surveillance, special operations force support, and as decoys against advanced surface-to-air missile sites being obvious.

Several other efforts are underway which have the potential to enhance the capability of the SSGN. The first is an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) to mate a Navy penetrator warhead to an Army TACM type land attack missile. This delivery system would be intended for hard and deeply buried targets and mobile and other interdiction targets. The second is the demonstration of a buoyant capsule that would allow for submerged launch of standard Anny T ACM missiles from an SSGN. Again, the vehicle and the payloads already exist in the inventory-we are just interested in proving new ways of getting this package to its intended destination.

These efforts are being developed through the DARPA-Navy Payload and Sensors Program with industry teams Forward Pass and Team 2020-1 administer these teams in my position as the Deputy Commander for Undersea Technology (SEA 93) for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). Many extremely creative ideas on the use of encapsulation of pre-existing hardware and flexible modules have been offered-the only limitation to testing these ideas and developing the concepts behind them being the amount of funding available.

The common thread in the development of these concepts should be readily apparent-we are taking advantage of proven technologies and putting them to work in a way that’s never been done before … the definition of creative innovation, and a transformation-al concept in its purest form. It is this transformation that defines the entire philosophy behind the SSGN.

By now the near-term capabilities offered by the SSGN should be clear to the reader. But we are not neglecting the potential of the far term. The SSGN platform, with its ability to remain on-station for months at a time, offers joint expeditionary force commanders the possibility of something we’ve never been able to adequately do before-provide a vastly increased capability in preparing the battlespace. Some examples of this expanded battlespace preparation include advanced underwater mapping and mine reconnaissance with semi-autonomous hydrographic recon-renaissance vehicles, expanded submarine surveillance via deployable autonomous distributed sensors, and the ability to gather intelligence over land and sea via high endurance inflatable U AV s and ISR UUVs.

Again, we are talking about what might be possible tomorrow, not what we can do today. This common undersea battlespace picture is a new capability-one that is still some years away. The holy grail of battlespace preparation in the far term-the deployment of a fully netted high-speed communications grid with underwater fiber-optic networks-is one of the goals. Ever since Admiral Lord Howe of the Royal Navy invented a secret system of numbered signal flags to coordinate his battle fleet over 200 years ago, covert, secure high-speed data and video communications between all the players of a joint expeditionary force is something that every battlespace commander has dreamed of having at their disposal. An SSGN on station to deploy and maintain an undersea communications net that would encompass the entire battlespace would go a long way towards making that dream a reality.

So the SSGN’s role in battlespace preparation seems perfectly clear. It is the SSGN’s role in battlespace attack that cinches the deal in enabling Assured Access and Joint Force Transformation. The SSGN would be engaged in the suppression of enemy air defenses, attack hard or deeply buried targets far inland (recent operations against the Tora Bora redoubt in Afghanistan come to mind), and provide battlefield interdiction against enemy coastal defenses and surface combatants. It would greatly augment the current TLAM capability that submarines and surface combatants provide today, at speed and depth, with stealth. Currently the SSN can provide TLAM offensive capability, albeit limited to its relatively small payload. The modem surface combatant can provide a large TLAM payload, but cannot maintain stealth for protection or to support special operations. The SSGN provides both measures, in quantity and endurance, filling the capability gap between the SSN and the surface combatant. In this sense it is analogous to the aforementioned triad of nuclear deterrence we rely upon today-all legs of this particular triad being geared towards strike warfare.

Creating, deploying, and supporting the SSGN offers relatively low risk in return for the capabilities it provides. Ship conversion costs are well known-our shipyards have been bending existing submarines into new shapes and designs for nearly a century-we know how to do this. From a practical standpoint, actually turning an Ohio class missile submarine into an SSGN with built-in special operations support is not terribly difficult-the technologies, designs, and build specifications have been around for a long time; we won’t have to reinvent much of anything to actually create an SSGN force. The SSGN concept is flexible and relatively adaptable-ready to accept transformational payloads for a wide variety of missions … some missions I’m sure we haven’t even thought of yet.

Current Status

Earlier I used the word Transformational in describing the impact of the SSGN. What Transformational means is simply this-it gives us the opportunity to reinvent the wheel without having to build a new one. The SSGN project is a great example of how to do this sort of thing. Here we are taking an existing platform with existing weapons and recreating the entire package into something completely new and different, for a fraction of the cost of developing a comparable platform from scratch. How often do opportunities like that come around? Not very.

President Bush has made his wishes pretty clear on the need for smart investment and innovation in creating the force structure we need for the 21st century. The President has asked for a substantial increase in defense R&D between 2002 and 2006, describing this initiative in research and development as a search for new technologies to support the transformation of U.S. military capabilities. President Bush has called this budget a Blueprint for New Beginnings-that sounds appropriate, in my view. You can be sure that how this money is spent is going to be looked at very carefully by all interested parties.

In a speech at the US Naval Academy Commencement on 25 May, 2001 (before the September 11111 terrorist attacks on the nation), President Bush referenced the SSGN program directly-the only future technology in tomorrow’s defense force specifically identified by the President during that speech. Since that time, the President has followed up on that vision, asking for $3 .2 billion to be set aside for the SSGN land-attack submarine program between fiscal year 2002 and FY-07. Conversion of four Trident ballistic missile submarines into SSGNs-beginning with OHIO (SSBN-726) and FLORIDA (SSBN-728)-is expected to get underway with their scheduled engineered refueling overhauls (ERO) that begin in FY 03, with the conversion work beginning approximately one year after each ERO.

The Big Picture-And The Bottom Line

Aside from actually performing the ship conversions, equipping and deploying a four SSGN force is, in the final analysis, a transformational no brainer. We don’t need to build new ships to support this mission, or train new crews to operate a new platform. No new weapons systems need to be developed from scratch. No new technologies need to be carefully examined and evaluated. No new land attack missile production lines are needed to fully arm four SSGNs with up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles each.

Indeed, it is this payload example that neatly defines why SSGN is moving forward with such rapidity. The SSGN platform turns out to be the most efficient method yet invented to keep TLAMs in their forward deployed role that they were intended to be in. Due to their high forward presence, which greatly minimizes theater transit and stowage in CONUS, and the aforementioned low cost of deployment, the cost of the SSGN on a per missile in theater basis is a small fraction of the cost of any other platform. The American taxpayer would find that figure most agreeable.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League