United States Submarine Capabilities

The United States submarine force consists of four operational boat classes, all of which are nuclear-powered.

Operational vessels are divided into these classes as follows: [1]

  • 14 Ohio-class SSBNs (as well as an additional four Ohio-class SSGNs);
  • 9 Virginia-class SSNs (with an additional nine on order);
  • 3 Seawolf SSNs; and
  • 42 Los Angeles-class SSNs. [1]

Sea-based deterrence is performed by 14 Ohio-class SSBNs that serve as the third leg of the U.S. strategic triad. An additional four Ohio-class submarines are configured as SSGNs that possess both strike and Special Forces insertion capabilities. The three classes of U.S. attack submarines — Virginia, Seawolf and Los Angeles - are tasked with engaging and destroying enemy vessels; supporting on-shore operations and carrier groups; and carrying out surveillance.

Submarine Tables for the U.S.
 


USS Georgia (SSGN 729), U.S. Navy

Ohio-class

The sea-based leg of the U.S. strategic deterrent is performed by 14 Ohio-class SSBNs armed with the Trident II D5 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Four of the vessels that previously carried the Trident C-4 missiles have been retrofitted with the longer-range and more accurate D5. Assuming an average of twelve operational submarines with 24 launch tubes each and four warheads per missile, it is estimated that together these boats carry around 1,152 warheads.[2] However, normally only eight to ten of the submarines are operationally deployed at one time, and the launch tubes of the Ohio-class submarines will be reduced from 24 to 20 in order to meet the requirements of the New START treaty with Russia.[3] Construction on the first Ohio-class SSBN, SSBN-726 Ohio, began in 1976, and the final boat of this class, SSBN-743 Louisiana, was commissioned in 1997. [4] Since the end of the Cold War there has been a strategic shift in deterrence patrols, with 60% now taking place in the Pacific — due primarily to changes in U.S. threat perception. [5] Today, six SSBNs are based in the Atlantic at King's Bay, Georgia, and eight in the Pacific at Bangor, Washington State. [6] The Navy is beginning to plan a follow-up strategic missile submarine, given that the Ohio-class submarines will begin retiring in 2027. [7] U.S. at-sea deterrence was previously performed by 18 Ohio-class SSBNs. However, the Clinton Administration's 1994 Nuclear Posture Review determined that 14 would be adequate to meet the country's strategic requirements. As a result, four vessels were reconfigured into SSGNs that carry up to 154 Tomahawk, or tactical Tomahawk, land-attack cruise missiles. The four oldest Ohio-class SSBNs — Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Georgia — were selected for conversion, and the process was carried out over a five year period between November 2002 and March 2008. [8] Today, two of these vessels are based at King's Bay and two at Bangor.

Los Angeles-class

The nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class SSN is armed with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and MK-48 torpedoes. The boat was primarily developed for anti-submarine warfare, but is also capable of inserting Special Forces and laying mines. Today, 42 vessels are in operation, built between 1971 and 1996, and located at six different bases. [9] Eighteen vessels are located at three bases in the Atlantic (Norfolk, Groton, and Portsmouth), and 24 vessels are located at three bases in the Pacific (Pearl Harbor, San Diego and Guam). [10] These deployments are further evidence of the increased emphasis that has been placed on the Pacific. As a result of technical improvements over time, there are now three different variants of the Los Angeles-class. Beginning with the USS Providence in 1977, the vessels were equipped with 12 vertical launch tubes for Tomahawk missiles. The USS San Juan, commissioned in 1988, was the first of the "improved" quieter Los Angeles-class submarines, fitted with an advanced BSY-1 sonar system, and capable of operating under ice. [11]

Seawolf-class

The U.S. Navy also possesses three Seawolf-class vessels that are based at Bangor. This class of attack submarine is significantly faster and quieter than the Los Angeles-class and was originally developed to hunt Soviet SSBNs. [12] The Boat's stealthy capabilities make it well suited for the insertion of Special Forces. Although it does not possess a vertical launch capability, it can fire Tomahawk missiles through its torpedo tubes. [13] While the original plan was to produce as many as 29 submarines, the cost of constructing the Seawolf proved high and the end of the cold war meant that their primary function was no longer applicable. As a result, in 1995 Congress decided to terminate the program at three boats. [14]

Virginia-class

The Virginia-class, designed by the Electric Boat Corporation of Connecticut, represents the next generation of U.S. nuclear attack submarines and a more cost-effective alternative to the Seawolf. With a number of vessels already in service, the Virginia-class will fulfill the same operational tasks currently carried out by Los Angeles-class boats. An added strength is the Virginia-class's ability to operate effectively in littoral waters, primarily due to its "fly-by-wire" control system, making it suitable for intelligence gathering and special operation forces missions. [15] Furthermore, unlike the Seawolf, the Virginia-class possesses vertical launch tubes for firing its land-attack Tomahawk missiles, and carries Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUV) and special force delivery vehicles. [16] There are currently nine Virginia-class submarines in service, and an additional six under construction. Five of the operational vessels are based at Groton, Connecticut, three at Pearl Harbor, and one at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. [17] They are currently being built at an approximate rate of one per year, but it remains unclear at this stage what the eventual force level will be. It is likely to be partly dependent on the retirement rates of the older Los Angeles-class vessels. [18]

Modernization

Current priorities for modernizing the submarine fleet include the construction of additional Virginia-class vessels and the undertaking of concept development studies for an eventual replacement for the Ohio-class , which will begin to retire at a rate of roughly one per year in 2027. The 12 replacement boats will be equipped with 16 Trident II D5 SLBM launch tubes instead of the current Ohio-class design's 24. In 2013, the Navy deferred the procurement of the first Ohio replacement boat by two years, meaning that it will enter service in 2031 instead of 2029. As a result, the SSBN force will drop to a size of 10 or 11 vessels between 2029 and 2041. The Navy has stated that this reduced force will still be able to meet its strategic mission requirements, as none of the boats during that time will need to undergo lengthy overhaul. [19]

Sources:
[1] "Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines — SSBN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil; "Attack Submarines — SSN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil.
[2] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, "U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2012," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 68, no. 3, May/June 2012, http://bos.sagepub.com.
[3] Hans M. Kristensen, "US Releases Full New START Data," FAS Strategic Security Blog, 12 December 2011, www.fas.org.
[4] "SSBN-726 Ohio-Class FBM Submarines," Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[5] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, "U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2012," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 68, no. 3, May/June 2012, http://bos.sagepub.com.
[6] "Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines — SSBN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil; Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, "U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2012," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 68, no. 3, May/June 2012, http://bos.sagepub.com.
[7] "November 2010 Update to the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2010 Section 1251 Report: New START Treaty Framework and Nuclear Force Structure Plans," NNSA and Department of Defense, 2010, www.lasg.org.
[8] "Guided Missile Submarines — SSGN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil.
[9] "SSN-688 Los Angeles-class," Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[10] "Attack Submarines — SSN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil.
[11] "USS San Juan Arrives at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard," Seacoastonline.com, 9 April 2010; Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, "USS San Juan Changes Commanders," US Navy Submarine Group 2 Public Affairs, 27 April 2012, www.navy.mil.
[12] "SSN-21 Seawolf-class," Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[13] "Attack Submarines — SSN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil.
[14] "SSN-21 Seawolf-class," Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[15] "Attack Submarines — SSN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil.
[16] "SSN-774 Virginia-class NSSN New Attack Submarine," Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[17] "Attack Submarines — SSN," United States Navy, 10 November 2011, www.navy.mil.
[18] "Virginia Class," Jane's Fighting Ships, 9 April 2013, www.janes.com
[19] U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress, by Richard O'Rourke, CRS Report R41129 (Washington, D.C., Office of Congressional Information and Publishing, July 3, 2013).

July 23, 2013
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