Cruise-missile submarines on the way out
The Ohio-class guided missile submarine USS Ohio is moored at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, during a deployment to the western Pacific region in July, 2011.
Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.
BANGOR, Wash. — The Navy has decided it can do without cruise-missile submarines.
The Navy recently removed the four boats, designated as SSGNs, from the list of combat vessels it “currently requires.” The four subs — USS Ohio and USS Michigan at Bangor and USS Florida and USS Georgia at Kings Bay, Georgia — will patrol until their nuclear fuel is spent in the mid-2020s, said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Courtney Hillson. No replacements will be built.
The boats were listed in the 2010 version of a document called the Navy Combatant Vessel Force Structure Requirement. But they were left off the updated version of the same document, released last week, which dropped the minimum required fleet size from 313 ships to 306. There are currently 282 ships.
Should the Navy determine it needs the mission performed by SSGNs, it would equip fast attack subs with an enhanced strike capability, the report says. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan states it’s exploring the possibility of adding multi-missile tubes in later Virginia-class subs to offset the loss of the SSGNs.
“With their high-capacity strike and irregular warfare capabilities, these (SSGN) ships contribute significantly to the Navy’s war-fighting ability,” the 2012 shipbuilding plan states. But because of cost pressures created by the need to build 12 new ballistic-missile subs, the Navy can’t afford to replace them.
The 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review directed the Navy to analyze methods to increase submarines’ conventional strike capacity. The study identified several options, including converting more ballistic-missile subs — SSBNs — into SSGNs, building new SSGNs from scratch and adding missile tubes to Virginia-class attack subs. The Virginia option rose to the top because converted SSBNs would be reaching the end of their service lives and a new SSGN class would cost too much.
That the Navy doesn’t plan to build more guided-missile subs shouldn’t be surprising. The existing ones weren’t even constructed for that purpose.
They originally carried ballistic missiles. A Nuclear Posture Review in 1994 recommended reducing the number of SSBNs from 18 to 14. Instead of retiring them with half of their 42-year service lives remaining, the Navy converted the four oldest Ohio-class subs to carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 66 special operations personnel. The changes were made between 2002 and 2008, including the Ohio and Michigan conversions at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and cost $1 billion per boat.
“Today our SSGNs bring tremendous Tomahawk missile strike capability and special operations capability to support combatant commanders,” said Capt. Jerry Logan, commander of Submarine Squadron 19 and former Blue Crew commanding officer of the Michigan. “In the Pacific last year our SSGNs, USS Michigan and USS Ohio, have both been deployed with their four crews operating for a total 552 deployed days.”
Bangor SSGNs are forward-deployed to Guam. The subs switch crews there every three or four months.
Nine Virginia-class fast attack subs are in service with a 10th joining them this summer. Starting with the 11th, to be delivered in 2014, they’ll have two six-missile tubes in front of the sail for 12 Tomahawks. The Navy said in January 2012 that it wants boats bought in 2019 and later to be built with an additional section behind the sail with four seven-missile launch tubes for a total of 40 Tomahawks.
The beefed-up Virginias still wouldn’t pack the punch of the SSGNs, which are more than twice as big, but there could be more of them.
The Ohio and Michigan will be decommissioned in 2024 and 2025, Hillson said.