A Transformational Force for the U.S. Navy

Artist's rendering of an SSGN firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.

November 15, 2007 – “Reporting live from the Submarine Base in Bangor, Washington, this is Rich Levins of the U.S. News Network. We are here to witness the first deployment of USS Michigan (SSGN-727) as she joins U.S. forces currently engaged in combat operations overseas. Completing conversion last year, Michigan is a TRIDENT submarine modified to carry up to 154 cruise missiles and as many as 66 Special Forces personnel for months at a time.

“It was 47 years ago today that the USS George Washington (SSBN-598), converted from an SSN during new construction, got underway for the first ballistic missile strategic deterrence patrol from Charleston, South Carolina – clearly a major occurrence in our nation’s history. Perhaps, today’s event will similarly mark the beginning of a new era of submarine capabilities for our Navy in the defense of our nation.

“The Navy would not release Michigan’s exact weapons load-out, but it was clearly evident from the advanced SEAL mini-sub and the Dry-Deck Shelter mounted topside that this submarine is ready for more that just launching Tomahawk strike missiles. In fact, News Network has been told that early-on in her deployment Michigan will use her command center and advanced communications to test the ability to coordinate a Special Forces campaign using SEALs onboard and from other vessels – a submarine first.

“I know I speak for everyone here as I wish the crew on their maiden SSGN deployment a safe and successful journey."

Transformation and the Navy
Well before the events of 11 September, the vision of how the military must change to face future threats effectively and the value of submarines as part of that fight were clear. Not surprisingly, many of the capabilities SSGN will bring to the Navy in 2007 play right into the vision of a “transformed” military that the Bush administration intends for our nation.

If you take a look at the past, transformation in the Navy and its warfighting capability is not new. Between World War I and World War II, the Navy put a flight deck on top of the coal ship USS Jupiter (AC-3), later renaming her the USS Langley (CV-1), to fly aircraft as scouts. Although the future capabilities of sea-based aircraft were not fully understood, it was an early step toward the powerful carrier-based air power we have in our fleet today. Following World War II, we transformed submarine warfare when nuclear propulsion gave our submarines revolutionary stealth, speed, and endurance. 

154 Strike Missile Tomahawk/TACTOM; Dual Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) and Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) Capability; 66 Special Operations Forces; Joint Task Force ConnectivityDuring the Cold War we created the first SSBN by enlarging the partially-constructed hull of the then-named Scorpion. In only two years the conversion was complete, the ship was renamed USS George Washington (SSBN-598), and the concept of strategic deterrence was changed forever. Clearly, there is a well-established precedent of converting existing platforms into new ones built on proven concepts and the latest technology.

Today’s “transformation” efforts include advanced sensors and surveillance systems, rapid precision strike, assured access to hostile or denied areas, and a high “tooth-to-tail ratio” (the ratio of combat power to required support). Responsive, forward-deployed units, survivable against anti-access threats, and capable of sustained high-volume strike with minimal logistic support, score high in these categories – SSGN is a prime example.

"Even beyond its baseline mission capabilities, SSGN offers significant opportunities to develop and test new weapon delivery systems, sensors, 
and operational concepts that could further transform naval warfare."

Overview of SSGN Capabilities
Now that the program has been established, it’s a good time to regroup and summarize the status of SSGN. Here is a quick summary of the capabilities the baseline SSGN brings to joint warfare:

  • TRIDENT stealth and reliability, with more than 20 years of service life remaining for 
    each SSGN

  • Large-volume precision strike, with up to 154 Tomahawk and Tactical Tomahawk 
    cruise missiles

  • Sustained Special Forces operations, to include insertion, extraction, and support of 66 Special Forces personnel, conditioned and ready, with onboard periods much longer than on SSNs

  • Command center for mission planning and execution

  • Capacity for conducting other SSN missions, such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISRT); anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface warfare; 
    and mine warfare

  • High-data-rate connectivity and joint command/control capability with a “Virginia-class” advanced SSN radio room and ISR suite

  • 70 percent operational availability by using two crews – to achieve a continuous, 2.65-ship deployed presence in support of CINC mission requirements

  • 20 times the payload of an SSN, with large ocean interfaces (22 seven-foot diameter launching tubes, two for SOF lock-out); opportunity for payload experimentation and development

Stealth, endurance, and agility have long enabled nuclear-powered submarines to take sensors and precision weapons into the fray with little or no logistical support. How- ever, in spite of their unmatched supremacy beneath the world’s oceans and their ability to strike with impunity with dozens of cruise missiles, the greatest limitation of today’s attack submarines is payload. As new off-board vehicles such as the Long-term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) are introduced to the fleet, the cost of transporting and deploying these systems will be counted in terms of weapons left behind on the pier.

Even beyond its baseline mission capabilities, SSGN offers significant opportunities to develop and test new weapon delivery systems, sensors, and operational concepts that could further transform naval warfare. Two examples already envisioned are encapsulated launch of a variety of tactical munitions and deployment of large unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and off-board sensors. Encapsulated launch will send weapons to the surface for dry-launching, using a standardized buoyant capsule and a common interface for loading and communications. This modular approach to payloads will even allow use of “off-the-shelf” weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, and decoys in support of joint forces. And, by developing large UUVs that make full use of the seven-foot tubes, they can surpass the range, endurance, and payload of small surveillance platforms and take on new missions – even offensive ones.

Strike Capabilities
The SSGN will bring a new dimension to strike warfare. Currently, SSNs with up to two-dozen Tomahawks usually launch missiles in salvos of three or four (16 maximum), while on SSGN a salvo of 20 missiles will represent less than 15 percent of the full load of 140 or 154 missiles. One might ask where the nearly 600 Tomahawks needed to fully arm four SSGNs will come from. The answer is – the Submarine Force. Existing submarine torpedo-tube launched (TTL) TLAMs will be converted for vertical launch to provide the required load-outs. Obviously, the number of TLAMs available to deploying SSNs will decrease as a result, but if you consider that a missile on an SSGN is deployed 70 percent of the time, the overall TLAM inventory immediately available to the CINCs will increase by about 50 to 60 percent. This shift of weapons will also open up some room in SSN torpedo rooms for more torpedoes or alternative payloads, like LMRS and other unmanned vehicles.

Special Operations Forces (SOF)
SEALs have operated from submarines for years. Conversion of the SSBNs USS James K. Polk (SSN-645) and USS Kamehameha (SSN-642) – since inactivated – gave us the space for embarked SEALs to work out and maintain their conditioning for extended periods and to deploy with their equipment. SSGN will not only restore the force’s large, sustainable SOF capability, but will include significant command and control capabilities well beyond those of previous boats. With a dedicated command center and a “Virginia-class” communication system, SSGN will be able to control a Special Forces campaign over a period of months from her covert position. Once on scene, SSGN will deploy Special Forces submerged, either from the SEAL delivery vehicles (SDVs) housed in the dry-deck shelters, or in the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) mini-subs, where SEALs will travel to locations over 125 nm away in a dry environment. SSGNs should prove to be the most advanced covert Special Forces platforms ever.

Mission Agility
The SSGN’s inherent stealth and endurance – as with all nuclear-powered submarines – will enable it to conduct many traditional SSN surveillance or sea control missions, even though it will be optimized for strike and SOF because of its immense payload capacity. In fact, it will be a necessary and complementary requirement for SSGNs to conduct surveillance of enemy activities ashore and at sea while on patrol. To illustrate, consider an SSGN operating in a strike launch basket, deploying and recovering SEALs and performing coastal surveillance. This ship could break off, if required, and engage a hostile diesel submarine to protect allied ships, or deploy LMRS or other mine reconnaissance assets to support theater mine warfare operations. The bottom line is that the mission agility of our nuclear-powered submarines and their broadly trained crews makes them capable of nearly any “submarine” mission.

Concept of Operations
Dual-crewed SSGNs will deliver these extraordinary warfighting capabilities to the CINCs with unrivaled efficiency. SSGNs will have a deployment cycle similar to TRIDENT SSBNs, with every other crew turnover at a forward-deployed site to achieve a higher operational availability and in-theater presence. A strong, efficient, and well-established infrastructure is required to make this work, and we already have that in the TRIDENT program. Since the TRIDENT maintenance and support systems are located in Bangor, Washington, and Kings Bay, Georgia, it follows that the most cost-effective option for homeporting SSGN will be at those bases. Currently, if four SSGN conversions are funded, it is expected that two would be stationed on each coast to balance support to the EUCOM, CENTCOM and PACOM theaters. Locations for the forward-deployed turnovers will depend on where they are operating, but could include Guam, La Maddalena, Italy, and Diego Garcia, as examples.

Picture of a weapons handling facility. Caption to follow.
The weapons handling facility above is an example of the well-established infrastructure that will make SSGN conversion a success.

Where We Stand
The decision has been made to convert all four available SSBNs to SSGNs. The first two, the USS Ohio (SSBN-726) and USS Florida (SSBN-728) will leave strategic service and begin conversion in October 2002 (FY 03). The USS Michigan and USS Georgia (SSBN-729) will begin in October 2003 (FY 04). The first SSGN is scheduled to enter the fleet in 2007. Additionally, SSGNs will be accountable under current START counting rules, and it is important that SSGN be part of future arms control agreements. 
[Editor’s note: see “Arms Control and the Future Submarine Force” in our Spring 2001 issue.]

Since 1960, SSBNs have guaranteed our security by deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States. In keeping with the objectives of a “transformed” Navy, we now have the opportunity to re-deploy these successful ships to make use of their incredible payload, stealth, and endurance in a new deterrent role. With future enemies certain of both our capability and determination – but uncertain about when and from where our new SSGNs might attack – we achieve a powerful, new level of deterrence and open a door to new capabilities and operational concepts yet to be imagined for submerged, survivable platforms. 

July 2, 2008 – “Rich Levins here, reporting from Pearl Harbor on the departure of USS Michigan, conned by the ‘Gold Crew,’ which you can see heading back to sea silhouetted by the sunrise. Navy representatives on the pier briefed U.S. News Network that Michigan stopped briefly to embark a special team to begin modifications that will use two of her tubes to test special ’large unmanned vehicles’ and a new buoyant missile launching system after a month-long upkeep. Completing the first SSGN deployment, she is bound for her homeport in Washington State. Michigan was relieved on-station in the Indian Ocean by the USS Georgia, the second converted Trident SSGN.”