In Press: Talking SSBN(X) in Aviation Week’s DTI Magazine

by Craig Hooper on December 1, 2010

I had a chance to sit down with Paul McLeary to discuss SSBN(X) in this month’s Defense Technology International, reprising an Ares entry from early November.  Here’s the quote–which shows that I do not hate Virginia-class submarines as my prior work has led folks to believe:

Craig Hooper, a San Francisco-based national security expert who has written widely on naval and Pacific Basin security issues, is skeptical about the Navy’s submarine plans.  “With no viable means for our submarine builders to compete and drive down costs,” he says, “I expect the SSBN(X) build schedule to slide right, go over-budget and ultimately shrink to a 10-boat buy.”  Given the current budget situation, and the fact that instead of growing, budgets might contract slightly, Hooper says that the Navy should start looking for ways to allow Virginia-class subs to serve different roles.  “It would be a very interesting world if Virginia-class SSNs had the flexibility to serve in either the conventional SSN, SSGN or strategic SSBN roles.  That would be a massive force multiplier and a boon for the bottom line,” he says.

“[The means of] strategic detererent is also changing,” Hooper adds.  “As conventional weapons get increasingly accurate, America might be able to really reduce the number of submarines slated to serve in the traditional nuclear deterrent role.”

As much as I understand the desire for a large undersea missile “carrier” and appreciate the rock-solid reliability of the existing Trident missile (along with it’s easy route to serve in a non-nuclear PGS role), I still think that it would be wise to ponder the utility of exploiting the Virginia as a multi-mission platform.  Having that capability would give the U.S. a far wider array of operational options, and, I suspect, enhance the deterrent value of the nuclear sub fleet.

Would a smaller missile, capable of fitting into the later-generation Virginia-class missile-launch tubes be that expensive?  As expensive as SSBN(X)?  Would a smaller missile offer prohibitively less global coverage than Trident?  Would the plan run into trouble given our arms control agreements?

This is why I”d like to see more open discussion about using the existing Virginia-class hullform (or a modification of said platform) versus going whole-hog on the SSBN(X).  It’s a heck of a lot of money, and I just sense that it might all be put to better use if we re-thought our decades-old model of at-sea nuclear deterrence.

Because if we don’t take a good, hard look at all the options out there, we could see the $13-$6 billion-dollar SSBN(X) program dwindle down to eight boats.  Or even less.  And I think it might be better on the industrial base if we kept working on the model we have in production versus the pie-in-the-sky dreamboat that we don’t.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Moe DeLaun December 4, 2010 at 10:24 am

No sweat, Doctor, it’s an old scholar’s habit – sources! sources! 😎

Indeed, command, etc. of drone air assets is going to be a key part of naval/Marine warfighting. Once again, I cast my gaze back fifty years to an earlier, abandoned approach to this problem: The USS Triton (SSRN 586):

“Triton’s main air search radar was the AN/SPS-26 electronically scanned, three-dimensional (3-D) radar system. The SPS-26 radar had a range of 65 nautical miles (120 km; 75 mi), and it was capable of tracking aircraft up to an altitude of 75,000 feet (23,000 m).[10] Since it scanned electronically in elevation, it did not need a separate height-finding radar system.[29] When not in use, the SPS-26 radar was lowered into its fairwater housing for stowage within Triton’s massive sail.[10] A submarine version of SPS-26, designated BPS-10, was under development at the time of Triton’s construction, and it was slated for eventual installation on the Triton.[30]”

I have been unable to locate a single declassified image of this huge radar; but then, there’s still some mysteries surrounding the Triton’s design, mission and disposal.


Craig Hooper December 3, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Hey Moe! Sorry about the delay in getting your post up–the spam filter goes crazy when it sees too many links in an email.

How about the utility of controlling and deriving benefit from high-endurance UAVs that are in the neighborhood?


Moe DeLaun December 2, 2010 at 8:23 am

Yes, yes, yes — make use of designs and hardware we’ve got. If negotiations eventually reduce the SLBM force, continue the SSGN retrofits. Fix the Virginia bugs and amortize that hull over a large fleet with varied capability. A really useful mod-kit might be a dorsal extension/mount to accommodate UUV’s, SEAL boats and taller missiles.

If the Cormorant UAV program didn’t sink out of sight, that would be a useful payload.

The Japanese demonstrated the utility of sub-launched aircraft, and it’s reported that he first intel on the Yeonpyeong Island incident was apparently a drone launched by the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23)


Craig Hooper December 1, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Cruise missiles! Yech. No.

I’ve seen some PGS stuff that tinkers with multiple smaller ballistic missiles in the Virginia’s big tubes–yes, there are some problems; the missiles are too tall (at present) and they lack a long range (but still, they’d still reach something like 98.7% of the earth’s surface). Yeah, it’d take walking back the comfortingly planet-killing load-out of the Trident, but, still, how much do we really need in the nuke deterrence department?

It’s going to have to be funded outside of the regular shipbuilding program, but, still, the Navy is gonna pay. And the SSBN(X) program is going to shrink. And our sub-builders, in their effort to maximize profit in what they see as the last sure procurement cash cow, will build themselves into irrelevance…and incompetence.


Moose December 1, 2010 at 6:36 pm

There’s limits to trade-offs. A cruise missile with comparable range/payload doesn’t exist, would have less survivability, and would likely be huge itself. If you accepted the hit in range and performance needed to fit a SLBM into the later block Virginia’s wide tubes, you’re still not really coming out ahead. Each boat is only set to have 2 tubes, though I’ve seen some work on a stretched Block IV/V with 4, so the entire Virginia class forsaking all other payloads still wouldn’t get you anywhere near the same number of tubes. I doubt building a hundred plus Virginias would be in any way affordable.

There’s an outside shot that we could GW the Virginias, build an extra few 12 with a plug-in missile compartment between the reactor and berthing. But I wouldn’t.

Better if less popular solution: fund it outside the regular shipbuilding program.


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