The Buzz

China's Greatest Fear: U.S. Navy 'Cruise Missile Carriers'

The U.S. Navy is working on developing a new ballistic missile submarine to replace the service’s current Ohio-class boomers, but should the Navy build some of those vessels as cruise missile carriers?

The Navy should consider building additional Ohio Replacement Program  (OPR) submarines to serve as cruise missile carriers. Or alternatively, the Navy should design the twelve planned boomers so that those vessels can accept the current seven-shot Multiple-All-Up-Round Canisters (MACs) found on the first four Ohio-class boats that were converted into guided missile submarines (SSGNs). That should not be a huge technical challenge because the OPR is being designed to use the same Trident II D5 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) as the Ohios.

Indeed, former Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, director of the defense strategies and assessments program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), has gone so far as to say that such a submarine could potentially replace the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy fleet. “If the Navy chooses to not pursue unmanned combat aerial vehicles in order to keep the carrier relevant in the future, then it is the time to move on to another generation of weapons, perhaps submarines carrying long range conventionally armed missiles and operating with impunity in the waters denied to the carrier,” he wrote in a piece for The National Interest today.

Many on Capitol Hill and in the Navy—including the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA)—share similar ideas. But cost is always a potential sticking point—the twelve ORP boats are already breaking the bank with their roughly estimated $5.5 billion price tag. However, the Navy has no choice but to pay for those submarines since the research and development cost and production costs are mandatory—those boomers are part of the strategic nuclear deterrent. Since the upfront development costs are mandatory, the Navy might as well take advantage of it and extend the production run and gain additional economies of scale.

The 20,000-ton cruise missile-carrying ORP variant would pack a significant punch. With sixteen missile tubes each stuffed with a seven cruise missiles would allow the vessels to carry 112 long-range missiles. But not all of the tubes need to carry missiles, some could be configured to carry unmanned underwater vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles or even spare low-earth orbiting micro-satellites on a modified Trident SLBM. In short, a conventionally armed ORP could be an extremely potent weapon in an anti-access/area denial environment. It wouldn’t replace a carrier necessarily—but it could bring an enormous amount of firepower to the initial stages of a major war.

The Navy, of course, is currently planning on replacing the firepower of the four Ohio SSGNs by building twenty Block V Virginia-class attack submarines with a payload module housing four MAC tubes. Those boats would be able to twenty-eight additional cruise missiles giving those submarines a very potent punch. But Congress has indicated that it would prefer that that Navy build all of its Block V submarines with the extra missile tubes.  The Block V Virginia with its additional striking power would distribute the Navy’s firepower throughout the fleet.

But given that China is continuing to develop its anti-access/area denial capability, the Navy could always use more offensive firepower in those highly contested areas. As Hendrix noted, submarines—and especially the ultra-stealthy OPR with its electric permanent magnet motor—would be able to operate with near impunity inside the teeth of China’s defenses. As such, a conventionally armed OPR could be a very useful asset—much more so than the troublesome Littoral Combat Ship, which might be worth terminating to help pay for more ORPs.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.