Could Nuclear Submarines Become America's New 'Aircraft Carriers'?
Unlike a carrier, an SSGN would be able to approach an enemy coast before disgorging its payload of missiles—striking deep inland with weapons that have a range of more than 1,200 nautical miles to hit targets that might include everything from air defenses, to command and control nodes, to enemy infrastructure. “The point there is that three SSGNs gives you a potential striking power of 462 Tomahawk missiles or Tomahawk follow-ons that would be even more advanced,” Hendrix said.
A new class of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines could be the key to maintaining America’s future naval supremacy as new weapons increasingly challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers.
In fact, some analysts have suggested that guided missiles submarines should one day replace the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of the Navy’s warfighting capability.
(This first appeared in 2015.)
With the proliferation of precision-guided weapons like anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles and advanced air defense systems—particularly by China—the U.S. Navy’s carriers and their embarked air wing are increasingly vulnerable to what the Pentagon calls the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge.
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Instead of being able to push in close to shore during the initial stages of a major war, the Navy’s multi-billion dollar floating airfields and their escorting warships might be forced to maintain station as far as a thousand nautical miles offshore to remain outside the range of enemy attack. Further compounding the problem is the fact that the current carrier air wing does not have the necessary reach or ability to penetrate into ever more capable enemy air defenses. Even the belated introduction of the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter around 2019 will not solve that problem.
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While a new long-range stealthy unmanned strike aircraft could eventually give the carrier the long-range reach and hitting power it needs, there are those who argue that submarines are far more effective weapons against such high-end threats. Though potential enemies like China can challenge the United States in the air, sea, surface, on land and in space—American forces dominate the undersea realm with near impunity.
“Our submarine advantage gives us the ability to operate inside the A2/AD envelope,” said former Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix, a naval analyst at the Center for a New American Security. “They’re a very potent weapon that can operate with impunity in an A2/AD environment.”
Hendrix argues that the vessels like the first four Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines that were converted from carrying a payload of 24 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles to a conventional payload of 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles are some of the most potent weapons against an A2/AD threat. “Those submarines have been noticed by nations that would build A2/AD environments,” Hendrix said.
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Hendrix makes the case that the vessel’s performance during Operation Odyssey Dawn against the regime of now-deposed Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is an indication of just how potent such submarines can be. USS Florida (SSGN-728) almost single-handedly eliminated Libya’s air defenses with a barrage of some 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
These SSGNs are so capable that Hendrix suggests that the Navy cease building the new Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers after the two vessels currently under construction are completed. The Navy could buy numerous SSGNs for the price of a single new aircraft carrier—a new Ford-class carrier costs roughly nearly $13 billion without factoring in the price of the air wing.