The Buzz

The Navy Has One Submarine That Could Drop 154 Tomahawk Missiles on North Korea

Deadly new long-range anti-shipping missiles, such as the Russian Kalibr cruise missile, which can be fired from land, air or sea platforms, make littoral waters perilous for large surface ships like aircraft carriers and missile cruisers. Even carrier-based aircraft would require the carrier to sail within eight hundred miles of a hostile coastline, within striking distance of a variety of carrier-killing weapons. By contrast, nuclear-powered submarines are extremely difficult to detect and track thanks to the very limited noise produced by their nuclear reactors and their ability to remain submerged for the duration of an entire long-range mission. An adversary would have difficulty detecting an Ohio SSGN before it launched its missiles—and after doing so, the submarine could dive deep and run silent to evade retaliation.

In fact, TNI contributor Ben Ho Wan Beng has already described how Ohio-class SSGNs could be used to “kick down the door” by suppressing anti-aircraft and anti-shipping missiles in a first strike, paving the way for aircraft and surface ships to exploit the resulting gap in an adversary’s defenses—a role the USS Florida played in the Libya intervention.

The Ohio SSGNs’ awesome firepower, however, will only remain in the U.S. Navy for around another decade or so, at which time the entire fleet of Ohio-class submarines will be gradually replaced with the new Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines. The conventional land-attack role will be taken up by the large fleet of Virginia-class attack submarines, which can be equipped with the Virginia Payload Module to launch up to forty Tomahawks each. While this means it will take four Virginia-class submarines to equal the firepower of a single Ohio-class, it will distribute that firepower more widely across the fleet and will likely prove adequate in most scenarios—short of World War III.

But until then, the four Ohio SSGNs will remain the most heavily armed cruise-missile submarines in the world and will provide a devastating potential tool for circumventing and countering adversaries relying on anti-access/area-denial strategies.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Ohio-class submarine launches Tomahawk Cruise missiles (artist concept). Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy