Are U.S. Navy Ballistic Missile Submarines In Big Trouble?

May 30, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaChinaNorth KoreaSSBNSubmarinesNavy

Are U.S. Navy Ballistic Missile Submarines In Big Trouble?

One expert thinks so. 


A highest-priority crash program to harden U.S. military and critical civilian infrastructures from EMP and cyber-attack should begin immediately.  The potential of Russia, China, and even North Korea to possibly paralyze the U.S. Triad, including SSBNs on patrol, with an EMP "cheap shot" invites aggression.  

The most survivable leg of the U.S. strategic nuclear Triad of bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are the submarines.  Ballistic missile submarines are the last best line of deterrence and defense to defeat surprise nuclear attack.


Today, U.S. strategic bombers and ICBMs have never been more vulnerable to a surprise attack. U.S. strategic bomber bases are reduced from 45 during the Cold War to just three today.  Unlike  Cold War readiness, today no U.S. strategic bombers are nuclear-armed on strip alert, ready to fly on short-warning. Even North Korea could destroy all U.S. B-52 and B-2 bombers by surprise nuclear attack on their three bases at Minot AFB (North Dakota), Whiteman AFB (Missouri), and Barksdale AFB (Louisiana).

U.S. ICBMs are reduced from about 1,000 during the Cold War armed with about 2,000 warheads, to 400 ICBMs with 400 warheads today. 

Russia's SS-18 ICBM, armed with ten warheads, or China's DF-5 ICBM also ten warheads, could with just 50 missiles deliver 500 warheads having yield/accuracy combinations capable of a disarming surprise first strike destroying:

  • All U.S. strategic command centers, like NORAD HQ at Peterson AFB and NORAD’s Alternate HQ inside Cheyenne Mountain;
  • All U.S. strategic bombers;
  • All U.S. ICBMs;
  • Two-thirds of U.S. SSBNs (9-10 submarines) typically anchored at King's Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington.

Thus, the chief U.S. deterrent against surprise nuclear attack is 4-5 U.S. SSBNs normally on patrol at sea, from a total fleet numbering 14 ballistic missile submarines (reduced from 35-45 Cold War SSBNs).   Today’s 14 Ohio-class SSBNs will be replaced beginning in 2031 with a smaller new fleet numbering 12 Columbia-class SSBNs, slightly reducing submarines sustainable on daily patrol from 4-5 boats to 4 boats.

Anything that threatens the survivability of U.S. submarines on patrol at sea would fundamentally undermine U.S. nuclear deterrent credibility and could have the gravest consequences imaginable—including inviting a surprise nuclear attack.

Bad Idea—The W76-2

Due to Russian cheating on the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiative, the U.S. retains only about 180 aged tactical nuclear gravity bombs bunkered in Germany and Turkey.  Gone are virtually all 15,000 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, dismantled more or less unilaterally.

Today, Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear weapons is overwhelming, outnumbering the U.S. by at least 10-to-1, and perhaps much more.  Russia originally had 20,000 tactical nuclear weapons which some official Russian sources claim is reduced to 7,000 (not to 2,000 weapons, assumed by most U.S. analysts, making Russia’s superiority “only” 10-to-1, not 35-to-1).  Moreover, Russia has new generation tactical and strategic nuclear weapons for specialized effects having no counterparts in the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Russia’s numerical and technological advantages in nuclear weapons support a dangerous new strategy of nuclear blackmail and warfighting, wherein Moscow thinks about prevailing over  NATO through nuclear intimidation, limited nuclear use, or if necessary all-out nuclear war.

China is moving in the same direction, deploying increasingly sophisticated offensive nuclear capabilities.  Until recently, North Korea has successfully been nuclear blackmailing the U.S. and allies for years.  Pyongyang in 2017 successfully tested an H-bomb they describe as capable of “super-powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack” that could blackout North America. 

The U.S., to address the crisis, plans to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon—the W76-2—on Ohio and Columbia ballistic missile submarines, to counter these growing tactical and strategic nuclear threats.  

The Heritage Foundation's Michaela Dodge, in her excellent report "New START and the Future of U.S. Nuclear Strategy," notes the very grave implication of using the W76-2 to convert SSBNs into a tactical nuclear weapons platform:

"To understand the seriousness of the issue, one must realize that uploading a low-yield warhead on a Trident II D5 SLBM means that the United States is not able to use these particular missiles for its higher-yield nuclear warheads, thus trading off part of its strategic nuclear weapons capability for tactical nuclear weapons.  The Trump Administration judged the developments in Russia's doctrine to be so serious that it was willing to make that trade."

Currently, U.S. Ohio-class SSBNs each carry 20 missiles (reduced from 24 missiles), with a mix of high-yield strategic warheads, some missiles armed with the W76-1 warhead (100 kilotons) and some with the W88 warhead (475 kilotons).  Their yield/accuracy combinations can hold at risk hundreds of adversary highest-value targets, including hardened underground bunkers, military bases, and industrial targets.

The capability of U.S. SSBNs to threaten adversary highest-value targets deters nuclear war.  In the event of nuclear conflict, our high-yield W-76-1 and W88 warheads would deter attack against U.S. highest-value targets—including U.S. cities and 330 million American lives.

The W76-2 tactical nuclear weapon is just the primary of the W-76-1, reducing its yield from 100 kilotons to 5 kilotons (and thereby also continuing the U.S. unilateral moratorium on developing a new design, advanced nuclear weapons).

The W76-2 is an act of desperation, dangerous to U.S. national security:

  • Every W76-2 that replaces high-yield W76-1 and W88 warheads reduces U.S. capability to threaten adversary highest-value targets and puts at greater risk U.S. highest-value targets, including U.S. cities.
  • Launching a tactical nuclear weapon like the W76-2 from a ballistic missile submarine runs the very high risk the adversary will assume the worst, that he is under attack by a high-yield W76-1 or W88, and escalate to a massive preemptive strategic strike against the United States.  On January 25, 1995, Russia nearly did precisely this when Moscow mistakenly thought a Norwegian meteorological rocket was an incoming U.S. submarine missile performing an EMP attack (see my book War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink).
  • The effectiveness of W76-2 as a tactical nuclear weapon, given its ballistic trajectory, accuracy, and time-on-target (launched from an SSBN that may be thousands of kilometers away) is dubious.  Unlike Russian advanced tactical nuclear weapons having adjustable yields and are "clean" making little or no radioactive fallout, W76-2's yield is not adaptable to the tactical situation and being plutonium is very "dirty."  Presidents and especially NATO allies may be loath to explode over Europe even one W76-2, 5-kilotons of radioactive fallout, enough to irradiate the territories of smaller NATO European states.        

Most importantly, the W76-2 tactical nuclear mission threatens the far more critical strategic mission of SSBNs by risking the submarine's destruction.  The most plausible tactical nuclear scenarios entail launching only one or a few weapons early in a conflict—giving the adversary a golden opportunity to locate and destroy our submarines.

The late great James Schlesinger (former Secretary of Defense under two presidents, CIA Director, and one of our nation’s most profound strategic thinkers) once warned: “As soon as you fire, you expose the boat.”

Washington elites, encouraged by the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense, have for too long assumed U.S. SSBNs are invulnerable, a dangerous assumption also in the Nuclear Posture Review that advocates W76-2 giving a tactical nuclear mission to ballistic missile submarines--because of their alleged invulnerability.

However, even during the Cold War, serious people warned that Moscow—using means much less sophisticated than those available today—could pose significant threats to the survival of U.S. submarines.  Forgotten, those Cold War threats and new threats arriving on the scene largely ignored should be considered now—before we make the destruction of our SSBNs easier for adversaries by the W76-2.

Espionage Threatens SSBNs

Old fashioned spy-craft and new-fashioned cyber-espionage could pose a mortal threat to U.S. submarines—as spying did during the Cold War. Cold War Soviet agent John Walker and his spy ring, for example, had access to information disclosing positions of U.S. submarines that he provided to the USSR. Soviet double-defector KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko had Walker in mind when, in describing how the KGB scored against the U.S. Navy, he remarked: “We deciphered millions of your messages.  If there had been a war, we would have won.”

U.S. Navy Secretary, John Lehman, shared Yurchenko’s opinion of the damage done by the Walker spy ring: “Had we been engaged in any conflict with the Soviets, it could have had the devastating consequences that Ultra had for the Germans.”

Then CIA Director, Admiral William Studeman, said the Walker ring betrayal of U.S. Navy secrets created "powerful war-winning implications for the Soviets" and "jeopardized the backbone of this country's national defense." Also, former CIA Deputy Director, George Carver, who spent much of his 24-year career working cryptography and communications, believed Moscow could continue exploiting the Walker data “for years and even decades.”  Carver:

"The United States…can never be positive that it has locked all the barn doors…cannot be totally confident about the security of its communications, particularly its military and especially naval communications.  And the damage thus was done…could significantly, if not irrevocably, tilt the very strategic balance on which our survival as a nation depends."

Whether and to what extent Russia and China can find U.S. SSBNs is unknown.  Maybe they are entirely in the dark.  Or, maybe their spies know the location of every U.S. submarine.