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. 

Oceans Transparent Already?

During the Cold War and today, Moscow for decades spent vast resources on an enormous array of technologies, including satellites like EORSAT, trying to locate U.S. submarines hiding at sea. Today, Russia and China have hydroacoustic capabilities for locating SSBNs far more technologically sophisticated than those available to the USSR during the Cold War.

Cold War defense analyst Roger Speed, then a consultant to the U.S. Navy, calculated Soviet ships sweeping the oceans with towed hydrophone arrays could locate U.S. SSBNs for destruction in two days.  According to Speed’s book Strategic Deterrence in the 1980s:

“The development of a line array of hydrophones that can be towed through the water represents a potential breakthrough in acoustic ASW technology….this new technology could pose a serious threat to SSBNs.  If the detection range is…at least 50 nm, the SSBN patrol area can be searched in two days or less.”

Modern technology is making possible miracles, such as rendering transparent the jungles of Guatemala.  LiDAR (Light Detection And Range) in 2018 used airborne laser technology to penetrate Guatemala’s thick jungle canopy, discovering 60,000 previously unknown Mayan ruins, including hundreds of previously hidden Mayan cities and towns, revolutionizing archaeology and re-classifying the Maya as among the greatest civilizations. LiDAR’s revolution in surveillance technology is the product of collaboration between private sector Teledyne Optic Titan and the University of Houston—not great power nation states.

We should not rule out the possibility Russia and China have achieved a technological breakthrough in locating submarines—which they would keep secret until wartime. If submarines can be found, they can be destroyed.

Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM)

ASBMs are a new technology that combines ballistic missiles with maneuvering warheads having electro-optical, infrared, or other seekers to precisely target even moving vessels for destruction.  China’s DF-26 and DF-21 pose long-range threats to U.S. aircraft carriers, outranging carrier aircraft, threatening to upset the balance of power in the Pacific.

Even Iran has developed ASBMs, the medium-range Khalij Fars (Persian Gulf) and short-range Fateh-110, that have been used successfully to target a ship, appearing to demonstrate an accuracy of 8 meters. ASBMs armed with nuclear warheads could destroy submarines, even if the SSBN location is not known precisely, just approximately.  The underwater shockwave from a nuclear weapon would have a very large lethal radius, extending many kilometers against an SSBN.

ICBMs too could be used to destroy SSBNs with a nuclear barrage of their ocean patrol area, even with considerable uncertainty about the submarine's location. A 1981 study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment suggested the Soviets could conceivably attack submarines with ICBMs.

President Reagan’s White House Science Advisor, George Keyworth, in a 1984 TV interview warned: "A…warhead such as the SS-18 carries ten of when dropped in the water…will destroy any submarine within a distance of about seven miles."  According to Keyworth, if the Soviets could roughly locate U.S. submarines, “find out approximately where they are, not track them the way we did in the Second World War, but just know approximately if they are in that 100-mile by 100-mile square…then they can be destroyed in a preemptive attack.”

My book Nuclear Wars: Exchanges and Outcomes (1990) calculated that Moscow, using only their SS-19 ICBMs, could destroy all U.S. SSBNs, if their at-sea locations are very roughly known, at a time when the U.S. had 36 SSBNs (not as today 14 reducing to 12 SSBNs).  My calculations indicated our submarines will be most vulnerable if their locations are disclosed by launching even one missile for a limited nuclear strike—as is now planned for tactical nuclear scenarios employing the W76-2.  


My report POSEIDON: Russia’s New Doomsday Machine (2018) warns that this new Russian nuclear autonomous “torpedo” may be a secret weapon to destroy U.S., British and French SSBNs. Poseidon is a nuclear-powered robot submarine or torpedo, armed with a nuclear warhead described by various Russian sources as ranging from 2-200 megatons, the later by far the most powerful nuclear weapon ever built.  The yield may be mission selectable.

Moscow advertises Poseidon’s mission as a doomsday machine, designed to raise radioactive tsunamis to inundate the U.S. coasts, or to destroy U.S. ports, or to trail and destroy U.S. aircraft carrier groups.  None of these missions makes sense for Poseidon, as Russia can already accomplish all of them by other existing means.

The one mission that makes the most sense for Poseidon, not mentioned by Russia, is trailing and destroying at-sea SSBNs.  Nuclear-powered, Poseidon could tail SSBNs for months or years, waiting outside ports for their target to resume patrols.  Artificially Intelligent, Poseidon could be programmed to recognize the acoustic signature of its target submarine and detonate on command.  The lethal radius of a 100-megaton warhead against submarines is over 100 kilometers. Russia plans to deploy 32 Poseidons.  Perhaps not coincidentally, enough to assign two to tail each of 12 U.S. Columbia SSBNs and 8 Poseidons to target the 8 SSBNs of allies Britain and France.

EMP Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)

Super-EMP weapons deployed by Russia, China, and probably North Korea can generate 100-200 kilovolts/meter, far exceeding the U.S. military standard for EMP hardening—50 kilovolts/meter.  Thus, across North America, even the best protected U.S. military forces—including the strategic Triad and its C3I—could be paralyzed.

U.S. SSBNs at sea cannot launch without receiving an Emergency Action Message (EAM) from the president.  The EAM includes an unblocking code to arm nuclear warheads.  Thus, submarines cannot execute nuclear strikes without the EAM.

A Super-EMP attack could destroy satellites, land-based VLF communications, TACAMO aircraft, and other redundant means to convey EAMs to submarines on patrol, neutralizing them. EMP could also attack submarines at sea directly.

A high-yield warhead detonated 400 kilometers above the ocean would generate an EMP field 2,300 kilometers in radius, an area nearly as large as North America.  E3 EMP would penetrate the ocean depths and possibly couple into submarines, damaging electronics.  Submarines would be especially vulnerable when deploying their very long antennae—which they need to do in order to receive EAMs.   

W76-2 Obama’s Bad Idea?

Returning to the W76-2, which is attributed to the Trump Administration because it appeared in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, I wonder if this bad idea originated in the Obama Administration and is advancing through Obama-holdovers in the Pentagon?

The Obama Administration’s policy was to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear forces, hoping eventually to achieve "a world without nuclear weapons."  They surely noticed Britain's adoption of a tactical nuclear mission for their Vanguard ballistic missile submarines contributed, by accident or design, to Obama’s anti-nuclear agenda.

Britain’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review began the U.K. on a slippery slope toward unilateral nuclear deep reductions. In 1998, consolidating tactical and strategic nuclear missions on Britain's SSBNs provided a rationale to cancel this role for bombers, eliminating nuclear-armed aircraft and turning the UK's nuclear deterrent into an SSBN monad.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Rep. Adam Smith, Democrat Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, advised by such international anti-nuclear groups as Ploughshares, has proposed eliminating U.S. strategic nuclear bombers and ICBMs and relying on an SSBN monad reduced to 6 boats.

The UK’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review approved replacing high-yield strategic warheads with low-yield tactical warheads on submarines, while reducing the warhead load per missile, and also reducing the readiness of their SSBNs to fire, extending operational procedures to launch missiles "to days rather than minutes." 

The UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review reduced Vanguard SSBN missiles per boat from 16 to 8.  It also further reduced operational warheads to 5 per missile, thereby reducing the number of operationally available warheads “from fewer than 160 to no more than 120” compared to 520 during the Cold War.          

While Ploughshares would approve, these measures significantly decrease the capability and credibility of the UK’s strategic deterrent.  Some make their SSBNs more vulnerable to the threats described earlier.


Do not deploy W76-2 warheads on U.S. ballistic missile submarines or otherwise degrade SSBN capability to survive, threaten adversary highest-value targets, and deter attacks against U.S. highest-value targets, including American cities.

Deploy at least 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons to reduce Russia’s preponderant advantage.  Nuclearize the U.S. Navy by proliferating preferably nuclear-armed cruise missiles on attack submarines, guided missile cruisers, destroyers and other vessels that can operate in forward areas to maximize survivability, accuracy, and time-on-target for tactical situations.

To reduce escalatory possibilities, as during the Cold War, U.S. strategic and tactical nuclear platforms should not mix capabilities and missions, but be distinct as possible.

A crash program to develop advanced new generation nuclear weapons should begin immediately. A crash program to deploy space-based missile defenses that could initially defend U.S. SSBNs and other Triad assets, eventually shield the U.S. and allied homelands and possibly render nuclear missiles obsolete, should begin immediately.

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.