The Navy is Moving 'Tactical Control' of Its Nuclear-Armed Ballistic Missile Submarines
November 13, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Nuclear MissilesSubmarinesSSBNOhio-class SubmarinesU.S. Navy

The Navy is Moving 'Tactical Control' of Its Nuclear-Armed Ballistic Missile Submarines

The move will help local commanders better react to foreign threats.

The Navy is moving tactical control of its nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines closer to the operational edge in the Atlantic, further allowing regional submarine commanders to make strategic adjustments and respond to emerging threat circumstances. 

The Navy has announced that it has shifted command of existing Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines from the larger echelon Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic to Submarine Group 10. 

Shifting the mission to Submarine Group 10 “will enable a more direct command and control structure to our strategic leg of the nuclear triad,” Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, Task Force Commander said in a Navy report. 

The move does give the Navy more forward-operating tactical agility to expand the “geographical dispersion” of command centers in the Atlantic. This means that tactical maneuvers, test operations and training exercises will fall more directly underneath the command of leaders closer to the tactical edge, a move which does seem like it will enable the Navy to quickly adjust to changing threats. 

There are many reasons why this is significant, given the well-known game of cat-and-mouse often associated with how rivals try to track, follow and monitor the movements of Ohio-class submarines. The concept, based of course upon strategic deterrence, is to quietly patrol the undersea from unknown locations around the globe, to ensure complete destruction in the event that a retaliatory nuclear strike is needed. 

The ability for tactical commanders closer to the edge to make more immediate decisions is quite significant when it comes to several specific threats, including current Chinese moves to expand its ballistic missile submarine fleet. 

China is fast expanding its fleet of new fleet of Jin-class nuclear armed submarines and therefore massively increasing the global reach of its nuclear threat potential. China is already expanding well beyond its position as a regional power in charge of the Pacific and is growing its global influence, meaning that Chinese nuclear-armed submarines could threaten the continental United States from multiple different locations. Nuclear threats from China are no longer restricted to the Pacific but rather now much more global in scope. This is in part due to the emergence of China’s new JL-3 nuclear missile which operates with a reported range of 4,000 miles, placing the continental United States at much greater risk. Hawaii can be threatened from many locations closer to Chinese shores and, given the added numbers of submarines, major parts of the Western continental United States can also be threatened. 

Added to this complexity is the fact that emerging submarine tracking technologies such as longer-range, higher-fidelity sonar systems, undersea drones and newer kinds of laser-diode tracking placing historically less detectable ballistic missile submarines at risk. Such a phenomenon will likely require regional commanders to quickly change course or adjust to newly detected threats, as the strategic advantage of nuclear deterrence depends to a certain degree on both being dispersed and remaining undetected. 

Kris Osborn is Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters