How best could the United States metaphorically “kick down” the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) “door” of a near-peer adversary during a conflict? This has been an idée fixe for American defense planners during recent years, in view of the rising A2/AD capabilities of strategic competitors such as China. There seem to be no clear answers to this question.
What is quite unanimous, however, in the defense community is that the relatively short striking reach of America’s naval crown jewels—its large-deck aircraft carriers—means that they would have to operate well within the enemy’s A2/AD envelope , rendering the flattops vulnerable to attack. As such, they are unlikely to partake significantly in “first day(s) of war” operations, that is, to be involved in the opening kicks on the adversarial A2/AD door when enemy defenses are at their strongest.
That said, the U.S. possesses two deep-strike capabilities that stand a much better chance of circumventing the access-denial barrier: Air Force stealth bombers, and the navy’s Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs), which is deployed on cruisers, destroyers and submarines. And with regard to the Tomahawk-armed naval platforms, the Ohio-class nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarine (SSGN) is undoubtedly the most potent in terms of TLAM capacity, as well as being the most survivable, owing to its extremely low observability. Hence with its stealth and firepower, the Ohio SSGN is arguably the ideal counter–A2/AD naval platform in the U.S. arsenal.
The Ohio SSGNs began life as ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) before they were refitted as underwater Arsenal Ships during the early-to-mid-2000s. During the conversion, twenty-two of the boat’s twenty-four ballistic-missile tubes were modified to receive a special canister that enables the storage and launch of seven TLAMs each, with the other two missile silos being adapted to support special operations for at least sixty-six Navy SEALs.
Following the conversion, the Ohio SSGN can carry 154 TLAMs, which is slightly more than half the total number of missiles expended during Operation Desert Storm. Moreover, the sub can launch its entire arsenal of Tomahawks in as little time as six minutes , making it an ideal platform to deliver a large “pulse” of firepower that would be crucial during the opening stages of a counter-A2/AD campaign. This pulse could be unleashed on air defense, command-and-control, and other key installations that enable the access-denial door to be knocked down. When that happens, carrier planes and the Air Force’s non-stealthy aircraft would then find it easier to “enter” the door in follow-up operations.
It is worth noting that during the deployment of USS Florida to Operation Odyssey Dawn—the first time the Ohio SSGN was in combat— some fifty of the 112 TLAMs that were used to cripple Libya’s air-defense network came from the Florida. Acknowledging the contributions of the TLAM-armed American submarines (the Florida and two smaller attack boats) in softening defenses during the Libyan campaign, then Rear Admiral Rick Breckenridge of the U.S. Navy noted that:
***“This [using subs to fire TLAMs] gets back [to the] principle (that if) we don’t have superiority in the air to have our way at the onset of a crisis, we’re going to need somebody who can penetrate the defenses and soften up the adversary so then we can flow those other forces in to establish air dominance. . . . So in the onset of that campaign. . . the undersea forces. . . were called upon to attack land targets in Libya.”
Tellingly, the Florida fired ninety-three of the 199 TLAMs used during the two-week-long Operation Odyssey Dawn.
In addition, the American SSGN’s large TLAM payload makes it unrivalled in terms of land attack compared to other similarly-armed U.S. Navy assets. To illustrate, the two most numerous nuclear-powered hunter-killer boats (SSNs) in Navy service—the Virginia- and Improved Los Angeles–class—carries only twelve Tomahawks. Similarly, the slated replacement for the Ohio SSGN , the Virginia-class SSN fitted with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) is armed with a relatively meager forty TLAMs. While the VPM-equipped platforms are essentially SSGNs in all but designation, given that they carry forty missiles, this inventory could be depleted quickly during high-tempo operations against an opponent employing A2/AD measures.
The Ohio SSGN also overshadows its surface brethren in terms of TLAM capacity. While the Ticonderoga-class cruiser has a 122-cell VLS, one must bear in mind that a significant number—definitely more than half—of these cells will be taken up by surface-to-air missiles for fleet air defense. Ditto the Navy’s workhouse: the Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, with its either ninety- or ninety-six-cell VLS.
Given that a typical U.S. carrier strike group comprises a Ticonderoga and two Burkes, their combined Tomahawk payloads might not even match that of just one Ohio SSGN. To be sure, once the submarine fires off its entire inventory of TLAMs, it must return to port for resupply. However, this is also a problem that afflicts the American cruiser/destroyer force, as the U.S. has yet to solve the problem of how to carry out at-sea VLS replenishment . And while carrier aficionados may make the counterargument that the total firepower that could be delivered by the U.S. carrier air wing alone is equivalent to four thousand Tomahawks , such an assertion ignores the fact that the flattop would have to operate close to the enemy, as mentioned earlier.