January 1, 2009  

Industry pulse: Boomers reborn

Conversion to SSGNs ushers in new submarine strategy

With the demise of the Cold War and the rise of terrorism, the Navy determined that there was no longer a need for 18 ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) while a new need arose for a guided-missile and special operations platform. The result: conversion of four SSBNs into guided-missile submarines (SSGNs), starting with the lead ship of the Trident submarine class, the Ohio.

The Michigan, Georgia and Florida followed the Ohio into conversion. The Ohio returned in December to its home port in Bangor, Wash., from its first deployment — 14½ months after shoving off. The Michigan left its home port of Bangor in November. The Georgia deploys in July; the Florida deployed in May. The Georgia and Florida are home ported in Kings Bay, Ga.

The forward base for the Ohio and Michigan is Guam; the Florida and Georgia operate out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean when deployed. All have the ability to surge to other theaters of operation.

The Ohio’s deployment was 2½ months longer than the norm, staying at sea until the Michigan was ready for its first deployment. From Guam, the Ohio undertakes standard 90-day missions, rotating its “blue” and “gold” crews per nuclear submarine custom. While on deployment, the Ohio undertook one or two “national tasking” missions, which Capt. Chris Ratliff, the Ohio’s first SSGN skipper, described as “highly classified” and “extremely relevant” during an interview at his office at the Naval Base Kitsap on Washington state’s Hood Canal.

Each SSGN has 105 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 66 special operations forces (SOF) personnel. The missiles are “tethered” to Tomahawk commitments, but none was fired during the Ohio’s deployment, Ratliff said. SOF missions are another thing; Ratliff couldn’t discuss these missions but said they represented “theater security operations” in cooperation with allies.

There are one or two national taskings in each operational period or mission set, which Ratliff described as “very SSGN-specific missions in the global war on terror.” There have been four mission sets during Ohio’s deployment. None of the national taskings was a mission of opportunity but instead were missions designed specifically for the SSGN’s capabilities.

The Ohio isn’t a small submarine. It’s 560 feet long and displaces nearly 19,000 tons submerged, about double the size of today’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Ohio’s size didn’t matter when it was in its original Trident missile role; deep water was its habitat for its long-range D-5 missiles. But its new mission as a support platform for special operations has skeptics of the conversion program questioning not only the SSGN’s ability to operate in shallow water to put the SOF troops ashore, but also the cost of the conversion.

Ratliff said use of the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) and the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) gives the Navy’s SEAL teams all the flexibility and ability they need to get to shore. The ASDS is a mini-sub carried on the back of the SSGN and has a range of about 100 miles, enough to let the SSGNs stand off from shore as close or as far as the skippers choose. Six Los Angeles-class attack submarines (SSNs) have been fitted to accommodate the ASDS and all new Virginia-class SSNs can carry them. The ASDS carries a crew of two and 16 SEALs plus equipment. The SDV is a submersible that carries equipment and four SEALs, but the personnel use scuba gear and are not enclosed as with the ASDS.

The SSGN’s capacity is the key, Ratliff said, in distinguishing it from the Los Angeleses or the Virginias. The SSGNs can carry 66 SEALS compared with the handful on the SSNs. The SSGNs, once the home for 24 Trident D5 missiles, can carry 105 Tomahawks, compared with 12 on the Virginias.

Skeptics also worry that the new generation of air-independent propulsion (AIP) and quieter diesel-electric submarines, such as the advanced Russian Kilos, pose a threat to the SSGNs operating in shallow waters, where the AIPs and Kilos thrive. Ratliff acknowledges these submarines are a “challenge, but they are a manageable challenge.”

Close to shore is an environment for the diesels and SSKs (sub-hunting submarines), and the SSGNs “go into the lair,” Ratliff said. But the SSGNs have the latest sonar and fire-control systems installed as part of the conversion, which Ratliff said are key to operating in the “mission-contested environment” of shallow waters. Furthermore, the SSGN’s “arm’s length is longer than a diesel,” giving the SSGN the advantage.

“I’m willing to operate with the SSK threat to get the mission done,” Ratliff said.

Naval plans are to stop with the four SSGN conversions, but Ratliff said consideration is already underway about replacing the SSBNs and SSGNs as their service lives end.

As for the cost critics complain about? The conversion cost for the SSGN is about $650 million, with roughly another $350 million for a major overhaul and refueling, compared with the $2 billion-plus cost of the Virginia-class sub, Ratliff said. For the $1 billion, the Navy gets a delivery platform that has more than nine times the firepower and far more special forces. The converted SSGNs have a service life of 20 years.

In today’s armed forces, that $1 billion is probably one of the best bargains in defense weapons procurements.

Scott Hamilton is an analyst with the Leeham Co. (www.leeham.net).