Boomers Readied for Littoral, Special Warfare (Dec, 2002)

(c) K.B. Sherman

The US Navy has twelve aircraft carriers in various states of readiness and repair. Unfortunately, as highly publicized recent problems with ships (USS John F. Kennedy and USS Detroit, to name two) and aircraft (EA-6B, F-14, and S-3B) have shown, the US Navy is currently stretched beyond its ability to meet the commitments set for it after September 11, 2001.

The Navy is addressing the problem in part by changing its ship mix. The Navy’s four oldest Ohio-class Trident ballistic missile submarines are about to be converted to carry 166 Tomahawk cruise missiles in place of each’s 24 nuclear ballistic missiles. This transformation is part of a $4 billion Congressional authorization to reshape the US’ four oldest Trident-class subs to, in the words of one Navy official, “modern street fighters.” Or, to think of them another way, firepower extenders – getting a lot of whistling death to a hot spot quickly. Conversion of the four older Tridents will leave fourteen others still on nuclear attack deterrence duty.

The converted Ohio-class boats are to be equipped with the Tactical Tomahawk Weapons Control System (Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems, Valley Forge, PA), developed for Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers, as well as the Multiple All-up-round Canisters (MAC), from Northrop Grumman (Annapolis, MD). Originally designed to manage up to 128 missiles, the TTWCS will require only a software modification to adapt it for SSGN use, according to CAPT Brian Wegner, SSGN Program Manager.

The change will also involve adapting 22 of the 24 missile tubes so that each tube can carry and launch up to seven Tomahawks within seconds. Because there are significant differences in the hydrodynamics and hullform associated with the Ohio-class boats as opposed to the Los Angeles-class boats that already can fire cruise missiles, the Tridents will also have to undergo extensive modifications since the cruise missiles will be launched seven from each tube, rather than one big ballistic missile per tube. According to a report in TheDay.com,, the redesign will also anticipate deploying other types of missiles in the tubes, such as the Army Tactical Missile or a planned hypersonic missile that could reach mach 6. According to Wegner, the remaining two tubes will be widened and used to store gear for Navy SEALs; the revamp will include adding the capability of covertly ferrying special forces personnel to and from foreign soil. Such missions will, in turn, mean the addition of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), as well as mini-submersibles to haul special forces to and from shore.

According to Deborah McCallam, Media Relations Manager at Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems (Baltimore, MD), besides the Multiple All-up-round Canisters, the company is involved in supplying multiple elements of time critical strike capability and Special Operations Forces support. Northgrum is supplying the AN/WSN-7A(V1) Ring Laser Gyro, AN/BPS-15J/VMS Navigation Radar, a Voyage Management System, the Electronic Chart Display & Information Systems (ECDIS) and the AN/WQN-2 Doppler Sonar Velocity Log (DSVL). They are also building the Special Operations Forces (SOF) support Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) mini-submarine, as well as the Situational Awareness and Targeting System (TES-N).

The converted submarines would remain based at Bangor, WA, and King's Bay, GA, but could be deployed from friendly ports in places such as Guam or Scotland.

According to The Seattle Times, the transformation is not without critics, including detractors inside the Navy who unsuccessfully argued that the money would be better spent on the development of new weapons and new attack submarines, and those who have made a career of simply opposing any US military capability. But those voices are being drowned out by current events. The recent failures of Kennedy and Detroit to meet even minimal operational standards of readiness shook-up the entire Navy.

The Trident conversions are scheduled to begin next year at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Bremerton, WA) and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Portsmouth, VA). Converting the subs will cost more than $800 million each. The four older Tridents were already scheduled to be taken out of service next year, part of the Navy's agreement to reduce its nuclear arsenal under the START- II arms-control agreement. With the conversion the Navy plans to get an additional 20 years of service from them.

A test firing of two missiles using the new system is to take place in January from USS Florida. Also scheduled, according to one report, will be a test deployment of a large unmanned underwater vehicle to test the intelligence-gathering capability of the SSGN.

USS Ohio, one of the first two to be converted, was to begin its refueling overhaul in November, with conversion to begin in 2003 and redeployment in 2006. Following Ohio, USS Michigan, USS Florida, and finally USS Georgia will undergo refitting.

The Ohio-class USS Pennsylvania will remain on nuclear attack deterrence duty as an SSBN.