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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

The Paradox of Undersea Deterrence

(Washington D.C.) The entire premise of undersea strategic deterrence is based on the need for nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to hold potential attackers at risk of catastrophic destruction, without being found, detected, or seen by enemies in any way. 

This reality, which is increasingly becoming more complex for submarine weapons developers, might explain why the Navy’s new Columbia-class, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines are being engineered to be the quietest, stealthiest submarines … ever to exist.  

The new submarines will also need to be higher tech in the sense that they will need to be less detectable, due in large measure to the reality that enemy platforms capable of submarine detection are getting much more advanced through the use of longer-range, more sensitive sonar systems, harder to detect, long-endurance, small undersea sub-hunting drones and advanced methods of aerial submarine detection; some of these detection systems include the use of air-dropped sonobuoys, high-tech sub-hunting surveillance planes and other systems, including the use of surface and shallow-depth laser scanner technologies engineered to find subs on patrol.  

In light of this kind of global equation, it is by no means surprising that the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday’s CNO NAVPLAN text specifically cites the pressing need to deliver the new Columbia-class boats … “on time.” 

The rapid and large-scale proliferation of undersea drones, many of them being quite small, quiet, and less detectable by submarine defenses, presents an entirely new threat calculus for submarine commanders who need to lurk quietly in undisclosed, undetectable, yet strategically vital locations. 

Also, the Chinese continue to quickly build new Jin-class, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, platforms soon to be armed with JL-3 long-range nuclear weapons. These new sub-launched JL-3 missiles introduce an ability for Chinese submarines to hold larger portions of the continental U.S. at risk of a nuclear attack. 

Given all this, the U.S. Navy naturally needs larger numbers of highly-capable new ballistic missile submarines, but perhaps to an even greater extent, the new submarines may need to be the stealthiest undersea platforms ever to exist. This, interestingly, may in fact be the case due to a Navy effort to integrate an entire suite of new undersea warfare technologies into the Columbia-class.  These technical efforts, emerging after years of successful Navy Science and Technology work, are multi-faceted and wide-ranging, and some of them are even being migrated over to the Columbia submarines from the Navy’s Block III Virginia-class attack submarines. Several attack submarine innovations are being adapted for the much larger Columbia's, to include the use of a fiber-optic periscope cable enabling commanders to view surroundings within the submarine from different locations, and essentially not have to stand just beneath a periscope dropdown. The Columbia's also incorporate fly-by-wire computerized navigation controls which, unlike a mechanical hydraulic system, draw upon advanced computer automation to control submarine settings such as depth, speed, and other mission elements, of course when directed by a commander. 

It is certainly quite likely that the Columbia may incorporate many as-of-yet unknown quieting technologies which, yet one item often discussed by senior Navy weapons developers is its electric drive technology. This high-tech, the electrical propulsion system is known to be much quieter than existing technologies, and also bring very crucial added amounts of mobile electrical power to the submarine, systems of great relevance given the large number of advanced electronics built into the submarine. Newer kinds of command and control, computerized or automated navigational systems, and electrically-powered weapons and sensor interfaces. 

Yet another way to remain less detectable is through the use of missile-tube launched undersea reconnaissance drones. Many of these drones are now being built by the Navy to bring new launch and recover surveillance systems to undersea warfare through the use of missile tubes. The technical ability to dispatch and track unmanned sonar and underwater reconnaissance systems, increasingly able to share data in real-time with larger host submarine platforms, can enable a large Columbia class boat to linger more safely in “impossible to detect” locations, allowing forward-operating undersea drones to enter higher-risk areas to patrol for threats such as enemy subs. 

The Navy is confident that its anticipated fleet of 12 new nuclear-armed Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will easily succeed in fulfilling and even building upon the strategic deterrence missions now performed by the service’s aging fleet of 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines.

How can two fewer, 12 submarines … succeed in performing the duties of missions now requiring 14 submarines? There are several key reasons, Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, Director of the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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The main reason is due to new “life of core” nuclear reactor technology now being built into the Columbia-class boat, a development which means the ballistic missile submarines will not have to dock for a year or two for what’s called “mid-life refueling,” therefore enabling submarines to remain operational and mission ready more continuously.

“They will have to come off line periodically. However, the amount of time they have to be off line will be decreased, because a mid-life overhaul goes away. We can keep the same number at sea that are needed per the requirement with 12 columbia-class submarines,” Wolfe said.

There are a certain number of nuclear-armed ballistic missilesubmarines which are required to be on patrol to ensure a devastating, reactive second strike in the event the U.S. suffers an unforeseen catastrophic nuclear attack. Theassured annihilation of any would-be attacker, the thinking goes, prevents an attack, therefore keeping the peace. The world’s most destructive and sophisticated weaponis built for the specific purpose … of never having to be used. The exact number of submarines on patrol at any one given time, or the nature of their missions are naturally not available for security reasons, yet the concept of a sustained undersea nuclear deterrence “presence” is certainly well understood. Interestingly, the global threat environment has led some to speculate that it might even be possible to envision a scenario wherein the Navy builds more than 12 Columbias, Wolfe was clear to stress that there are innovations built into the Columbia which, when combined with the proper maintenance and sustainment, can ensure mission success with 12.

These factors point to the key issue of consistent, fluid mission maintenance and deployment longevity; given that the Columbias are expected to serve throughout most of the remainder of this century, careful planning and thorough consideration must be given to maintaining them for decades into the future … and they can’t be arriving soon enough, given that the existing Ohio class is already serving years beyond its intended service life.

“The Ohios will age out, as there comes a point where you can’t just extend them. There are limitations for that type of hull and reactor,” Wolf said.

Top Priority

The U.S. Navy is calling its fast-tracked, high-speed acquisition of the new Columbia-class, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines its “top acquisition priority,” reflecting upon and emphasizing what has been a longstanding effort to develop, fund, and build the new generation of platforms, intended to quietly patrol the undersea domain, ensuring a catastrophic second-strike capability in the event that the U.S. is suddenly subjected to a nuclear attack. 

The Navy plans to deliver its first newly built Columbia-class submarine by 2028, in preparation for its first patrol in the early 2030s. The program continues to take on new urgency given the pace at which Russia and China are building new nuclear weapons. The existing fleet of Ohio-class boats has already served years beyond what was originally intended. 

“Ohio-class boats are nearing the end of four decades of service and must be replaced, making the Columbia-class program our top acquisition priority,” the recently released Chief of Naval Operations CNO NAVPLAN states. 

The new document, authored by CNO Adm. Michael Gilday, highlights the significance of next-generation strategic deterrence as a key element of a broader service expansion into a larger, hybrid fleet of platforms to include drones, submarines, surface ships, and small boats. 

“As we build a larger, hybrid fleet, we are determined to deliver the Columbia-class submarines on time. Our ballistic missile submarines provide an assured response to any strategic nuclear attack on the United States,” Gilday writes. 

Interestingly, while the service’s current acquisition goal is to buy 12 new Columbia-class submarines, the Navy could wind up adding more, given the severity of the threat environment. The first several boats are already under contract and under construction, a process expected to grow even more efficient as production progresses over time. The Navy plans to build 12 new ballistic submarines to replace the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class boats because the Columbia class is being built with a “life-of-core” nuclear reactor and will not need to dry dock for mid-year refueling. This will enable longer, more continuous service functionality. 

The Columbia’s are also needed quickly, it would seem likely, in part because they are being engineered as much more capable, high-tech, lethal, and stealthy when compared with the existing Ohio-class. This would appear necessary given the sheer numbers of rival nation threats, to include submarines, long-range, sub-launched nuclear missiles, ICBMs, and air-dropped weapons. A strong presence of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines can quietly patrol the undersea domain, secretly ensuring complete destruction of any nation which launches a nuclear attack upon the U.S.

The concept is clear: ensure catastrophic annihilation with nuclear weapons, to keep the peace. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the 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.