The ultimate stealth weapon

May 1, 2002
The most powerful weapon in the American arsenal is the American economy.
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The most powerful weapon in the American arsenal is the American economy.

WASHINGTON — It's not exactly a case of beating swords into plowshares, but the planned conversion of four of the U.S. Navy's Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines from their historic nuclear deterrent role to a new tactical role in countering terrorism strikes me as an idea whose time has come.

While we're never going to be completely free of the specter of nuclear terror as long as there are any of those atomic warheads around, I think there is a general consensus that the concept of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, contributed greatly to ending the Cold War on favorable terms for us and without catastrophic loss of life. Now it's time to move on.

The current plan, known as the SSGN program, calls for converting the first four boats of that class, the Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Georgia (SSBN 726 through 729), to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles with conventional warheads against tactical targets. That capability would be helpful today in Afghanistan. It is likely to become increasingly helpful in the future should the scope of operations expand.

What makes this program so attractive in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack is that it amounts to capitalizing on an existing resource that can be readily enhanced as the threat changes. Looking beyond the Tomahawk capability, the developers are already talking about launching unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs (and possibly also unmanned undersea vehicles, or UUVs), inserting Special Operations forces in time-critical situations, and delivering even more punch with a "marinized" version of the U.S. Army's Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) long-range fire support system.

As the SSGN program now stands, the first sea trials are scheduled for next January. Initial operational capability (IOC) is expected by 2007, and the current program should be completed by 2010.

Perhaps best of all, the price is right. These subs have long since been paid for, and they have at least 20 years of life left in them. The conversion process is estimated at $1 billion each, which is comparable to typical submarine upgrades. By characteristic Pentagon spending standards, this looks like a bargain for the taxpayers.

Moreover, this is another case where commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware can make a major contribution to holding down costs and inserting the latest technology.

Officials of Northrop Grumman Marine Systems in Charlottesville, Va., insist that they could do the job entirely with existing equipment, such as the AN/WSN-7 ring laser gyroscope inertial navigation system and the AN/WQN-2 Doppler sonar velocity log. Nothing has to be invented for SSGN, they maintain. It's all there on the shelf. (This organization is the old Sperry Marine, later Litton Marine Systems, and now part of Northrop Grumman organization after its acquisition last year.)

What submarines bring to this party is their status as the ultimate stealth weapon. They can operate autonomously and they can be tied into joint forces, perhaps a multi-nation coalition of forces, through the use of existing connectivity mechanisms. No stovepipes here.

At the Northrop Grumman briefing at Navy League show last month in Washington, David Beck, senior director for business strategy at the company's Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector in Baltimore, showed a global map depicting how the four submarines could be deployed in the Persian Gulf and Indonesian archipelago to respond quickly to a variety of terrorist threats.

My first reaction was why stop at four cruise-missile submarines? The terrorist threat is likely to be around for a considerable length of time and, if anything, intensify. There are a total of 18 nuclear submarines in the Ohio class, and they seem to me to be a solution looking for a problem. President Bush has wisely, in my view, unilaterally cut back on this country's nuclear arsenal. This frees up what could be a valuable resource.

Converting existing weapons platforms to better meet the terrorist threat does not need to be limited to Ohio-class submarines. The same capability — and the same COTS hardware — could just as easily be retrofitted on the future Virginia-class attack submarines. Also, both classes have torpedoes for their own protection.

With the addition of UAVs, the submarines will have not only an ordnance delivery, but also a reconnaissance capability. Add to that the ability to insert special operations forces, and this seems like a weapon system that would trigger second thoughts on the part of potential terrorists.

Even further in the future is the potential for adding anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capability to the Ohio-class boats, based on the submarine's inherent stealth capacity. The Navy's ABM program had to be folded into the overall multi-service program after encountering unacceptable cost overruns, but the service still has capabilities that could make a valuable contribution.

For example, the vertical launch system on the U.S. Navy's Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers can conduct anti-air missions with Standard and Sea Sparrow missiles. If engineers could transfer that capability to the stealthy submarines it might be far more credible than the U.S. Air Force's anti-ballistic laser (ABL) approach of mounting anti-missile lasers on transport aircraft. The ABL aircraft are far from stealthy.

In fact, the ability to attack ballistic missiles during the launch phase would remove a glaring weakness from today's National Missile Defense (NMD) program, which to date has been directed entirely to destroying the incoming nuclear warheads during the mid-course phase of the trajectory.

The tradeoff here is between the decreased leakage made possible by attacking at liftoff vs. the vulnerability of deployed anti-missile forces. The submarines could alter this equation and be able to do the ABM job as almost a secondary mission while performing the primary tactical mission.

Given the current stampede to spend defense dollars — and not always necessarily wisely — in response to the Sept. 11 attack, I find it reassuring that there is at least one cost-effective program tailored to today's realities.

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