Article Published in the Defense News
“Power projection” can be a difficult concept to understand in the abstract. It is a nation’s ability to make its military might felt beyond its borders — as diplomacy’s coercive underpinning, deterrence or in actual combat.
American power projection has taken many forms in years past; the man-o-war, expeditionary Marines, the dreadnaughts of the Great White Fleet, the aircraft carrier, the Army’s 82nd Airborne division and the Air Force’s expeditionary wings. Different crises have demanded different kinds of U.S. power projection at different times.
In recent years, however, U.S. power projection at the lethal end of the spectrum combat has increasingly relied upon a single tool. Since its 1991 Persian Gulf war debut, the Tomahawk cruise missile has become the weapon of choice when crises demand swift and accurate U.S. military response.
They have cleared safe lanes for U.S. warplanes through enemy air defenses. Tomahawks have hit terrorists. And they have destroyed sites thought to hold mass destruction weapons. Over 700 have been used in six different strikes since 1991.
As Tomahawks’ use grows so do the strains upon their launch platforms in the shrinking 300-ship fleet. So some in the Navy and Congress are seeking new ways to quickly boost the number of Tomahawk missiles — the power projection tool of choice — available to overseas U.S. commanders.
Attention has now fallen upon four Ohio-class submarines to be retired in 2003 and 2004. A now overdue Navy study to Congress reveals how these Cold War-era submarines, that once aimed nuclear-tipped missiles at the Soviet Union, can easily be converted to carry hundreds of Tomahawk missiles.
Doing so would give the U.S. Central Command in the Persian Gulf, for example, one such submarine year-round, thereby almost doubling the in-theater inventory of Tomahawks. That would take the pressure off other Navy ships needed elsewhere, increase deterrence and strengthen U.S. combat power should strikes be necessary.
The Navy’s imminent report has found that the four Ohio-class subs could be fitted with Tomahawks and Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) commando gear for $500 million each. According to New Jersey Senator Robert G. Torricelli, “It’s an inexpensive way of adding a new dimension to U.S. warfighting capabilities.”
All but two of the 24 strategic missiles tubes aboard the Ohio-class boats could be refitted to accept a canister holding six or seven Tomahawk missiles each, yielding a maximum of 154 cruise missiles. If some SEALs are aboard, along with their special gear, only 98-140 Tomahawks could be loaded — still more than any other Navy ship carries.
The full warload — all 154 Tomahawks — can be “ripple-fired” from the submerged submarine in less than six minutes. That is key because it allows the submarine to quickly, quietly and safely remove itself from the launch site after firing all its missiles.
A submarine-launched strike of that size offers two main advantages. First, by virtue of its stealth, a submarine can launch a surprise attack from within an enemy’s early-warning perimeter. With no advance warning, large numbers of enemy targets can be hit before they are hidden, dispersed or emptied. There is no build-up of U.S. forces to warn an enemy of a pending attack. Second, submarines are less vulnerable to attack and counter-attack than are surface ships.
If embarked SEALs are the best weapon for a mission, the converted Ohio-class boats can house 102 such men for short durations and 66 SEALs nearly indefinitely. This allows for a sustained special operations campaign, rather than solitary strikes, from a stealthy, invulnerable platform.
SEALs can also use the submarine’s silos that once held nuclear-tipped strategic missiles to store their unique gear. There is ample room for a hyperbaric chamber to recompress divers if needed and a warming chamber which helps SEALs recover from prolonged exposure to cold water. The converted Ohio-class boats could also serve as ‘mother-ships’ to special underwater SEAL delivery craft like the Advanced Swimmer Delivery Vehicle minisub.
Even though the four converted Ohio-class boats would no longer carry nuclear-tipped missiles, strategic arms control treaty limits would still apply to these boats. This means the ships’ missile tubes, now filled with tactical missiles and Navy SEALs, would still be counted against ceilings that cap the number of U.S. and Russian strategic weapons. The Navy’s study to Congress has found that, while complex, this issue can be accommodated as has been done before for other strategic missile submarines converted to special, tactical duties.
The nation has a rare opportunity to swiftly and cheaply boost its ability to project power. The conversion of these four Ohio-class boats will complement, not compete with, other Navy ships and Air Force expeditionary warplanes deployed to overseas hot-spots. This chance to get new, useful life out of old Cold War-era systems on the cheap is the innovative and right thing to do for the Navy and the nation.
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