The cover of the ninth and last edition of “Soviet Military Power,” published by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1990, featured a picture of a Delta IV ballistic missile submarine. This formidable weapon system epitomized the profound nature of the Soviet threat to the American homeland. Throughout the Cold War, the United States relied on a fleet of attack submarines to track, and if necessary destroy, these Soviet behemoths. With superbly trained and dedicated crews, this U.S. fleet was also charged with protecting surface combatants and naval convoys from Soviet attack submarines. In 1990, the United States had 100 submarines available for these anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions.
Because of the overwhelming importance of ASW, nuclear attack submarines (referred to in naval nomenclature as SSNs – SS for submarine, N for nuclear-powered) were associated with a relatively narrow role in the ongoing drama of the Soviet-American competition. Consequently, they were often viewed as a quintessential “Cold War weapon.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, some considered the SSN an anachronism.
Ironically, the contrary has proven true. U.S. military planners and joint force commanders are more aware than ever of the unique attributes of submarines that make them extraordinarily useful tools. It is a fleet that can operate in hostile shallow waters and influence events onshore because it can strike land targets quickly, conduct secret reconnaissance over extended periods and covertly deliver special operations forces.
In an even more dramatic reversal of Cold War roles, four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines – U.S. counterparts of the Delta IVs – are being relieved of their strategic payload and are being refitted for conventional missions. Designated as SSGNs, these four submarines will have some of the same missions as SSNs, but with a much larger payload.
As the United States enters the twenty-first century and the era of global terrorism, the American submarine fleet continues to represent a capability far above and beyond that of any other country. But this advantage cannot continue to be taken for granted. Today’s attack submarine fleet is barely half the size it was in 1990, and consists entirely of platforms initially designed for the Cold War environment. While these facts do not constrain the operational value of the fleet in any significant way today, the continuing evolution of the threat against the American homeland and U.S. interests abroad demand that the country continues to invest in and deploy advanced submarine technology optimized for the new environment. With adequate funding, robust training and innovative operational thinking, the submarine fleet will continue to be the Navy’s “crown jewel”1 well into the future.
The initial draft of this report was written by Myra S. McKitrick. All members of the Naval Strike Forum had an opportunity to review and modify the final report.
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