On January 30, 2002, the Navy awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to proceed with development of a Tomahawk cruise missile launcher to be fitted into four retired Ohio class submarines. The “SSGN” conversion program, approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld prior to 9/11, was to take retiring strategic nuclear submarines and transform them into cruise missile firing platforms. In additional to 154 cruise missiles each, firing from Northrop Grumman seven-pack launchers, each boat was also to be extensively renovated to support sustained operations with 66 Navy SEALs and their equipment, or carry up to 102 special operations personnel in one-time missions.
Want to know why we spend gazillions on defense and can’t seem to stop? The Congressional Research Service reported that the SSGN conversion cost – for four submarines – ended up being about $4.0 billion. The first of the four was declared operational on November 1, 2007. As far as I’m aware, not a single cruise missile has been fired from an SSGN in combat, nor has any daring SEAL mission, such as this month’s hostage rescue or the killing of Osama bin Laden, been launched from these submarines.
What happened then to a program initially funded as counter-terrorism in emergency supplemental bills? First, the patented Clinton administration cruise missile strike fell far out of favor as unmanned aerial drones (and cheaper and more capable precision bombs) proliferated. Second, nothing of much military value that needs to be done in the Middle East can be done with an independent stealthy force of 66 men; and as The Washington Post reported last week, the Navy now wants to develop a new floating base to serve as a special operations staging platform. That’s probably why, as GlobalSecurity.org reported, that three of the four converted SSGNs showed up in South Korea, the Philippines, and Diego Garcia in June 2010, tools for some sort of signaling of the bad guys in Asia.
They call it the silent service, and coupled with the even more secretive special operations community, we end up with military capability that I’m sure is awesome to many but is neither visible nor persuasive. The falsehood of current defense budget cuts is that programs like this get started in the first place to satisfy certain constituencies or appeal to questionable strategies and forms of combat. Oh I’m not saying that someday a bevy of SSGNs won’t fire their cumulative 600 missiles at some North Korea, but then what?