Strategic Deterrence, the SSBN Force and the Columbia SSBN’s Essential Contribution

Strategic Deterrence, the SSBN Force and the Columbia SSBN’s Essential Contribution
Naval Sea Systems Command
Strategic Deterrence, the SSBN Force and the Columbia SSBN’s Essential Contribution
Naval Sea Systems Command
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Since 1945, America’s ability to deter major aggression against itself and its allies has rested upon a mix of nuclear and conventional forces.  Strong, capable conventional air, ground and maritime forces are essential to deterring major conventional attack.  The credibility of U.S. conventional forces, in turn,  is built upon the firm foundation of a modern and effective nuclear deterrent capability, a point made clearly by Army Chief of Staff (and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) designate) General Mark Milley  in March 2016 before the House Armed Services Committee:  “I don’t have a part of the Triad, in a sense, but I can tell you that in my view, in my professional military view, and I am a member of the JCS, the nuclear Triad has kept the peace since nuclear weapons were introduced and have sustained the test of time.”1

That nuclear deterrent, for over five decades, has taken the form of the  Triad of strategic forces.  The Triad started life, admittedly, as the offspring of inter-service rivalries of the 1950s.  During the 1960s, however, strategists recognized that the combination of separate attack azimuths,  complementary alert postures and three different basing modes, each with different but offsetting vulnerabilities, presented potential enemy offenses and defenses with insurmountable obstacles.  Each leg contributes uniquely to a deterrent effect which is much more than the simple sum of its three parts.

Today, an enemy planner contemplating a first strike against the United States must take account of the 450 Minuteman sites, the two strategic submarine bases, the two key command and control venues (Washington, DC, Omaha, NE), and possibly the three nuclear bomber bases (Barksdale, LA; Minot, ND; and Whiteman, MO). This would be a massive strike that would draw a major U.S. response.2   If you eliminate the 450 ICBM sites, the enemy planner’s job becomes vastly simpler:  two SSBN bases, Washington and Omaha, and again, possibly the bomber bases.   A massive strike is no longer necessary.   As was observed recently: “ICBMs … are the only leg of the triad that requires that an adversary launches a large-scale nuclear attack on the United States to destroy them … The strategic effect of requiring a massive attack on the American homeland is that it dramatically raises the bar for any adversary to contemplate such an attack. This is a good thing.”3

The bomber force, consisting of both penetrating bombers with gravity bombs and stand-off aircraft carrying long-range cruise missiles4, offers a unique capability with which an Administration may signal intent (by putting the force on alert, or by dispersing an alert force, or by moving bombers closer to a potential enemy) and thereby de-escalate a crisis.  As “slow-flying weapons,” bombers are inherently not useful in a first strike scenario and are therefore highly stabilizing.  They also provide the widest range in weapons yield in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, thereby contributing to “tailored deterrent” options. 

The successful marriage of a nuclear-powered submarine with a sea-launched ballistic missile was, literally, a game changer for the U.S. strategic deterrent.  When the SSBN USS GEORGE WASHINGTON put to sea on her first operational patrol carrying the Polaris A-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in late 1960’s the United States had achieved an invulnerable element for its nuclear retaliatory force.   When at sea, the USS George Washington (SSBN 598), and the combined 40 other ships of her class and the follow-on classes, the Ethan Allen’s, the Lafayette’s, the James Madison’s and the Benjamin Franklin’s, which followed in this first epoch of the U.S. SSBN force -- were  undetectable and their retaliatory capability was unquestioned by the Soviet leadership.  The decision to build a total of 41 boats in the 1960s was based substantially on the relatively short range of the Polaris A-1, A-2 and A-3 missiles they carried: not only did the range require forward overseas basing for these submarines (in Holy Loch, Scotland; Rota, Spain; and Guam)5, it also resulted in relatively lengthy transit times to reach their patrol areas even from those forward bases.  This, in turn, required a large fleet to keep the required number of warheads at sea at any one time.

The introduction of the Poseidon C-3 SLBM in the early 1970s with its increased range and warhead carriage allowed the Navy to retire the ten oldest SSBNs.  Later in that decade, the Navy began deploying two new systems:  the even longer range Trident 1 (C-4) SLBM and a new class of SSBNs (the first of which, USS OHIO, gave her name to the entire SSBN class).  The combination of the new missile and the new SSBN allowed the retirement of 19 original SSBNs;  12 others were retrofitted to carry the Trident 1 and for a time continued in service alongside the newer OHIOs entering the fleet, gradually retiring as more OHIOs became operational.   The retrofitted boats were based in Kings Bay, Georgia, while the first eight new OHIOs were assigned to Bangor, Washington. 

The 4000-mile range of the Trident 1 SLBM allowed a vast increase in patrol area.  Additionally, the Trident I’s provided the Pacific SSBNs with a major increase in target coverage against the eastern USSR.

Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles

As the Cold War wound down, the United States had a total of 13 OHIOs in commission and five others which were in advanced stages of construction and subsequently entered active service.   The ninth through the eighteenth submarines, replacing the retrofitted BENJAMIN FRANKLIN class at Kings Bay, entered service carrying the new, more powerful and highly accurate Trident 2 (D5) SLBM.  The first eight boats were later converted to carry the Trident 2.  The D5’s longer-range again increased patrol area in both oceans, but that was not the missile’s major contribution to deterrence.  The D5’s extraordinary accuracy and its heavy high yield warhead6 allowed it to confidently hold at risk the hardest targets in the USSR – and thereby broke the back of Soviet nuclear strategy.  Until the introduction of the D5, the United States’ sole prompt hard target kill capability resided in the ICBM force; accordingly, Soviet nuclear war-fighting strategy focused on eliminating U.S. ICBMs, denying the U.S. the ability to respond quickly against key hardened Soviet assets.  The D5 with the high yield warhead undid that strategy completely.

The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the first of the post-Cold War re-looks at U.S. nuclear policy, mandated a reduction in the size of the OHIO class SSBN force from 18 to 14 submarines.  Subsequently, the four oldest boats were removed from the strategic nuclear mission and converted to carry conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles.7 Since this 1994 reduction, twelve SSBNs have been available for strategic deterrent missions with two additional submarines (on a rolling basis) in long-term shipyard maintenance.  Given the strategic reductions mandated by the New START treaty, in a day-to-day peacetime environment, those twelve submarines carry about 70 percent of the United States’ strategic nuclear warheads. 

But the favorable geopolitical conditions which prevailed in 1994 have changed dramatically over the past twenty-five years.  In the last ten years particularly, Russia and China have posed a growing and aggressive challenge to America’s and our allies’ interests around the globe. Both countries are building and modernizing their major nuclear weapons systems. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review points out that since 2010 “Global threat conditions have worsened markedly … including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries.”8   Compared to the Russian and Chinese nuclear force building programs, America’s strategic nuclear Triad is aging rapidly.  The Triad created during the late 1950s/early 1960s was modernized with new systems by the Reagan Administration during the 1980s. The Reagan Triad was scheduled for modernization by the George W. Bush Administration in the early 2000s, but that effort was deferred due to the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan and the perception that Russia and China did not pose nuclear threats to the U.S. and its allies.    For the past several years the Armed Services Committees of the Senate and the House have been told how the Reagan Triad systems are inevitably coming to the end of their useful life.  By the mid-to-late 2020s our bombers and their associated air-launched cruise missiles, strategic submarines and land-based missiles will have been deployed well past their anticipated end of life dates and will have to be retired, with or without replacement.  In 2016, then-Commander Strategic Command, Admiral Cecil Haney USN, stated publicly “We are fast approaching the point where [failing to modernize the Triad] will put at risk our safe, secure and effective and ready nuclear deterrent.”9   Accordingly, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for modernizing all three legs of the U.S. nuclear Triad (basically endorsing, with a few key changes, the Obama Administration’s plan to do so).  That said, new U.S. systems will not begin to be fielded until at least the mid-2020’s, which will be, as the current Commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten USAF, says, “just in time.”10 

With respect to the SSBN force in particular, the “youngest” OHIO class submarine was commissioned in 1997.  Originally designed to serve for 30 years, after a life extension program the OHIO class submarines will average 42 years of age when retired. No U.S. nuclear-powered submarine will have served longer.  To rectify this situation and to assure deterrence into the future, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review mandated that the U.S. build and deploy “a minimum of twelve COLUMBIA class SSBNs” to maintain an adequate sea-based force.  Importantly, “a minimum of twelve” will result in an operational force of ten SSBNs; given a peacetime day-to-day posture, this will produce an average daily force at sea far smaller than ten.11 The COLUMBIA class SSBN will be the world’s most advanced strategic missile submarine.  It is designed to have a 42-year service life.  Its new “life of the ship reactor core” is specifically designed to last throughout those 42 years, eliminating the need for the mid-life reactor refueling overhaul.12 COLUMBIA’s new electric drive propulsion system and other aspects of its design will ensure it remains stealthy throughout the life of the class, while its open architecture enables upgrades ensuring it will outpace the threat.  Additionally, its missile tube compartment design has been developed in conjunction with the British Royal Navy (which will incorporate the design into its new Dreadnought class SSBNs), reducing overall U.S. investment and risk.

Based on its merits and on the global situation, public support for the full “minimum of twelve COLUMBIA SSBNs” should be universal.  But, sadly, that is not the case.  Today, some disarmament proponents and even some elected officials are publicly calling for reducing the number of new COLUMBIA SSBNs to eight, or even fewer.  Reducing even to eight (let alone less than eight) would pose very serious problems for the United States:

  • Reducing the force to eight or fewer would make two-ocean basing highly expensive: the costs associated with maintaining two separate support facilities for only 4 SSBNs each would be very high. This could well cause the Navy to shift from the current two ocean posture to a one ocean posture; this in turn would reduce patrol area and target coverage, both of which undercut the deterrent capability of the SSBN force.
  • Given that a force of twelve SSBNs will produce ten operational SSBNs, a total force of eight COLUMBIAs would allow for only six operational hulls, a dangerously low number from a deterrent standpoint.
  • Third, if the U.S. was to maintain the same number of warheads at sea with an eight boat force as it would with a twelve boat force, the Navy would have to “upload”,e., add more warheads to, the submarines’ missiles. This would, as a matter of physics, result in reduced missile range, which in turn again further reduces patrol area. 
  • Fourth, and further with respect to “uploading”, if the Navy were to have to upload our missiles beyond what is currently planned to cover deterrent requirements, we would have no flexibility whatsoever to undertake additional prudent uploads in the event that the international situation became more menacing in the future.
  • Fifth, any unplanned preventative or corrective maintenance required over the unprecedented 42 year service life of the COLUMBIA class SSBNs could further dramatically impact the at sea availability and survivability of the SSBN deterrent force.
  • Finally, there is a misguided notion that cutting from twelve to eight SSBNs saves significant money in the upcoming DoD budgets. It is important to note that the entire strategic modernization program endorsed by both the Obama and Trump Administrations consumes only 3%-4% of the Defense Department’s annual budget.13  Given the significant investment the Navy, in conjunction with the submarine industrial base, has already made in R&D and preparation to begin producing COLUMBIA SSBNs, the only rational choice to reduce the force size below the “minimum of twelve” would be at the back end of the build cycle, e. affecting boats nine through twelve (or more).  The money for those boats will not appear in the Defense budget until late in the next decade and early in the 2030s.  As a result, any suggestion that there is fiscal relief to be found in the current Defense budget is utterly illusory.

Nuclear weapons will continue to influence great power politics for the foreseeable future, and a modern nuclear deterrent credible to Presidents of the United States, to our allies, and to our potential enemy’s leadership, will be vital to U.S. national security for a long time to come.    President Obama’s Prague speech, best remembered for endorsing the concept of a nuclear weapons free world, also contained the following statement:  “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”14   The modernization of the U.S. nuclear Triad is crucial to keeping that promise.  And the construction and deployment of a minimum of twelve Columbia SSBNs is, simply, essential to that modernized Triad.   The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2016:  “the Ohio Replacement Program [the original name for the COLUMBIA program and abbreviated “ORP”] … remains our top priority. In my opinion, it is foundational to our survival as a nation. This budget funds the ORP; construction is planned to start in FY 2021. This start date is vitally important to prevent any impact to continuous at-sea deterrence at a time when it could be even more relevant than today.”15 And from Omaha, General Hyten made this point: “we’re delivering the new Columbia just in time. We’ve extended the life of the OHIO submarines to 42 years, but every year if we have a slip to the Columbia program the future STRATCOM commander is going to be down a submarine. A two-year slip, we’re going to be down two submarines. We put everything that tight so we have to deliver it. Why? Because the 160 people that go to work in that submarine today deserve to have safe capabilities to operate in and they’re carrying nuclear weapons that are fearsome weapons, and they have to operate on a safe platform. It has to be there.”16

The case, then, for a minimum of twelve Columbia SSBNs is strong, as is the argument for the full Triad modernization program called for in the 2018 NPR.  In this turbulent era of renewed great power competition and of an increased nuclear threat from both Russia and China, the program represents a prudent investment to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent remains competent and confident in its task of preventing nuclear war.

Mr. Miller, a Principal of The Scowcroft Group, served for thirty-one years in the U.S. government, including twenty-two years in the Department of Defense—serving under seven Secretaries in a series of progressively senior positions—and four years as a Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and as Senior Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control on the National Security Council staff. Mr. Miller received his BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Williams College in 1972. He received an MPA from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School in 1977.


  1. Gen Mark Milley U.S. Army, as quoted in, The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Budget Request from the Military Department (Washington, D.C.: Government Publishing Office, March 16, 2016), H.A.S.C. No. 114-111, p. 33, available at
  2. On a day-to-day-basis, no U.S. bombers are armed and on alert, so their bases are not necessarily time-urgent targets
  3. Adam Lowther and Matthew Costlow, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap Bill Perry’s Advice,” Real Clear Defense, October 16, 2016, available at
  4. The U.S. Air Force has two nuclear capable bombers: the B-2, which due to its stealthy nature can overfly targets and drop bombs, and the venerable B-52, which can no longer penetrate enemy air defenses and as a result carries cruise missiles designed to do so.
  5. SSBN basing in Rota ended in 1979, in Guam in 1981, and in Holy Loch in 1992. For additional information on forward basing SSBNs, see, Thomas G. Mahnken, “Forward Presence in the Modern Navy: From the Cold War to a Future Tailored Force,”, August 16, 2017, available at
  6. The Trident II D-5 carries either the W-76 or the W-88 warheads; the W-88 is the high variant while the yield of the W-76 is much lower. For additional notes on missile and warhead capabilities, see, Congressional Budget Office, Rethinking the Trident Force (Washington, D.C.: CBO, July 1993), p. 4, available at
  7. Two ocean basing was retained for the remaining 14 OHIO SSBNs, with 6 based at Kings Bay and 8 based at Bangor, Washington
  8. S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2018), p. v, available at
  9. Admiral Cecil D. Haney USN, “Center for Strategic and International Studies,” mil, January 22, 2016, available at
  10. Gen John E. Hyten USAF, “The Mitchell Institute Triad Conference,” mil, July 17, 2018, available at
  11. During a submarine’s lifecycle, a major shipyard maintenance period is required every 14 years.  Columbia herself will require a major shipyard maintenance period shortly after the 12th ship is available for strategic patrol.  The life of the ship reactor results in shorter shipyard maintenance periods that sequentially remove 2 ships from operational service at a time, leaving 10 operational submarines for the majority of each submarines lifespan
  12. The elimination of the mid-life refueling, saves, per ship, more than $100M and improves operational availability by approximately 1 additional ship-year. Over the life of the entire COLUMBIA program it will save approximately $40 billion.
  13. S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, op. cit., p. iii.
  14. President Barack Obama, “Remarks By President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered,”, April 5, 2009, available at
  15. Adm John M. Richardson USN, Statement of Admiral John M. Richardson, U.S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations (Washington, D.C.: Senate Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2016), p. 8, available at
  16. Gen John E. Hyten USAF, “U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium Opening Remarks,” mil, August 1, 2018, available at

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