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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Russia Should Worry: The Navy Keeps Showing Off Nuclear Missile Submarines

Ohio-Class SSBN. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In this day of 24/7 social media coverage, everyone is a journalist. It’s fun for amateur photographers or videographers to break a story by spotting the latest in military hardware, especially weapons systems that are supposed to be secret. Some revelations are more important than others, especially regarding the top-secret whereabouts of the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet. After all, the idea of a sub is to run silent and run deep without being detected by anybody or anything.

Stopping for a Cup of Tea with the British?

That’s why it’s curious that a certain American submarine made an announced public appearance on November 1. The USS Rhode Island, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, made a rare port of call in Gibraltar of all places. No American sub has entered the port since 2021, and before that it had been 20 years since a U.S. Navy submarine visited Gibraltar. This is a British territory so it’s not like it showed up near Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran, but this is a significant event, nonetheless. Rhode Island made another stop at a Royal Navy base in Scotland this summer.

It Doesn’t Look Like Repairs Were Needed

Gibraltar is located in an important area between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The base can also conduct maintenance on both nuclear and conventional subs. But it is not clear if Rhode Island needed some type of repairs or a tune up. The British were watching closely and using patrol boats to protect the Rhode Island from an attack. Boomers like the Rhode Island have around 20 Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missiles on board. So, you don’t want any type of enemy or terrorist incursion at port.

U.S. – U.K. Alliance: Solid as a Rock

It appears the U.S. Navy wanted to send a message to the Royal Navy that the alliance is ironclad and that the Americans trust the British with a port of call. Navy Captain John Craddock, head of the Sixth Fleet’s Task Force 69, called the visit an example of “enhancing our combined capabilities and partnership.” The Navy did not try to hide its port of call in Gibraltar, so it was likely planned in advance and approved by higher ups in the navy food chain.

Other Boomers Make an Appearance

This public appearance was rare, but it also came on the heels of another mysterious occurrence two weeks prior – the U.S. Central Command also announced that the USS West Virginia, another Ohio-class boat, was sailing in the Arabian Sea. In late 2020 and early 2021, the Ohio-class USS Georgia was revealed to be making passage through the Strait of Hormuz. This makes you wonder if the United States was trying to send a message to Iran that it means business in the Middle East. Georgia also went to Cyprus and USS Nevada showed up in Guam in early 2022.

What Happened to Secrecy?

Could this be a pattern? Perhaps the navy is willing to show off its capability and global reach of its boomer subs. They usually keep the whereabouts of their nuclear-ballistic subs top secret. The boomers leave port and are ideally never seen by prying eyes from the general public. This could be a reminder to Russia that the ballistic missile subs are out there and ready to answer the call should a nuclear exchange be necessary, especially when Vladimir Putin and other Russian honchos saber rattle about the use of nuclear weapons. Guam is another strategic locale and surely made China take notice.

This May Be the New Normal

We will likely see more public appearances of U.S. boomer subs. They span the globe and are noticeably there to carry the flag in hot spots around the world. Let’s just hope these appearances do not establish traffic that is predictable and easier to track. That would make the public relations effect of port of calls and announced locations dangerous as the enemy could connect the dots on sea routes the ballistic missile subs are sailing in. Let’s not repeatedly break the golden rule that silence and the ability to disappear are ironclad principles of undersea warfare.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

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Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.