They are supposed to run silent, run deep, and remain secret. So why are America’s best nuclear missile submarines making public appearances at allied ports worldwide?
Known for sneaking around the globe to execute U.S. nuclear strategy, these boomers are usually seldom heard from or seen.
What Is the Latest?
The last appearance of one of the U.S Navy’s 14 Ohio-class SSBN “boomers” happened in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean when the USS West Virginia made a port of call during the last six days of October that was announced on November 28.
The U.S. military has maintained that these stops are part of routine and standard operations.
Is U.S. Strategic Command Calling the Shots?
The U.S. Strategic Command public affairs unit described the USS West Virginia’s mission as “emphasizing the unmatched capabilities of a ballistic missile submarine to deter and, if necessary, respond from anywhere on the globe.”
It is interesting the news release came from U.S. Strategic Command and not from the U.S. Navy. Strategic Command is a four-star combatant command that handles nuclear operations for the Department of Defense.
USS West Virginia’s sustained deterrence operations in the @CENTCOM & @INDOPACOM areas of responsibility emphasize the unmatched capabilities of an SSBN to deter and, if necessary, respond from anywhere on the globe.#StrategicDeterrence | @COMSUBLANT https://t.co/FfLzjXKIkN
— United States Strategic Command (@US_STRATCOM) November 28, 2022
It raises the question of which command is calling the shots for U.S. nuclear forces? Is the navy subordinate to Strategic Command or are they working as part of a team? Is Strategic Command ordering the navy to allow the public to see American SSBNs?
This is a Pattern Not a Coincidence
These public displays have become a pattern for Strategic Command and the navy.
On November 10, the Ohio-class SSGN USS Michigan visited Okinawa. On November 1, the USS Rhode Island, another Ohio-class boomer, stopped in Gibraltar. Before that, the Rhode Island visited the Royal Navy Base Clyde in Scotland this summer.
USS West Virginia In the Public Eye Again
On October 19, it was the USS West Virginia again making news.
Why publicize such a humdrum occurrence if not to send a message to allies and adversaries where the West Virginia was operating?
More Sightings of the Ohio-class Subs
That’s not all. In late 2020 and early 2021, the Ohio-class USS Georgia was revealed to be making passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Georgia also visited Cyprus and USS Nevada showed up in Guam in early 2022.
Packing a Nuclear Punch
Why All the Publicity?
This publicity can be good and bad.
On the positive side, it shows U.S. allies that the navy is able to reach anywhere in the world it wants to operate. This reassures allies that the navy is willing to carry the flag to friendly destinations.
On the negative side, the enemy could create ways to track the subs if they start making predictable appearances that form a pattern.
This May Be the New Normal
It is clear this is more than a coincidence.
The U.S. military is showing the world what some of its SSBNs are doing at any given time. I don’t spot a pattern other than the ports of call are for the purpose of visiting different allied facilities with a news release included. The appearances are becoming a regular occurrence and could be the new normal for the Ohio-class boomers. The message seems to be: “Here we are. Try to stop us.”
“The U.S. & U.K. share a strong history of cooperation, through exercises, operations, and cooperation activities such as this, that enhance our combined capabilities and partnership.”
– Capt. John Craddock, commander, Task Force 69#Assurance | #FriendsPartnersAllies https://t.co/g3MBqlx1NN
— United States Strategic Command (@US_STRATCOM) November 1, 2022
The World Is Getting More Dangerous
Of course, the geopolitics surrounding nuclear arms become more dangerous by the day. Russia often engages in nuclear saber rattling. North Korea continues to test ballistic missiles and boasts it will someday have the most powerful nuclear forces in the world. China always has designs on Taiwan. Iran is potentially supplying Russia with ballistic missiles and aims to have its own nuclear device someday.
In a previous 19FortyFive analysis about this trend, I predicted that the United States would continue to publicize some of the whereabouts of its Ohio-class SSBNs. It appears that this is becoming a more prevalent exercise. Look for it to happen again. Maybe complete secrecy of the nuclear-missile boats is a thing of the past and the U.S. military is prepared to show the world what their subs are capable of as they traverse the globe.
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.