U.S. missile submarine visits South Korea. China fears these submarines for a reason – as one incident shows from 2010.
Navy Missile Submarines Make Both China and North Korea Nervous
The USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) arrived in South Korea this week, marking the first visit by an American submarine in nearly four decades.
Surely, China and North Korea were watching quite closely.
The U.S. Strategic Command announced that the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine surfaced in the port city of Busan just days after North Korea test-fired what it said was a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Seoul and Washington simultaneously launched talks to discuss how to best coordinator in light of Pyongyang’s escalating provocations in the region.
Back in April, the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol was announced.
However, the SSGN’s rare visit was not initially revealed until this week.
The U.S. National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell made these remarks while attending the inaugural Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) in Seoul, which was set up by the countries in April.
According to Reuters, North Korean officials denounced the NCG for “openly discussing the use of nukes,” cautioning against any plans to increase displays of military support. Kim Jong Un’s regime has been vocal in its contempt for America’s presence on the peninsula and relations with Seoul and Tokyo. In May, Pyongyang accused the U.S. and South Korea for engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and pledged to take action against the “war mongers’ madness.”
The North Korean leader was referring to joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that involved a U.S. aircraft carrier and heavy bombers. Last week, the U.S., South Korea and Japan carried out a collaborative naval missile defense exercise to counter North Korea’s growing threats, which was also condemned by Pyongyang.
Introducing Ohio-class submarines
Often referred to as “boomers,” the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are part of the United States’ nuclear-deterrent triad.
In fact, these SSBNs together carry almost half of America’s active strategic thermonuclear warheads.
Until the deployment of the Soviet Union’s Typhoon-class, the Ohio represented the largest submarine across the world.
These vessels displace more than 16,000 tons and measure around 560 feet long.
The first eight boats in the Ohio-class were delivered with C4 missiles, while the fourteen that followed were equipped with longer-range Trident D-5 missiles, which the military touts as just as accurate as ground-based ICBMs.
In 2010, Three Ohio-class Submarines Simultaneously Surfaced
The last time an Ohio-class submarine surfaced in the Indo-Pacific occurred in 2010 – and surely China was freaked out by their presence.
In fact, three of these missile-carrying submarines surfaced simultaneously as what should be considered a warning of sorts.
However, these ships were not part of the Navy’s undersea deterrent fleet, due to their previous modifications.
When the New START treaty was signed by the U.S. and Russia back in 2002, the number of American strategic missile submarines was limited to 14.
Since 18 Ohio-class submarines existed at the time, four were converted to vessels that carry non-nuclear munitions and re-designated as guided-missile submarines (SSGNS).
When the three Ohio-class submarines surfaced in the Indo-Pacific in 2010, the overt power competition between Beijing and Washington was just brewing.
Now that China has amplified its hostile intentions in the South China Sea and North Korea is growing more and more belligerent, it may take less than 14 years for the next U.S. SSBN to surface in the area.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.