The Stealth Battleship
Converted Trident submarines with Tomahawk cruise missiles would greatly bolster the U.S. Navy's long-range striking power.
During the Cold War, when presidents were informed of a budding crisis, it is said that they often first asked "Where are the carriers?" In the post-Cold War era, the first question they may very well now be asking is "Where are the Tomahawks?" Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles (technically called Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles) have become the weapons of choice for maritime strike operations, especially initial strike operations, during the past 10 years. These precision-guided missiles have greater range than carrier-based aircraft and can be employed without risking pilots and their expensive planes. The increased importance of Tomahawks is occurring as the Navy considers what to do with four Trident ballistic missile submarines that are slated for decommissioning even though they have at least 20 years of service life left in them. The Navy should seize this opportunity and convert the Tridents into conventional missile carriers capable of firing 150 or more Tomahawks. These converted Tridents could prowl the world's oceans as the Navy's first "stealth" battleships, capable of inflicting more prompt damage at extended ranges and at lower risk to the combatant submarine and its crew than any warship in the fleet, all without forfeiting the advantage of surprise. Indeed, they would have far greater long-range striking power than the battleships that conducted Tomahawk strike operations during the Persian Gulf War. A battle group composed of carrier-based aircraft, conventional precision-strike missiles aboard surface combatants and submarines, and Trident stealth battleships, all linked by advanced information technologies, would provide the United States with an extraordinarily potent punch.
An emerging challenge
Why should the Navy consider converting Tridents, at a cost of about $500 million per ship, to a new use? After all, the Navy already has Tomahawks aboard other surface combatants and is planning to build the DD-21 land attack destroyer that, as its name indicates, will focus its efforts on striking targets ashore. The reasons have to do with the changing nature of naval warfare and the increasing vulnerabilities of U.S. surface vessels.
"It has become evident that proliferating weapons and information technologies will enable our foes to attack the ports and airfields needed for the forward deployment of our land-based forces," Admiral Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, has observed. "I anticipate that the next century will see those foes striving to target concentrations of troops and materiél ashore and attack our forces at sea and in the air. This is more than a sea-denial threat or a Navy problem. It is an area-denial threat whose defeat or negation will become the single most crucial element in projecting and sustaining U.S. military power when it is needed."
In short, as ballistic and cruise missile technologies continue to diffuse and as access to space-based reconnaissance and imagery expands, a growing number of militaries will be able to do what U.S. forces did on a large scale eight years ago in the Gulf War: monitor large fixed targets (such as ports, air bases, and major supply dumps) in their region and strike them with a high confidence of destruction. In such an environment, access to forward bases will become increasingly problematic, and even surface combatants operating in the littoral could become highly vulnerable. As this threat matures, Tridents with Tomahawks would offer the following major advantages.
Firepower and range. Fleet surface combatants must distribute their missile loads to address a variety of missions that include antisubmarine, antiair, and missile defense operations. This considerably reduces their inventory of offensive strike missiles. Because of its inherent stealth, a Trident battleship would have little need for such defensive weapons. Moreover, the substantial advantage in range that Tomahawks have over carrier-based aircraft would enable Tridents to strike the same target set while further out at sea, complicating enemy efforts at detection and counterstrike.
Stealth. Tridents are far more difficult to locate than surface combatants, making them ideal for penetrating into the littoral and conducting low-risk initial strikes against enemy defenses ashore. They thus confer the advantage of surprise. The use of Tridents would enable the other extended-range strike elements-carrier aircraft, missile-carrying surface combatants, and long-range bombers-to operate at far less risk and with far greater effectiveness. Tridents could also carry and land more than 60 members of a special operations force. Small teams operating inland could prove essential in locating targets and directing extended-range precision attacks.
Readiness. Trident battleships can remain at their stations far longer than carrier battle groups. Carriers typically shuttle back and forth over long distances from their U.S. bases to their forward locations, requiring the Navy to build three or four carriers for each one that is deployed forward. Tridents, on the other hand, could easily rotate crews, enabling the Navy to keep each Trident at its station far longer than a carrier. The use of Tridents could also alleviate the pressure placed on the Navy to maintain the same level of forward presence that was called for in the Clinton administration's 1993 Bottom-Up Review. Because of retention problems, carrier battle groups are now being deployed short of hundreds of sailors. Tridents would need only about 150 crew members, as compared to 5,000 to 6,000 sailors for a carrier and 7,000 to 8,000 for a carrier battle group. In addition, occasional substitution of Tridents for carrier battle groups would help relieve the family separation problems associated with long carrier deployments that have led to some of the Navy's personnel retention problems.
Cost. Tridents can be converted to stealth battleships at a cost of $500 million to $600 million each, whereas carriers cost nearly $5 billion each, excluding the cost of their air wing. Moreover, Trident operations, maintenance, and personnel costs would be but a tiny fraction of those incurred by a carrier battle group. The use of Tridents would also help the Navy deal with the budgetary challenges of meeting its existing modernization plans.
Trident battleships would certainly not be the equivalent of carrier-centered battle groups. Carriers are better at providing a sustained stream of strikes as compared to the pulse-like attack that could be launched from a Trident. Carrier aircraft are currently more capable of striking mobile targets. A carrier battle group has the flexibility to launch both air and missile strikes. And carriers, because of their enormous size, clearly remain the ships of choice for visually impressing other countries.
Still, a Trident battleship would have a greater prompt strike capability than a carrier. Its Tomahawk missiles would have a greater range than do carrier-based aircraft. A Trident strike would not place pilots in harm's way. Indeed, its stealth and small crew ensure that far fewer sailors would be at risk. Nor would a Trident need other ships to defend it. Perhaps most important, Tridents would offer the Navy a means of thinking more creatively about strike operations and forward presence. In the final analysis, it is not a question of carrier battle groups or stealth battleships-the Navy needs both.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., is the director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.