The US Navy’s Virginia Class submarines will now be armed with nuclear warheads.
This brings the Virginia Class up to par with the Ohio and the forthcoming Columbia classes of submarines, as far as capability of firing nuclear weapons is concerned.
‘While Virginia Class submarines can use conventional deterrence to keep adversaries in check, a sub-launched cruise missile with a nuclear warhead would be incorporated into Virginias and give national command authority additional escalation control,’ Rear Adm. John Tammen, Director of the Undersea Warfare Division, told Congress, as reported by Fox News.
There are currently 13 existing commissioned Virginia Class submarines and 14 commissioned Ohio Class submarines.
This announcement comes as concern continues to grow over North Korea’s long-range nuclear capabilities, and less than a week after President Donald Trump mentioned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘in the not-too-distant-future’ to discuss ‘the arms race.’
The Navy’s Virginia Class submarines will now be armed with nuclear warheads
Adding nuclear weapons to the Virginia Class would give combatant commanders new options and expand the fleet’s mission, Tammen added, in addition to the already existing abilitiy to fire Tomahawk missiles and torpedoes.
A total of 13 Virginia Class submarines have been commissioned to date, according to Navy.mil.
The Virginia Class are intended to replace the existing fleet of 40 Los Angeles Class submarines, as they retire.
Prior to this change in mission, the Los Angeles Class, the Virginia Class, and the three existing Seawolf Class submarines were classified as SSNs, which means, they are powered by nuclear reactors, but not nuclear weapons capable.
Navy.mil described the mission of SSNs as follows:
‘Attack submarines are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; support battle group operations; and engage in mine warfare.’
Now, the mission of the Virginia Class will expand to be more similar to that of the already existing Ohio Class, ‘strategic deterrence.’ The 14 commissioned Ohio Class submarines are classified as SSBNs, standing for ‘ballistic missile submarines,’ with the purpose of serving ‘as an undetectable launch platform for intercontinental missiles,’ which are ‘designed specifically for stealth and the precise delivery of nuclear warheads.’
A trident II D-5 ballistic missile is launched from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS West Virginia (SSBN 736) during a missile test at the Atlantic Missile Range on June 2, 2014
The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS North Carolina (SSN 777) transits Tokyo Bay before arriving at Fleet Activities Yokosuka on November 5, 2015
However, the Virginia Class will be equipped with sub-launch cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, rather than the sub-launch intercontinental ballistic missiles that the Ohio Class carries.
A ballistic missile is fired on a trajectory that will ultimately follow the course determined by gravity, once the power source of its launch has been exhausted, according to theCenter For Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
A cruise missile, however, is self-guided and its path is powered throughout its entire fight until it reaches its destination.
Per the Commander Submarine Force Atlantic public information page, a separate classification doesn’t currently exists for submarines that carry cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.
For this reason, its not clear whether Virginia Class fleet will be reclassified, and if so whether the new classification will be SSBN, or something different.
The 12-ship Columbia Class will replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio Class nuclear ballistic submarines, as outlined in President Donald Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
The Navy awarded a $5.1 billion contract to General Dynamics Electric Boat for the design, completion, component and technology development of the Columbia Class submarine on September 21, Navy.mil reported.
‘Awarding this contract is an important step in ensuring an on-time construction start in Fiscal Year 2021,’ Rear Adm. David Goggins, Columbia Class Program manager, said at the time.
The first patrol of the lead Columbia Class ship, SSBN 826, is scheduled for fiscal year 2031.
Rear Admiral John W. Tammen, J. Director, Undersea Warfare Division Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, is shown ehre