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Ex-Boomers for Special Operations

23.04.2008 17:30

М.Panin

According to American mass media, recently the US Navy officially declared commissioning of “new-class” submarines. In late March this year, nuclear submarine Georgia, the fourth and last former Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, returned to the fleet after a deep modernization and reconfiguration into a conventional cruise missile carrier and platform for provision of special operations.

The history of the “new old class” submarines starts in 1992 when the USA and Russia within the framework of SRART II reached an agreement to decrease the number of their SSBNs from 18 to 14 by 2002.

However, the Pentagon concluded that it is unwise to decommission the best submarines as scrap. It was decided to reconfigure the former “city killers” or “boomers” as they are called in the US Navy (by the last two letters of their acronym – SSBN) into nuclear submarines armed with conventional cruise missiles (SSGN).

In September 2002, Company Electric Boat was awarded with a contract for reconfiguration of SSBN Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Georgia. The Trident ICBMs have been discharged from the SSBNs, reactor fuel has been changed, and silos for underwater missile launch have been reconfigured to launch conventional warhead cruise missiles Tomahawk (7 CMs in each silo) of two version – submarine-to-ship and submarine-to-ground target. Each submarine was configured to carry up to 154 cruise missiles. Four 533-mm torpedo launchers of each submarine have not been modified. Instead of Tomahawks the submarines can carry submarine-based interceptors as elements of the global US ABM shield.

Besides, the modified “boomers” have been provided with equipment for special operations, including submersible vehicles to secretly deliver SEAL teams to destination, new communication and control systems, radio electronics, etc. According to the American press, each submarine can carry 66 SEALs with arms and special equipment.

The first submarine (Ohio) returned to the fleet in December 2005, it was followed by Florida (April 2006) and Michigan (June 2007). According to the Western press, these submarines are already on combat patrol in various parts of the World Ocean, mostly in the Pacific, and take active part in military exercises. The last submarine (Georgia) will be finally reconfigured this summer after installation of a new sonar and digital combat control system, and will go to its first combat voyage in June 2009. According to certain sources, it will be stationed in the advanced US Naval Base Diego-Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The “new old” submarines will be assigned with a wide spectrum of tasks including reconnaissance in coastal waters, delivery of SEAL teams to the areas of special operations as well as delivering of blow on individual targets and clustered formations at a distance of up to 800 km with high-accuracy cruise missiles.

It is noteworthy that as it was in their “boomer” past, the submarines will have two rotating crews that would radically increase the rate of their operational application – the submariners will in the offing 70 per cent of its operational life. According to the Naval press, seamen who serve in these reconfigured SSBNs are very happy. The habitability conditions in these large submarines (submerged displacement of 18,700 tons) are much better than those in small nuclear strike submarines. For example, each seaman has his individual berth and should not go to sleep in rotation with his mate who stands the watch as they used to do it in usual nuclear submarines.

However the reconfigured subs also face a number of problems associated with their new role. Initially they were designed to conduct concealed patrols in deep waters of the World Ocean waiting for “X-HOUR”. Now they will have to operate in shallow waters and maneuver in the coastal areas with heavy sea traffic and powerful anti-submarine defense.

Experts note that the legacy of “the SSBN strategic past” in the form of “a missile hump” on its hull makes ex-boomer control in shallow waters more difficult versus the strike submarine with its cigar-shape streamlined hull. Critics also point out that engagement of such large subs actually in tactical missions is too expensive.

Nevertheless the Pentagon and US Department of Navy are sure that the high submerged stability and low noise of the reconfigured ex-boomers in combination with high skill of their crews would minimize all possible risks. On the other hand, due to their unique combat capabilities these subs, according to American experts, would be very efficient in the global “war on terror” as well as in case of military confrontation with Iran, North Korea, and other rogue states.