Tag Archives: ballistic missile submarines

Stopping the Unstoppable: undersea nuclear torpedoes

Loads sonar buoys into a P-3 Orion, 2006 image from wikipedia

On July 20th 1960, a missile popped out of an apparently empty Atlantic ocean. Its solid-fuel rocket fired just as it cleared the surface and it tore off into the sky. Hours later, a second missile followed. An officer on the ballistic-missile submarine USS George Washington sent a message to President Dwight Eisenhower: “POLARIS—FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT.” America had just completed its first successful missile launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from beneath the ocean. Less than two months later, Russia conducted a similar test in the White Sea, north of Archangel.

Those tests began a new phase in the cold war. Having ICBMs on effectively invisible launchers meant that neither side could destroy the other’s nuclear arsenal in a single attack. So by keeping safe the capacity for retaliatory second strikes, the introduction of ballistic-missile submarines helped develop the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), thereby deterring any form of nuclear first strike. America, Britain, China, France and Russia all have nuclear-powered submarines on permanent or near permanent patrol, capable of launching nuclear missiles; India has one such submarine, too, and Israel is believed to have nuclear missiles on conventionally powered submarines.

As well as menacing the world at large, submarines pose a much more specific threat to other countries’ navies; most military subs are attack boats rather than missile platforms. This makes anti-submarine warfare (ASW) a high priority for anyone who wants to keep their surface ships on the surface. Because such warfare depends on interpreting lots of data from different sources—sonar arrays on ships, sonar buoys dropped from aircraft, passive listening systems on the sea-floor—technology which allows new types of sensor and new ways of communicating could greatly increase its possibilities. “There’s an unmanned-systems explosion,” says Jim Galambos of DARPA, the Pentagon’s future-technology arm. Up until now, he says, submariners could be fairly sure of their hiding place, operating “alone and unafraid”. That is changing.

Aircraft play a big role in today’s ASW, flying from ships or shore to drop “sonobuoys” in patterns calculated to have the best chance of spotting something. This is expensive. An aeroplane with 8-10 people in it throws buoys out and waits around to listen to them and process their data on board. “In future you can envision a pair of AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles], one deploying and one loitering and listening,” says Fred Cotaras of Ultra Electronics, a sonobuoy maker. Cheaper deployment means more buoys.

But more data is not that helpful if you do not have ways of moving it around, or of knowing where exactly it comes from. That is why DARPA is working on a Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation (POSYDON) which aims to provide “omnipresent, robust positioning across ocean basins” just as GPS satellites do above water, says Lisa Zurk, who heads up the programme. The system will use a natural feature of the ocean known as the “deep sound channel”. The speed of sound in water depends on temperature, pressure and, to some extent, salinity. The deep sound channel is found at the depth where these factors provide the lowest speed of sound. Below it, higher pressure makes the sound faster; above it, warmer water has the same effect…

Even in heavily surveilled seas, spotting submarines will remain tricky. They are already quiet, and getting quieter; new “air-independent propulsion” systems mean that conventionally powered submarines can now turn off their diesel engines and run as quietly as nuclear ones, perhaps even more so, for extended periods of time. Greater autonomy, and thus fewer humans—or none at all—could make submarines quieter still.

A case in point is a Russian weapon called Status-6, also known as Kanyon, about which Vladimir Putin boasted in a speech on March 1st, 2018. America’s recent nuclear-posture review describes it as “a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo”. A Russian state television broadcast in 2015 appeared to show it as a long, thin AUV that can be launched from a modified submarine and travel thousands of kilometres to explode off the shore of a major city with a great deal more energy than the largest warheads on ICBMs, thus generating a radioactive tsunami. Such a system might be seen as preserving a second-strike capability even if the target had a missile-defence system capable of shooting ICBMs out of the sky…

One part of the ocean that has become particularly interesting in this regard is the Arctic. Tracking submarines under or near ice is difficult, because ice constantly shifts, crackles and groans loudly enough to mask the subtle sounds of a submarine. With ever less ice in the Arctic this is becoming less of a problem, meaning America should be better able to track Russian submarines through its Assured Arctic Awareness programme…

Greater numbers of better sensors, better networked, will not soon make submarines useless; but even without breakthroughs, they could erode the strategic norm that has guided nuclear thinking for over half a century—that of an unstoppable second strike.

Excerpts from Mutually assured detection, Economist, Mar. 10, 2018

The Slayers of Enemies: nukes in Asia

INS Arihant during sea trials 2014 image from wikipedia

The INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear-powered submarine armed with ballistic missiles (SSBN, in military jargon)… is a 6,000-tonne boat that will provide India with the third leg of its nuclear “triad”—it already has land- and air-launched nukes….India believes SSBNs are a vital part of its nuclear strategy, which forswears the first use of nuclear weapons….Because they can readily avoid detection, SSBNs can survive a surprise attack and thus ensure India’s ability to launch a retaliatory “second strike”….Some nuclear theorists argue that submarine-based deterrents promote peace by making the other side more frightened to attack first. …

China is ahead of the game. It has a fleet of four second-generation Jin-class SSBNs and is testing JL-2 missiles to install in them. These weapons have a range of 7,400km (4,600 miles)—too short, for now, to reach the American mainland from the relative safety of the South China Sea. Pakistan, for its part, is in the early stages of a lower-cost approach. This involves arming diesel-powered subs with nuclear-armed cruise missiles with a range of 700km.

A more immediate worry to India is Pakistan’s development and deployment of smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield. These may make it more likely that any war between India and Pakistan will go nuclear. They also increase the risk of Pakistan’s weapons being used accidentally—or falling into the hands of extremists (such weapons are under the control of lower-level commanders whose professionalism and loyalty may be dubious)….

India says it will not develop battlefield nukes of its own. Instead, it will rely on the threat of massive retaliation against any use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan. Still, it may be another decade before India has a fully-fledged sea-based deterrent. Arihant’s Russian nuclear-power generator is unsuited to long patrols. Initially, the sub is due to be armed with the K-15 missile, with a range of 750km—not enough to reach big cities in northern Pakistan. Striking Chinese ones would be harder still.

Asian Nuclear Weapons: What Lurks Beneathh, Economist, Feb. 6, 2016, at 36

The Nuclear Lobby

The report of the Center for International Policy provides a profile of the nuclear weapons lobby, noting along the way that in a constrained budgetary environment different parts of the lobby may either collaborate to promote higher nuclear weapons spending or compete for their share of a shrinking pie.

• The Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration are scheduled to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear weapons projects over the next decade and beyond, including $68 billion to develop and purchase a new generation of nuclear bombers; $347 billion to purchase and operate 12 new ballistic missile submarines; and billions more on new nuclear weapons facilities.

• In the 2012 election cycle, the top 14 nuclear weapons contractors gave a total of $2.9 million to key members of Congress with decision making power over nuclear weapons spending. These firms have donated $18.7 million to these same members of Congress over the course of their careers.

• More than half of the contributions cited above went to members of the four key subcommittees with jurisdiction over nuclear weapons spending – the Strategic Forces Subcommittees of the Armed Services Committees in each house and the Energy and Water Subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees in each house. Total contributions by major nuclear weapons contractors to members of these four subcommittees have been over $1.6 million in the 2012 election cycle thus far, and $11.7 lifetime to these same members.

• Of the 14 nuclear weapons contractors tracked in this report, Lockheed Martin has been the biggest contributor to key members of Congress with influence over nuclear weapons spending. So far during the 2012 election cycle, Lockheed Martin has donated $535,000 to these key members; other major donors include Honeywell International, $464,582; Northrop Grumman, $464,000; and Boeing, $336,750.

• Leading advocates of high levels of nuclear weapons spending have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from major nuclear weapons contractors in the course of their careers…..

Policy Recommendations

• Reduce the ballistic missile submarine force. The ballistic missile submarine force should be reduced from 12 boats to eight, with additional warheads carried in each boat. This would save $18 billion over the next decade while sustaining the capability to deploy the number of warheads called for under the New START treaty.

• Postpone new nuclear bomber plans. Plans for a new nuclear bomber should be shelved, at a savings of $18 billion over the next decade. At a minimum, the bomber should not be made nuclear-capable.

• Cancel the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility.  There is no circumstance under which it will be necessary to build large numbers of new plutonium “pits” or triggers for nuclear warheads. Therefore, the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at Los Alamos National Laboratories should be cancelled, at a savings of $5 billion over the next decade.

• Cancel building the Mixed Oxide (MOX ) facility.  Plutonium waste from nuclear warheads can be neutralized without building the multi-billion dollar MOX facility. It too should be cancelled, at a savings of at least $4.9 billion in construction costs over the next twenty years.


The top 14 nuclear weapons contractors employ 137 lobbyists who formerly worked for key nuclear weapons decision makers. The majority of the revolving door lobbyists – 96 – worked for key members of Congress or key Congressional Committees; 26 revolving door lobbyists worked for one of the military services; and 24 revolving door lobbyists worked for the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy. Some lobbyists worked for one or more Congressional offices or agencies before leaving government, and many now work for more than one major nuclear weapons contractor.   There are 19 revolving door lobbyists working for major nuclear weapons contractors who were staffers for members of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee – the committee that controls spending on the nuclear warhead complex.

Excerpt William D. Hartung and Christine Anderson, Bombs Versus Budgets: Inside the Nuclear Weapons Lobby, Center for International Policy, June 2012

See also Nuclear Weapons Establishment

Zero nuclear weapons?

The Public has the Right to Know who has Nuclear Weapons

Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building (pdf)