Four of the U.S. Navy’s gargantuan Ohio-class ballistic missile nuclear submarines, otherwise known as ‘Boomers,’ were converted into multi-role platforms capable of deploying throngs of special forces, spying, sinking ships and other subs and and putting any enemy within 1,000 miles of coast at risk of their arsenal of 154 cruise missiles.
As you can see in the rare photo above of the USS Michigan (SSGN-727), the re-branded SSGNs are of grand scale, measuring 560 feet long and displacing almost 19,000 tons while submerged. Behind the Michigan’s sail is a modular Dry Dock Shelter, which is about 38 feet long and 9 feet tall. It is used to house SEAL Delivery Vehicles and other transportation devices used by special forces personnel. The SSGNs can be fitted with two of these systems if need be.
Four of the oldest Ohio-class SSBNs were converted to SSGNs over the last decade. The process takes between two and three years to complete, where the submarines have their reactors refueled and extensive modifications are made to their interiors to support their new conventional mission. This includes modifications to accommodate 66 Navy SEALs and their gear, as well as mission planning, command, control, communications and prep areas. Some sources say the the SSGN’s embarked commando manifest can swell to over 100 SEALs for surge operations.
The ability to launch small unmanned aircraft has been added to the SSGNs. These can provide overwatch and beyond line of sight communications relay with forward deployed special operations forces. An upgraded command and control suite was also added to facilitate these clandestine commando operations. As such, an entire special operations campaign can be ran from the bowels of an SSGN.
The boat’s 24 Trident nuclear ballistic missiles are removed and in their place are 154 BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles, with seven missile per tube. This turns the once doomsday capability of the Ohio-class into the a ‘air war in a box’ capable of sneaking into an enemy’s inner sanctum and letting loose a barrage of cruise missiles targeting command and control, air defense and high-value targets. Basically, the SSGNs have the ability to bypass an enemy’s anti-access/area denial capability and kick down a metaphorical door for follow-on attacks by manned aircraft and other assets.
Seeing that these were once the holder’s of a large portion of America’s nuclear ‘second strike deterrent,’ the now multi-role boats remain some of the quietest submarines in the world, and as such they can also accommodate some of the roles of a fast attack submarine. These include surveillance, electronic eavesdropping and even anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-mine warfare, as they retain their forward torpedo tubes. Even a automated launch and recovery system has been designed to fit in one of the SSGN’s missile tubes that it can launch and recover heavy-weight autonomous unmanned vehicles. A capability that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for underseas warfare.
The Ohio-class SSGNs are possibly America’s most powerful “all in one” conventional weapon systems, packing many times the firepower of the Virginia-class fast attack submarine and capable of supporting sustained special operations campaigns in some of the most inhospitable territory in the world. They put literally any target within 1000 miles of the coastline at risk of a surprise attack and their versatility is amazing. With four boats now in the water, at least two can be on patrol at any given time, with a third being common, and their patrols are only limited to the food stores onboard, allowing them to lie in wait for weeks or even months at a time off hostile shores.
These boats have also been battle tested. The USS Florida in particular launched at total of 93 Tomahawks during Operation Odyssey Dawn (the campaign to take down Qaddafi in Libya), with 90 of the missiles being successful against their intended targets. Other SSGNs and their crews have received high honors, including the Battle Efficiency Award and the Meritorious Unit Commendation, since being converted over from Boomers.
Currently, the SSGNs are slated to serve into the next decade, at which time they will be retired in the order in which they were added to the fleet originally. By that time, The USS Ohio will be over 40 years old.
There is no replacement in sight for these awesome machines as the Navy struggles to even replace its 14 newer Ohio-class boats that continue to act in the nuclear attack role. The solution for replacing the SSGNs as it sits now will be for an enlarged Virginia-class, each packing 40 cruise missiles and far less SEALs then their Ohio-class counterparts. Although this may help diffuse some of the Navy’s conventional sub-launched cruise missiles to more boats that can be in more places at any given time, it does not replace the incredible striking or special operations power of the an Ohio-class SSGN.
There is always the chance that the current SSGN fleet will have their lives prolonged again, or that newer Ohio-class boats will be similarly converted when their SSBN replacements are finally available, but this remains highly doubtful. The last boat of the class, The USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) was commissioned in 1997, and by the time it has a replacement it may also be over 40 years old.
Until the last of its kind is de-fueled and scrapped, the ‘second chance’ Ohio-class SSGNs will remain the most flexible, sneaky, survivable and hard hitting conventional weapons and special operations platforms on the planet.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.