The Stealth Battleship
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The Stealth Battleship


Converted Trident submarines with Tomahawk cruise missiles would greatly bolster the U.S. Navy's long-range striking power. 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. 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? 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Full article: Issues on Science and Technology Online, Spring 1999, by Mr. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr


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