Navy Virgina Attack Subs Will Fire Nuclear Warhead, Expand Mission

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Firing nuclear weapons from a Virginia-class marks a shift from its current role as a conventional platform
Photo: Raytheon Tomahawk Cruise Missile

The Navy’s Director of Undersea Warfare told Congress that a new nuclear-armed submarine launched cruise missile would be fired from Virginia-class attack submarines, marking a shift for the historically conventionally-armed attack submarines into a nuclear deterrence role.
“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, Undersea Warfare Division, told lawmakers.
The emerging weapon, called for in the current administration’s recent Nuclear Posture Review, is intended to bring new elements to the Pentagon’s current nuclear weapons deterrence posture. With the current status quo, only larger ballistic missile submarines, such as the Ohio class and emerging Columbia-class, are equipped to fire nuclear weapons, such as the Trident II D5.
Virginia-class attack submarines are currently armed with Tomahawk missiles and torpedoes; adding a nuclear weapons capability would expand its mission set and give combatant commanders new options, Tammen added.
“Because of its stealth, the submarine provides unique intelligence and warning as well as ISR type data. Without this, the crew is less informed moving forward which provides additional strategic risk,” he said.
Small, agile high-tech attack submarines are able to approach high threat areas due to on-board sonar and other quieting technologies. These undersea platforms are, in many cases, able to access high-risk areas and coastal regions not typically reachable by surface ships. This enables Navy forces to assess enemy defenses, conduct reconnaissance and even launch attacks while less detectable to enemy forces.
Given this scenario, bringing a nuclear deterrence option to these submarines could enable commanders to hold more areas at risk of nuclear strike from closer-in proximity, thereby strengthening the threat posture.