Document created: 20 August 02
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2002

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Transforming the Submarine Force

Integrating Undersea Platforms into the
Joint Global Strike Task Force

Capt Floyd D. Kennedy Jr., USNR, Retired*

 *Floyd D. “Ken” Kennedy Jr. is the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) representative on the staff of the commander of Naval Submarine Forces (N02EG) and Special Assistant to the Commander for Concept Development and Experimentation. He served as CNA representative on the staffs of the commander of US Atlantic Command (joint interoperability) and the commander of Naval Doctrine Command (concept development) prior to joining the Submarines Atlantic staff in 1999. He retired from the Naval Reserve in 1999 after 30 years of active and reserve service. 

In the Air Force Future Capabilities Game 2001, Blue force Trident nuclear submarines snugged up close to the Red country’s coast, well inside the seaward perimeter of its integrated air defense system (IADS), and launched their payloads (fig. 1). This wasn’t a nuclear strike but a series of tactical and operational actions, integrated with the joint force air and space component commander’s (JFASCC) plans and orders, designed to inform the intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB) process, suppress the enemy’s air defense, and preemptively strike at his operational centers of gravity.1 These Tridents weren’t the nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of today’s fleet but conversions to nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines (SSGN) with payloads of unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, tactical ballistic missiles, and tactical cruise missiles. They paved the way for other elements of the joint global strike task force (JGSTF).2
Figure 1. An artist’s concept of a Trident-class SSGN firing a Tomahawk cruise missile, with an Advanced SEAL Delivery System locked onto the submarine’s forward missile tube.

Figure 1. An artist’s concept of a Trident-class SSGN firing a Tomahawk cruise missile, with an Advanced SEAL Delivery System locked onto the submarine’s forward missile tube 

SSGNs are no longer a mere vision—they are now a funded program. Four Trident submarines became surplus to the needs of the national nuclear arsenal and were to be decommissioned and scrapped or converted to other uses. Enormous ships with significant payload capacity (fig. 2), they can carry 154 Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAM) in 22 of their 24 tubes and alone can fulfill the cruise-missile requirements of many combatant commanders. All four Tridents are now programmed for conversion to carry TLAMs; however, are TLAMs the most useful payload to the joint force commander?
Figure 2. Major components of a Trident-class, nuclear-ballistic-missile-carrying submarine were refitted to configure it as a conventional-missile-carrying and special-operations submarine.

Figure 2. Major components of a Trident-class, nuclear-ballistic-missile-carrying submarine were refitted to configure it as a conventional-missile-carrying and special-operations submarine.

The submarine force initiated an active concept development and experimentation (CD&E) process to examine this and other questions. The ultimate objective is to transform the force from its secretive and operationally independent stereotype to a valued, conventional element of American military-power projection—a fully integrated partner in the JGSTF. By participating in the Air Force Future Capabilities Game, we were able to identify many ways submarines could employ their inherent characteristics of stealth, endurance, and flexibility to support the JFASCC and the combatant commanders. The lessons learned from that game would help refine the concept for employing submarines in the joint-fires role.3

Submarines in Joint Fires Concept

The submarine force embraced CD&E in 1999 as a means of integrating itself into the joint force. Our first operational concept was entitled Submarines in Joint Fires and explored the means by which the inherent characteristics of a mobile undersea platform could contribute to the component elements of the joint-fires process: target acquisition, command and control, and attack resources.4

Undersea Platform Characteristics

Before there was stealth in the air, there was stealth in the sea. In the year 2000, the US submarine force celebrated a centennial of silent service. Early submarines were submersible torpedo boats, using the sea as a cloaking device to enable an undetected approach to the enemy. Not until the advent of nuclear power in the mid-1950s did submarines become true undersea platforms with the ability to remain submerged indefinitely and navigate with impunity.

Nuclear-powered submarines are multimission platforms that when appropriately equipped can make significant contributions in a number of joint roles. They have the inherent advantages of stealth, agility, and endurance. As stealthy platforms, they have dramatically reduced signatures in all detection regimes and are simply not vulnerable to the types of weapons (ballistic and cruise missiles, including those armed with weapons of mass destruction) that dominate a joint force commander’s force-protection concerns. Their agility enables them to execute different taskings in a multimission environment, and their endurance on-station is measured in months—without a logistics tail or the need for escorts or other mutually supportive assets. These characteristics have made submarines extremely effective in a variety of missions, from antisurface and antisubmarine warfare to persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Since World War II, these missions have been conducted primarily as independent operations. Nevertheless, tomorrow’s relevance in the battle space will be predicated on the ability to integrate into the joint force.

Since submarines were already performing ISR tasks that could contribute to the target-acquisition process (including service as launching platforms for special operations forces [SOF]) and were firing TLAMs as directed by the air tasking order (ATO) against assigned targets, joint fires seemed to be the most appropriate way to integrate submarines into the joint force. The question facing the Navy in general, and the submarine community in particular, was how best to apply the characteristics of stealth, agility, and endurance to support joint fires. This included potential roles in developing and maintaining IPB situational awareness, transitioning from deterrence to hostilities, participating in the daily ATO process, and providing fires on call. A possible answer to that question was a draft operational concept that has driven much of the force’s experimentation effort over the past two years.

Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

US attack submarines (SSN) operate undetected off the coasts of potential adversaries and routinely—almost constantly—collect information. Historically, that information has been of strategic value and was thus provided to national-level customers for fusion with other forms of strategic information to inform decisions made at the highest levels of government. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the operational value of that information has been increasingly recognized, and operational-level commanders have become customers for what the SSNs provide. This necessitated a higher level of connectivity and increased bandwidth to transfer the information to fusion centers where it can be processed into actionable intelligence. This CONOPS for submarines in joint fires reinforces the requirement for communications capabilities that enable the submarine to transmit collected information to interested operational commanders in a tactically—not simply operationally—relevant period of time. That translates into near-real-time information flow to operational command centers such as the joint operations center at the commander, joint task force (CJTF) level, and the joint air, maritime, or land operations centers.

The types of information collected include all forms of radio communications and data streams on virtually all frequencies. These communications could provide indication and warning of an impending attack or establish force dispositions or changes in those dispositions. The transmissions could also be track-orders to a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) for ballistic or cruise missiles. Furthermore, the collected information includes visual and imagery intelligence, as well as other transmissions with intelligence value. There’s no doubt such information is tactically useful if quickly received by the proper command and control nodes. Ideally, such information can be injected into a network accessible to all relevant nodes from which the submarine can identify additional information needs to be fulfilled, such as the Joint Digital Fires Network. Thus, the submarine lurking off an enemy coast becomes an integral part of an expeditionary-force sensor grid and contributes to joint fires target acquisition by performing ISR tasks that complement the activities of surface-, air-, and space-based ISR assets.

As an attack resource, today’s submarines carry torpedoes and TLAMs. Tomorrow’s submarines will add to that inventory the Tactical Tomahawk (TACTOM) cruise missile, which has considerably greater operational flexibility, including a launch-to-loiter capability, and in-flight retargeting. This concept, together with other submarine-force research and development ideas, envisions future submarines with tactical ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that can perform a variety of ISR and attack tasks employing a wide range of payloads. Among the nonlethal payloads envisioned are decoys and jammers to stimulate and suppress enemy air defenses. Potential lethal payloads include penetrating warheads and a variety of submunitions that can individually target both soft and armored targets.

Exploiting their stealth, submarines would penetrate deep within the seaward defensive perimeter of hostile littoral nations, permitting them to launch from within the enemy’s IADS and coastal-defense threat rings. Depending on the extent of an enemy’s coastline, this could permit a dramatic increase in the threat axes an enemy would have to consider. Under virtually any circumstance, it would greatly reduce warning time and generate surprise. Undersea-based attack could be used to support a rollback of the enemy’s IADS and coastal defenses and/or strike directly at operational or strategic centers of gravity without the need for rollback. The balance between the two approaches would be governed by the firepower present on the submarine—once expended, it cannot be rapidly replenished.5 So, the value of that firepower as an enabler of succeeding attack versus a direct attack on centers of gravity must be addressed by the joint force’s staff.

Submarines constitute both a complementary and supplementary attack platform to existing and planned platforms of the Navy and other services. They are complementary in the sense that their platform characteristics of stealth and long loiter time (measured in months) in potentially high-threat areas are not duplicated by other types of platforms, thus adding a new dimension to platform options available to the joint force commander. They are supplementary in that they can carry the same types of weapons and ordnance as other types of platforms. Against a technologically unsophisticated enemy far removed from the coast, such as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, submarine-launched weapons merely supplement those of other platforms. Against a peer competitor or near-peer competitor, submarine-launched weapons complement those of other platforms by adding unexpected launch positions well within a perimeter that other platforms could penetrate only at much greater risk.

The location of the previously undetected submarine (datum) is potentially provided to the enemy by a missile-launch event.6 However, the datum is very fleeting, especially if the submarine uses a “shoot and scoot” tactic. Enemy antisubmarine forces would need to be poised and ready to attack in the immediate area of the submarine to have any chance at success, a potential risk the submarine’s preceding and succeeding stealthiness would minimize. In fact, studies have concluded that even with an enemy submarine positioned within two nautical miles of a submerged TLAM launch event, no enemy firing solution on the launching submarine could be achieved. Navy submarines engaged in these attack missions will necessarily be maintaining situational awareness by sharing a common, relevant, operational picture with other forces in the joint task force—thus being provided warning of proximate enemy antisubmarine warfare (ASW) forces.

Nuclear-Powered Guided-Missile Submarines

The number of Tridents that can be converted to tactical-missile-delivery platforms is principally determined by what is excess to strategic requirements. The Nuclear Posture Review of 1994 deemed four of the 18-ship Trident force surplus to strategic requirements, and those four are now programmed for conversion.7 There is little doubt that these huge submarines, with 22 of their 24 missile tubes dedicated to land-attack weapons, will become the most capable land-attack undersea platforms available to future combatant commanders.8

The Trident SSGN baseline configuration will accommodate seven TLAMs in each of the 22 available missile tubes—a total of 154 attack missiles. While it is spatially and technologically feasible to double-stack TLAMs for a total of 308, the current and anticipated TLAM inventories do not justify the added expense. However, with the adaptation of existing tactical ballistic missiles and development of new encapsulation approaches, a double-stack capability becomes much more attractive and is a candidate for further experimentation (fig. 3).
Illustration of the strike SSGN load out, as played in the December 2001 Air Force Future Capabilities War Game.

Figure 3. Illustration of the strike SSGN load out, as played in the December 2001 Air Force Future Capabilities War Game

A SOF transport and command and control capability is also included in the baseline configuration. Each SSGN can accommodate a company-sized SOF detachment with its own special operations command and control element (SOCCE). The two forward-missile tubes are reserved as access trunks to the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS), a miniature submarine that can accommodate two operators and up to eight SEALs with equipment, comfortably transporting them submerged over 125 nautical miles (fig. 4).
Figure 4 Illustration of the special operations SSGN load out, as played in the December 2001 Air Force Future Capabilities War Game.

Figure 4. Illustration of the special operations SSGN load out, as played in the December 2001 Air Force Future Capabilities War Game

An advantage of using an SSGN as an attack platform is that virtually its entire ordnance capacity can be dedicated to offensive weaponry. It doesn’t need to arm itself against hostile air or missile attack since the sea that surrounds it provides a passive defensive barrier to such weapons. Only its separate torpedo room contains self-defense weapons for use against its principal enemy—another submarine. There are significant technological difficulties in developing an ASW capability against a slow-moving, quiet Trident. That task, barring a suspension in the laws of physics, would bankrupt the defense budget of most nations without a NATO state-of-the-art ASW capability.

The employment concept for SSGN mimics that for the SSBN. Dual crews will keep it forward deployed 70 percent of the time as a theater combatant commander asset in contrast to an SSN, which only spends up to 33 percent of its time deployed. The four SSGNs that will be in commission by the end of this decade will be able to generate a continuous on-station attack capability equal to joint fires of more than 2.5 Trident SSGNs.

Given the enormous capacity and potential of SSGN as a joint-fires platform, we initiated a rigorous program of CONOPS development and experimentation to determine its most efficient employment in that mission while integrating its capabilities with those of other platforms and services. Our participation in the Air Force Future Capabilities Game 2001 allowed us to further refine our CONOPS and identify numerous sensors and weapon systems that would be of great value to the joint force commander.

SSGN/JGSTF Operational Concept

As crises develop, at least one, potentially two, SSGNs can be on scene early and be able to operate well within a potential enemy’s defensive perimeter. They will integrate with other forward-deployed forces and in concert with other undersea platforms (that deploy either independently or with carrier battle groups). The SSGN will contribute to the IPB process—feeding information for target generation by the JGSTF staff. Off-board sensors launched by the SSGN include SOF, recoverable unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV), and expendable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). These sensors will complement SSNs’ onboard and off-board sensors to help fill collection gaps in the integrated space/airborne/surface/undersea sensor grid.

The prehostilities phase of any crisis is a prime period for special operations—especially in the ISR role. SOF operations from appropriately configured SSNs are usually limited to no more than squad strength, with SOF embarked immediately before and debarked immediately after the operation. The space on board an SSN is simply insufficient for larger units or for the physical conditioning that SOF must perform every day to remain at high levels of readiness. There is, however, space on board an SSGN to accommodate several SOF platoons for 90 days without significant readiness degradation. A SOF-configured SSGN can loiter off a potentially hostile or definitely hostile coast, executing mission after mission while the SSGN remains ready to launch other sensors or weapons in support of the joint force commander. Because SOF-configured SSGN normally dedicates some additional missile tubes to SOF equipment stowage, it has fewer sensors and/or weapons to launch than a strike-configured SSGN.

When the potential enemy drives the transition from prehostilities to open hostilities, friendly surface and air forces operating under prehostilities rules of engagement are at high risk. A properly operated submarine maintains its stealth and can avoid that level of risk. SSNs and SSGNs can remain close-in to the enemy coast and either preempt hostile action, launch on unambiguous warning of an impending strike, and target enemy strike platforms before they launch—or constitute the leading edge of a retaliatory strike and open the door for follow-on forces by creating holes in the enemy’s IADS. Of the three options, a preemptive launch from an undetected SSGN (standing just offshore) can be devastating—as was demonstrated during the Navy’s Title 10 Global 01 war game. Employing miniature air-launched decoys and jammers launched as submunitions on either TLAMs or tactical ballistic missiles, submarines can stimulate and jam enemy sensors; moreover, using lethal missiles, they can kill the IADS sensors and weapons themselves. With large onboard inventories of such weapons, the SSGN can perform this function over and over again—and did, as we executed this joint suppression of enemy air defenses (JSEAD) CONOPS in the Air Force Future Capabilities Game.

If, on the other hand, the joint force commander is driving the transition to hostilities, he or she can elect to commit some or all of the SSGN’s payload to striking enemy centers of gravity without rolling back antiaccess defenses—achieving an element of surprise not possible with other types of near-term systems. As discussed earlier, there is a trade-off between (1) using the SSGN’s weapons in a JSEAD mission to enable a potentially higher level of effort with air strikes and (2) using its weapons to directly attack centers of gravity with a large but finite inventory of weapons.

The onset of hostilities certainly doesn’t signal the end of SOF operations. Quite the contrary, a SOF-configured SSGN can expend its attack munitions in JSEAD or strategic attack, and then remain in position to continue a SOF campaign of ISR, direct action, and combat search and rescue.

The Way Ahead

During the Air Force Future Capabilities Game, the joint force commanders found every payload postulated for the SSGNs in the game’s order of battle to be useful in support of the JGSTF concept. The submarine force’s intent in including such a wide variety of lethal and nonlethal payloads was to identify the payloads that have the greatest utility to the joint force commanders and then pare down the list of options. We failed in that undertaking. 

Fiscal reality being what it is, we still need to prioritize payload development beyond the baseline SSGN. To that end, we’ll continue to play in service- and joint-experimentation venues such as the Army Transformation War Games, Air Force Global Engagement and Future Capabilities Games, Navy Global War Game, and the experiments of the services and Joint Forces Command. These venues will help us refine our submarines’ role in the joint-fires concept, prioritize our research and development, adapt existing and future weapons to undersea platforms, and ultimately—transform the submarine force. 

Norfolk, Virginia


1. The term joint force air and space component commander (JFASCC) appears in and is defined by draft Air Force Doctrine Document 2-5, Information Operations, November 2001, on-line, Internet, 11 April 2002, available from

2. The term joint global strike task force (JGSTF) reflects the joint nature of a new concept titled “Global Strike Task Force,” and introduced on 10 August 2001 by Gen John Jumper, commander of Air Combat Command. It’s the nation’s kick-down-the-door force for the new century. A global strike task force will be able to open the way for everyone else, no matter what an enemy can throw against US forces. It will dominate the air and take out enemy assets that threaten a US deployment. The concept, as described by General Jumper, is built on new technologies and new ideas about using military force. First is stealth capability—the task force leads with F-22 stealth fighters to clear a path, taking out enemy aircraft and advanced antiaircraft missile launchers. B-2 stealth bombers follow to destroy assets that threaten US deployments such as Scud missile launchers, chemical-weapon bunkers, and air and shore defenses. Sea- and air-launched cruise missiles help that effort.

3. Joint fires are fires produced during the employment of forces from two or more components in coordinated action toward a common objective. This term and its definition are approved for inclusion in the next edition of Joint Pub 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Joint Pub 3-09, Doctrine for Joint Fire Support, 12 May 1998, II-1–II-17, on-line, Internet, 28 June 2002, available from

4. Joint Pub 3-09, Doctrine for Joint Fire Support, 12 May 1998, II-1–II-17, on-line, Internet, 16 April 2002, available from

5. To reload, the submarine must egress hostile waters and proceed to a reloading point, reload, and then transit back to hostile waters, slowly penetrating alerted defenses. Reloading an SSN is much faster than reloading an SSGN. 

6. A datum (antisubmarine warfare) (DOD) “is the last known position of a submarine, or suspected submarine, after contact has been lost,” DOD Dictionary of Military Terms, on-line, Internet, 11 June 2002, available from

7. Rear Adm John Butler, “Coming of Age: The SSGN Concept,” The Submarine Review, forthcoming.

8. SSBN/SSGNs have an 18,750-ton submerged displacement, compared to the 7,147-ton displacement for a Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine (SSN). The other two tubes of the SSGN will be used as access trunks for SEAL minisubmarines. SEAL teams are one of the primary tactical units of the Naval Special Warfare Command—the naval component of the United States Special Operations Command. SEALs take their name from the elements in and from which they operate (sea, air, land).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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