Highly Unusual Disclosure Made Of U.S. Ballistic Missile Submarine’s Presence In Arabian Sea
It is extremely rare for the US military to reveal the whereabouts of nuclear ballistic missile submarines while they are on patrol.
U.S. Central Command has taken the extremely unusual step of disclosing the presence of a U.S. Navy Ohio class nuclear ballistic missile submarine in the Arabian Sea. The announcement was framed as a visit by the command's top officer, U.S. Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, to get a first-hand look at one of America's key capabilities operating in the region. However, it's hard not to see it as being a message intended for potential adversaries, such as Iran or Russia, as well as American allies and partners.
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, head of U.S. Fifth Fleet and Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), joined Gen. Kurilla and members of his staff on their visit to USS West Virginia at an undisclosed location in the Arabian Sea, according to a press release Central Command (CENTCOM) put out earlier today. The release did not say how Kurilla, Cooper, and the others had gotten to the submarine or when specifically the visit occurred.
"I was thoroughly impressed with the crew of the USS West Virginia; these sailors represent the highest level of professionalism, expertise, and discipline across the U.S. military,” Kurilla said in a statement. "These submarines are the crown jewel of the nuclear triad, and theWest Virginia demonstrates the flexibility, survivability, readiness, and capability of USCENTCOM and USSTRATCOM [US Strategic Command] forces at sea."
The U.S. Navy currently has 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, in service. The Ohio SSBNs were originally designed to carry up to 24 Trident nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), but this maximum loadout has since been reduced to 20 as part of arms control agreements with Russia. The current Trident D5 missile is a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, or MIRV, design and each one can be loaded with up to 14 nuclear warheads.
There are four more Ohio class boats in Navy service that had been converted into guided missile submarines, or SSGNs. Though best known for their ability to carry a maximum load of 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, the Ohio SSGNs are actually multi-purpose vessels that can deploy various uncrewed systems, serve as motherships for special operations forces, and act as underwater intelligence fusion centers and command posts, as you can read more about in this past War Zone feature.
CENTCOM's official disclosure on any level of the location of an Ohio SSBN is extremely unusual by itself. The Navy is generally tight-lipped about submarine activities, in general, and particularly so when it comes to the locations of ballistic missile submarines, which form the most survivable component of America's nuclear deterrent triad.
Beyond that, even though CENTCOM has not disclosed exactly where within the Arabian Sea USS West Virginia was sailing when Kurilla arrived, it had to surface to receive him and the rest of the delegation, presenting inherent risks and intelligence-gathering vulnerabilities. When surfaced, submarines, especially large ones like the members of the Ohio class, generally have limited maneuverability, too, which can present varying degrees of risk. Though a picture CENTCOM released along with the press release showing West Virginia on the surface – seen at the top of this story – does not appear to show anything notable, it seems more likely than not that various force protection measures were in place during this visit.
Ohio class submarines have certainly been used to send signals in the past, but generally, SSGNs have been used for this purpose. In January, ahead of Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine, the Navy took the similarly unusual step of publicizing a port visit by the Ohio class SSGN USS Georgia to Cyprus.
In late 2020 and early 2021, Georgia had also made rare publicized trips on the surface through the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, at a time of particular tensions with Iran. U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat fired warning shots at Iranian boats harassing the Georgia and its escorts during one of these transits in May 2021, underscoring the potential risks that surfaced submarines face.
There have been other instances of SSGNs appearing publicly in various places around the world at critical moments in recent years, too, as you can read more about here.
That all being said, it's not completely unheard of for the Navy to make announcements about the movements of Ohio SSBNs, though it is very rare. The War Zone noted at the time how unusual it was for the Navy to announce a visit by USS Alaska, another Ohio SSBN, to the U.K. Royal Navy's base in Gibraltar in June 2021. This was the first time one of these boats had sailed into port there in over two decades and came some two months after the end of worrisome Russian exercises around Ukraine, which many worried at the time might actually be a prelude to an invasion.
With all this in mind, Kurilla's tour of the West Virginia definitely has significantly different undertones than his other publicly announced visits to Bahrain and Oman this week. The announcement that the CENTCOM commander had traveled out to this submarine certainly comes at a time of various points of tension between the United States and countries in the Middle East, especially Iran.
In recent weeks, Iran has more actively injected itself into the conflict in Ukraine on the side of Russia through the delivery of uncrewed, including so-called "suicide drones." Iranian officials have also reportedly told Reuters now that the country is planning to sell hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles to the Russians, just as we had predicted prior to that report.
Beyond that, Robert Malley, the U.S. government's Special Representative for Iran and lead negotiator with that country's regime over its controversial nuclear program, also said just on Monday that those talks appeared stalled indefinitely. The most immediate reason for this is an ongoing violent crackdown by the Iranian government against widespread protests, which were prompted by the death Jina Amini (also known as Mahsa Amini) in September after her arrest in the capital Tehran for not wearing a hijab as is required in the country.
"It's [nuclear talks] not even on the agenda. It's not a focus because there's no movement," Malley said in an interview with CNN's Becky Anderson Monday. "At this point, the focus is on what's happening in Iran because the talks are stalled."
The U.S. government has other countries in the region it might want to signal its strength and presence to, as well. This includes Saudi Arabia, an ostensible partner of America's, but which recently helped push a decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil cartel to cut production, which will drive up the prices. This action is widely seen as being beneficial to Russia, which is under crippling Western energy-related and other sanctions over its war on Ukraine. It could also have negative impacts for Ukraine's most prominent international partners, including the United States and various countries in Europe, and has created a rift between Washington and Riyadh.
There is also a possibility that West Virginia's specific presence in the Arabian Sea may not be as important as simply signaling that it's out there at all. While there is a very active debate about whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin might actually resort to using nuclear weapons to try to change the current course of the conflict in Ukraine, there have definitely been growing fears about this possibility in recent weeks. Putin's own comments in this regard have not helped ease these concerns.
While there is an equally active debate about whether or not it presents more of a risk than a deterrent, the U.S. military does now have a stockpile of W76-2 warheads with significantly reduced yields. The W76-2, which can only be employed via the Trident D5 and is known to be deployed, at least on some level, was developed specifically based on the argument that there was a need for a more flexible nuclear option to better deter countries like Russia from launching their own limited nuclear strikes.
There is no shortage of others sources of geo-political friction around the world that West Virginia's unusual appearance in the Arabian Sea could be related to, as well. The U.S. military continues to view China as its main 'pacing threat' and is now regularly voicing concerns about the possibility of the People's Liberation Army launching a military intervention against Taiwan before the end of the decade. There are also growing fears that a series of provocative North Korean missile launches and other worrisome military activity on that country's part may be building up to a new nuclear weapons test.
Whatever the exact message or messages CENTCOM's announcement about USS West Virginia might be intended to convey, it remains to be seen how it will be interpreted.
No matter what, the U.S. military's very public declaration of the presence of one of America's most devastating strike platforms in the Arabian Sea is highly unusual and makes clear that this leg of the nuclear triad is out there and ready should it ever be needed.
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