By Rear Adm. Joseph E. Tofalo
Director, Undersea Warfare Division (N97)
This weekend, we celebrated the anniversary of the first SSBN patrol. For the uninitiated, SSBN means Ship Submersible Ballistic (Nuclear) with the “Nuclear” referring to the ship’s propulsive power (not the ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads). The United States’ first nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine, USS George Washington (SSBN 598), departed on the first nuclear deterrent patrol Nov. 15, 1960. That may seem like a long time ago, but the importance of SSBN patrols (both then and now) cannot be understated. The strategic deterrent mission was so important to the country that the keel originally laid for a traditional SSN (instead of SS-B-N) in Groton, Conn., was split to support a 130 ft missile compartment. In a span of only two years, a ship was ordered and delivered for service. Within a year of delivery, 16 Polaris missiles were safely hidden under the vast Atlantic Ocean. Unlike SSNs that specialize in intelligence and combat operations, SSBNs concentrate on stealth rather than aggression. Make no mistake, the destructive force an SSBN can deliver on behalf of the United States is not trivial and is the whole point behind a credible deterrent.
“A memorial to failed conventional deterrence in every European town.”
(Numerous memorials were constructed to commemorate WWI and WWII casualties and other events.)
Have you ever thought about what it would be like if nuclear weapons didn’t exist? Utopia right? Well, history might disagree with that idea. If you look back, there is a distinct divide between casualties before and after nuclear weapons. The primary role of nuclear weapons remains deterrence of nuclear attack on the U.S. and her allies. This is the primary reason we need nuclear deterrence, the reason our Sailors have nicknamed SSBNs Saturdays, Sundays, Birthdays, and Nights, because they must always be on patrol to be credible. However, nuclear weapons are also one of, if not the most effective methods of deterring major conflict. This is often forgotten when we speak of the vital role strategic deterrence plays in international security.
We can’t uninvent nuclear weapons. They exist. As long as any one country possesses the ability to inflict significant damage to the United States (or our allies) within a few hours or threaten use of that ability to coerce geopolitical outcomes, we will continue to need nuclear deterrence.
Consistent delivery of capable/credible deterrence.
In September, we celebrated the 4000th SSBN patrol. The decision to shift nearly 70 percent of the nation’s operational nuclear warheads on to SSBNs under the new START treaty makes it clear that SSBNs have, and always will play a vital role in preventing major conflict (as shown above). SSBN Sailors (unlike SSN Sailors) do not provide an intelligence product that can be used for follow on tasking, they do not guard choke points to interdict marine traffic, and they carry no Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) to strike from within contested maritime areas. The SSBNs mere existence provides world leaders pause should they contemplate aggression. The historical data above makes a compelling argument that deterrence is more than just a lofty concept. Its value can be measured in the context of what has not happened over time. It can be measured in lives.
Now you know; So thank an SSBN Sailor!
A lot of people are familiar with the gold and silver dolphins that represent the submarine Sailor, but some may not know how to specifically identify a Sailor who has served aboard an SSBN during one of these vitally important deterrent patrols.
Design of the SSBN pin shows a silver Lafayette-class submarine with superimposed Polaris missile and electron rings that signify the armament and nuclear-powered characteristics of the Fleet Ballistic Missile Deterrent Force. A scroll beneath the submarine holds up to six service stars, with one gold star authorized for each successful patrol (after the first, the pin being number one) or a silver star for five successful patrols. At 20 successful patrols, the SSBN pin is upgraded to a gold design.
Happy anniversary to all SSBN Sailors past and present!