In the early 1980's I was making strategic deterrent patrols on a 640 class SSBN. At that time the boat I was on was about 20 years old. It had just underwent a reactor core change and backfit to the new Trident C4 missile system. That boat remained in service for another 10 years and was decommissioned after a normal service life of 30 years. It has been another 20 years since the second submarine I served on, a Trident SSBN, was commissioned in 1985.
If the Trident SSBN follows the service history of the 640 Class SSBNs and 688 Class SSNs then 30 years should be the hull service life. It would reason that a follow-on SSBN would be in design or even early construction today. But as far as I can tell there isn't any follow-on class to replace the 726 class boats. In fact the Navy has conducted a study and determined they could extend the Trident SSBN service life to 42 years. The only reference I found on a replacement SSBN hull is this SSBN-X reference that relates to planning based on the Trident 42 year life cycle.
All this got me to thinking, is the Trident SSBN distend to become the Navy's equivalent of the Air Force B52 strategic bomber? It may seem like a strange or silly comparison, a submarine and aircraft, but I do see some parallels.
- Both were designed as nuclear weapons delivery platforms.
- Both were designated to a primarily retaliatory role after the ICBM component of the strategic triad.
- Both have been upgraded to strategic counterforce "first strike" capabilities with nuclear capable ALCM for the B52 and Trident D5 missiles on the SSBNs.
- The B52 has long had the ability to carry conventional weapons and now with the advent of the Tactical Trident SSGN conversion program that platform can provide strictly a conventional role as well.
- Finally both have had their service life evaluated and extended.
Because of the stress of submerged operations, excursions to and from test depth and simple age of the hull the Trident submarine will have to be replaced eventually. But, because we are not facing another aggressive soviet style superpower and the current type of warfare we are engaged in, I currently do not see the political will to make this happen for another 10 to 15 years. Will we still need SSBNs in another 20 years, probably, but hopefully not as many or the way we needed them 30 years ago.