Submarines are useful for signaling intent.
Key point: Sometimes you want an adversary to know they are there.
Nuclear powers rarely go to war with each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t threaten to do so.
Indeed, military posturing is an integral part of what Forrest Morgan, an analyst for the RAND Corporation, called “crisis stability.” In other words, “building and posturing forces in ways that allow a state, if confronted, to avoid war without backing down.”
Long-range heavy bombers are some of the best forces for crisis stability, Morgan wrote in a 2013 study for the U.S. Air Force. Bombers are powerful, mobile and visible — perfect for signalling strength and intent.
On the other hand, the U.S. Navy’s submarine-launched cruise missiles are less effective — even counterproductive — for crisis stability … because they’re invisible most of the time.
“SLCMs could contribute to the instability,” Morgan wrote. “[T]he opponent’s anxieties might be magnified by the ability of SSGNs [cruise missile subs] to posture in stealth nearby.”
But Morgan pointed out one instance when the Navy’s Ohio-class SSGNs actually did help stabilize a crisis back in 2010 — a feat mostly lost to history.
“In July 2010, three SSGNs surfaced nearly simultaneously in Western Pacific and Indian Ocean waters, allegedly to signal U.S. displeasure over Chinese missile tests in the East China Sea.”
Major missile tests are potentially provocative and destabilizing. America’s intent in the aftermath of the Chinese tests was to signal U.S. strength with just the right amount and kind of potential force.
Submarines seemed to fit the bill, as if Washington were saying to Beijing, “Sure, you might surprise us with your missiles. But we remember we have plenty of missiles of our own — and they’re not far from you.”
Greg Torode reported on the incident for the South China Morning Post:
The appearance of the USS Michigan in Pusan, South Korea, the USS Ohio in Subic Bay, in The Philippines and the USS Florida in the strategic Indian Ocean outpost of Diego Garcia not only reflects the trend of escalating submarine activity in East Asia, but carries another threat as well. …
Between them, the three submarines can carry 462 Tomahawks, boosting by an estimated 60 per cent-plus the potential Tomahawk strike force of the entire Japanese-based Seventh Fleet — the core projection of U.S. military power in East Asia. …
One veteran Asian military attaché, who keeps close ties with both Chinese and U.S. forces, noted that “460-odd Tomahawks is a huge amount of potential firepower in anybody’s language.”
“It is another sign that the U.S. is determined to not just maintain its military dominance in Asia, but to be seen doing so — that is a message for Beijing and for everybody else, whether you are a U.S. ally or a nation sitting on the fence.”
This piece was published several years ago and is being republished due to reader interest.