I don't often write about military matters here on the Communities Dominate blog because those issues are covered so well by specialist military websites and tend to be rather far from interests of our readers. I occasionally wade in when I feel I could contribute something, like a few years ago when the noise was getting too loud that somehow USA was becoming weak in its military (when no country in human history has had as big an edge over its nearest military rival as today the USA has, with that gap just growing not shrinking). So I wrote the blog about flat tops ie aircraft carriers.
Today is one of those occasions. We have to talk about the SLBM and why THIS step in North Korea is the most dangerous our little Fearless Leader of Pottsylvania, aka Kim Jong-Un the Supreme Leader of North Pottsyvlania, sorry, North Korea, has achieved since North Korea's first successful atomic bomb test. You the readers will be hearing somewhat 'similar' level of hysteria coming out of the foreign policy correpondents in the coming days about North Korea. Similar to what was said many times in past months with the other recent steps taken by the Nutty Uncle of the North. But this is different.. For that, I hope I can give some clarity. There is a reason why so few countries have SLBMs even among nuclear powers, but why when for example Britain ended its nuclear bomber aircraft fleet (and never built a ground-based ICBM missile force like the USA and the Soviet Union had and have), Britain still operates a fleet of SLBM submarines and is planning to build a new generation of them.
So what is an SLBM. Its a Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile. What is a ballistic missile and how does it differ from most other missiles. A ballistic missile is like a rocket it flies into outer space on a ballistic trajectory (throw a basketball high into air to get it to fly very far, that is a ballistic trajectory) A rifle bullet flies nearly straight (it actually curves also downward on a ballistic trajectory but only a tiny bit on its quick journey to its target). Most airplane-launched missiles fly 'flat' horizontal paths. They may be shot downward, from the airplane to the ground like a tank-busting Hellfire missile or they may be shot upwards like the BUK missile that the Ukrainian rebels used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner. But most missiles fly a relatively straight, flat trajectory with guidance to steer them to their target. A ballistic missile is totally different. It flies literally to space and back, on a massive super-long-range attempt to hit a basketball hoop, a ballistic trajectory that visited space and then drops very very far away, to hit its target. That is what ballistic missiles are like. In World War 2, the Germans invented the buzz-bomb V1 rocket that flew to bomb Britain. It was an early grandfather of the modern cruise missile (it was not guided so they just shot these little rocket airplanes towards Britain and when they ran out of fuel, they dropped from the sky to become a big bomb). But the second V rocket, the V2, that was fired in the last months of the war to Britain, that was the first ballistic rocket. Its engineers like Wernher von Braun best known for designing the early American rocket program, he was actually a Nazi Germany rocket engineer whose first masterpiece was the V2. And then that same technology and German knowhow was used by the Soviets to build their first rockets to go to space, with the Americans shortly following. Its a space rocket technology, not a forward-flying missile technology. That is what gives ballistic missiles their incredibly long range if wanted (modern large nuclear ballistic missiles can hit anywhere on the planet). They also land with incredible force because they come down at a speed of about Mach 5. Even if a nuclear warhead were not to detonate, it would create a crater the size of of the biggest bombs dropped from airplanes. Just the force and speed of the dud-warhead as it hits, coming down from space.
(Am I scaring you yet?)
Now Ludicrous Leader has been pursuing every avenue of a total massive superpower nuclear program. He wants to make his bombs more destructive (going from small bombs of technology similar to those used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs) by attempting a hydrogen bomb, the biggest kind there exists. That test is perceived to have failed. He has pursued the plan to miniaturize his basic atomic bomb design to be small enough to fit a nuclear missile warhead (that may have been what one of his recent tests was about). He has pursued the ballistic rocket program of land-launched traditional balllistic missiles often hiding those developments into his space rocket and satellite project. So far its put objects into space that were not under control, they are now just space debris. So at least in that department, he can't place an intercontinental-range ballistic missile fired from land, to come anywhere near another country's target whether near like Japan or far like the USA, because his satellites are lost with no control. If used in a warhead, that missile would never reach its target (so far, but all countries have countless mishaps early in their space rocket programs and those continue always in rocket science even the Japanese just lost their satellite Hitomi - Hi Tomi - I always wish that satellite could find its way and suddenly talk to us again and say.. Hi Tomi). So many of the recent items were about those tests and developments.
But then there is the submarine launched missile idea. An SLBM. It is yes, a ballistic missile, but it is launched from a submarine. Modern SLBMs are launched while the submarine is under water (earliest SLBMs needed the submarine to come to the surface to launch). So thats the sneaky truly sneaky nastily sneaky part. North Korea has just illustrated its ability to launch a ballistic missile from a submarine - while it is under water. Hidden killer. Now, SLBMs tend to be far smaller than their ground-launched major ballistic missiles so SLBMs typically have had shorter range and smaller warheads (and/or less of them) than the traditional huge 'rocket size' intercontinental ballistic missiles. But SLBMs also have ranges in the many thousands of miles/kilometers. And here's the really nasty part - they don't NEED to fire their missile 8,000 km (5,000 miles) to reach America. A submarine can be sent on its journey for a week or two, come to the California coast, and THEN fire its missile, only a few hundred kilometers/miles and hit its target. And if the intention is to kill civilians in a city, then accuracy is irrelevant. The nuclear missile warhead can explode 5 miles off target and still kill most in the city it was aiming for.
The SLBM was the most feared component of the 'nuclear triad' (the national security term that Donald Trump clearly didn't know in the recent Republican debate). Typically strategic nuclear weapons are delivered either by airplane (the original method), or by land-based ballistic missiles, or by submarine-based ballistic missiles. There also are smaller nukes that could be/can be delivered with other methods even by cannon fire or cruise missiles. But they are 'tactical' nukes not intended to destroy whole cities but intended to destroy an enemy army's military units or its military assets like say a bunker or airfield. But back to strategic nukes and the triad, only the Americans, Russians and Chinese have a triad. The French have two legs to their nuclear weapons (submarines and bombers) the British one (submarines). India and Pakistan probably have some land-based intermediate-range missiles with nuke warheads and they both have jets that can carry a nuke bomb but they are not known to operate a submarine based deterrent. Israel has airplanes which can carry atomic bombs and a domestic land-based missile with nuclear warheads and there is gossip that Israel has a cruise missile in its submarines to provide a submarine-based nuke but they don't operate SLBM capable submarines either. So of the world's nuke powers, only five have SLBMs - USA, Russia, China, UK and France. Let me show you the one I caught from an airplane window as I left Hawaii on one of my trips.
Thats a 'boomer' coming home to its port in Honolulu. American SLBM carrying submarine, of the Ohio class. They cost a couple of Billion dollars per boat (a normal 'destroyer' large surface warship by contrast costs only in the several hundreds of millions of dollars each). It is nuclear powered, the largest subs the US navy has ever built, 170m in length (560 feet) displaces 19,000 tons when submerged, has a crew of 155 in total (operated in shifts of 2 complete crews ie the sub needs 77 crew to be fully battle-operational at any hour) and carries 24 Trident missiles. Trident is the latest SLBM of the US Navy's arsenal, has 8 MIRV warheads each, and a range of 7,400 km/4,600 miles. A standard Ohio class submarine patrol lasts 70 days all underwater, the longest mission was 140 days. While the Ohio does have 4 torpedo tubes, under no normal circumstances would these boomers in war be used to attack other ships. Their job is to go hide and stay hidden. They are a revenge weapon.
Why do I say revenge weapon. The SLBM was a cold war response to the threat of nuclear annihilation, a strategic pawn in the delicate chess game of Mutual Assured Destruction (which I really really love, that its formal acronym is indeed MAD. The MAD strategy). Mutual ASSURED destruction was how the two superpowers prevented the OTHER from attacking. If you attack me, no matter what super weapons you have and use, we will both be destroyed - so you cannot win if you attack. Yes, it would kill me too, but I will retaliate and my retaliation is so massive you too will not just die, but be destroyed. Mutual Assured Destruction. And in that strategy the ultimate last card to play, when your country now glows in the dark, is the SLBM on these boomers. Note, France, Russia, China and the UK have roughly this same capacity too. So one Ohio class. What can one submbarine and its active crew of 78 (77 plus the Captain of course) do to my country? Lets count. 24 Tridents times 8 MIRV warheads means.. 192 targets are destroyed. And by destroyed - each suffered an attack 7 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima (Little Boy dropped by B29 Superfortress Enola Gay) or 5 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (Fat Man dropped by B29 Superfortress Boxcar). Now.. lets put this in context. The 193rd largest city in the USA would be West Valley City, Utah (gosh, I know a LOT of US cities and have visited all 50 states and so many places, even driven all the way through Utah yet I never heard of West Valley City). So yeah, the population threshold would be 135,000 people. More than that, and one single nuke boat with full load of ballistic missiles could destroy anything bigger. ANY city you can think of, Boston, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Tallahassee, San Diego, Seattle, Detroit.. they're all now dust. And the fallout of the radiation clouds would burn everything else so that nothing survives.
(Am I scaring you now?)
One modern major boomer does that to you. Its the real life equivalent to the Star Wars concept of the Death Star. One weapon that can not just destroy a city, one Ohio class submarine can destroy a whole NATION. Its a revenge weapon. It is meant to never be used, but it is there just in case someone tries to bully you into building a fence and paying for it haha. Not us. Nobody will ever win a war with us because the only outcome other than our side winning is that we both die. Thats MAD. Thats Mutually Assured Destruction. Its why the USA and Soviet Union didn't fight each other in a war since World War 2, during the Cold War, but rather fought 'proxy wars'. Because of MAD. They could not dare to start a war directly with each other because of this principal, and in particular, because it was guaranteed by those boomers. Oh, did I mention, the USA has 14 Ohio class subs operating as boomers (another 4 are used in shorter range guided missile submarines which would be used in conventional wars if needed). All of the five navies that operate SSBNs submarines (SS) that are nuclear powers (N) with ballistic missiles (B) hence SSBN - have them as nuke boats which have so much excess power out of their private personal nuclear power plant - imagine having a personal nuke powerplant just for 177 people? Your iPhone would never be out of juice haha except, oops, the submarine hull won't let the signal through, not to mention the approx 200 meters (600 feet) under water that they typically operate in. And yes, some subs come home then to pick up supplies and rest for the crew but the sub doesn't need to be refueled until the nuke rods need to be replaced on its reactor, so they run for years on the same fuel. They just leave the port, dive, and then go deep and silent, undetected, to wait in case they are needed to destroy another country. Other than that, its almost never that they are called to do anything less strategic like go spying on a rogue nation's business. They lie far away in the oceans and stay deep. They climb to shallow depths at pre-set time intervals to go listen to the special radio that operates moderately deep into water - and I'd guess one Ohio class will always be at this shallow depth just in case of sneak attack - and then they just patrol and wait, like a guarding soldier, not expecting/hoping ever to be needed, but there, just in case. A revenge weapon.
Thats how SLBMs are DEPLOYED today but its not the limit of how they could be used. You could also launch a sneak-attack with SLBMs. This was the fear that grew in the 1970s when the US Navy found that a couple of Soviet SSBN submarines started to patrol very close to US East Coast shores. The flight time typically from land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles is about half an hour to reach the target on the other side of an ocean. But the flight time from a sub a few dozen miles off the coast near Washington DC or New York would only be a few minutes. It freaked them out - in part because Moscow is deeply inland, you can't park an Ohio class boomer in the wheat fields of Smolensk or in the Volga river to be as near to Moscow haha.. The main issue is, whether the sneak attack was intended to 'just' knock out the major civilian cities or to knock out the opponent's main military and in particular nuclear strike bases. The warhead accuracy of SLBMs at that time was not accurate enough to hit a hardened silo in Kansas where an American ICBM Minuteman missile was parked, so this scenario was mainly about possibly Soviets threatening Washington DC and New York and the other cities on the Atlantic, but it still couldn't 'win a war' but it caused great consternation.
Now. Even with that ability to near-instantly obliterate all Eastern cities - Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond etc plus tons more nearby - with just one sub doing a 'Pearl Harbor' type of sneak attack - that was still balanced out by MAD, that ok, it doesn't eliminate the dozen Ohio class subs already patrolling in the world's oceans, who all will retailate and make the Soviet Union instantly obsolete. One side experiences horriffic loss of a quarter of its population dead and another quarter now terminally ill with radiation sickness to die within days, but half of America would survive and nobody in the Soviet Union would come out alive from the next two hours of total bombardment of that nation by all of the revenge weapons. This is how MAD worked. Even if you could sneak up to be horrifyingly close to killing the other side, you still die. Its mutually ASSURED destruction.
That is, assuming that both sides behave RATIONALLY. Now when has our Fearless Leader been rational there over at Pottsylvania? Now this is like giving a loaded gun to a 3 year old. We REALLY cannot expect that kid to always behave rationally and not kill or maim someone with that gun, by accident or in a sudden moment of a childish tantrum. Thats Kim Jong-Un exactly. He's even more childish than Donald Trump.
THE ATTACK OPTION
The way our SLBM systems have evolved to be so ridiculously expensive is because they were designed to be the ultimate last line of revenge. They evolved to go deeper, stay underwater longer, with missiles of even more range, more capacity in missile tubes, and more warheads of larger yield and more accuracy. The Ohio class boats (submarines are always called boats, never ships) cost 2 Billion dollars each. Its replacement class is the same size but will cost 4 Billion dollars per boat by current estimates. For that specialized use, the boomer designs of all navies have become quite similar in concept, obviously being nuclear powered to allow that very long stay under water (they generate their own clean air from sea water). And boats of this type of cost are luckily way too far beyond the reach of our Fearless Lunatic in North Korea.
But if one wanted to use a ballistic missile subs for ATTACK instead of being the ultimate last line of defense, then it REALLY changes the game. Then you could use a very modest-cost modern-ish but larger attack sub, as a reasonable-price DIESEL sub. Like most subs of most navies in use today. The major navies operate nuclear powered submarines also as 'attack submarines' because the nuke power gives many gains over the far cheaper option of diesel power - to not all nuke subs are 'boomers'. But yeah. Most subs operated by most navies are simpler diesel-engined submarines with also battery operation that can stay underwater for days. They need to come up to get fresh air because diesel engines need air and obviously the humans underwater would eventually suffocate when the oxygen runs out, but ever since late World War 2, the diesel submarines have had snorkel breating devices which means that the submarine does not need to surface fully to recharge its batteries with its diesel engines, it just comes to periscope depth (stays under water but the periscope comes above the waves) and the snorkel is raised which allows air to be taken in without water coming in accidentally.
A World War 2 non-snorkel type of submarine that we see in all the submarine movies had to surface about every day to recharge its batteries and get fresh air. They did that at night. But with the advent of radar, they became vulnerable to be discovered and were hunted of course as we also know from WW2. But with the snorkel, now the sub can stay underwater essentially as long until food and diesel fuel run out, provided nobody notices the periscope type of protrusion out of the sea. Again, do this at night, out not near the shore but far in the ocean, and listen with your hydrophones to make sure no ships are nearby, and voila! You can move being essentially invisible to almost anywhere on the open oceans and not be discovered. Now, there are MANY modern ways to detect subs of any type including magnetometers and infrared and other methods but these are mostly only deployed near the shores or at some specific 'belts' and not universally. Other than occasionally spotting SOME diesel sub (possibly) at a specific location, the only other way to keep track of Uncle Lunatic's new ballistic missile threat - is to start to shadow all his subs, with nuclear powered attack subs. Even that is not in any way as easy as they say in the movies haha.
A current North Korean diesel submarine cannot create much damage. It can fire torpedoes or short-range missiles maybe to destroy another ship. It could have some short-range anti-aircraft missiles onboard and shoot down an airplane or two. But it can't do anything mroe than nuisance harm (while killing dozens like the North Koreans are often apt to do with their Southern neighbor like one of their subs did sink a South Korean warship a few years ago). But a diesel boat with even a few SLBMs onboard - if they had a single warhead each - now suddenly North Korea HAS the ability to go and destroy Los Angeles. And with say 4 missiles installed onto four lanchers on the boat, from one location on the Eastern Pacific they could destroy not just LA but also San Diego and its giant naval base, plus San Francisco and Silicon Valley. All with one diesel sub and 4 SLBMs of modest range and only a single simple warhead of about Nagasaki bomb explosive power yield ie 20 kilotons.
A North Korean diesel sub, with 4 such shortish-range SLBM missiles of only 500 kilometer (320 mile) range could easily from a point 140 kilometers (85 miles) off the shore of California do that destruction. The longer range Kim Jong-Un's SLBM missile can have, the further out the sub can go and hide, until its time comes to attack. And now the cat-and-mouse game becomes a nightmare. An modern Arleigh Burke class US Destroyer with its Aegis radar at about 50 meter (150ft) height from sea level will only see a horizon to 25km (16 miles). It would take something near the total US Navy capability just to patrol the massive sea in the viable launch area to discover the snorkel when it comes up to breathe fresh air. Thats assuming it IS there to begin with. It could of course go patrol first somewhere far out in the Pacific (hide under that horrible patch of filth and discarded plastic waste collecting in the North Pacific). The North Korean sub could get its last fresh air well out of range, then go underwater on its attack and never even come to periscope depth and launched under water once it was inside its radius of the missile attack.
One North Korean diesel boat HAS been fitted with at least one launch tube because they TESTED it (and it worked). Now it is only a matter of time when a boat with at least one launch tube will have a functioning SLBM missile with a nuclear warhead. And likely, the sub will be modified for anything from 4 to 8 launch tubes, I'd guess. The missiles will be relatively short range, considering even the limitations of the submarine itself, so I'd say probably in the 1,000 km range (650 miles) give or take 50%. But this is now a terror weapon. North Korea COULD wipe out Japan. Four or six nuke bombs would not kill 115 million people but one nuke on Tokyo, another on Osaka, and at least two more.. Japan would be on its knees. Or South Korea, obviously. But Kim Jong Nutcase doesn't NEED an SLBM to launch a nuke attack on his Southern border. He has tons of tactical ballistic missiles simliar to the Scud missiles Saddam Hussein used, to fire at South Korea. No, these SLBM's are intended to scare America and Japan. And I betcha NOW they are scared. They were not on Purple day last week but they are now, after this test. North Korea can be now assumed to have at least one operational SLBM boat, and now the panic becomes - how to detect and track them.
And don't think you're safe in Washington DC or New York. If Kim Jong Wacko wanted to attack the USA, he has the time and he can attack any part of it, by just telling his sub crew to sail there. The Germans in World War 2 operated some of their subs sending them all the way to the Pacific, around Africa. Sure it takes a couple of months but they'll get there. It would be even more of a propaganda victory if Kim Jong-Dumb to destroy Washington DC and New York, than for him to destroy Los Angeles and San Francisco. But then.. if that was the plan it only takes two subs and he can do both. Remember now the mission is not to go hide for two months deep underwater silently. Its to go launch a Pearl Harbor style sneak attack on America.
He's done plenty of nutty things and provocations as did his dad and grandfather too. But this is now serious. After the first nuclear bomb test, this is the second big leap for that country to become a real threat to the USA (and Japan). Note, it already was for South Korea. Now. If Kim Jong-Un was stupid enough to actually launch such a surprise nuke attack with even two subs, 12 total missiles, all nuke warheads also detonating successfully, killing 50 million in 6 cities on the East Coast and 6 cities on the West Coast, he'd still die in the next ten minutes as the USA would launch a total retaliatory strike that flattened the highly mountaineous country. But he's a basket case. He is unstable. And he could somehow in his delusions think he can win a nuclear war.
But what about nuclear THREATS. Look at idiot Trump and his tone that he'll bully Mexico to pay for his wall. Ok thats what a childish bully would say. Luckily Trump will never be the US President. Now think about Kim Jong Un, he's an even more childish bully. And he DOES have nukes of modest capability and number - but now suddenly, for the first time, he has the ability to threaten Japan and even the USA. Up to last week the only two countries that were not formally USA allies, who had the technical military capability to attack the USA by nukes was Russia and China. Now suddenly Mad Max has that capability. So lets say Kim Jong Un does some nasty local moves with some disputed islands with South Korea. And Japan objects (with the rest of the big powers) and Kim Jong Un goes and nukes a barren JAPANESE Island somewhere on the coast. Then Kim Jong Un says that Tokyo and Osaka and Fukuoka are next, butt out Japan. Gosh, after a THIRD nuke attack on the nation (and after the nuclear reactor disaster) that could very well force a Japanese Prime Minister to resign and the government to pull out of the coalition against North Korea. Its a scenario by the way, that many in Central Europe, former Eastern Europe countries fear from Putin because it was part of the scenarios that the Soviet Union practised for. An escallation would lead to the Russians/Putin suddenly destroying with a single nuke some not capital city but 'second tier' city of a rival nation like say Gdansk in Poland or Tampere in Finland or Malmo in Sweden or Hamburg in Germany, that kind of attack. Then he'd say, your capital city is next unless you quit this conflict now, to break apart the alliance (in this case NATO or whatever the local European conflict was).
We never had a truly unstable person in charge of nukes before. Or, in case of the North Koreans, in charge of a practical threat via nukes before. The SLBM now changes that. That is why this is a big deal while most of the other North Korean tests and developments were just noise. This is now real. North Korea is in the process of having a first-strike weapon that can hit any coastal city in the USA on either shore, and likely can have its boat or boats patrolling within striking range as early as within some months and definitely by tehe end of next year with at least one launch tube and one missile and one warhead in it for at least 500 km range from the sub to target.
A sad dangerous day for humankind. Now we have to hope for some secret ops assassination of Kim Jong Un by some secret services.