But it still may be the most fearsome and versatile US weapons platform operating in the Pacific.
As the Biden administration is demonstrating its commitments to US allies and protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific, it has been making statements with naval hardware.
And last week it gave the region a fresh look at the Ohio, showing off the 18,000-ton guided-missile submarine as it participated in exercises with US Marines around the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Sidharth Kaushal, a naval expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, describes the USS Ohio and its sister boats, the USS Michigan, USS Florida and USS Georgia, as one-stop shops for getting missiles and troops in close to an adversary’s territory.
And that could be significant when compared to adversaries like China, which maintains a robust anti-ship missile capability but whose defenses against submarines are still being upgraded and refined.
‘A lot of firepower very rapidly’
Though it no longer carries nuclear missiles, the USS Ohio is nuclear powered, as are all US Navy submarines. Known as a nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine (SSGN), the Ohio is driven by a nuclear reactor providing steam for two turbines, which turn the sub’s propeller.
The Navy calls its range “unlimited,” with its ability to stay submerged constrained only by the need to replenish food supplies for its crew.
The submarine’s comparatively large size and power allow it to carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 50% more than US guided-missile destroyers pack and almost four times what the US Navy’s newest attack subs are armed with.
Each Tomahawk can carry up to a 1,000-pound high-explosive warhead.
“SSGNs can deliver a lot of firepower very rapidly,” said Carl Schuster, a former Navy captain and director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
“One-hundred and fifty-four Tomahawks accurately deliver a lot of punch. No opponent of the US can ignore the threat.”
While the Navy could amass a larger number of destroyers to deliver missiles in even greater numbers, as a standalone, hard-to-detect unit, the Ohio-class guided missile submarine is in an ocean by itself in America’s arsenal, said Bradley Martin, a former Navy captain turned naval researcher at the RAND Corp think tank.
“The SSGN remains the platform with the single largest ability to deliver conventional missile payloads,” Martin said.
The magnitude of that firepower was shown in March 2011, when the USS Florida fired almost 100 Tomahawks against targets in Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn. The attack marked the first time the SSGNs were used in combat.
Libya is not China, however, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has numerous and improving anti-submarine warfare capabilities that Libya does not.
Beijing has been investing substantial resources in a growing fleet of submarine hunting aircraft and frigates and dozens of hunter-killer submarines, all with the purpose of sinking enemy submarines.
But for all its advancements, China is still playing catch up. It wasn’t a Cold War submarine power — and in sub hunting, numbers need to be complemented with experience.
“The question of whether they can do so is a function of how well networked these assets are, and how well trained the operators are — with analysts’ opinions on the PLAN’s progress in this area differing quite a bit,” naval expert Kaushal said.
If the USS Ohio is operating out in the Pacific, finding it becomes harder, as China’s anti-submarine force was designed to work closer to its shores, he said.
But even closer to shore, the Ohio has a stealthy advantage, the analysts say. It’s quieter than other attack subs in the US fleet and still would present a challenge for China to find in waters closer to its shores.
That means it can bring its dozens of land-attack missiles closer to targets well inland, analysts said.
“SSGNs can get into forward positions by virtue of their stealth and strike targets deep within defended hostile areas,”…