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Navy Developing Prompt Global Strike Weapon that Could Launch from Sub or Surface Ship

USS Barry (DDG=52) fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 11, 2011. US Navy Photo

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Navy has stood up a program office within its Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) to address the conventional prompt global strike mission the Pentagon has handed to the sea service, the SSP director said recently.

Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, speaking earlier this month at the annual Naval Submarine League symposium, said each service will field some sort of hypersonic capability to contribute to conventional prompt global strike – the idea that the military should be able to hit any target on the planet within about an hour. The Navy is developing the hypersonic glide body that all the services will use, as well as a booster to launch the Navy’s weapon off a yet-to-be-determined platform.

To support this development, the Pentagon and Navy acquisition officials have agreed on an acquisition decision memorandum for the new hypersonic capability and asked Wolfe to set up a program office specifically for that system.

“We have a program, we are funded, and we’re moving forward with that capability, which is going to be tremendous to allow our Navy to continue to have the access they need, whether it be from submarines or from surface ships,” he said.

That open question – whether a sub or a surface ship will launch the weapon – is a new development. At last year’s Sub League event, Wolfe’s predecessor, Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, announced that SSP had flown a weapon from a ground-based test site in Hawaii that could eventually support the conventional prompt global strike mission from an Ohio-class guided-missile submarine (SSGN) tube.

This year, Wolfe said the Navy is intentionally keeping its options open as it develops the glide body and the booster.

An artist’s conception Ohio-class guided missile submarine launching Tomahawk Land Attack Missile

“We’re developing the cone hypersonic glide body that will not just be for the Navy, it will be for all the services as they figure out what platform they want to go deploy a capability like this on,” he said in response to a question from USNI News during his presentation.
“From a Navy perspective, we’re developing the booster that our hypersonic glide body will go on, and we’re doing it though in such a way that we’re taking the most stringent requirement – which is underwater launch – and so as we develop it we will do it in such a way that as the bigger Navy comes through what platform or platforms they actually want to deploy this on, the launcher and the glide body will be able to survive any of those environments.”

The decision to put the weapon on a submarine, a destroyer or another platform would come from higher up in the Navy chain of command, but “the key is, we will start with the most stringent requirement, we will build the missile and the glide body to that, so that as we look at how we’re going to do it we don’t have to go back and do a bunch of redesign.”

Another new mission set SSP has been given from the Pentagon is developing a low-yield nuclear weapon that the Trump Administration requested in response to Russian weapon development.

In collaboration with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), SSP was given funding at the start of this fiscal year to develop and field a small number of “76-2” low-yield weapons, which “will be a direct counter to what Russia believes they’ve got to date that we do not have,” Wolfe said.
“We will have that capability in direct response to Russia.”

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN-739) off the coast of California on March 26, 2018. US Navy Photo

The admiral said it was a testament to the original W76 nuclear warhead program, which began in the 1970s, that it was agile enough to take on this new mission set on a short timeline.

Asked about creating a new weapon despite a U.S. ban on testing nukes, Wolfe said, “the way we’re doing this, at the unclassified level – we just about tested everything that we need to test at one point or another for that program (W76), which is what gives us the confidence that when we go to do these, the system will work. We don’t need to go do a test with this; we’ve got all the right models from all the years of operating the 76 and the 76-1 which we’re deploying now.”

“We are 100-percent confident that when we put those out there, they’re going to work as designed,” he added.

Much like the W76 remaining agile enough to keep up with today’s changing needs, Wolfe also spoke of the Trident D5 missile – the sub-launched ballistic missile that can carry the W76 warhead – and its need to keep up with changing needs.

The Navy has already done one life extension (LE) program to modernize these missiles, but “we’re going to physically run out of Trident D5 missiles. We bought an inventory of 533, we are no longer producing the equipment section, we are no longer producing post-boost. So we have to go build more missiles” so they can equip the upcoming Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The Trident missile was bought for the Ohio-class SSBN, but each year the Navy tests a certain number of missiles to ensure their continued reliability, and due to that testing the number of missiles is slowly dwindling.

Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a MK 41 VLS tube on the USS Farragut (DDG-99) US Navy Photo

In what is being called Trident D5 LE2, Wolfe said the Navy would pursue a hybrid of a life extension and a new program – keeping some components, like the rocket motors that are still in production today, while investing in new avionics and other front-end items for the missile.

“The motors, like I showed you, they’re going to stay the same because if you think about it, tube diameter’s the same, the height’s the same, and there’s other requirement for me to go to. So that’s going to stay the same. But then all of the front-end stuff, the equipment section, the electronics, that will all be new,” Wolfe told USNI News after his speech.

The admiral said that many details still had to be worked out in upcoming studies, such as how many missiles to buy, how much of the new technology could be backfit onto today’s existing missiles, what industrial base capacity exists to build these missiles, if new manufacturing techniques like additive manufacturing could be leveraged to create efficiencies, and more.

Ultimately, Wolfe said, the Columbia-class subs will have fewer missile tubes than the Ohio class because of the proven reliability of the Trident D5 missiles, so SSP has to create a new missile for the duration of the Columbia program – through 2084 – that is as reliable or better.

The “secret sauce” to doing that, he said, is building in flexibility so that components prone to obsolescence – the avionics, guidance, post-boost system, primary battery and more – can be easily upgraded down the road as technology evolves.

  • NavySubNuke

    Great summary Megan. SSP’s got a lot of new and interesting things going on between Columbia/Dreadnought entering production, early R&D of LE2, 76-2 production and deployment, and CPS. It is going to be a fun few years as we work it all out and get it into the fleet.

  • Franken

    I would consider the P-8 Poseidon as a viable launch platform for conventional air-launched hypersonic weapon.

    • Ed L

      B-52, B-1, B-2, SR-72? An to all naysayers stop with the conventional thinking You need to step out side of the box. Take a Nimitz Aircraft Carrier, people say it only holds 80 Aircraft. But in reality you can put up to 120 mixed of F/A-18 and EF-18 on board one.

      • j James

        $R-72?!? That’s a recon plane. No bomb or rails on these.

        • Ed L

          That we are aware of since we don’t have access to the specs. Who knows what the capability of that aircraft is capable of. There are news articles reference the SR-72 as a reconnaissance bomber Why not? In today’s age the data could be evaluated almost immediately and then a weapons free order could be issue

          • j James

            True. But anytime you add something to stealth, the whole design needs to be reconfigured or something. I am not an engineer so I won’t profess to know.

      • Franken

        Yesterday, yesterday, yesterday, and nonexistent.. .for max flexibility and readiness of a commercial airliner, go w a commercial airliner airframe.

        • Ed L

          True a Boeing 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter has a payload capacity of 250,000 lb with Inflight refueling it could stay aloft for days at a time. Oh never say nonexistent remember we are not alone

  • muzzleloader

    This is great news in one hand.
    The thing is, in my way of thinking this should be a black project.Why broadcast to the world a developing weapon that could be a game changer?
    I truly doubt that the Chicoms or the Russians would tip off the world were they to field a weapon like this. Yet here we giving them a heads up. SMH.

    • NavySubNuke

      Not sure if you are talking about prompt strike, 76-2, or LE2 but the answer is pretty much the same regardless.
      Talking in general about the system but not providing any technical details is the best balance between deterrence and secrecy. As Dr. Strangelove noted there is no point in building a doomsday machine and not telling anyone about it.

      • Frank Blangeard

        You are assuming that we are seeking deterrence and not eventual conflict.

        • NavySubNuke

          As anyone with a working brain knows, that is exactly what we want. I understand paid Russian troll s disagree with that though.

          • Frank Blangeard

            Calling someone a ‘paid Russian troll’ is simply a way of avoiding the difficult task of making a thoughtful comment.

          • NavySubNuke

            Calling a sheep a sheep is a simple way of classifying a wool producing animal.

      • j James

        You could look at it like a poker game too.
        Dr.Strangelove is fiction. Poker as real as it gets.

        • Spencer Whitson

          Dr. Strangelove raises a real point, though, one that is talked about in political science classes. In poker, everyone already knows every possible outcome, and so are determining the likelihood that they and their opponents will get certain outcomes based on probability and how they are acting. That’s not the case in this context, where not knowing about a weapon means they don’t know that they need to worry about it.

          • j James

            Well said.

    • vetww2

      If the potential enemy knows that you have a powerful weapon. it is a deterrent. Remember the doomsday weapon in Dr. Strangelove?

  • Secundius

    Sounds similar to the 1958 US Navy concept of “AN-1”! A Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carrier Submarine, but replacing Manned Fighters with Autonomous Hypersonic Glide Bombs…

    ( http : // www . hisutton . com / USN _ AN-1 _ Submarine _ Aircraft _ Carrier . html )

  • vetww2

    Years ago, when I worked for a major aircraft company, we developed a vehicle like the one roughly described, called HYSAIL (Hypersonic Sailplane). The problen with it was that if you orbitted it in space it was vulnerable, and if you launched it ICBM style, you would, probably lose both the bird and the launch vehicle. I hope they have inmproved on our work.

  • j James

    We’ll see. We’ll see…

    Though we shouldn’t have to. Muzzleloader is right.

  • vetww2

    I have the complete (unclassified version) program development plan for the HYSAIL vehicle. The points that I make, ABOVE are salient. I have seen no counter.

    • Secundius

      Was that at Langley Facility 1236…

  • Bostonterrier97

    Better to modify surface ships and MK 41 VLS tubes for conventional global strike weapon thanusing Boomsrs

    • Secundius

      I suspect the reason the US Navy is even considering “Boomers”, is the fact of their ability to Sneak In Close without being discovered. Deliver their packages and withdraw (i.e. Survival)…

  • Ed L

    Maybe in the meantime America should buy a license to produce The Hsiung Feng III (HF-3; Chinese : Brave Wind III”) it is a supersonic missile with an estimated range of 100 to 250 miles. It’s real close to the size as the SM-6.