The Nuclear Triad – Do you know what that designates?
If you don’t, do not feel bad. That question stumped a leading presidential candidate in a recent national debate on TV.
The nuclear triad refers to the three means of delivering our nuclear arsenal: The strategic air command (SAC-B-52’s), ICBM’s, and ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBM’s).
Submarines confer a critical stealth factor. Maneuvering under the sea, the sub can be anywhere, anytime to target the enemy with surprising accuracy. The United States’ nuclear sub fleet has ballistic missile capability (SSBM). In fact, almost half of our nuclear arsenal exists on these specialized subs.
For non-nuclear missions, the Navy maintains a fleet of SSGM’s The subs carry multiple guided missiles like the Tomahawk that pack a thousand pound explosive warhead. The guidance system for these missiles is an engineering marvel, a work of genius. This is dramatized in chapter nine of Existential Threats.
Here is some background from the novel:
The concern that Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) , namely Assad’s bio-chemical weapons, might fall into the hands of radical Islamic jihadists during the confusion of the war in Syria prompts Operation Triad to take out three stockpiles whose location is known to the CIA and Mossad intelligence.
Sarin gas, a horrific killer, in the hands of warring factions is a clear and present danger. The sub’s mission is to preempt that doomsday scenario with Tomahawk missiles programmed to the exact target coordinates outside Damascus from eighty nautical miles away.
OFF THE SHORE OF TRIPOLI, LEBANON
Three weeks later.
“Up periscope, Cabrera.”
“Aye, sir,” the petty officer replied.
“Check for small craft, fishermen, anything not picked up on our radar,” Captain Alf Sorenson said. “Our sonar detects no regional shipping activity. We want no one to observe us tonight.”
After several minutes of peering carefully through the infrared periscope, Cabrera responded with, “All clear, sir.”
“Acute intercept,” the XO, Commander “Jock” Edwards, said from the control console. “Ping sonar and IFF functioning without activity, looks like the coast is clear for Operation TRIAD.”
“Periscope down, Cabrera.”
The Ohio class SSGN nuclear attack sub, nicknamed “Shark,” was twenty nautical miles due west of Tripoli, stationed in quiet mode to avoid hydrophonic detection twenty-two fathoms beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.
“Check our DMS coordinates, commander,” the captain said.
“Latitude 32° 52′ 36.3288” N/ Longitude 12° 57′ 14.6952” E, Captain. We’re perfectly positioned due west of Tripoli, as our Sixth Fleet orders directed.”
“Shores of Tripoli… Ring a bell, Edwards?”
“Marine Hymn, sir.”
“Know the history?” Captain Sorenson asked.
Edwards smiled. “Thomas Jefferson was president. He dispatched the navy and marines to fight the Barbary pirates attacking our merchant ships in the western Mediterranean. In 1804, a successful marine assault ashore raised our flag the first time on foreign soil.”
His prompt reply impressed Sorenson.
“Annapolis taught you well. Commendable recall.”
“Thank you, sir.” Edwards was smiling ear to ear. He was a history buff like the captain and had been waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate it.
“Tonight will be another historic night I predict they’ll teach midshipmen someday,” Sorenson added.
“You can count on it, sir.” Edwards tried to keep his voice calm and not betray how excited he was. It wasn’t easy. Everyone there knew tonight was the real deal. This was to be the navy’s biggest mission since Operation Odyssey in 2011, when they collaborated with British and French subs during the Libyan conflict.
“This will not be Kabuki theater,” Sorenson said. “It will be an awesome demonstration of modern naval technology.”
The senior officers shared a laugh at the captain’s comment.
The junior officers looked up from their command and control system consoles, wondering what was so funny.
“Current time, Commander?’’ Sorensen asked.
“Zero dark two hundred, sir.”
“Our surveillance satellite will be over target at Zero Dark 400, is that correct?”
Edwards nodded. “Checked and double checked with Sigonella NAS, Captain; 0400 is affirmative for our satellite position over target. No alteration in schedule. Weather forecast mixed clouds, winds out of southeast at ten knots. No forecast of sand storms. Strike conditions perfect.”
The sub’s command and control center, CACC, bustled with activity, tension building by the moment, as everyone looked forward to carrying out their top secret classified mission. For a SSGN crew, it didn’t get any better than this.
“Are our fire control officers and technicians standing by, ready to go on command?” the captain asked. “All systems and backups checked out?”
“Affirmative, sir. Lieutenant Havilaus has his launch crew locked and loaded. VL’s fully pressurized. Firing protocol rehearsed. He assures me all three canisters are on standby awaiting your orders.”
“Targets’ acquisition programs confirmed and correlated with our console computers and satellite. All three target coordinates double checked by fire command and confirmed by Sigonella.” Sigonella was their Sixth Fleet’s naval base in Sicily, known as the “Hub of the Med.’’
“Communication systems set to go?” Sorenson asked.
“Our ELF antenna’s functioning well,” Edwards said, referring to the latest high-tech, low-frequency system for real-time communication between submerged submarines and the outside world, including satellites. “Trailing a wire antenna as a backup,” Edwards added, anticipating the captain’s next question.
“Good show. I anticipate no problems with relay of satellite’s real-time confirmation of targets’ damage assessment. Well done, Commander.” Edwards always seemed on top of the situation, the captain reflected.
For his part, Edwards admired Captain Sorenson, who had thwarted a terror attack on the Devil’s Tower oil platform last year in the Gulf of Mexico, Edwards’ first live fire mission with the captain. Now they were assigned another exciting mission in the western Mediterranean, one of momentous consequence. The classified mission represented a critical test for their SSGN, requiring flawless execution.
Their nuclear attack submarine had been deployed to the Mediterranean just last month. Now Shark was primed to participate in a spectacular classified mission destined for the history books, “TRIAD.”
“The stakes are high,” the captain had briefed them. “I can’t emphasize our mission’s importance enough. Our SSGN will go down in history if our mission is successful. If not successful, we will go down in infamy. So no screw ups.” The usually affable captain was deadly serious now, reflecting the critical nature of their mission.
At exactly 0348, Captain Sorenson gave the decisive command: “Standby to launch cruise missiles from the VLSs, firing canisters numbers one, two, and three in that sequence, alternating starboard to port.”
“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Havilaus responded over the intercom, a detectable hint of excitement in his voice. “Sequence duly noted and programmed. Vertical launch tubes, VLSs, fully pressurized. Standing by, awaiting fire command.”
Each of the three canisters contained seven of the latest high-tech, Block Four Tomahawk cruise missiles. The missiles were programmed to cover the eighty nautical miles to their designated Damascus targets in a subsonic, low trajectory course in less than nine minutes, skirting below conventional radar detection in Lebanon and Syria.
The three targets’ coordinates varied by only a tenth of a degree north and east in a concentric circle, a virtual bull’s eye for the sub. With each degree being sixty-nine miles, this meant the targets were less than seven miles apart. One minute in the DMS/GPS coordinate system equated to one mile, while a second equaled 1/60th of a minute or mile. Cruise missiles were precision weapons, accurate to fractions of a second in the computerized programs of their sophisticated guidance systems.
Submarine-based firing stations enjoyed a tremendous element of surprise in enemy strike operations. Syria had no clue what was about to transpire. Their radar arrays would not protect them.
The two outlying Syrian garrisons suspected of harboring WMDs were only a few miles east and north of the major garrison target confirmed to contain sarin nerve gas canisters according to CIA, Jordanian, and Israeli intelligence. The Shark’s targets were within a very convenient radius of the major target, Damascus garrison #1, coordinates LAT: 33 degrees 30’47’’ N/ LONG: 36 degrees 17’ 31’’ E, southeast of Damascus city center.
Each of Shark’s cruise missiles was computer programmed to strike its target within only a maximum of a twenty-foot margin of error. Overlapping, sequential Tomahawk strikes with one-thousand-pound warheads nullified that small margin, with seven missiles hitting each target. Captain Sorenson thought that number of missiles was tactical overkill, but the stakes were high in Operation TRIAD. Their mission was to take out the stored WMDs. Expense was a secondary consideration.
“Fleet Command pulled out all stops, going whole hog,” Sorensen informed Edwards. “What the hell, what’s three quarters of a mil per Tomahawk?”
Edwards smiled. Those decisions were above his pay grade.
Three minutes later, at 0351, Captain Sorenson issued the order to commence firing.
Immediately Tomahawk cruise missiles sequentially shot out of the sub’s VLS pressured vertical launch canisters, alternating starboard to port, spectacularly breaking the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. Each missile was eighteen feet long and weighed twenty-six hundred pounds with a thousand-pound class unitary warhead loaded with PBXN-107 explosive. The awesome, precision arsenal sailed toward Damascus in the middle of the night, bent on destruction.
Within moments of breaking the surface, the Tomahawk missile’s solid fuel propellant kicked in, driven by an F-415 turbo-fan engine powered by an ARC MK 135 rocket motor. Stabilizing fins automatically deployed as the missile acquired its designated low trajectory course, traveling at 550 mph over alternating low and high terrain.
The Tomahawks sped over the sea, then across Lebanon’s shallow shoreline, seeking their targets in Syria. Streaking swiftly east across the flat Sahil terrain east of Tripoli a minute later, the cruise missiles negotiated the coastal Mount Lebanon range, then flew over the fertile Baqaa Valley and its forests. Finally, in the last minutes of flight, the Tomahawks climbed over the western Anti-Lebanon mountain range and descended into Syria to acquire their designated Damascus targets.
Sophisticated guidance systems automatically kicked in shortly after the pressurized VLS launch sent them through the surface of the sea. GPS and inertial systems guided each Tomahawk, and innovative features assured its successful flight and target accuracy, a tribute to modern aeronautic engineering genius.
TERCOM, terrain contour matching, a digital map inserted in the missile’s TLAM program, correlated with the ground’s image below and the radar altimeter, allowing constant computerized updates in the navigation system to correct course. DSMAC, digital scene matching area correlation, matched stored images to actual topography below the missile in flight, also allowing computerized navigational updates and flight corrections. ATR, automatic target recognition, an algorithm device for terminal guidance at the target, increased accuracy. These three high-tech systems ensured an incredibly high success rates for the cruise missiles.
Precisely at 0400, a fraction less than nine minutes after launch, the twenty-one cruise missiles sequentially struck their three programmed targets on the southeast outskirts of Damascus. Seven each landed within split seconds on the unsuspecting garrisons, totally demolishing them in an explosive inferno heard for miles.
The stunned Damascus district sprang to life, rudely awakened by the massive concussions generated by the detonations of thousand-pound explosives. Sirens blared as across town, Assad’s soldiers scrambled from their beds. Alerted too late, those quartered in the targeted garrisons never knew what hit them.
Aboard the SHARK
“Damage assessment, Edwards?” the captain asked.
“Our satellite communication via ELF indicates a direct hit on all three installations, sir. Targets confirmed one hundred percent destroyed.”
Commander Edwards cheerfully added, “Images relayed to Sigonella for their confirmation simultaneously. That’ll make the admiral happy.”
Sorensen allowed himself to relax a bit for the first time in hours. “Takes care of Assad’s WMDs, no need for a follow up volley of Tommies. We’ve done our job. The kinetic strike was indicated and justified following Syria’s atrocious use of sarin nerve gas. We couldn’t risk AQ or Hezbollah getting their hands on those WMDs. Maybe Assad’s government will get the message.”
Edwards frowned. “Message, sir?”
“Never get in a pissing contest with an elephant!”
Both officers laughed.
“A lot of folks will be soon be wondering where those missiles came from,” Sorenson added, “time to cut out. Let’s maintain our element of surprise, not leave a trail. Well done gentlemen.”
“Set dead reckoning course to our home base. Crank up the nuclear propulsion jets. Maintain twenty-five knots at cruising depth. We have good reason to celebrate.” The captain smiled. “Sicilian dinner and drinks on me.”