Posted BY: Joseph Trevithick
The U.S. Navy’s Ohio class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island has made a very uncommon public port visit to the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. The public announcement about this stopover is also unusual and even more so coming nearly two weeks after the U.S. Central Command made the extremely curious decision to disclose that another one of these submarines, the USS West Virginia, was operating in the Arabian Sea. As in that case, it’s difficult not to view Rhode Island‘s ostensibly scheduled stop in Gibraltar as messaging aimed at potential adversaries, such as Russia, as well as allies and partners.
Ship spotters were quick to identify Rhode Island‘s arrival at the British naval base in Gibraltar earlier today, which the U.S. Navy subsequently confirmed. The service also noted that this is the first time an Ohio ballistic missile submarine, or SSBN, has visited Gibraltar since the USS Alaska stopped there in June 2021. Alaska‘s stopover was the first time in two decades one of these boats had visited the British territory. Rhode Island also made a public visit to His Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde in Scotland in July.
His Majesty’s Naval Base Gibraltar has a highly strategic role, being one of a limited number of facilities in the region able to both accommodate nuclear-powered submarines and perform repairs on them. Gibraltar as a whole is strategically located, situated at the eastern end of the Strait of Gibraltar, which links the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
Pictures of the Rhode Island pier side in Gibraltar show the same type of Mexeflote barge loaded with shipping containers positioned along the outward-facing side of the submarine’s hull as was also seen in place during Alaska‘s visit last year. This is a force protection measure to help shield the boat from various kinds of waterborne attacks. Various British patrol boats were also seen escorting Rhode Island into port and patroling around its moorings.
Force protection is an immensely important consideration for warships and submarines in port, as was just recently underscored by the Ukrainian military’s attack on the Sevastopol Naval Base in Russian-occupied Crimea involving multiple uncrewed aircraft and drone boats. It is even more so with regard to the Navy’s 14 Ohio SSBNs, each of which is understood to typically carry around 20 Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles while out on patrol. Each one of these highly explosive missiles can be loaded with up to 14 individual nuclear warheads in a so-called multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, or MIRV, configuration.
The Navy also has four other Ohios that were converted into guided missile submarines, or SSGNs, and are best known for the ability to carry a maximum load of up to 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. However, these boats are actually highly capable multi-mission platforms that can carry and deploy special operations forces and various uncrewed platforms, as well as serve as underwater command posts and intelligence fusion centers, as you read more about in this past War Zone feature.
“ Rhode Island’s port visit to Gibraltar reinforces our ironclad commitment to our allies and partners in the region. The U.S. and U.K. share a strong history of cooperation, through exercises, operations, and cooperation activities such as this, that enhance our combined capabilities and partnership,” Navy Capt. John Craddock, head of Task Force 69, said in a statement. “The complexity, lethality, and tactical expertise of Rhode Island epitomizes the effectiveness and strength of the submarine force.”
The U.S. Sixth Fleet’s Task Force 69 is responsible for overseeing all Navy submarine warfare operations around Europe and Africa.
The Navy is typically very tight-lipped about the activities of deployed submarines, in general, and even more so about what its SSBNs, commonly referred to as ‘boomers,’ are out doing at sea. Though certainly not unheard of, as evidenced by Alaska ‘s visit to Gibraltar in 2021, Rhode Island ‘s public stop there is unusual by itself. It is doubly so coming so soon after the extremely rare official disclosure of the USS West Virginia ‘s presence in the Arabian Sea last month. The Navy’s SSBNs represent America’s survivable second-strike nuclear deterrent and generally ‘disappear’ after heading, conducting their patrols with few if any port visits and even less fanfare.
Ohio SSGNs have more typically been used for apparent signaling purposes, though public statements about the whereabouts of those submarines are also uncommon. In addition to Alaska‘s visit to Gibraltar last year, the Ohio class SSGN USS Georgia made very public transits through the Strait of Hormuz, which links to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, in late 2020 and early 2021.
In another highly notable past example, in 2010, three Ohio class SSGNs surfaced near simultaneously at various locations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans in an apparent message to China.
Rhode Island‘s visit to Gibraltar of course comes as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, but with Russian forces continuing to lose ground. This, in turn, has prompted concerns that officials in Russia might take extreme measures to turn the tide, or at least stabilize what is left of its territorial gains, including a limited nuclear strike. Experts continue to debate just how serious the risk of Russia ‘going nuclear’ might be, but Russian officials recently pushing spurious theories about purported Ukrainian plans for a radiological attack using a so-called ‘dirty bomb,’ among other things, have certainly done nothing to quell these concerns.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Trident D5s that the Navy’s Ohio SSBNs are at least capable of being fitted with W76-2 lower-yield warheads, as well as higher-yield W76-1 and W88 types. The W76-2, which is now deployed at least to some degree , was specifically developed to help provide a more flexible deterrent. Proponents argued this was necessary to deter countries like Russia from launching limited nuclear strikes under the belief that they could escape retaliation, as you can read more about here .
“Russia’s unprovoked, unjust, and reckless invasion of Ukraine underscores its irresponsible behavior. Efforts to respond to Russia’s assault on Ukraine also dramatically highlight the importance of a strategy that leverages the power of our values and our military might with that of our Allies and partners,” the U.S. military’s recently newest National Defense Strategy document, which was just released last week, makes clear. “Together, we have marshaled a strong, unified response to Russia’s attack and proven the strength of NATO unity.”
Beyond that, just today, Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesperson, said that authorities in his country would consider taking unspecified “further steps” against the United Kingdom over the attacks on the underwater Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September.
“There is evidence that Britain is involved in sabotage … a terrorist act against vital energy infrastructure,” Peskov told reporters at a routine press conference. “Such actions cannot be put aside. Of course, we will think about further steps. It definitely cannot be left like this.”
Authorities in Russia have provided no evidence to substantiate these claims. Officials in the United Kingdom have flatly denied any involvement and fingers have been increasingly pointing at Russia. You can read more about what is known about these pipeline incidents in The War Zone‘s past reporting here.
As was the case with the public disclosure of USS West Virginia‘s presence in the Arabian Sea, it is also possible that the messaging behind USS Rhode Island‘s visit to Gibraltar is a broader statement on the worldwide reach of the most survivable leg of America’s nuclear triad. There is certainly no shortage of geopolitical friction at the moment.
There are growing concerns that North Korea may be preparing for a new nuclear weapon test and authorities in Pyongyang have now threatened “powerful measures” in response to a major U.S.-South Korean military exercise that kicked off yesterday. In addition, United States relations with China have been under particular strain this year over Taiwan, among other things.
If nothing else, the very public announcements about the activities of two Ohio class SSBNs in as many weeks are highly unusual and are clearly meant to at least highlight the Navy’s at-the-ready nuclear deterrent capabilities.