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USS Michigan and North Korea: serious threat or empty bluff?

News that the USS Michigan, one of the US navy’s 18 Ohio class nuclear submarines, has docked in South Korea at a time of mutual threats and bluster between North Korea and the Trump administration, has been seized on by many people as a further sign of US threats against North Korea.

This is very unlikely.  Ohio class submarines are the carriers of Trident missiles, sea launched intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads which form the cornerstone of the US’s strategic nuclear deterrent, which is pitched not against North Korea but against Russia and China.  It beggars belief that the Trump administration is seriously contemplating a nuclear war against North Korea with Trident missiles, which would be nuclear overkill matching the darkest fantasies of Dr. Strangelove.

USS Michigan also has the capability to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles with conventional warheads.  However it hardly seems an efficient use of resources to use a strategic missile submarine to launch  conventionally armed cruise missiles against a target in North Korea when there are other platforms far more obviously suited to this role.  If the US really is considering a submarine launched cruise missile strike against North Korea, then US attack submarines such as the Seawolf and Virginia classes equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles would seem a far more obvious and logical platform from which to launch it.

Beyond this there is the fact that patrols of Ohio class submarines, precisely because they are the keystone of the US’s strategic nuclear deterrent, are planned months and possibly even years in advance.  Whilst the US could of course always in theory redeploy an Ohio class submarine to the seas around Korea at short notice, the probability must be that the visit of the USS Michigan to South Korea was scheduled long ago, probably before Donald Trump became President, and that its arrival in South Korea now during a period of crisis is just coincidence.

However before leaving this subject, it is however worth adding something which arises from President Trump’s own statements.

As President Trump and his advisers have been cranking up an atmosphere of crisis around North Korea, he and they have bragged that alongside the US navy carrier Carl Vinson US nuclear submarines ‘”far more powerful” than the Carl Vinson have also been deployed to the seas around North Korea.  Thus in an interview with Fox Business Network on 11th April 2017 President Trump made this extraordinary statement

We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you

(bold italics added)

If those comments were intended to refer to USS Michigan – which of course in a sense really is “far more powerful than an aircraft carrier” – then unless the President and his officials have taken leave of their senses, and really do intend to use her in action against North Korea, this was yet another bluff, and moreover an extremely stupid one.

The Russians probably do not have the global ocean surveillance capabilities necessary to track closely US nuclear submarines, but they probably do have some rough idea of where Ohio class strategic missile submarines like the USS Michigan are at any particular point in time.  The US is known to keep a close watch on the movements of Russian strategic missile submarines, and though the Russians probably cannot fully match this capability, their resources are probably sufficient to enable them to at least keep an eye on the movements of US strategic missile submarines, and to know roughly where they are.  There are after all only 18 of them, and not all of them are at sea at the same time.

The Russians probably also have some knowledge of the movements of US nuclear attack submarines like those of the Seawolf and Virginia classes, just as the US is known to have knowledge of the movements of Russian nuclear attack submarines.  Again it is unlikely the Russians can fully match the US’s ocean surveillance capabilities, but they probably have a more than general idea of which US nuclear attack submarines are where, and which of them might be in the north east Pacific.

It is a certainty that the Russians share all this information with China as part of the intelligence sharing arrangements they have with China.

If the USS Michigan was indeed the “powerful submarines” President Trump was talking about, then it is virtual certainty the Russians and the Chinese knew the fact.  Since they would not believe Trump would use USS Michigan to attack North Korea that would make them even more inclined to write off his threats as empty bluff.

It would also be a further sign of the chronic amateurism and incompetence of this administration.

Of course it could be that President Trump has more shots in his locker, and that USS Michigan is not the “powerful submarines” he was referring to.  It is a reflection of the chaotic nature of his administration that unfortunately one cannot be sure.

POSTSCRIPT: As a number of commentators on the thread of this article have pointed out, USS Michigan has actually been converted by the US navy from a strategic missile submarine, to a cruise missile carrying submarine.  I can only apologise for this error, which obviously means that my discussion of the USS Michigan in the above article made on the basis that she is a strategic missile submarine is wrong.

The fact that USS Michigan carries cruise missiles as opposed to strategic nuclear missiles means that she is almost certainly one – and quite the only one – of the “very powerful submarines” President Trump was talking about.

The fact she is currently docked in South Korea is presumably intended to highlight the fact of her presence in Korean waters, though presumably so long she remains in dock she is either unable or unlikely to be able to launch her missiles, which presumably also means that she will not attack North Korea whilst she remains there.

What do you think?

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