The United States Navy successfully test fired two 130,000 pound nuclear capable ballistic missiles from an Ohio Class submarine off the coast of Southern California last week. The successful test was a part of an ongoing effort to upgrade and modernize America’s aging nuclear stockpile.

Although North Korea’s nuclear capable ballistic missile programs have drawn the vast majority of media coverage in recent months, the threat posed by Kim Jong Un’s regime is entirely different than that represented by looming nuclear powers like Russia and China. Both nations have advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles that were developed with American missile defense capabilities squarely in mind.

While the governments helming these missiles appear to be more reserved than than the often boisterous Kim, the capabilities of these platforms dwarf that of North Korea’s prized Hwasong-15. Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat, also known as the Satan II, had a reported range of over 6,800 miles, and is equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRV, allowing the platform to deploy as many as 24 individual nuclear warheads as it begins its descent to its target. All told, the RS-28 is capable of delivering as much as 50 megatons of nuclear destruction. Its Chinese cousin, the recently unveiled DF-41, brings similar capabilities to the table, though with fewer deployable warheads and a shorter range.

The United States, on the other hand, has only recently begun devoting resources to expanding and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. This massive undertaking that is assessing and upgrading America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons could be among the few Obama era efforts that President Trump has embraced since taking office – though President Obama was perhaps more reserved in his discussion of the endeavor. With countering and deterring new and extremely powerful nuclear weapons being fielded by the nation’s competitors, the U.S. hopes upgrading the components of its legacy platforms will be suffice

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) off the coast of Florida. (U.S. Navy Photo by John Kowalski/Released)

nt to maintain the long standing tradition of mutually assured destruction.

Seen as a “second strike” weapons platform, America’s Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines have been armed with Trident II D5 nuclear missiles for decades, with no plans to replacement throughout the submarines operational lifespan. The Columbia class submarines slated to replace the Ohios will also be equipped with Tridents, though their launch platforms will likely be modular and designed to sustain refits, to include the capability of launching forthcoming ballistic missile platforms designed jointly by the United States and British militaries. With that project still in the distant future, however, it remains up to the nearly 30 year old Tridents to sustain America’s threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of a first strike attack.

Despite its age, the Trident class of submarine launched ballistic missiles remain formidable as a nuclear deterrent. At 44-feet long, these 130,000 pound nuclear weapons nearly match China’s new DF-41 in terms of MIRV warhead deployability and range.Although they are technically less accurate than China and Russia’s new platforms, the difference is estimated to be a matter of meters, which is considered negligible considering the destructive capacity of the weapon.

The test launches last week were of two Tridents that had been retrofitted with new gear via a “test missile kit” produced by Lockheed Martin that included upgrades to the range safety devices, tracking systems and flight telemetry instrumentation. The missiles are also expected to see a new re-entry body (transitioning from the Mk-4 to Mk-5) that will permit the launch of higher yield warheads – though just how much higher, the Navy isn’t currently saying.

The test was considered to be a success, though few details regarding the specific parameters or metrics of success have been released. According to the Navy, the upgrades they’re developing and testing on these platforms today could help keep the Trident in service until the 2080s – well after a replacement platform has entered service.


Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Navy