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A Threat to America… or?

by jnoonan on August 11, 2009

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Two Russian nuclear-propelled attack submarines have appeared off the U.S. East Coast.  American newspapers and blogs have announced the deployment with headlines that ran from the words threat to ho, hum.  A few have even asked is this a return to the Cold War confrontations?

The answer to the last is absolutely not.  The Cold War was an in-your-face confrontation between two super powersthe United States and the Soviet Union.  Both had nuclear strike forces that could absorb a surprise attack by their opponent and still devastate the otherand most likely the rest of the world as well.
 
Today there is but one super power: the United States.  While perhaps half of the 14 U.S. Trident strategic missile submarines (SSBN) are at sea at any given time, Russia has been unable to keep a single SSBN on continuous patrol.  And, while the two Akula-class submarines (Russian designations Bars and Project 971) that were patrolling off the East Coast may be armed with land-attack cruise missiles in addition to torpedoes, the threat from such craft at this time is negligible.  Indeed, except for SSBNs no U.S. and probably no Russian warships have nuclear weapons on board.

The two Akula-class submarines apparently remained more than 200 miles from the coast.  And, one of them is reported to have continued southward to Cuba for a port visit.  The 200-mile distance may be significant as naval ships can legally operate to within 12 miles of another nations coastline in peacetime.  But the Chinese government has recently implied that it claims the 200-mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) as its territorial waters.  That action followed Chinese attempts to stop U.S. Navy surveying and bottom-mapping operations in international waters but less than 200 miles off the Chinese coast.  Could the Russian submarine operation be intended to support this claim by remaining that distance off the U.S. coast?  During the Cold War there were periodic incursions by Soviet submarines and, on occasion, intelligence collection ships much closer to the American coasts.

Meanwhile, the two-sub operation follows last winters deployment of small Russian task groups to the Caribbean and to the Mediterranean.  The Caribbean group was led by the nuclear-propelled cruiser Petr Velikiy (Peter the Great), with a displacement of 28,000 tons full load this is the worlds largest warship except for aircraft carriers.  The warship made a port call in Venezuela in conjunction with the Russian presidents visit to that country.  Also last winter, Russias only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, operated in the Mediterranean.

These warship deploymentsincluding the two Akula submarines off the U.S. East Coastalong with numerous Russian long-range aircraft flights off the coasts of Alaska, Great Britain, and other areas are intended primarily to demonstrate that Russia is still a world power, albeit not a super power, and that it can project some military capability into forward areas. 

But the naval deployments also appear to be a means for the Russian Navys leadership to argue for more funds for warship construction and maintenance.  Since the end of the Cold War, marked by the fall of the Soviet regime in December 1991, the Russian Navy has deteriorated rapidly in both size and operational capabilities.  At the same time, new ship construction and weapons production have lagged far, far behind plans.

Apparently, the Russian naval leaders hope that these long-range operations, to areas where Russian military aircraft and ground forces cannot go, will confirm their claims of the significance of modern naval forces to support national political-economicas well as war-fightinginterests.  Such recognition could bring additional funds for naval ship construction and force modernization.


And, finally, such long-range operations are useful for the Russian Navy from a viewpoint of training, including experience in logistic support of such deployments.  All in all, such operations should be viewed as a win-win situation for the Russian Navy.

However, the operation of two Akula attack submarines off the U.S. coast is no threat to the United States.  Indeed, it benefits the U.S. Navy, hopefully providing an opportunity to determine how effective its submarine detection and tracking capabilities are in the post-Cold War era.

Norman Polmar

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

justbill August 11, 2009 at 8:49 am

Dr. Polmar wrote: “Apparently, the Russian naval leaders hope that these long-range operations, to areas where Russian military aircraft and ground forces cannot go, will confirm their claims of the significance of modern naval forces to support national political-economic

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Dan August 11, 2009 at 9:23 am

Is it just me, or is that thing a big rust bucket?

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justbill August 11, 2009 at 9:59 am

Ed wrote: “Some of their vessels that they have created, while impressive in scale in the likes of the Petr Veliky and their Typhoon Class SSBNs, are just that impressive in looks and thats about it.”
Pyotr Velikiy’s main missile battery wasn’t codenamed “Shipwreak” for shits n’ giggles. The same missile is used aboard the Oscar-class subs and Admiral Kuznetsov carrier. A barrage attack by the Mach 2.5+ P-700/SS-N-19 would be a formidable threat to any surface task force.

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Ed August 11, 2009 at 10:40 am

Dave,
The autonomous platforms you speak of fly high and slow, just like the U-2/TR-1 does. The U-2 prooved flying high alone is not a complete protection, the SA-2 was capable of reaching it. The SA-5 certainly can reach them, and at a longer standoff range. So can the SA-20.
to Justbill,
I don’t doubt their lethality but you and I both know the ability to interdict a carrier task force is not the same as actually doing so. Besides, the sub or ship does need to get within range. An Oscar would have the best chance but as soon as she fires, unless she fires 10-15 of those missiles, the RAMs and CIWS should make short work of a couple cruise missiles.
In my opinion the biggest threat the Russians can do in the Naval realm is sell their vessels and technology, which is what they have been doing for decades now. The Kilo class sub is a very capable platform. The Indian navy soon will get their own SSN to accompany their new boomer. They should eventually get the refitted Carrier as well. Proliferation is their true wild card.

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Will August 11, 2009 at 11:04 am

It is unlikely that the Russians are acquiring Mistral class ships, or anything else, for the purpose of a show of force toward Georgia. Not at all necessary after over-running the place a year ago.

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David August 11, 2009 at 11:08 am

Yes Ed they are as vulnerable as any ultra modern aircraft but the low costs and the ability they provide as well the endurance, flexibility and overall advantage take away all that worry. These aircraft are hand launched and cost little to produce. They can be tasked to dominate a batllefield by the shear the numbers in which they can be massed. Then again the stealth element hasn’t even been talked about yet has it?
Not too many stealth aircraft have been shot down and the technology is constantly evolving. Also you obviously didn’t read the latter half of my last post which you coincidentaly and unwittingly agreed with whilst simultaneously attemping to advertising your alleged profound knowledge in this matter. Also as a matter of course the use of these autonomous aircraft projects power over the oceans and the land without the risk to pilots and taking away the human factor e.g. fatigue. They can carry ABL’s which themselves give massive stand off ranges whilst at the same time keeping a high rate of accuracy meaning the damage and the threat that they cause is astounding. Also the costs are so low compared to moving huge vessels with a finite number of aircraft and that doesn’t include the costs of supporting the people onboard the vessel and the fuel used. Also the unit production and procurement costs are so minscule compared to the former that the value of any of the tasks that they will be capable of performing multiplies dramatically whilst lowering budgetry requirements. Al of these points are the tip of the iceberg. Do you really think that these aircraft would be developed on a whim? You know nothing.
In short ED, read what is written ad inwardly digest before you go around attempting to belittle people without understanding what was said in a vain attempt to be seen as knowledgable.

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justbill August 11, 2009 at 11:32 am

Will wrote: “It is unlikely that the Russians are acquiring Mistral class ships, or anything else, for the purpose of a show of force toward Georgia. Not at all necessary after over-running the place a year ago.”
That was just one example of use for these ships. Nevertheless, Georgia was essentially caught flat-footed by the Rusian land invasion. I doubt they’ll be so easily fooled the next time. The potential for 1200+ troops or 100+ tanks sitting offshore in three Mistrals significantly complicates the Georgian defense scheme, especially when they have no effective naval counter force.

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kumbayamylord kumbaya August 11, 2009 at 12:20 pm

It is unlikely that the Russians are acquiring Mistral class ships, or anything else, for the purpose of a show of force toward Georgia.—
lol.. i bet they want one for north or far east sea. mistral in black sea is like a F1car in NEW York streeta.

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Brian August 11, 2009 at 1:36 pm

David, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
UAVs don’t have all the characteristics you try to give them. They’re either cheap and hand launched, or they’re expensive and have long loiter times.

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tiger August 11, 2009 at 1:49 pm

The real problem about this story is The Navy is slowly losing the ability to do ASW. The Replacement for the P-3 is way over due. The S-3 units are off the CVN’s. The Libs hate the Navy using sonar in pratice areas for fears about whales. Not to mention the heavy budget axe to non Army & USMC programs in the Obama years to come.

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CR August 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm

“In military and political terms the visit to Venezuela was huge” Man that made me laugh…..thanks CTR you made me laugh hysterically.

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Ed August 11, 2009 at 2:27 pm

To David,
When speaking of UAVs are you talking about Scan Eagle, Predator, Global Hawk, The Israeli Herron? Or are you talking about Shadow or Hunter, or Pred B/Reaper?
Long loiter times like you speak requires a bigger aircraft. The pred b has loiter times of about a day and a half. ABL? Are you serious? The original ABL we have is housed in a modified 747. Even the smaller ground version Boeing is testing uses a C-130. If you use an ABL for standoff capability, are you using a solid state laser? If you are then you might be able to keep the weight low enough to get the loiter ability you speak of. If not then forget it, the precursor agents are heavy to carry aloft by just about any bird you select as a UAV.
Stealth? We have no birds with a stealth capability in the UAV missions that it is full production. The Shadow Star was canceled and the UCAV has not been fielded yet.
So David, what don’t I know about UAVs again?

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Robert Brown August 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm

I have a theoretical question.
Given A, the amount of destruction a modern heavy anti-ship missile inflicts upon a target ship if it hits and detonates, and B, the limited number of air defense missiles escorting ships can carry (and keeping in mind that in surface to air scenarios a 25% success rate is pretty good in some cases, so four or more defensive missile might be needed to destroy some incoming weapons), how viable is a super carrier against a major land or sea based air attack by a peer competitor?
Or, to put it simply, if you are planning for ten or more years out, what kind of defenses would you need to invest in to insure that a carrier is safe from a large number of land based or sub based anti-ship missiles. And, at what point is it a better strategic decision to invest a greater percentage of your resources in a long range land attack capability (e.g. cruse missiles) that can be distributed amongst a larger number of potential targets (subs and surface warfare vessels) to prevent a potential enemy from concentrating their fire on one large warship?
Just to be clear, I am not pushing an agenda here, rather, I would like to hear the thoughts of knowledgeable people in the community.
All the Best,
R.B.

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Mainerunner40 August 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

The Akula is a competent submarine, but a pair do not make a threat to the country. Put this in perspective. They are training their crews, just as we do every day. The ones you do not see are the real threat, not this pair that are so highly visible. Could one SSN make a hard day for a battle group, absolutely. I agree that ASW work has become allowed to fall off the radar screen, or should I say sonar screen. There are plenty of competent sub drivers out there still; the Brits have an excellent Perisher program with quiet platforms, the French have their SSN’s as well, perhaps not to the same level of training as the Brits, the Germans and ohter NATO countries may have ‘only’ SSK’s but those SSK’s can be tough to find. The Isreali’s have a handful of good SSK’s, and the Indian and Pakistani’s are not deficient in the SSK’s. Japan have excellent diesel boats, with good crews. South Korea is getting into the game with SSK’s and North Korea has too many to be taken lightly. Some of their torpedos might actually get launched in our direction some day, fortunately they are not very well trained and comparatively lower tech. The Iranian Kilos could seriously disrupt the Straits of Hormuz until we could flush them out and kill them. How do we find these smaller SSK’s in particular? You need platforms; surface, subsurface and aircraft. The numbers of these assets have steadily decreased since the USSR dissolved. The overall threats have not, and the overall sensse of threat has become asymetric warfare, especially after 9/11. The PRC has perhaps the largest numbers in ability today outside of the USA, and their capability is rapidly improving as well. To me, they are the emerging threat, in ASW threat. If war breaks out anywhere, and the threat includes submarines, we may rue the lack of ASW ability that we had into the early 90′s. It is called the silent service for a reason, and I am sure that there are US submarines out there as we speak patrolling their assigned sectors just like 20 years ago. We will continue to need the best ASW available, frustrating though it is. They do things no one else can do, and that few want to do.

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CTR1(SW) August 11, 2009 at 6:32 pm

CR:
Laugh if you want, but at no time during the 1980′s or 90′s did the Soviets/Russians deploy combat ships or combat planes to the Caribbean. It was strictly Tu-95′s and Trawlers.
Nor do I recall the president of the Soviet Union/Russia actually visiting a Caribbean or South American country.
I think that it is extremely foolish to just “brush off” these events without looking more closely at the grand picture. Bears hybernate, then they wake up.

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Valcan August 11, 2009 at 9:26 pm

There all big rust buckets. Sad realy the russian navy and military should be used for national defense but it seems more used for controlling there people and provences. The russian federation appeers more like a neo kingdom everyday. At most its a plutocracy…

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Valcan August 11, 2009 at 9:28 pm

The real problem about this story is The Navy is slowly losing the ability to do ASW. The Replacement for the P-3 is way over due. The S-3 units are off the CVN’s. The Libs hate the Navy using sonar in pratice areas for fears about whales. Not to mention the heavy budget axe to non Army & USMC programs in the Obama years to come.
Posted by: tiger at August 11, 2009 01:49 PM
agree with you 100%
and the cuts that dont happen to the marines and army will be only for occupation forces. Sometimes i wonder if his deffinition of WIN is the same as ours.

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Joe August 12, 2009 at 2:55 am

“Given A, the amount of destruction a modern heavy anti-ship missile inflicts upon a target ship if it hits and detonates, and B, the limited number of air defense missiles escorting ships can carry (and keeping in mind that in surface to air scenarios a 25% success rate is pretty good in some cases, so four or more defensive missile might be needed to destroy some incoming weapons), how viable is a super carrier against a major land or sea based air attack by a peer competitor?
Or, to put it simply, if you are planning for ten or more years out, what kind of defenses would you need to invest in to insure that a carrier is safe from a large number of land based or sub based anti-ship missiles. And, at what point is it a better strategic decision to invest a greater percentage of your resources in a long range land attack capability (e.g. cruse missiles) that can be distributed amongst a larger number of potential targets (subs and surface warfare vessels) to prevent a potential enemy from concentrating their fire on one large warship?”
“Defences to ensure a ship is safe”…nope…no, does not compute. I’m afraid you will never have a ship ‘safe’ – absolute force protection is a myth. It’s a seductive one, but it’s still a myth. In naval terms, attempting to achieve a ship protected from any possible threat is what produced the german’s H-Plan battleship designs in WWII (Tirpitz, Bismark and their never-built-but-even-larger colleagues), and the Yamato on the ocean. And guess what – they all got sunk anyway because they were swarmed with something they were not designed to engage.
Put simply, a carrier group can never be absolutely safe from determined attack; the only achievable goal is that any attack which would cause significant damage would involve sacrificing a nation’s armed forces en masse (which is pretty much the case now). If someone’s prepared to make that trade, you lose the carrier.
Next generation land-based missiles are hideously dangerous in large numbers, but then they always have been; realistically, if the balloon had ever gone up and the classic cold war scenario of a carrier being attacked by a regimental strength bear bomber force occured, you would have lost the carrier (and yes, I know there wouldn’t be a regiment of bears afterwards either, but that’s the point). The most important advantage a carrier has is that you’ve got to find it before you can shoot at it – assuming your admiral isn’t daft enough to operate within shore detection range, that means some sort of airborne or orbital sensor to locate it and give the missiles somewhere to aim at. The rules of engagement are a big decider too – if a USN admiral had blanket permission to destroy anything emitting radar, moving and/or mounting weapons within 250KM of his flagship at all times, I assure you they would be a lot safer (if not precisely popular for goodwill visits). If bound by ‘proportional response’ then the opposition are always going to get to shoot first outside of a hot war. Which means that if they’re prepared to throw the kitchen sink at it, you’ve got problems.
As to land attack missiles vs carriers – it’s a question of purpose, I guess. If all you want to do is to blow stuff up at 35

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David August 12, 2009 at 5:53 am

Ed, you obviously don’t understand the English language as i distinctly placed the word “will” in the post. The idea behind this is to make you project your imagination forwards. There are stealth UAVs on the market now and the development is ongoing. Also the ABL was only a suggestion to make yo realise that the potential (which is what my point was all along) is there. UAV’s have only really been a major weapon in any militaries arsenal for the last 15 years. Also as you are an expert you must be aware of the requirement of the US DOD for a company to create a UAV that can keep flight for a year without the need to refuel. This is in progress as wee speak. That is also where the potential lies.
So let me say again
“The aircraft carrier will become obscelete and the new threat will be by long range, long endurance UAV’s”.
By the way the Zephyr was recently tested and stayed aloft for a week and that is a vehicle still in the embyonic stages of development and it was hand launched with a wingspan comparable to any light aircraft.

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Byron Skinner August 12, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Good Morning Joe,
You make a rather good declaration of a Naval Doctrine, I must say even superior to the current USN’s. You slide by a couple of points that I think heed to be brought up though. First the Cruise missile or any other anti shipping missile that would be effective against an American Carrier Battle Group has yet to be invented, unless they catch the group at anchor. Moving ships over the horizon are hard to hit with any defensive screens and it is unlikely that during a time of tension that any USN formation would go out unprotected.
An example of this came during the invasion of Iraq when a Chinese Silkworm Cruise missile was fired, possibly out of Iran. The missile ht a shopping center in Kuwait, surly not its intended target at 3:00AM. At that it almost missed the Shopping Center, and the Centered opened on time for business the following business day.
As for the undersea threat, the Russians have lost ground since the end of the Soviet Union in all areas boats, weapons and tactics and SAW. I have seen estimates of Russian nuclear attack boats that are operational at from 6-12. If the picture with this article is any indication the state of Russian submarines their readyness can’t be underestimated.
The Chines are even in worse shape. I know the Kitty Hawk incident will be brought up and while the Chinese did get a post card photo, is was a quark. The Hawk was on a training exercise without it normal ASW screes in place. Ooops, but it’s interesting that all the American Admirals involved got promoted.
The kinetic energy ballistic missile the Chinese are said to be working is a rather interesting approach and to work would have to involve invent a whole new technology for ballistic reentry. So far the Chinese have no inclination to tackling the physics of hitting a moving target with a ballistic missile, let alone of dealing with the Standard Missile.
Again Joe, a good statement.
ALLOS,
Byron Skinner

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mainerunner40 August 15, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Is there any connection between the pair of Akula SSN’s and the missing Russian ship? I notice the timing is coincidental? Just a thought,what is on that missing ship that has recieved so much attention?

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Byron Skinner August 16, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Good Morning marinerunner 40,
Short answer, no. The now assumed Pyrated vessel with a cargo of wood, estimated value of 18 million Euros, from Finland has a Russian crew of 18 has been located off the west coast of Africa and a ransom demand had been made to the Finnish owners of the vessel. As of right now the ransom amount has not been made public nor the nationality of the pyrates.
Pyracy is spreading and the United States still is dithering around whit how to deal with the problem. The latest efforts by the U.S. to counter Pyracy in the Gulf of Eden was with the 13th. MEU on the USS Boxer that sent out AV8 Hurriers as scout planes and followed up with a Marine boarding crew sent from the Boxer in Zodiacs. This is forward thing among the uniforms in the DoD, yippie.
The United States as well as the rest of the world still has not got a handle on how to contain and control Pyracy. The efforts of the 13th. MEU while for the DoD are innovating for the military are not the answer. The AV8 is an aging, trouble prone and expensive air frame for this type of operation, that can only stay in the air un-refueled for about and hour forty five minutes. What is needed is an UAW with an ISR package, combat capabilities, and a un-refueled flight duration of 30 hours or more and can loitter over a target until a response team can arrive or it can engage the target.
Sec. Gates recommendations in his speech at the Naval War College in Newport RI in June, for a fleet of 60 ton high speed “gunslingers” operating from a 600-1000 ton mother ship seems to be the way to deal with the Pyracy problem. He said he would like to see 15 Squadrons of these small, fast, cheap patrol boats on the water.
As of right now one the Pyrates hit the water, the have won. Because of the ineptness of the Worlds Navies and international law it is had to legally to bring the Pyrayes into custody and detain them.
With Pyracy apparently now spreading to other parts of the world his ideas seem to be a solution that is way ahead of the thinking of the uniforms.
The organization and brains behind Pyracy of course is on shore and going after the middlemen who, do the intelligence on where vessels will be and when, what cargo(s) they carry, and how many in crew, and are the facilitators for the Pyrates with the ship owners and who set the terms and amounts of the ransoms, and act as the financial intermediaries for the Pytares.
I’m sure that no one believes that that groups of developing tribal countries can pull this off with out a lot of help from the worlds financial players who see huge returns here for little or no risk to themselves. Shut down these guys and the problem would nit exist.
ALLONS,
Byron Skinner

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Sean B. Halliday August 19, 2009 at 1:01 pm

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abiao September 3, 2009 at 11:47 am

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ASW Expert September 15, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Mr. Polmar,
I’m not sure where you get the idea that “the operation of two Akula attack submarines off the U.S. coast is no threat to the United States.”
I, along with most of us who live within striking distance of the area these submarines patrolled, must beg to differ.
Quoting one open source site, NavalTechnology.com, “The Akula Class carry up to 12 Granit submarine-launched cruise missiles. The missiles are fired from the 533mm torpedo launch tubes. Granit (Nato designation: SS-N-21 Sampson) has a range of about 3,000km and delivers a 200kt warhead.”
200 kt… HMMM that’s roughly 15 times larger than the Hiroshima explosion that killed 80 thousand people and completely destroyed everything within a 4 mile radius. Now let’s multiply that by 12 missiles per boat. That’s 180 times the destructive power of Little Boy. Not to mention, the population is slightly higher in NYC than it was in Hiroshima in WWII.
And, oh by the way, these are not ballistic missiles that can be taken out with Mr. Bush’s fancy-smancy missile defense system. These are cruise missiles with enough range (3000km) and a small enough radar cross section (fired from a 533mm torpedo tube) to reach out and touch Denver without ever being detected, much less defended against.
I ask you sir, do you say that two Akulas pose no threat to the U.S. because:
1) You feel the Russians are politically stable enough, and have enough control over their submarine commanders, that you don’t feel they would ever launch a nuclear strike. Therefore we have no need to prepare for such possibilities?
2) You live in California and feel that anything east of the Rockies is so invaluable that the U.S. could write them off and not feel threatened?
or 3) You failed to properly research your article and simply assumed that an SSN had no nuclear strike capability?

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