An Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Just Made A Rare And Very Quick Stop In San Diego (Updated)

One of the Navy’s ‘boomers’ made a peculiar arrival and rapid departure from San Diego Bay this afternoon.

byJoseph Trevithick, Tyler Rogoway|
Ohio Class photo


A U.S. Navy Ohio class missile submarine made a rare and very brief stop in San Diego today. The Twitter ship spotting account @WarshipCam was the first to spot the submarine on a live feed of the Port of San Diego available through @SanDiegoWebCam. Timestamps on still images from the video show that the submarine arrived just before 11:50 AM local time and was headed back out shortly before 12:30 PM. Which is a bizarrely quick turnaround.

It's not clear which of the Navy's 18 Ohio class boats is seen in the video. However, the four Ohios that the service converted into guided-missile submarines, or SSGNs, which you can read more about in this War Zone feature, almost always have at least one Dry Deck Shelter (DDS), which can be used to deploy divers, swimmer delivery vehicles, and more, mounted immediately aft of their sails.

A screengrab from a webcam video showing an Ohio class missile submarine arriving in San Diego on June 21, 2021., @SanDiegoWebCam via @WarshipCam

The area of the hull behind the sail is also enlarged and flattened to better accommodate the DDS. No DDS is present on the submarine in the video and it does not appear to have the modified hull associated with the four SSGNs, indicating that this is one of the remaining 14 Ohios configured to carry nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, also referred to as SSBNs.

The Ohio SSBNs and SSGNs are split between two bases, Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, on the West and East Coasts of the United States, respectively. The SSGNs also do standing forward deployments, including to Diego Garcia and Guam. As such, San Diego is not a common port of call for these big submarines and the hugely destructive arsenals some of them carry

When asked, @WarshipCam, who spotted the submarine entering San Diego Bay, was kind enough to provide the following additional information:

Basically, the Ohio class submarine came into San Diego today and did a quick turn and headed back out. Ohio class subs don't come into there all that often - with the last one I've seen being in May of 2020. At that time the incoming Ohio was involved in a missile test.

Without knowing which Ohio class submarine this for sure, it is difficult to try to determine what its reason or reasons for visiting San Diego might have been. We have reached out to U.S. 3rd Fleet, which is headquartered in San Diego, seeking more information about this brief stopover.

The very short turnaround time, as well as the absence of any particularly unusual escorts, would seem to suggest this did not have to do with any sort of major accident or maintenance issue. A pair of tugs and small Navy patrol boats, typical of the types and number of vessels that are usually seen helping Navy submarines get safely and securely in and out of ports, are visible in clips and still frames from the webcam in San Diego. 

A pair of tugs sail alongside the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine USS Alabama as it returns to its homeport at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia in 2019., USN

It is possible that there was a need to load or offload relatively small items, such as spare parts or special gear, for some reason, or to get a small number of individuals on or off the boat. Someone suffering some kind of medical emergency could be one reason for a very brief port visit, but, at least in some cases, they could have been offloaded onto a ship or helicopter for transfer instead of going through the hassling of bringing the submarine into port.

The Ohio class boat could be about to execute some unique training and testing in the ranges off San Diego and may have taken on some folks and supplies to do so. That is a major submarine operations area, with large exercises and testing evolutions taking place quite regularly. 

It's also worth noting that a number of U.S. missile tracking vessels have taken up station in the Central Pacific, west of Hawaii, in preparation for what appears to be an imminent missile defense test originating from Alaska. One could imagine a test involving an SSBN and a Trident missile intercept, although it would be unprecedented. The big issue is that it appears the missile defense test will involve a surrogate missile and an intercept that will both be fired and follow a track between the Alaskan coast and the Reagan Test Site located at Kwajalein Atoll. As such, the orientation doesn't seem anywhere near what it should be for an intercept test of a missile originating from off the coast of Southern California. We also don't know of any cautionary notices of an imminent launch emanating from off the west coast of the continental United States.

 So, these are just some possibilities and we really can't with any certainty say what the submarine was doing in San Diego based on the information we have at this time, aside from it being a somewhat rare and peculiar event.

We will certainly update or follow up on this piece with any new information we receive about this rare visit to San Diego by an Ohio class SSBN.

UPDATE: 6/23/2021 —

U.S. 3rd Fleet's public affairs office has now provided a brief statement on the brief stopover of this Ohio class ballistic missile submarine in San Diego.

"The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine is operating in the Pacific Ocean and conducted a brief stop in San Diego," a 3rd Fleet spokesperson told The War Zone. "U.S. military forces are present and active in and around the Pacific in support of allies and partners and a free and open Indo-Pacific."

This confirms that the boat in question was one of the 14 Ohio class SSBNs, not one of the four Ohio class SSGNs, though which submarine it was, specifically, remains unknown.

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