U.S. Ballistic Missile Submarine, ‘Doomsday Plane’ Take Part In Rare Show Of Force Off Norway

The U.S. Navy’s Ohio class nuclear ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee recently cruised on the surface in the Norwegian Sea alongside the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Normandy. The unusual show of force also included an E-6B Mercury and a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol plane flying overhead.

The Ohio class nuclear missile submarine USS Tennessee in the Norwegian Sea on June 23, 2024. USN


Any decision to highlight the presence of one of these submarines, which are key components of America’s nuclear deterrent arsenal and typically keep well out of sight while deployed, inherently sends a message to potential adversaries, such as Russia. Tennessee‘s appearance in the waters to the northwest of Norway notably follows a first-of-its-kind visit by Russia’s advanced Yasen-M class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Kazan (along with other Russian naval vessels) to Cuba earlier this month, which was also clearly meant to send a signal to the United States.

Another view of Tennessee, as well as the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Normandy, at right, and a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) at left. USN

U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF) and U.S. Sixth Fleet, the Navy’s top commands in Europe, released pictures of Tennessee together with the other naval assets, which were taken on June 23, earlier today. This, at least in part, explains the rare deployment of a Mercury jet to the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s Rygge Air Station in the southern end of the country last week.

Also known as ‘doomsday planes,’ the Navy’s fleet of 16 Boeing 707-based E-6B jets are critical airborne strategic command posts through which nuclear strike orders would flow, including to Air Force nuclear bomber units in the air and missile silos on the ground, if the need were to ever arise. On the naval side, the Mercury aircraft are equipped with specialized five-mile-long antennas to communicate directly with Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, allowing the boats to remain submerged where they are less vulnerable to attack. The Navy calls this mission set Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO), and is looking to supplant the E-6Bs in this role with a variant of the C-130J Hercules turboprop aircraft in the future. The Air Force’s airborne nuclear command and control mission set, commonly called Looking Glass, looks set to transition to other platforms, possibly including the service’s future Boeing 747-based Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC) jets.

A picture of an E-6B with a red arrow pointing to the tip of the five-mile-long antenna the aircraft can unspool to communicate with submerged Ohio class nuclear ballistic missile submarines. USAF

A Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) was put out last week warning of “military flight operations with invisible flight hazard” over an area of the Norwegian Sea on June 23. This had suggested that the E-6B at Rygge would conduct a sortie using its trailing antenna to communicate with a submerged SSBN. With what we know now, it is very probable that the E-6B and Tennessee, along with Normandy and the P-8A, and potentially other assets, trained together ahead of the photo op. It’s certainly true that where Ohio SSBNs go, in general, an E-6B is usually not that far away.

For their part, NAVEUR-NAVAF and U.S. Sixth Fleet described the show of force as “Multi-Domain Readiness in action” in a post on their shared official account on X. The War Zone has reached out for more information about the circumstances behind the newly released pictures and USS Tennessee‘s general presence in the region.

The U.S. Navy generally offers scant details about the activities of its 14 Ohio class nuclear ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, as well as the four other boats in this class converted into guided missile submarines (SSGNs), while they are deployed, though this has been changing more recently. In particular, the Ohio SSBNs, also known as boomers, effectively disappear for months on end during patrols to ensure that they can provide credible second-strike nuclear deterrent capability. These submarines are arguably the most destructive weapon systems the United States have ever built.

As such, the public announcement of the presence of an Ohio SSBN in a region has a strategic signaling function, both to potential adversaries and allies and partners, whether explicit or not, as already noted. The pair of USS Tennessee with USS Normandy, should not be ignored, either. While the Navy is moving ahead with plans to decommission the last of its Ticonderoga class cruisers before the end of the decade, their 122 vertical launch system cells and extensive air defense command and control capabilities mean they are still among the service’s most capable surface warships.

Navy P-8As are also really more than just maritime patrol aircraft with their extensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and capabilities. We have already discussed the significance of the E-6B.

With this in mind, Tennessee‘s appearance with the other Navy assets in the waters to the northwest of Norway, a NATO ally, over the weekend notably came around a week after Kazan and three other Russian naval vessels wrapped up their visit to Cuba’s capital Havana. Though U.S., Russian, and Cuban authorities downplayed the port call as routine, Russia’s Ministry of Defense did highlight the flotilla’s training to conduct strikes on enemy naval vessels while on their way to the Caribbean. Earlier in the naval task group’s voyage, Russian authorities had also released a video, seen in part below, showing a P-8A in the sights of one of the Palash close-in weapon systems on the Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov.

Just a couple weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin also threatened to send weapons to unspecified “regions” from where they could be used to strike Western targets. He suggested this as a means of retaliation in response to Ukraine getting approval from the U.S. government and some of its other Western partners to use munitions those countries had supplied to hit targets in Russia proper.

The Navy’s attitude toward openly discussing SSBN movements has been explicitly changing in recent years amid renewed geopolitical friction, especially with near-peer competitors like China and Russia. In 2022, the USS Tennessee itself took part in another highly unusual show of force together with an unknown British Vanguard class SSBN somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. An E-6B Mercury and an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter were also involved in that show of force. The primary armament on both Ohio and Vanguard class boats are Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. These weapons have a multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) configuration and can be loaded with several different nuclear warheads, as you can read more about here. For the United Kingdom, the Vanguards represent the entirety of its current nuclear deterrent capabilities.

The USS Tennessee, in the foreground, sails together with an unknown British Vanguard class submarine, in the background, in 2022. An E-6B and an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter are seen flying overhead. USN

The recent U.S. naval show of force in the Norwegian Sea also underscores the broader strategic significance of this region, which is a major corridor for Russian submarines and other naval vessels heading to the Atlantic, as well as the High North more generally. The U.S. military’s relationship with its counterparts in Norway, as well as the other Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden – all of which are now members of the NATO alliance – has steadily grown in recent years. This includes work to refurbish a Norwegian naval base built under a mountain in part to help support U.S. submarine operations in the region and increased utilization of Norwegian air bases by American military aircraft.

All this being said, an Ohio class SSBN, Ticonderoga class cruiser, E-6B Mecury, and P-8A Posideon together in the Norwegian Sea is still a particularly unusual display of both U.S. nuclear and conventional maritime capabilities in a highly strategic region.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com