June 17, 2015

Guam Nuclear Submarine and Bomber Air Base

Guam (nuclear submarine) naval base is at Apra Harbor, west central Guam. Andersen Air Force Base is on the northeast tip of Guam.

This article is about the nuclear submarine and aerial bomber facilities in Guam. These benefit Australia and have relationships with at least two Australian bases.

Australian nuclear free activists were opposed to French underground testing from 1974 to 1996 at Moruroa Atoll at the extreme range of 6,800 km from Australia. Little did they know that around three US submarines armed with a total of 48 (or more) nuclear missiles were based between 1963 and 1981 only 2,700 km from Australia :-)

(USS Proteus, 3 SSBNs and an SSN at Guam naval base, Apra Harbor (Courtesy the late McDowell, Donald Bratton, CPO)

So at the height of the Cold War, from 1963 to 1981 usually three SSBNs within Submarine Squadron 15 permanently operated out of Guam – an island only 2,700 km north of Australia. Those SSBNs were the early ones including some of the George Washington class, armed with nuclear tipped Polaris SLBMs. These were serviced by submarine tender USS Proteus

Guam enjoys the political permanency of being a US possession in the ideal strategic position of the central west Pacific. Guam is within quick nuclear propelled sub “steaming” distance of (and bombing distance from) Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.

Given the relatively limited 4,600 km range of Polaris missiles forward basing some SSBNs made sense at the time. Guam based SSBNs, after around 2 days at sea, were in a comfortable position to hit such major targets as China, the eastern-central Soviet Union (including land based ICBM silos)  and the Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay (Vietnam).

The thaw in the Cold War, increasing political sensitivity of forward nuclear bases and especially the longer range of Poseidon then eventually Trident II SLBMs (11,000 km range) meant that basing at US mainland ports or Hawaii became adequate. Hence Submarine Squadron 15 was disestablished in 1981.

Submarine Squadron 15 was reactivated in 2001 (to the present), again at Guam, this time operating Los Angeles Class SSNs.

Today, the squadron consists of the Los Angeles class USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723), USS Chicago (SSN-721), USS Key West (SSN-722). In the last few weeks USS Topeka (SSN-754) has joined the suadron.. The submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS-40) is also homeported at Guam. The squadron also supports every deploying SSN in the Pacific Fleet Area of Operations, as well as SSGNs USS Ohio (SSGN-726) and USS Michigan (SSGN 727). Note that Australia’s submarine base at Rockingham, Western Australia also hosts some of the same US SSNs and SSGNs on a much more temporary basis. Eventual replacement of Guam Squadron 15’s aging Los Angeles subs with newer Virginia SSNs is likely.

USS Frank Cable (AS-40) and USS Salt Lake City (Los Angeles class SSN 716) Apra Harbor,  Guam.

US SSNs have many possible roles including: shadowing Chinese and Russian SSNs, SSBNs and major surface ships; intelligence collection; contributing to the SEAWEB sensor network; escorting US strike carrier and amphibious warfare groups; and interacting with Japanese and Australian subs and surface ships.

HA-51 is a former Japanese mini-submarine on display on Guam. In July 1944 it ran aground off Guam's southeastern coast. It was crewed by two Japanse soldiers who held off American troops for three days before surrendering. It is a Type C Kō-hyōteki-class submarine. Japanese forces occupied Guam from December 8, 1941 until Guam’s recapture by US forces on July 21, 1944.

Submarine Tenders

From 1964 to 1971 the USS Proteus serviced submarines at Guam. From around 1997 (to this day)  USS Frank Cable has that job. Submarine tenders these days are very large with USS Frank Cable displacing up to 23,000 tons. Submarine tenders are very lightly armed with USS Frank Cable only having 25mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns – more likely used to deter and destroy suicide boats. Submarine tenders therefore require protection, in any time of conflict by warships (such as frigates) and airpower (if in port). Guam hosts the necessary protective US Air Force jets and warships including the SSNs.

Tenders and/or more extensive port facilities are essential to support SSNs between missions. This is because SSNs carry very limited stocks of food, torpedoes, small missiles, other supplies, limited maintenance equipment and few repair specialists. Tenders can voyage to a sub in need (for at sea replenishment) or provide these services in port. In the US Navy tenders are equipped with workshops and can accommodate Gold/Blue relief crews. Tenders can also replenish naval surface ships. 

Andersen Darwin and Tindal Air Force Bases

A B-2 stealth bomber and 2 F-15s fly over Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

Andersen Air Force Base (AFB) on Guam has been a heavy bomber base since 1944. From B-29s bombing Japan (World War Two) the bombers grew to B-52s bombing Cambodia, Laos and of course Vietnam (Vietnam War). Since the end of that war Andersen has continued to host B-52s, defensive jetfighters and occasional deployments of B-1B and B-2 (stealth) bombers. Andersen also hosts KC-135 refueling aircraft which extends the range of bombers sufficiently to bomb the Asian mainland (only when necessary).

To underline the strategic importance of Andersen AFB – it is still occasionally circled by Russian Bear spy planes that are annoyingly refueled by Russian IL-78 aircraft based at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay.

Australia’s Tindal Air Force Base at Katherine, Northern Territory, also occasionally hosts US B-52, B-1, B-2 bombers and KC-135s on scheduled or emergency stops on a semi-secret basis. RAAF Darwin Air Base also hosted US bombers until recently - with hosting now at Tindal due to noise and perhaps secrecy concerns. These bombers and refuelers are more frequently based at Guam, Okinawa, Diego Garcia, Hawaii, Middle East bases and the US mainland.

A B-2 stealth bomber lands at RAAF Darwin, Australia, foExercise Green Lightning. (Photo Courtesy, Air Power Australia).

Another link between Andersen-Guam and Tindal is bombing range viability. Bombers from Andersen have historically used the very small, uninhabited, island of Farallon de Medinilla just north of Guam as a practice target. But political, environmental sensitivities, very small size and other limitations means that US heavy bombers no longer bomb Farallon de Medinilla. Instead bombers from Guam can use the larger, 200,000 hectare Delamere Air Weapons Range about 120 km south of the Tindal Australian Air Force Base.

See this good report, August 29, 2016 in The Diplomat on doubling the US military presence on Guam http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/guam-where-the-us-military-is-revered-and-reviled/


So Guam is an ideal base for US submarines and bombers. Its location allows these weapons to use there nuclear propulsion and inflight refuelling to major advantage. The US bases at Guam are important to Australia’s and broader regional security. Guam can also host Australian submarines and aircraft. Australia pays for such US security through the high cost of US weapons and through hosting US visits at Australia’s submarine base at Rockingham, Western Australia and Tindal Air Force Base.



Anonymous said...

USS Topeka, a Virgina class, from San Diego is assigned from June this year to submarine squadron 15 in Guam.
Also there are 20 SSNs from 2 submarine squadrons currently based in Hawaii.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous (June 17, 2015 at 10:49 PM),

would it be possible to refuel Australian submarines at Guam? I am sure that this is possible at Hawaii during RIMPAC.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for the info. It is true USS Topeka shifted to Guam in May-June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Topeka_(SSN-754) is actually a Los Angeles class sub.

Here is a list of SSNs homeported at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Station_Pearl_Harbor#Submarines_presently_homeported .



Peter Coates said...

Hi MHalblaub

Yes it is politically and logistically possible for Australian subs to refuel at Guam - just as some US subs have some replenishment at Australia's submarine base at Rockingham, WA.

I've seen photos and videos of the odd Collins docked at Guam and certainly at Pearl Harbor (so distant that refueling is necessary). Sydney is more than a 16,000 km round trip from Pearl Harbor with Collins subs exercising round there as well. Remembering http://gentleseas.blogspot.com.au/2015/05/aussie-submarines-victory-over-us-navy.html