If China’s satellites and spies were working properly, there was a flood of unsettling intelligence flowing into the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese Navy last week. A new class of U.S. super weapon had suddenly surfaced nearby. It was an Ohio-class submarine, which for decades carried only nuclear missiles targeted against the Soviet Union, and then Russia. But this one was different: for nearly three years, the U.S. Navy has been dispatching modified “boomers” to who knows where (they do travel underwater, after all). Four of the 18 ballistic-missile subs no longer carry nuclear-tipped Trident missiles. Instead, they now hold up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, capable of hitting anything within 1,000 miles with non-nuclear warheads.

Their capability makes watching these particular submarines especially interesting. The 14 Trident-carrying subs are useful in the unlikely event of a nuclear Armageddon, and Russia remains their prime target. But the Tomahawk-outfitted quartet carries a weapon that the U.S. military has used repeatedly against targets in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Sudan.

That’s why alarm bells would have sounded in Beijing June 28 when the Tomahawk-laden 560-foot USS Ohio popped up in the Philippines’ Subic Bay. More alarms likely were sounded when the USS Michigan arrived in Pusan, South Korea, the same day. And the klaxons would have maxed out as the USS Florida surfaced the same day at the joint U.S.-British naval base at Diego Garcia, a flyspeck of an island in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese military awoke to find as many as 462 additional Tomahawks deployed by the U.S. in its neighborhood. “There’s been a decision to bolster our forces in the Pacific,” says Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is no doubt that China will stand up and take notice.”

U.S. officials deny any message is being directed at Beijing, saying the Tomahawk triple-play was a coincidence. But they did make sure news of the new deployments appeared in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post – on July 4, no less. The Chinese took notice quietly. “At present, common aspirations of countries in the Asian and Pacific regions are seeking for peace, stability and regional security,” Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Wednesday. “We hope the relevant U.S. military activities will serve for the regional peace, stability and security, and not the contrary.”

Last month, the Navy had announced that all four of the Tomahawk Tridents were operationally deployed away from their home ports for the first time. Each vessel packs “the firepower of multiple surface ships,” says Capt. Tracy Howard, commander, Submarine Squadron 16 in Kings Bay, Ga., and can “respond to diverse threats on short notice.”
The move forms part of a policy by the U.S. government to shift firepower from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater, which Washington sees as the military focus of the 21st Century. Reduced tensions since the end of the Cold War has seen the U.S. scale back its deployment of nuclear weapons, allowing the Navy to reduce its Trident fleet from 18 to 14. (Why 14 subs, as well as bombers and land-based missiles carrying nuclear weapons, are still required to deal with the Russian threat is a topic for another day.)

Sure, the Navy could have retired the four additional subs and saved the Pentagon some money, but that’s not how bureaucracies operate. Instead, it spent about $4 billion replacing the Tridents with Tomahawks and making room for 60 special-ops troops to live aboard each sub and operate stealthily around the globe. “We’re there for weeks, we have the situational awareness of being there, of being part of the environment,” Navy Rear Adm. Mark Kenny explained after the first Tomahawk Trident set sail in 2008. “We can detect, classify and locate targets and, if need be, hit them from the same platform.”

Read the rest of Mark Thompson’s article for Time here.

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