What’s the most powerful US weapon?

Hmmm.Is it the M107 .50 caliber sniper rifle?

Nope.

How about the innovative XM25 “Punisher” (photo at left)?

Not that either, although it’s a great future subject for this blog. It’s the semi-auto bullpup grenade launcher that wowed the troops when five hand-built $40,000 prototypes went to Afghanistan last year (shooting $100/round prototype ammo). It’s the first individual weapon with “smart” technology in it, and it begins to fulfill, and surpass, the promise of the SPIW project from 50 years ago… the Army ordered three dozen more this fiscal year, so, yeah, we’ll probably cover it. But it’s not the most powerful US weapon.

What about the earth-shaking, widow-making, M1A1 tank?

Still not quite there. The tank requires a crew (of four), costs millions, can reach out and touch you from over a mile away, and along with two machine guns packs a smoothbore, sabot-firing 120mm main gun that can blast a fin-stabilized discarding-sabot round through the armor of any vehicle on earth. But we can escalate beyond that.

Could it be the B-2 stealth bomber, a weapon so powerful — and so expensive — that the US could only afford to build 21 of them? A weapon that can make whole grid squares vanish under the pummeling of conventional bombs, carry more JDAMs than anything else that flies, and erase whole cities, on command, with nuclear weapons?

It’s good, but it’s not Number One. Reading Big Red by Douglas Waller recently made us realize what number one is: the Trident submarine. Author Waller is usually a news-magazine correspondent, but despite that he knows a little about defense. An earlier book on Special Operations Forces didn’t stink –¬† and that’s apparently too high a bar for most of his competitors to clear. So we looked forward to reading his story of a rare three-month cruise on USS Nebraska, a Trident missile submarine, then based at Kings’ Point, Georgia.

That is the most powerful weapon in the US inventory; while even the XM25 usually delivers its grim message to enemies one and two at a time, the Nebraska and her sisters can erase entire nations. Officially the Ohio-Class Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, the Navy has 14 of these blue-water lurkers, each with 24 missile tubes, and each missile (per Waller) averaging 5 independently targetable warheads.

A couple hundred men from a Special Forces battalion can overthrow a country (and have done). The 150 or so officers and sailors in a Trident could annihilate that country. It’s a good thing they’re on our side.

Reading Waller’s book, it’s clear that, while these nuke sailors are SF’s match for professionalism, they have¬† vastly different culture. Some of it (like the feudal Lords and Peasants social model) seems inherited from Big Haze Gray. Other dimensions clearly result from the mortal seriousness of the work they do and the unique risks undersea sailors face. We wouldn’t trade places with them and suspect the feeling is mutual. A good thing about a volunteer military: it lets people sort themselves and fall in on the weapon that needs them, and that suits them the best.

Some theoreticians, mostly in the 1950s, thought that with such powerful weapons as ICBMs and these mighty submarines, we didn’t need the lowly rifle and its lowly rifleman any more. Of course, that’s silly; since Nagasaki we’ve fired millions of rifle shots in anger, but not one nuke. But nobody’s shot one at us either. Because Nebraska and her sisters are out there, waiting, on the ramparts, invisibly.