US commander in rare visit to nuclear-armed submarine in Arabian Sea

Gen Erik Kurilla's tour comes amid heightened tensions with Iran over drones supplied to Russian forces in Ukraine

General Erik Kurilla, commander of Centom, conducted a visit aboard the USS West Virginia, a US Navy Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine at an undisclosed location at sea in international waters in the Arabian Sea. Photo: US Central Command
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The top US military commander for the Middle East boarded a US ballistic missile submarine in the Arabian Sea on Wednesday, in a rare move highlighting US nuclear undersea capabilities during tense times with Iran and Russia.

Gen Erik Kurilla was shuttled out to the USS West Virginia and was aboard for about eight hours, as the submarine rose to the surface in an undisclosed location in international waters.

The West Virginia is one of the US Navy’s Ohio-class long-range submarines, known as boomers.

Ohio-class submarines form one part of the US's nuclear triad — along with US Air Force strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

They are equipped with Trident II D-5 missiles and considered a key strategic deterrent.

The US seldom advertises the location of its nuclear-powered submarines and rarely has them patrolling in the Middle East.

On Wednesday, US Central Command said Gen Kurilla met with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, on the submarine.

It said Gen Kurilla was given a “hands-on demonstration of the capabilities of the vessel”.

“These submarines are the crown jewel of the nuclear triad and the West Virginia demonstrates the flexibility, survivability, readiness and capability” of the US forces at sea, Mr Kurilla said.

This visit comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons, as his forces lose ground in the war in Ukraine.

Iran, which is in the Central Command region, has become involved in the war, supplying drones that Russia has been using to strike targets in Ukraine, including power plants and other key infrastructure, as well as residential buildings.

While visits to submarines are rare, Central Command leaders have often toured US Navy ships in the waters around the Middle East — including aircraft carriers that were routinely sent as a deterrent to Iran.

Since wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended, the US Navy has not had a regular carrier presence in the region.

Gen Kurilla’s submarine tour also came as Nato began its long-planned annual nuclear exercises in north-west Europe.

Fourteen of Nato’s 30 member countries were scheduled to take part in the exercises, conducted around the same time every year for about a week.

The drills involve fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but do not involve any live bombs. US long-range B-52 bombers are taking part in the exercises.

Russia usually holds similar nuclear force exercises this month, and those are expected to begin soon.

Updated: October 20, 2022, 12:00 PM