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THE TRIDENT II MISSILE: MYTHS AND REALITIES

As part of an overall and orchestrated effort to oppose the current on-going modernization of the country’s Triad of strategic nuclear forces, certain critics have turned their attentiorl to the TRIDENT II, (D-5), submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). These criticisms rarely┬Ěreflect an understanding of deterrence. Moreover, the portrayal of the D-5 as “extravagantly wasteful” and the allegation that the decision to deploy this missile escalates the arms raoe and undermines crisis stability are incorrect. Let us examine these myths and some additional s~rengths of this flexible system.

MYTH: The D-5 is wasteful.

Some critics assert that the $7 billion spent to date and the $45-50 billion planned ov,er the next decade is too expensive, especially in light of the passage of the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget bill. The research, development and acqtiisition costs associated with the D-5 appear less objectionable when viewed from the ‘ proper perspective of weapons systems life cycle costs. Once the missile is acquired and deployed, its costs drop off sharply. Inasmuch as D-Ss will be in the fleet long after their initial deployment, average life cycle costs will be much lower than those suggested by critics who focus exclusively on near-term costs. According to a recent Congressional Budget Office study of the cost of various alert ballistic missile weapons generated over missile life, the D-5 ($.9Mireentry vehicle) costs less than the Peacekeeper ICBM ($1.1Mireentry vehicle) and the small ICBM ( $5.6M) . .

Second, the congressionally mandated qelay in deploying the second 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs (recommended by the bipartisan Scowcroft Commis~ion and sought by the Reagan administration} is likely to result in the D-5 missile being used to attack a portion of Soviet hard targets planned for ‘the 100 Peacekeepers and targeted today by the aging Minuteman force. Viewed in this light, the importance of acquiring the accurate and flexible D-5 missile.increases substantially, making the price more acceptable.

Finally, the assertion that the system’s cost is extravagant leads one to wonder what price we put on our own security and the maintenance of peace. . Is there a price we are unwilling to pay? Some say that the cost of D-5 makes it unnecessary in a world that already spends too much on wars and war preparation. This argument is illogical. American defense decisions must reflect U.S. specific requirements rather than some global cost aggregate.

MYTH: The D-5 Undermines Deterrence.

The deterrence of nuclear war has been a critical, if not the paramount, u.s. objective in the post-war period. To do this, the United States has relied upon its land, air and sea-based strategic triad. The principal qualities of the sea-based leg are its relative invulnerability and prompt response time. SSBNs remain in constant communication with the National Command Authority. Moreover, they are tied to the NCA or its successors through a redundant network of survivable airborne and surface naval assets which broadcast across the radio spectrum. It is this ability to launch SLBMs promptly that strengthens deterrence by guaranteeing that the United States can respond appropriately to any Soviet attack against this country or our allies, irrespective of the attack’s success against our ICBM and bomber forces. With the increasing hardness of the Soviet target base, the D-5’s accuracy will allow it to engage a broader portion of enemy assets. This stabilizes deterrence because it provides the United States with credible military retaliatory options between the unsavory extremes of prompt capitulation and massive retaliation. This is why it is incorrect to assert that possessing the less accurate and less flexible C-3 and C-4 SLBMs is sufficient for U.S. deterrent re quirements. As noted above, true if full Peacekeeper achieved.

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Deterrence is a dynamic requirement. Even if the United States accepted the premise that it could deter the USSR (whose doctrine extols, and counter-military capabilities increasingly reflect, a war-fighting posture) through massive counter-value attacks alone, we would still be required to modernize our forces to respond to Soviet ABM and other defense improvements. But deterrence is far more complex.

The Soviet Union’s wartime experiences and its ideology lead it to regard military modernization as a necessary ingredient of deterrence and as an indicator of a state’s continuing resolve to defend its interests. Actual or perceived unilateral U.S. restraint in these areas would not be perceived by the Soviets as an amicable, peace-promoting gesture. Rather, it would be viewed as a sign of weakness and an invitation to pursue their interests more aggressively under the protection of the superior and more flexible nuclear forces which are complemented by current superiority in the conventional force balance. Let us remember that it was not Winston Churchill who advocated military modernization in the face of a growing threat, but Neville Chamberlain who by fear of arousing the ire of the Nazis did more damage to the cause of peace.

It is surprising that domestic critics usually identify only the United States as undermining deterrence. This fails to take into account the Soviets’ silo-threatening fourth generation ICBMs, or their new DELTA IV and TYPHOON-class submarines with increasingly accurate MIRVed SLBMs. Indeed, it is the invulnerability of the American SSBNs carrying the accurate D-5, a veritable ICBM under water, that convinces the USSR that the chance of a successful damage-limiting attack on the United States is virtually nil, the USSR’s increasingly lethal arsenal notwithstanding.

MYTH: The D-5 is a First-Strike Weapon.

The most serious criticism of the D-5 is that its accuracy and short time of flight make it a potential first-strike weapon, one that would place Soviet weapons in a use or lose situation and thus destabilize a superpower crisis. While theoretically plausible, this argument loses its luster upon closer scrutiny.

In the first place, the Soviets, like the Americans, are well aware that increasing missile accuracies threatens the survivability of fixed assets. To circumvent this problem, and apart from continuing interest in active and passive defenses, the USSR has developed and is deploying two new mobile ICBMs as well as large numbers of MIRVed, accurate SLBMs. Thus, in spite of increasing U.S. missile accuracy, a declining percentage of the Soviet strategic arsenal is vulnerable, thus making the “use or lose imperative” appear less compelling. Second, one should note that the entire TRIDENT fleet would never be at sea and in launch zones at one time because some would be in port undergoing replenishment or overhaul while others would be in transit between home ports and patrol areas. It is not at all certain that sufficient D-5 assets would be on station to execute a preemptive attack by themselves against the Soviet Union.

Even in the unlikely event that the United States planned a disarming “preemptive strike”, D-5 assets would have to be supplemented by ICBMs. If SLBMs were launched first, Soviet missiles could be flushed from unscathed silos before our ICBMs arrived. And if ICBMs were launched first with SLBM execution staggered to allow all u.s.

missile assets to arrive simultaneously, the Soviet Union would have substantial tactical warning to launch their assets out from under attack. The foregoing suggests that fears of u.s. preemption are less valid than often assumed. In short, the calculus of deterrence is far more complex than any sophomoric equation incorporating only numbers of weapons and missile accuracy.

OTHER BENEFITS OF THE D-5.

Additional military and strategic advantages will accrue to the United States upon the deployment of the D-5. Perhaps most important is the ability to support a key U.S. strategic objective of prompt war termination (on grounds favorable to the U.S.) should deterrence fail. As noted above, the Soviet Union is deploying mobile ICBMs to mitigate the increasing vulnerability of fixed-site assets. Holding these forces at risk throughout a conflict will require forces that offer long term endurance, connectivity and responsiveness. While the other two legs of the Triad exhibit some of these requirements to varying degrees, it is the seaborne leg that claims all three as strengths. A second advantage of this weapon is that its throw-weight is sufficient to carry weapons as required to hold the Soviets’ hardest leadership targets at risk throughout the conflict. It is difficult to imagine how, should deterrence fail, the u.s. could encourage the prompt cessation of hostilities if a large portion of the Soviet Union’s leadership and nuclear arsenal remained unthreatened.

An additional benefit of the D-5 is that it will provide a good hedge and thus deterrent against any potential breakout by the Soviet Union of the ABM Treaty. The weapon’s throw weight will allow it to carry penetration aids that confuse missile defenses. Also, the Soviets’ defense requirements will be complicated by the unpredictable attack azimuth of SLBMs launched from mobile and secure SSBNs.

TAKING THE MESSAGE TO THE PUBLIC

In the current atmosphere of fiscal constraint, the military budget has come under increasing fire and the military is likely to be called upon to make difficult choices between various programs, all of which make a positive contribution to the nation’s defense and security. Should an arms control regime that reduces the size of our strategic arsenal be realized, the competition for public and congressional support for competing strategic systems will become even more intense. Naval officials should not mistakenly believe that the problems and continuing criticisms directed against the PEACEKEEPER will shield the TRIDENT system from future budgetary forays. The Navy must educate the public and its elected representatives. Presentations in academic forums, editorials, congressional testimony and the like that identify D-5’s survivability, endurance, connectivity/responsiveness, and the ability to hold at risk the full range of assets valued most highly by the Soviets will ensure the acceptance of the TRIDENT SSBN and the D-5 SLBM as the preeminent strategic force of the future and the continuing bulwark of deterrence. Focusing the public’s appreciation on the past. current and future contributions of the Navy to the protection of the nation’s vital interests will do more than improve the Navy’s prospects in the budget cycle contest; it will be a source of satisfaction, service and pride for all of us who serve the cause of peace.

Dr. John M. Weinstein
Special Asst. for Requirements
& Capabilities to the Director
Strategic and Theater Nuclear
Warfare Division (OP-65)

[The views expressed herein are the author’s own and do not represent an official Navy or DOD position. Portions of this article appeared in the~ Times (24 Mar 86) and are reprinted with its kind permission.]

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