Submarines and cruise missiles are an awesome pair — a stealthy platform coupled with a potent weapon for long-range attack. The recent analysis by Jon Boyes and WiJiiam Rube (Submarine Review for January 1990, pp. 14-23) makes clear how versatile the combination can be.
Yet the very features that make SLCMs technically exciting tend to make them politically baffling.
Technological enthusiasm may be distorting our judgment about the balance to be struck regarding SLCM deployments and diplomacy. The United States has been so taken with the military advantages of SLCMs that it has given far too little weight to its own vulnerabilities to Soviet SLCMs. The BoyesRube study highlights both the complexity of the tradeoffs and the urgency of a new approach to negotiated limits on such weapons.
• Even older, shorter-range Soviet cruise missiles hold at risk the highest value American targets along the coasts and at sea, including our ports, carriers and other major surface ships.
• It is the Soviets who seem to enjoy relatively easy options for warhead interchangeability, meaning that their cruise missile inventory poses a substantial capability to break out large numbers of nuclear delivery systems unconstrained by arms control.
• It is the Soviets whose large-payload, high-speed cruise missiles with conventional warheads could become long-range nuclear threats by going subsonic with adjustments in warheads and tankage.
Clearly, the United States has a real need for conventional SLCMs, particularly to reduce exposure of pilots and aircraft in many scenarios where modem air defenses are thick and deadly. Protecting the right to deploy such a force should remain a diplomatic priority. One may reasonably ask, however, whether a tlat refusal to negotiate SLCM restraints of any sort serves the national interest. In an unregulated cruise missile competition:
– How will the United States keep Soviet cruise missiles out of range of vital American targets? Perfect ASW is not in the cards and it did not take an EXOCET attack or Mr. Rust’s unarmed flight to Red Square to demonstrate that air defenses are porous.
– What confidence can the United States have that the Soviets will not exploit the flexibility of their cruise missile force to circumvent pending reductions in strategic nuclear weapons? Moscow evidently worries that the United States will do just that, even with its “wooden weapons• that are relatively hard to convert to nuclear warheads; the United States should be at least as concerned to devise guarantees against easy convertibility of conventional SLCMs to nuclear payloads -and to capture in the control regime the hundreds of nominally short-range Soviet SLCMs that could grow very long legs overnight.
No doubt verification requirements are intimidating. No doubt in-port monitoring of cruise missile loading would be a nuisance. No doubt spot checks of an intrusive nature would disturb operational procedures at storage and maintenance sites, not to mention vessels at sea. No doubt conversion barriers to prevent interchange bility of SLCM warheads would go against the grain of tradits m and service preference for maximum latitude to configure forces. Yet there is also no doubt that failure to contrive some combination of measures to regulate SLCMs jeopardizes the conclusion and implementation of meaningful strategic arms reductions, an objective sought by every U.S. administration for the last quarter century.
Is it not the responsibility of Navy leadership to address these problems diplomatically, rather than to insist on a totally free hand in SLCM deployments? Demanding absolute discretion to field all shapes and sizes of SLCMs guarantees more than a robust American capability. It is a surefire prescription for a massive, unconstrained Soviet threat against the American people and all their ships at sea.