The recent failure of the TRIDENT II (D-5) submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) flight test has not gone unnoticed in the Congress or by the program’s critics. Recently, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee rejected any new procurement funding for the missile. Elsewhere, some critics, citing the missile’s costs and asserting that it is a destabilizing first strike weapon, have even called for its abandonment. There is no truth in these allegations and not pressing ahead with the TRIDENTs weapon program would be injurious to the country’s national interests.
The $155 billion price tag associated with the TRIDENT II’s D-5 “system” in a recent editorial suggests to the unwary reader that this is the cost of the missile. In fact, the $155 billion figure includes, in addition to the SLBM, the costs of developing and procuring 20 super-survivable TRIDENT class submarines. These new subs are being built to replace the twenty-plus year old POSEIDON class boats in the mid-1990s. In light of recently observed improvements in Soviet submarine quieting and the fact that we cannot count on anti-submarine warfare technology to stand still over the next decade, such modernization is indeed prudent.
The actual cost of the missile itself is approximately onethird the figure cited above. The research, development and acquisition costs of the D-5 appear less objectionable when viewed from the proper perspective of total life-cycle costs. Most costs, for R&D, associated with the D-5’s development have already been disbursed and the remainder of the acquisition costs will be spread over the next 10-15 years.
It is untrue that the D-5 undermines deterrence and that it is a first strike weapon. The deterrence of nuclear war has been the paramount U.S. national security objective of the postwar period. The U.S. has relied upon its strategic triad of land-, air-, and sea-based forces to maintain a stable deterrent balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Principal qualities of the sea-based leg are its relative invulnerability and prompt response times. SLBMs strengthen deterrence by guaranteeing that the United States respond appropriately to any nuclear attack by the Soviet Union (or future nuclear power) against this country or our allies, irrespective of that attack’s success against our ICBM or bomber forces. With the increasing hardness of the Soviet target base, the D-5’s accuracy and yield-enhancements will allow it to engage a broader portion of enemy assets. This has stabilized deterrence because it provides this country with credible retaliatory options between the unsavory extremes of prompt capitulation and massive retaliation. Furthermore, any additional targeting efficiency resulting from the D-5’s accuracy and yield improvements could provide additional flexibility in U.S. arms control positions. Hence, it is incorrect to argue that the less accurate and capable C4 SLBM is sufficient for U.S. deterrence requirements, especially if full Peacekeeper or stealth bomber procurements are not achieved.
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 could destabilize a superpower crisis by placing Soviet weapons in a “use or lose” situation. While theoretically plausible, this argument is less convincing upon closer scrutiny.
The Soviet Union, like the U.S., is well aware that increasing missile accuracy threatens the survivability of fiXed assets. To overcome this problem, and apart from any continued interest to active and passive defenses, the USSR is deploying two new mobile ICBMs, a new SLBM and the new TYPHOON class strategic submarine. Hence, in spite of increasing U.S. missile accuracy, a decreasing percentage of Soviet strategic forces is vulnerable to the use-or-lose imperative cited by critics of the D-5.
One should note that the entire 1RIDENT fleet would never be at sea at the same time. More than half of the assets would be undergoing replenishment or overhaul or be in transit between home ports and patrol areas. It is not at all certain that sufficient D-5s would be on station to conduct a first strike against the USSR.
Even in the incredible scenario in which the U.S. planned a “disarming” preemptive strike, D-5s would have to be supplemented by ICBMs. If SLBMs were launched first, Soviet ICBMs could be launched from numerous unscathed silos before U.S. ICBMs arrived. And if U.S. land-based missiles were launched first with SLBM execution staggered to allow all missiles to arrive simultaneously, the Soviet Union would have substantial tactical warning to launch its missiles out from under the attack.
Fears of the destabilizing nature of the D-5 SLBM are less valid than often asserted by armchair strategists. In short, the calculus of deterrence is far more complex than sophomoric platitudes incorporating only missile accuracy, numbers of weapons and throw-weight.
Dr. John M. Weinstein