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Where do U.S. strategic weapons’ policy and programs go with the end of the Cold War? To sea.

The United States has entered a period in which diminished tensions with the Soviet Union and powerful internal incentives at once permit and at the same time require thinking about nuclear forces suitable for the new world order. The TRIAD of bombers, land and sea based ballistic missiles poised to attack a large number of places in and around the Soviet Union, with many points targeted by several warheads to insure a very high probability of total destruction, and having the highest priority in the Department of Defense Budget, is a mastodon staggering from wounds which doom it.

The fundamental theses on which the individual and collective strategic forces are based are thirty to sixty years old; are premised on a world order which has changed radically in less than two years and do not take into consideration development of cruise missiles, space surveillance and strategic defenses. Concerns with the federal budget and U.S. political beliefs about a new more serene world order contribute to a climate in which the country is not willing to pay the costs of upgrading forces considered adequate against a threat perceived as vastly diminished.

These internal political costs are now the drivers of the strategic force structure; not international politics or intraservice concerns. Congress has capped modernization for large land-based missiles at 50 Peacekeepers. Monies for the Small Single Warhead ICBM and the Rail Garrison basing system for ICBMs have disappeared from the Air Force budgeL The sacrifice of the funds to build these systems by the Air Force clearly indicate that service’s priorities in times of budget decline.

Difficulties in funding the B-2 bomber make it very doubtful that a large force of these planes will be procured. Invocations about continued modernization of Soviet strategic forces fall on deaf ears where additional large sums of money are required to complete the modernization of offensive forces planned ten years ago. Both of the last two Air Force Chiefs of Staff, Generals Welch and Dugan, acknowledging these realities, have planned to dismantle the oldest ICBMs and, faced with a tradeoff between missiles and airplanes, have recommended stopping all ICBM modernization.

This sets the stage for what could be a constructive analysis and debate. The questions to be addressed are straight forward:

  • How many of what kind of warheads in what delivery systems are required to make deterrence effective and believable?
  • What is the role and value of those strategic defenses which can be built at reasonable costs?
  • How do defensive capabilities, improved reconnaissance, and treaty limits on the numbers of weapons influence the numbers and types of offensive systems which the United States should retain or plan to build?

Unfortunately, this debate is not taking place- at least not openly. Proponents of the component forces remain singularly devoted and vociferous on the need for forces as large or larger than ever. These promoters, analysts and operators all seem to pretend that the primacy of strategic forces in defense funding will continue and that the vast sums of money available in the past for this purpose will continue.

The central fact of the coming era is that the American people don’t believe there remains a need for strategic forces as large and capable as have existed in the past. They will not pay to modernize the TRIAD as proposed by this and the past Administrations. Journalists, congressional staffs and policy think tanks are not alone in voicing these opinions. Even the three past Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Generals Jones and Vesey and Admiral Crowe, have testified that they no longer believe in the need to modernize land-based missiles. In 1989, General Robert Herres, USAF, first Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asserted that it was now ” … time to organize a structured debate to focus our strategic goals.” The challenge will be not only to determine the mix of warheads and delivery systems which will be useful but also to address the internal political problems associated with various systems. The United States must resolve where strategic forces fit into the overall priorities of a greatly diminished Department of Defense in a world where there is only one superpower.

Present attitudes of the Congress and their constituents toward strategic forces mandate that the rationale behind the 1RIAD be questioned. Scientific advances have yielded devices which substantially alter the individual character and expense of each leg. As Desert Storm so dramatically demonstrated, the development of highly accurate guidance systems make hardening a tenuous answer for survivability of any fixed target. At the same time environmental concerns and huge costs have prevented the deployment of mobile systems ashore. These same technological improvements have made possible submarine based missiles with as high a destructive power as any landbased missile. Finally, the original strategic weapons system, the penetrating bomber, has become too expensive to permit acquisition of a large force.

Arguments for maintaining the TRIAD ignore these changes. Also ignored are nuclear weapons designated nonstrategic and potential contributions to targeting and defense from spacebased assets. As the total number of nuclear weapons is reduced, those now considered only as theater weapons become an increasingly powerful segment of the country’s nuclear forces. Space reconnaissance coupled with cruise missiles, both sea and air launched (SLCM/ALCM), provide a capability with many of the attributes of the bomber at considerably less expense. Some defense against missile attacks may be feasible. Future forces should be designed to make these facets effective and cohesive contributors to the whole.

Having acknowledged these political and technical changes, fundamental to any equation relating to strategic forces must be the recognition that nuclear weapons retain their awesome power to dominate international relations. In spite of the dramatic changes in the political character of the world and in the costs and character of the weapons’ systems themselves, the world should not expect the Soviet Union to give up the only instrument which made it a superpower. There is evidence that the Soviet strategic forces, unlike America’s, continue to be modernized in the midst of the collapse of the rest of the Soviet Union. Americans must recognize that the Soviet Union remains the country whicl! has the ability to destroy the United States. Even while the events since 1989 dramatically demon strate Western inability to predict Soviet behavior, the leadership and citizens of the United States count on cooperative behavior and long warning times in their future defense arrangements.

This wishful inconsistency between political thought and historical evidence must be accommodated in the design of future military forces. Nuclear weapons, while no longer dominating acquisition monies, must continue as the umbrella under which all other forces operate. Even more than the past, forces which have great flexibility, which are rJXed as little as possible in time, space or mission will be of most value.

While nuclear weapons dominate international relations they do not confer on their owners the ability to control. As the need for the United States to control or limit Soviet behavior decreases, interest in and need to influence behavior of lesser states increases. Nuclear weapons were of prime importance in influencing Soviets. But they may not possess a similar value in all other situations. The value of force in international relations between major nations appears less than at any other time in this century yet hopes that violence would decline across the whole spectrum of relations were shattered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In the new world order, ideas may become more important than weapons but weapons will enforce the limits of order. While possession of nuclear weapons is of no use in the drug war, they remain absolutely necessary to establish the limits of violence, even when facing only Iraq.

Of all of the operational and technical considerations which should make the force structure of the future markedly different than in the past, most significant is that there will be fewer targets and fewer weapons. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact has already reduced the number of targets for offensive systems. As the numbers of weapons allowed for offensive systems first is capped and then reduced by the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, the target list will decrease dramatically.

As the number of weapons are reduced, allocation of the weapons remaining will be subject to serious competition. No longer will there be enough warheads to allow aiming several at single points in order to obtain a very high surety of destruction. Representative As pin characterized this design as”… making the rubble bounce” and he espouses the widely held belief that this targeting method is neither necessary or believable. Whatever the design or policy of the future may be, the resulting forces must be able to be rationally explained to the American people and their lawmakers.

Because there will be fewer weapons in the future, individual weapon utility, survivability and endurance will be of greater importance than in the past. When warheads are severely limited in number, the value of each is higher than when there are plenty. In a small force, survivability and endurance become much more valuable than in a large force where sheer numbers provide redundancy as a substitute for protection. Systenis which are survivable become even more valuable as the numbers of weapons decreases.

Great benefits come when survivable forces comprise the larger portions of the strategic forces. The need to launch under attack, lest the weapons be destroyed, disappears. Command and control systems which support survivable systems do not have to execute forces rapidly and so are vastly less expensive and complex than those which must support vulnerable forces. Similarly, policy and procedures can be considerably less demanding when retaliatory forces are immune to a first strike.

Strategic defenses offer a powerful mechanism to limit damage. Although the present inability to design a totally effective defense against ballistic missile attack must be acknowledged, these defenses can affect usefulness of the offensive forces of all sides and could have some influence on proliferation of weapons by second order powers.

Defenses are only one aspect to the new strategic equation. Those trying to design forces for the next two decades must be careful to avoid cultural biases of the 1950’s. Because the genesis of strategic bombardment was composed by airmen, most notably Doubet and Mitchell, most previous analyses of strategic forces have assumed the attributes first of bombers and then, after 1965, of ICBMs. Yet these forces will be less important in the future than they have been in the past. Not only have sea-based strategic nuclear weapons become more numerous than land-based ones, but the advent of cruise missiles, space reconnaissance, flexible command and control and strategic defense have added new dimensions to the options available in the designing of forces. Additionally, as the size of strategic forces decrease, the importance of nonstrategic nuclear weapons grows to significant value.

Shaking off the shibboleths and breaking with the traditional analytical truths in this area requires recognition of these new conditions. Attributes of bombers and ICBMs in the past have driven plans, policies and operating procedures for all the offensive forces. To the extent that the assumptions associated with these forces are no longer valid or are valid only for those forces, the United States ought to change its policies and procedures. Survivability is, as ICBM apologists have come to recognize, a much more valuable and important characteristic than alert rate.

Within these general guidelines then, the characteristics which should be good measures of effectiveness of the offensive strategic forces of the future include:

  • High survivability.
  • Great targeting flexibility.
  • Wide operational flexibility.
  • Room for growth and change.
  • Low stress on warning and command systems.
  • Political acceptability.
  • Economic Utility.
  • Low vulnerability to future changes.

No single weapons system encompasses the best of all these features. But sea-based systems clearly possess these attributes to a far greater extent than systems based on land or in space. Systems at sea are not only survivable but essentially untargetable. Survivable and enduring systems present a deterrent threat regardless of the size, shape or nature of an enemy’s offensive forces. Additionally, survivable systems permit longer warning and decision cycles. Vulnerable weapons, which must respond within minutes or suffer destruction, place severe demands on the supporting cl systems and decision makers.

Nonstrategic nuclear weapons dispersed in mobile platfonns have similar characteristics. Insignificant when the total numbers of weapons were very large, nonstrategic nuclear weapons will become a major portion of the country’s total nuclear force when strategic forces are capped. As these weapons are coupled to long range delivery systems, they provide discrete forces which can be very valuable in long term conflict management as well as serving to dissuade nuclear blackmail. Targeting flexibility argues for single warheads and many discrete delivery platforms in most applications other than general war. Nonstrategic weapons have always possessed these attnbutes but long range cruise missiles have enhanced these virtues immeasurably. For missions requiring single warheads, cruise missiles represent a delivery system of great flexibility. Both sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) complement the present bomber force and promise to extend the utility of B-52s through this decade and B-ls well into the next century regardless of developments in anti-aircraft and missile defenses.

When offensive forces can survive an attack, they do not need to be defended Then defensive systems can concentrate on protecting national cultural and economic values from blackmailers rather than having to be devoted to protecting strategic forces from first strikes. This shift emphasizes the utility of defense against the irrational or terrorist threat – a capability that even the most severe detractors of SDI admit is a realistic aim.

Finally, in determining new force structure, costs must be considered. In a world in which the Soviet Union is not the most likely threat, any large new defense investments will be made on conventional requirements, not strategic forces. In addition to the constraints imposed by economic costs, the domestic political costs associated with various systems will be a major consideration. While each system or set of forces bas its political constituency, usually related to the system’s construction or operation, new or expanded systems have to face the growing costs associated with basing schemes. As the threat decays, willingness to allow significant environmental damage to house nuclear weapons declines also. Both of these considerations add to the attractiveness of sea-based systems: presently the most inexpensive way to add modem warheads to the arsenal.

One sure outcome of the realignment of strategic forces in the future, whether the result of a rational analysis or simply the grinding of internal political considerations and the limitations of START, will be a diminished role for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) force of land-based bombers and ICBMs. Flfty percent of the present U.S. strategic missile weapons are carried on sea-based systems. As weapons are taken out of service to comply with arms limitations treaties or simply because the weapons systems age without replacement, this ratio is likely to increase. As forward bases are closed, a similar shift in the ratio between land to sea will occur in deployed nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

The Air Force, freed of the burden of SAC as its raison d’etre and a major resource claimant, will naturally shift attention to missions in space and theater warfare. Devoting more intellectual energy and material resources to space may be the most important outcome of the force realignments in the long run. Better use of space for defense, reconnaissance and other military purposes, now neglected because of overriding concerns with strategic offensive forces, would be sure to result.

With the end of the TRIAD, the strategic offensive force mantle will fall on the Navy. Sea-based forces not only provide capabilities equal to those based ashore but possess endurance and a natural flexibility which cannot be matched by systems which must be launched on warning to avoid destruction. And since sea-based forces can move about the world, their potential attack azimuths are so diverse that defense against them becomes very difficult. At the same time, cruise missiles on a large number of maritime platforms augment the bomber force, giving the country even greater flexibility than can ever be achieved in bombers alone which, based in ftxed locations, must make their approach along easily determined paths.

The Navy’s greater role in the construction and operation of offensive strategic forces will have a number of effects. As a body, the Navy not only has little emotional investment in or commitment to strategic forces, historically it has been opposed to the concept of strategic bombardment and reluctant to spend money on such forces beyond that mandated by higher authority. There is no organizational entity or officer community which owes its existence to strategic forces since command of these forces is organized by warfare specialty (submarine) vice mission. With Mahan as its prophet and not Doubet, the philosophical roots of the Navy are in control of the sea and not in shore bombardment. The institutional pressures which have been responsible for proliferating strategic weapons in the Air Force do not exist in the Navy.

Public analysis and debate about our future strategic forces seems to offer significant opportunities for substantial improve ment. A politically acceptable basis for strategic forces would be a very desirable outcome not only for the United States but for the world. H there is no public debate the force structure will be determined entirely by Congressional willingness to authorize and fund forces put forward in the Defense Budget. The outcome of that effort, now going on in Congress, appears easy to predict: a small bomber force of some B-52s, 95 B-ls and a handful of B-2s, 50 ICBM Peacekeeper (MX) missiles in silos and eighteen TRIDENT submarines carrying the bulk of the U.S. offensive forces. The potential contribution of cruise missiles, of nuclear weapons assigned to theater forces, of defensive systems, of improved reconnaissance, would continue to be ignored in strategic planning.

If and when addressed, it seems likely that the new strategic forces of the United States will be at sea. The TRIAD will be replaced by a more sophisticated and diverse set of armaments which will cost less, deter better and be more comfortable to live with.

{Ed. Note: W. J. Holland, Jr. is President of the AFCEA Educational Foundation. He is a retired naval officer and a former Director of the Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare Division in the Office of the CNO.]


Captain Philip Edwin Burcher, USN(Ret.)

Captain Robert J. LaBrecque, USN

Robert L. Tanner
(NSL Corporate Representative for Pacific Fleet Submarine Memorial Association)

Douglas P. While

Naval Submarine League

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