Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


[Ed Note:    Joseph Tatner is a former Air Force  Officer and is currently a defense research analyst. He has a Masters degree in National Security Studies. He is a member of the Naval Submarine League.]

“The cold war is over.              The United Sillies won.

Hooray for our side.  Now let’s slash defense.”

This type of thinking is sweeping through the nation as isolationism seems to be raising its ugly bead once again.

This should not be surprising, since after every major conflict in history (the Cold War can definitely be considered a prolonged conflict) America has rushed to divest itself of its weapons. While this is truly noble, it bas in the past proven to have been unwise, and this time may well prove to be disastrous — especially regarding the current proposal to reduce SLBMs to one warhead each.

Not that it is unreasonable to make adjustments or even reductions in our current defense posture. Our major nemesis has disappeared virtually overnight and the sad state of our economy demands more attention at home. Nevertheless, it will be a hard fought battle to ensure that Congress only cuts defense rather than guts defense. Bombers, missiles, and submarines are far more technical nowadays than they have ever been, and to believe that they can be manufactured overnight when the need arises is sheer fantasy.

The only reason Operation Desert Shield was a success was because we had enough weapons available to be put into place on a moment’s notice — before Iraq could move into other countries and gain more territory. Had we not already had those weapons as a deterrent to the Soviets, Saddam Hussein would have finished building his nuclear arsenal long before we could have hoped to resuscitate a long-dead military-industrial complex. In the end, the entire Middle East would have fallen under the domination of Iraq and there would have been nothing we could do about it without facing a nuclear war (SCUDs do much better with nuclear warheads). Such a scenario involving another as yet unknown dictator becomes more and more plausible, yet steps are being taken to gut the most survivable leg of our strategic Triad: the SLBMs.

In its fervor to cut defense and enhance nuclear stability, Congress is now considering reducing the warheads carried on our nuclear submarines to one per missile. The idea can be traced back to the Scowcroft Commission’s recommendation for the small ICBM (SICBM – the Air Force never liked the name Mulgetman ). In its failed attempt to gain a political consensus of support from the Congress, the Commission recommended both the single warhead SICBM and the ten-warhead MX Peacekeeper despite the fact that the strategies behind the two missiles were diametrically opposed to each other.

The MX was endorsed because it would offset the dramatic warhead advantage of the Soviet Union. The SICBM was endorsed because it would enhance nuclear stability according to accepted strategy theory. Every missile targeted by an aggressor requires the allocation of not one but two warheads for attack in order to ensure the defender’s missile will be destroyed if anything should go wrong. Trading two warheads for one SICBM was at best an unappealing situation to a potential aggressor since the SICBM carried only one warhead.

As the MX missile carried ten times the number of warheads, however, it became a target that was ten times more desirable than the SICBM and therefore more destabilizing, but the U.S. would have a lot more warheads without paying for a lot more missiles. During a conventional war or in any situation where a nuclear exchange might seem plausible, a ten warhead MX force would invite a nuclear attack where a single warhead SICBM would not. It was hoped that as an incentive to keep the United States from building more Peacekeepers, the Soviets would recognize the harmonious effect of having single-warhead missiles and would then build many of their own. They did not.

This situation was made even more critical when none of the hide-and-seek basing modes for the MX were ever agreed upon and all of the missiles ended up in vulnerable fiXed silos, thereby rendering them even more destabilizing. It would have been less of a problem if the original concept had been put into effect, because even a missile with ten warheads would be an inequitable target if it was hidden in one of six or more possible locations. If one is going to try to deter a nuclear attack yet keep missiles in fiXed, known, targetable locations, it then makes sense that the missiles kept in those vulnerable locations have only one warhead so as to present a less inviting target for an aggressor.

As one can see, this makes perfect sense regarding land based missiles, but the arguments have absolutely nothing to do with SLBMs which by their very nature are untargetablel Indeed, the original concept of the MX was that it would not be based in wlnerable silos. Integral to the ten-warhead philoso-phy was the idea that the whereabouts of the missiles should be unknown (or at least uncertain) to Soviet targeteers. Unfortu-nately, agreed upon strategic arms negotiations stipulated that the Soviets must know exactly where our missiles were, so every hide-and-seek basing mode had to allow the USSR to detect where our missiles were hidden, thereby rendering the entire concept meaningless. In the end, basing the MX in pre-existing silos was the only real alternative and the United States still ended up with only half the one hundred Peacekeepers and none of the SICBMs recommended by the Scowcroft Commis-sion.

The whereabouts of nuclear submarines, of course, are very difficult for an enemy to determine, so there is no logical reason for reducing the number of SLBM warheads to one. It is in fact absurd to suggest a reduction of D-5 warheads from eight per missile to one, since the OHIO-class Trident submarine has only 24 missile tubes. While it is cost-effective and sensible to build and maintain a submarine as large as the OHIO to carry 192 warheads, it would be ridiculous to do so for a warhead count of only 24. Such a decision would almost certainly mean the death of the boomers, particularly in light of the success of Tomahawk cruise missiles on conventional attack subs.

The loss of the D-5 would be a catastrophe unparalleled in the history of strategic deterrence. The Trident D-5 SLBM is almost twice as accurate, nearly equal to the range and more than double the yield per warhead of our Minuteman m land based missiles but lacks the Minuteman’s wlnerability problems. The D-5 also has nearly twice the range, more than three times the accuracy and four times the yield potential of the Trident C-4 SLBM, but if the warhead count is cut from eight to one the Navy can be almost certain that the long-promised refitting of the first eight OHIOs for D-5 missiles will never take place.

Although it would make perfect sense that limiting SLBMs to only one warhead each should necessitate placing that single warhead on the most accurate delivery system available, it is highly unlikely that the retrofit would be made as a consequence of the warhead reduction. Such a plan would require much broader thinking than has heretofore been evident in these types of budgetary considerations. Not that Congress is unable or unwilling to make allowances, but the process simply encourages linear thinking. It is difficult at best to build any sort of political consensus on defense issues. This difficulty becomes insurmountable when too many complications are thrown in, and impossible when referring back to decisions that have already been made.

Efforts and arguments must be made now to distinguish the SLBM from the ICBM and to demonstrate bow the principles of each differ. Now more than ever the unique qualities and advantages of submarine missile carriers must be stressed in order to prevent the one-warhead limitation on SLBMs. Not only is the thought of reducing our naval warhead capacity by eight frightening (the C-4 also carries 8 warheads), but reducing SLBMs to a single warhead makes them equal to the proposed land based missiles. Since single warhead land based missiles are already considered stable weapons that have no need for concealment, there would be very little justification for missile-carrying submarines to exist.

If the decision to limit all nuclear missiles to one warhead should appear inevitable, the Navy should insist upon condition-al acceptance. The decision to limit SLBMs to single warheads must be linked to the refitting of all OHIO’s — as well as every other submarine possible — with D-5 missiles as the most accurate ones at our disposal. Meanwhile, future SLBM research must utilize the recent advancements in miniaturization and computer technology to shrink the D-5 until it can fit inside a C-4 missile tube.

In this manner the United States can increase the accuracy and quality of its SLBM force without paying for new subma-rines and the Navy will be prepared for any eventuality. If Congress should decide in the future to limit SLBMs to one warhead, it would soften the blow to have the accuracy of a D-5 in the shell of a smaller missile that all remaining submarines could use. If efforts are successful to preclude such a senseless warhead limitation, it would still be wise to replace the aging, less accurate missiles with a smaller, more accurate D-6 without counting on the government to build more submarines for an even newer missile.

In these trying times of leaner budgets, the Navy must be prepared to do more with less. The nuclear genie, however, can never be put back into its bottle, so sooner or later the United States will be faced with another Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein who this time will have nuclear missiles. Sufficient nuclear deterrence must never be sacrificed to the economic axe, and SLBMs must never be judged according to the princi-ples for land-based ICBMs. To attempt to do so is to compare apples and oranges – and to leave our country unprepared to deal with the next nuclear-armed aggressor.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League