The article, We Need Conventional Warhead Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles, by CAPT F. Mark Conway, ill, USN(Ret.) which appeared in the October 1992 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW puts forth an interesting hypothesis that conventional warhead submarine launched ballistic missiles (CSLBM) can be used to deter terrorist threats. While there is no question that the proliferation of high technology weaponry throughout the Third World poses a significant threat to U.S. interests and security, it is questionable what impact the employment of CSLBMs would have on this threat.
This whole hypothesis is based on the assumption that one is dealing with a rational opponent. This has been the funda-mental basis of our nuclear deterrence strategy and, as history has shown, it has worked. However, when dealing with terrorists or a terrorist nation we are no longer dealing with a rational opponent. As Saddam Hussein clearly showed the world, he had no regard for his people or the infrastructure of his nation. Had we rained down upon him ballistic missiles with conventional warheads it is unlikely his actions would have been any different.
It was stated that sea and air launched cruise missiles provide reasonable effectiveness against some types of Third World and terrorist threats. The author did not elaborate as to what threats cruise missiles are and are not effective against. The drawbacks to such weapons, however, were indicated. These drawbacks included the difficulties in obtaining permission to overfly adjacent nations, difficulty in mapping target approach routes, masking of targets by adverse weather conditions, the potential for shootdown by point defense systems in the target area and lastly range limitations. Each of these drawbacks needs to be addressed further.
Examining the nations that currently pose a potential threat to the U.S. one will see that most have access to the sea. Such sea access provides a convenient avenue to the interior of these nations through which one can guide a cruise missile attack. For those nations without access to the sea an argument for CSLBMs can be made. Still, considering the great strides the world community has made; receiving overflight permission may no longer be as difficult to obtain as in the past, especially when dealing with terrorists. Since ballistic missiles do not fall straight down it is questionable whether every conceivable target can be attacked by a CSLBM without it passing through the airspace of another nation at some point in its trajectory.
The Gulf War clearly showed the strengths and weaknesses of our cruise missiles especially in target mapping capabilities. The lessons learned from that conflict will undoubtedly result in a much improved cruise missile weapon system. A cruise missile, while limited in its capabilities, is still far more flexible in its ability to attack moving targets than a CSLBM would be.
It is unclear how weather masking would hamper a cruise missile attack any more than a CSLBM launch. Before either system can be used the ultimate objective must be positively identified. Once identified either system could be sent on its way. The cruise missile ·can compensate for wind and other weather effects along its flight path. How it identifies its target during the terminal phase could be affected by weather though a stationary object would not necessarily need to be identified optically or thermally but only geographically fixed by means of a Global Positioning System fax. A CSLBM, upon reentry, simply follows a ballistic trajectory which could be adversely affected by weather. Carrying only a conventional warhead makes accuracy extremely important for a CSLBM.
Certainly a CSLBM is almost invincible to a point defense system. Still, cruise missiles do not provide a very big target cross section. Night attacks, multiple simultaneous attacks, terminal area evasive maneuvers and the incorporation of stealth technology could overwhelm any point defense system currently in use.
Regarding range there are really no targets not within reach of our cruise missiles. Given our air and sea delivery capabili-ties it is simply a matter of getting them close enough initially. CSLBMs have a unique problem, that of minimum range. A CSLBM equipped submarine would be forced to maintain a certain distance from all potential targets unless elaborate lofting, depressed trajectory or fuel management options are incorporated into the missile design. Such options would be costly and increase the complexity of the missile system. It would effectively prevent the submarine from being employed in other direct support roles.
While the CSLBM offers the advantage of eliminating the need to introduce U.S. forces, this is somewhat short sighted. Every major conflict that the U.S. has been involved in has required the introduction of U.S. forces. Conflicts are ultimate-ly won on the land. Merely dropping CSLBMs onto an adver-sary may make their life difficult but it is unlikely to eliminate the problem. As our air strike on Libya and war with Saddam Hussein proved, it is difficult to target individuals. A primary role, implied by the article, for the CSLBM.
Should Trident submarines have to be retired because of arms control agreements or force reductions every effort should be made to find alternative uses for these platforms. The idea of converting them to support Navy Seals and other special operations has great merit. Of all the potential roles our submarines can fill this would have the greatest deterrence effect on potential terrorists. Using a Trident submarine as a CSLBM carrier does not appear to be a prudent use of these sophisticated war machines. It was postulated that only two Trident submarines would be required. It was further implied that the current Trident missiles would be utilized to carry approximately three maximum payload high explosive conven-tional warheads per missile. Thus two Trident submarines would carry 48 missiles that could only target a maximum of 144 soft targets. The cost to benefit ratio appears . to be very excessive when compared to alternative means of delivering the same destructive firepower.
The greatest concern over such a concept is the potential for mistaking a CSLBM launch as a nuclear SLBM launch. The great advantage to the CSLBM is the speed by which it can arrive on target. The author correctly suggests that prior to any CSLBM launch pre-launch notification procedures should be used to notify other nuclear capable nations of the impending launch. Such notification will significantly delay a launch as one waits for receipt confirmation of the launch notification. The risk that an adversary may be tipped off also increases.
Even with the pre-launch notification the risks of misinter-preting the launch arc great. Questions will immediately be raised as to whether we are telling the truth or merely attempt-ing to deceive the recipients of the pre-launch notification. The author is only partially correct in stating that the ICBMJSLBM detection capabilities of the major nuclear powers are capable of early confirmation that the trajectory of a CSLBM is not a nuclear or conventional threat. This is only true if the trajecto-ry is clearly away from their respective territories. Unfortunate-lyt many CSLBM trajectories will have to pass over or near other nations enroute to their particular targeL In these cases early confirmation is not possible. It is certainly not possible to determine if the detected missile is a nuclear or conventional threat until after it detonates since the CSLBM uses the same Trident missile as our nuclear warheads. Considering the tragic misidentification of the Korean Airlines flight 007 by the Soviets and the similar misidentification of the Iranian Airbus by the USS VINCENNES the consequences of misidentifying or misinterpreting a CSLBM launch are simply too great to risk.
There is very little added value to the use of CSLBMs over what our current cruise missile capabilities can provide us. What little value that is added costs us the flexibility of a very valuable submarine asset, is extremely expensive and runs the risk of being misinterpreted by other nations. The premise that such a system could provide an overwhelming credible deterrent to terrorist operations cannot be supported by current experience.