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FORWARD SUBMARINE OPERATIONS AND STRATEGIC STABILITY

[Ed. Note: Ambassador Brooks is a member of the Naval Submarine League and commanded USS WHALE while on active duty.]

In a recent edition of Breathroughs, the journal of MIT’s Defense and Arms Control Studies Program, Russian oceanographer and arms control analyst Eugene Miasnikov analyzes the February 1982 Barents Sea collision between USS BATON ROUGE and a Russian SIERRA class SSN. Miasni-kov was drawn to conduct his analysis (which is reprinted as the preceding article) because of his belief that the collision “raises issues of prime importance for security planning”, namely whether the United States “may still possess substantial capabili-ties to trail Russian ballistic missile submarines”. In a footnote, Miasnikov asserts that “if quieter American Submarines could covertly trail [Russian strategic forces at sea], this could cause an unstable situation in a conflict” (emphasis added).

Miasnikov is not alone in his concern that superior U.S. ASW capabilities might threaten strategic stability. In a February 1993 interview with a Japanese publication, Marshal of Aviation Yevgeniy Shaposhnikov, Commander in Chief of the joint military forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and thus (nominally at least) of the strategic forces of the former Soviet Union, renewed an old Soviet call for negotiation of an agreement for ASW free zones as a means to enhance stability. While the Russians did not raise this issue during the START II negotiations, and while, as of this writing, the Russian government has made no formal proposal for such negotiations, it is probable that we have not beard the last of the idea.

Why this concern with “stability”? And why this implication that ASW excellence — long a source of pride to submariners — somehow needs to be restrained as a danger to peace? Like so much of the arcane theory of nuclear stability, the answer lies ashore, in the ICBM force.

Stability in a crisis has long been a goal of the U.S. strategic planning. The United States has sought a situation in which neither side could gain an advantage by striking first in a crisis. This concern for stability was at the heart of the long, and ultimately unsuccessful, search for a survivable basing mode for U.S. ICBMs.

The reason for the concern is clear. If Russia and the United States each were to deploy a strategic force dominated by ICBMs in wlnerable silos, especially ICBMs with multiple warheads, strategic planners on both sides could face a terrible choice. Whichever side launched its forces first could destroy the strategic forces of the other side. In contrast, restraint could lead to one’s own forces being obliterated, with no capacity for retaliation. In time of great crisis, such a situation would present immense incentives to shoot first at the slightest indication that the other side was preparing to launch or even considering such a step.

Avoiding or reducing this potential instability in a crisis has been a major goal of U.S. arms control policy. Arms control has been seen as a method of encouraging a shift to a more stabilizing force structure. Most recently, the United States sought and obtained a ban on ICBMs with multiple warheads in the January 1993 START II Treaty in order to enhance stability in a crisis. If the United States and Russia return to an era of confrontation — which cannot be ruled out — this ban will prove far more important than START Il’s deep reductions in strategic arsenals, although the latter has been given more publicity.

The importance of enhancing the stability of land-based forces is unquestioned. Advocates of restrictions on ASW operations in SSBN patrol areas take this valid analysis of crisis stability and apply it at sea. They reason ¬∑that effective ASW against SSBNs will lead to the same type of “use or lose” situation as does ICBM wlnerability. As a result, they call for such arms control measures as limiting the numbers of attack submarines or banning their operation in so-called SSBN bastions. At the height of the Maritime Strategy debate in the 1980s, opponents of the strategy, especially those in the academic community, focused on its anti-SSBN aspects, claiming the mere prospect of such a campaign was dangerously escalatory.

Prior to the conclusion of the START II Treaty in January of this year, these theoretical arguments had limited practical relevance. Despite Soviet public rhetoric, Soviet negotiators made no serious attempt to negotiate restrictions on ASW during the nine years of the initial START negotiations. There was an excellent reason for this: the strategic nuclear forces and strategic doctrine of the former Soviet Union were domi-nated by ICBMs, with SSBNs very much an afterthought. Thus, in the real world, it mattered little whether attacks on SSBNs were or were not destabilizing.

Recent developments, however, have fundamentally altered the situation. Economics and arms control are combining to end the dominance of the ICBM in Russian strategic forces. Doctor Miasnikov suggests that the question of submarine vulnerability has important implications for Russian policy-makers as they decide how to implement START and START But the collapse of the Russian economy will dramatically limit Russian flexibility. A shift of Russian strategic forces to sea seems inevitable.

START IT obligates the United States and Russia to reduce to no more than 3500 strategic warheads apiece by January 1, 2003. Half of these warheads (1750) can be on submarines. While nothing in START IT requires Russia to deploy its full allowance of submarine warheads, it is difficult to see how Russia can maintain even the dramatically reduced levels of START II without reliance on sea-based forces, given the hugh cost either of deploying hundreds of single-warhead ICBMs or of expanding the Russian bomber force. Thus the question of whether the enhanced stability of START ll is threatened by American ASW prowess takes on a new urgency.

While the question has new relevance, the answer remains the same: forward ASW operations do !lQ! threaten strategic stability. The ICBM analogy is false. Despite Doctor Miasni-kov’s implications and Marshal Shaposhnikov’s renewed interest in ASW-free zones, limits on forward submarine operations-either negotiated or unilateral – are not required and will not increase stability.

There are three reasons why this is true. First, the ability to threaten SSBNs is inherently limited. One need not accept Miasnikov’s conclusion that “modern Russian submarines are almost impossible to detect by passive acoustic methods” to recognize that no prudent military planner could assume that the entire SSBN force — or even a large fraction of it – could be successfully engaged. The situation at sea is thus fundamen-tally different from the ICBM case in which the entire force could be held at risk simultaneously.

Second, even if a large fraction of the Russian SSBN force were subject to attack in time of war, the “use or lose” situation would not obtain. Such attacks could, at most, lead to erosion, not catastrophe. In contrast, the risk to stability from ICBM vulnerability is that the entire force could be destroyed quickly. Thus, a decision maker may believe he cannot take the risk of waiting to make the fateful decision to launch his strategic forces. In contrast, the loss to conventional attack of one SSBN at a time over a period of days or weeks provides no single event of sufficient importance to warrant the irrevocable and catastrophic decision to execute a strategic nuclear strike. Gradual SSBN attrition allows extensive decision time and a variety of options, the exact opposite of a “use or lose” situation.

Finally, regardless of what one believes about stability in wartime, peacetime operations of the type BATON ROUGE was conducting are no threat to stability. Indeed, the opposite is true. By increasing U.S. understanding of Russian operations, forward deployments reduce the risk of misinterpreting events during times of tension.

The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War give discussions of nuclear stability an anachronistic flavor. But while political attitudes have changed, the forces remain. The reductions of START IT were unthinkable when the first START Treaty was signed in 1991; by 1993, they seemed routine. Even after those reductions, however, Russia will retain the ability to devastate the United States.

If the Russian experiment in democracy succeeds, a decade hence theories of nuclear deterrence may well have been relegated to historical footnotes. Democracy’s success, however, is far from assured. It is sobering to recall another state with a long authoritarian tradition that tried to tum to democracy while burdened with hyperinflation and a large and demoralized military. The Weimar Republic failed, and the German people voluntarily turned to authoritarianism and extreme nationalism, with catastrophic results for humanity. The parallels with modern Russia are both frightening and difficult to overlook.

President Yeltsin and the Russian democrats dodged one bullet in the March Congress of People’s Deputies. But the assaults on reform will continue. The United States is taking a number of steps to help Russian democracy survive and flourish. There is good reason to hope that democracy and reform will prevail. But those of us whose profession is national security need to contemplate the possibility that we may once again be forced to think through the consequences of facing an adversary armed with a powerful nuclear arsenal.

Ir that day comes, submariners must be in the forefront of thinking through the difficult questions or escalation and stability. To be ready for that responsibility, we must continue to challenge fallacious assertions in articles such as Doctor Miasnikov’s that forward operations by attack submarines are dangerous and destabilizing.¬† It’s just not true.

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