The July 26th editorial in The New York Times is one of the smoke signals in the air which indicate that dangerous cutting may be done to the nation’s preeminent deterrent force for relatively short-term budget savings.
Another signal was seen at the September 1st briefing which unveiled the Bottom-Up Review of defense needs. In answer to a question about the justification for “18 boomers”, Secretary Aspin said ” … we will go back and look at the strategic forces. We did not look at the strategic forces very heavily here, because they were driven by the START I and the START II agreement, and those numbers were kind of fixed in the short run, so we saw no chance to influence those except later.” Three weeks later a senior defense official commented about the nuclear part of the four dangers said to be the basis of the Bottom-Up Review by questioning whether proliferators can be deterred.
One danger, of course, comes from confusing SSBN effective-ness with SSBN survivability. Effectiveness insures that the system of submarines, missiles and warheads can cause the requisite damage. Survivability has to do with force numbers. While it is true that each individual submarine is as undetectable and covert as it is possible to make it, there comes a point in diminishing force size when the risk of losing one submarine by chance is too great to accept.
Consider the numbers. The Times was a trifle fast with its combination of the Congressional Budget Office options. If the Pacific Trident I (C-4) submarines are not backfitted to the Trident system with the D-5 missile and are put out of commission, then we will indeed be down to 10 strategic submarines. A further reduction in cost is wanted by the m.§ with a reduction to one crew for each boat and acceptance of a lowered operating tempo.
My arithmetic for a ten boat force on a one-in-three rotation (with one boat in overhaul) shows that only three will be on patrol at any one time. If the force is split between the Atlantic and Pacific, one of those oceans will have only one boat underway.
Note that such a force of submarines could carry almost as many warheads as the 18 ship force, therefore effectiveness is not greatly impacted. The problem would come upon the emergence of another global threat, Russia or someone else, for whom we would want to increase our armament. There would not be the flexibility for additional warheads that is possible with 18 subma-rines, each with 24 missiles and four heads per missile.
The Congressional Budge Office study also offered as an option the de-tubing of the 10 submarine force down to 12 each. That would reduce the SLBM effectiveness, as well as survivability, but it would allow quick savings in the number of missiles that have to be purchased .
When the entire reduction~in-force logic is put together, there seem to be several conceptual weak points that may not be obvious when considered one at a time. The first is that both effectiveness and survivability considerations are tied to Russia without concern for other powers that may arise during the time that we will be under the force constraints ordained now and in the near future. A second is that deterrence is being questioned as being useful on the basis of its applicability in the regional context. It may, however, be just what is needed to give pause to petty tyrants, and it is still needed to deter any global threat over the next couple of decades. Should we discard the edge we have to save the dollars or should we debate the matter first?
The third is a lack of appreciation for the dynamic which is just the opposite of deterrence. If we offer a vulnerability that is too inviting to pass up, like making it conceivable to trump our only counter to nuclear blackmail, someone over the next 10 or 15 years may decide to try it.