The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), completed in 1994 by the Department of Defense (DOD) defined the year 2003 START II strategic submarine force as 14 Trident submarines. All would be equipped with the Trident II missile and be based at both Kings Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington. The United States Senate has ratified START II and we now await the Russian ratification. On reading the media predictions for that action, one is left with a nagging doubt as to whether the treaty will ever be ratified. But if one reads of all the other military budget decisions being made in Russia, it would appear that Russia will have to accede to monetary limitations and eventually ratify START II.
The problem thus becomes, “What’s next?” There has been continual pressure from the Arms Control aficionados to negotiate START III. This predilection to have two treaties in the ratification pipeline unfortunately stems from the START (sometimes referred to as START I) and START II origins. The DOD, again in the NPR, recommended that ST ART II be ratified by both parties prior to negotiating the next treaty. The reason was that START II was believed to be in both the U.S. and Russian interests and the fear that the Russians might press to amend or bypass START II (prior to ratification) if a new treaty were to be negotiated.
There will also be political pressure for the President to make a bold new arms control agreement to attempt to take his place beside his predecessors. So far, he has only taken the baton they passed him and obtained ratification of their treaties (by the U.S.) and taken budgetary credit for their negotiated reductions. There is strong continuing pressure for him to get the Russians to ratify START II, as the bill for the U.S. to maintain a START I force would be in excess of $158 in the FYDP starting in 1998.
The certainty is that a new treaty will be negotiated and that the levels will be reduced. If one assumes that the next stage of reductions will be patterned somewhat after those that have gone before, then a START 111 would aim for a level of around 2000 deliverable strategic warheads. This is based on the reduction between ST ART and ST ART II of 6000 to 3500 (about 40 percent). Since START n also specifies a limit of 3000 to 3500, the reduction must clearly be below 2500 to be seen as meaningful by most arms control pundits. There may also be a movement to specify future limits in absolute (vice deliverable) warheads in the new era of total transparency. While this may have a nice ring to it, the intrusive verification regime necessary to count warheads vice the much more discernible delivery vehicles will probably fail, especially in the near future.
So what would be the submarine contribution to these 2000 warheads? My guess would be between 60 percent and 75 percent, up from about 50 percent today. The ballistic missile contribution in the 2003 force is just above 62 percent (1680 SLBM and 500 ICBM). The increase will come at the expense of the ICBM force, which, in my opinion will not survive. Why? Because the weapons are not considered survivable in any scenario unless launched on tactical warning, a response option that has been proposed for elimination by many arms control advocates. The President would no longer be pressured to make an immediate decision if warning systems see less than a near full scale attack. If the sub-limits were specified as ballistic missile warheads, that would probably be acceptable to the Russians as they could divide their total between land based, single headed mobile missiles and SLBMs.
The remainder of the 2000 would be attributable to bombers. While the Russians may not place much credence in the viability of their bomber capabilities, the U.S. still appears to firmly support the heavy bomber concept for both nuclear and conventional forces. For many of the same force level-driven reasons that the ST ART treaties were attractive, the eventual demise of the B-52 must be anticipated. It is unrealistic to believe their useful life can be stretched beyond 2025 when the newest B-52 airframe in use will be 64 years old. Therefore, a lower bomber attribution would allow that fateful decision to be made.
But what are the strategic submarine force options? With START counting rules, we can never increase our per missile loading above 5 (2003 START II force). This means that, in the future, Trident submarines could carry 120 warheads (5×24), 96 (4×24) or less, but probably not because of efficiencies of force. At 120, the force level could be between 10 boats(1200, or 60 percent of 2000) and 12 boats(1449 or 72 percent). At 96, the force could be between 12 (1152, or 58 percent) and 14 (1344, or 67 percent). I believe that the number will be closer to the upper limit of warheads because the Russians do not appear to like bombers, the lower numbers would force the U.S. to maintain a higher strategic bomber force, and the U.S. would prefer a higher number of survivable weapons on a day-to-day basis.
This decision will also be driven by the bottom line of arms control-dollars. There will be a movement to take advantage of new arms control limits to reduce the number of strategic submarine bases to one. This means Kings Bay because it is the only base that can assemble the D-5 missile. The fact that the U.S. would be operating its strategic submarine forces in one ocean from one base on the continental shelf will play second fiddle to economics. The maximum number of submarines that can be bandied is probably near 10. Thus with at least one always in overhaul away from Kings Bay, the maximum becomes 11. With 120 per submarine, that yields 1320 warheads, or 66 percent.
The second part of this sizing decision will stem from the need to begin in about 2026 to replace the oldest Trident, then 40 years old. A betting man would say that the next strategic submarine will be bigger, because that’s been the norm for the last 35 plus years. But now there will be a new metric for sizing-arms control. If you build a bigger submarine with more missiles, fewer will have to be accommodated at the one remaining base. The flip side to this is you are placing more weapons in one basket, and are more vulnerable to a unit failure or future vulnerability. If you build a smaller submarine with less missiles, you need more submarines and a second base. Now the efficiencies in platforms, personnel and bases have been lost. The second economy the Submarine Force will face is to build the lowest cost fleet. Again, I believe this will mean no more than 11.
So what must the Submarine Force do to prepare for the strategic submarine requirements beyond 2025? I believe the following:
1. Be involved in the arms control process. Don’t let others totally detail the future.
2. Learn the lessons of SEA WOLF. Bigger is not always better.
3. Ensure the SSBN security program is funded. If strategic submarine invulnerability is ever in doubt, the future is probably lost.
4. Start design concepts now. If the U.S. is going to build strategic submarines only every 5O years, there will be at least a 25 year hiatus between models. The CNO says that the Russians have passed us in new submarine technologies so the challenges are even greater. Be ready (no submarine has yet lasted 40 years) with a well thought out design that is sellable and can fulfill the mission.
5. Preserve SSPO. There must be a core competency in SSBN missile and weapon expertise in development and procurement available. That same 25 year hiatus above will lead the short range thinkers to look: for efficiencies.
No one’s vision of the future is perfect. There may well be a START IV with even lower levels. On the other hand, the Russian Bear may never turn out to be the kinder, gentler nation that leads to continued reductions and START II may be the last agreement. Whatever 2025 brings, the worst thing we can do is to wait, while so many enemies of the Submarine Force and requirement makers are pushing forward with their own agendas.
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