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Do We Need Bangor?

Captain Bill Norris is a retired submariner who commanded USS MEMPHIS (SSN 691) and Submarine Squadron THREE. He also served as Chief of the Nuclear Policy Branch, J5, on the Joint Staff. Currently he is a Professional Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories.

Many would argue that worrying about START m is a non-starter since the Russian Duma will never ratify START II. And even if they do, will the U.S. Senate agree to reratify ST ART II with extended entry-into-force times promised to the Russians at Helsinki? The present Senate has been very balky about Treaty ratification (e.g., the Chemical Weapons Convention) and may not take kindly to the Administration tinkering with a treaty they had already approved to get the other party to ratify it (and tacitly assuming U.S. Senate ratification). But for argument’s sake and to continue the progress down the Arms Control road, let’s presume that ST ART II will be ratified by both nations and a START III will be negotiated.

Most insiders are predicting that ST ART m will have a warhead limit of 2000-2500 warheads. It would not be unrealistic to assume that, as in START II, a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead sublimit of one-half of the total, or 1250, will be set. Since the Administration has also set as a requirement for the negotiation of ST ART III, the entry into force of START II, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) force level can be expected to be the baseline for the ST ART III force levels.

The options that would generate from this hypothesis are 14, 12 or 10 Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) equipped with the Trident II, D-5 missile. As evidenced by the very premise that half of the treaty weapons will be SLBM warheads, the U.S. places great stock in its survivable systems. Thus the determinants in deciding on SLBM force level will come down to an argument of platform preservation versus dollar savings.

According to the START treaties’ language there are only two ways that an SSBN can be made to not count against a nation’s warhead limits: either the missile compartment must be cut out or the missile tubes, their supporting structure, and the superstructure in way of the missile tubes must be removed. Since we have not yet reached entry-into-force of any START treaty, the counting of those SSBN warheads on platforms such as USS KAMEHAMEHA and USS JAMES K. POLK have never been an issue. They will be soon, as they must be deactivated, per the START Conversion or Elimination Protocol, by 5 December 2001 or they will count against the START II accountable weapons numbers. One would be a little naive to believe the Russians would accede to any excesses in the weapon system they most fear and it also will be very hard for the treaty lawyers to allow the U.S. to convert Tridents to cruise missile launchers from the same or slightly modified tubes as now exist (doubly hard if those missiles also are nuclear capable). In fact, such a proposal would require renegotiation of the Agreed Statements and Conversion and Elimination Protocols of START.

The next thing to examine is where the money shows up to back-fit those Trident I submarines to be converted, as a result of the NPR decisions. The conversions were split to coincide with nominal overhaul planning, two early (2000, 2001) and two late (2004, 2005). Deleting the first two is getting harder every day as the money spent on advance planning and equipment increases. Deleting the second two would be very easy and would represent a significant out-year savings for the budgeteers. Also saved would be the cost of the D-5 missiles for those two boats, a significant windfall to go against the shortfalls in other areas, especially naval aviation. Although there are compelling reasons for the larger force, the decision is probably going to be made above the Navy’s level for a force between 10 and 12, based on the savings to be realized in the short term.

So the savings are high. How can the platform preservation issue be waged by the other side in the debate? Since the 1250 warheads sublimit can be met easily with any of the three options, that is not a deciding factor. The total force loading at 10, 12 and 14 varies between about 1200 and 1250 and the daily at sea total in today’s nominal patrol cycle varies between about 570 and 650. Those variations are not enough to sway many decision makers.

The NPR, when looking at these matters in 1995, recommended that if only 10 Tridents were selected, then all should be homeported in Kings Bay. That allowed infrastructure savings as well as platform savings. Since the Secretary of Defense selected the 14 option, that recommendation never came into play. At the lower warhead loading per missile that will result under ST ART II and m, the D-5 missile range approaches the upper half of its capability. That was enough to reach most Russian targets from patrol areas south of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GI-UK) Gap.

But the one base recommendation should bother submariners, and anyone else who believes that the survivability or the submarine leg or the Triad should be protected. Since the same range for the D-5 missile allows coverage of targets throughout Russia from the Pacific, the use of a second base does not lessen our ability to hold any Russian target at risk. And there is probably a preponderance of belief among submariners that covert egress from the Bangor base is more likely than at Kings Bay in the face of an increasingly competent submarine foe, not to mention that patrolling in the Pacific far more than doubles the ocean area that must be searched by such a foe.

The second thing we should not lose sight of is that Russia is not and may not be our only threat. The emergence of the growing capability of Chinese nuclear forces cannot be ignored. (Ed. Note: See “China’s Strategic Seapower’s in the July ’97 SUBMARINE REVlEW.) They were the last of the five major powers to forego testing. Their national stature is growing with the acquisition of Hong Kong and their forces are operating regularly in waters adjoining the mainland, causing concern amongst their nearby neighbors. They have made subtle suggestions to us about their ability to hold the continental U.S. at risk as a reason for us to watch them less closely.

Our national policy was stated to Congress by this Administration as follows, “A key conclusion of the Administration’s National Security Strategy is that ‘the United States will retain a triad of strategic nuclear forces sufficient to deter any future hostile foreign leadership with access to strategic nuclear forces from acting against our vital interests and to convince it that seeking a natural advantage would be futile. Therefore, we will continue to maintain nuclear forces of sufficient size and capability to hold at risk a broad range of assets valued by such political and military leaders.”

While the D-5 range is enough to hold Russian targets at risk from the Atlantic, it cannot hold all Chinese targets at risk from nominal patrol areas. Therefore, for the same SSBN to be able to continue to hold all sets of targets in both Russia and China at risk, it must be in the Pacific. To sustain such a posture clearly requires a Pacific base, several SSBNs, and hence the longevity of Bangor. This fact remains true even if the force level decision is 10.

Another reason to have the SSBN (or SSBNs) holding Chinese targets at risk in the Pacific is over-flight. To cover any Chinese targets from the Atlantic using a polar route would require the missiles and warheads to over fly Russia, possibly providing the Russians with an ambiguous flight path or indication of attack. Even a hot line call might not be sufficient to allay their xenophobic fears or national security concerns. To cover these targets from the Atlantic without over-flight of Russia would require a launch point near the Horn of Africa, preventing the SSBN from holding both Russian and Chinese targets at risk simultaneously.

A fourth benefit of a two base policy is the quality of maintenance. In a nominal patrol cycle, it is much easier for a maintenance facility, such as our Trident Refit Facility, to provide a higher completeness and quality for fewer ships. Second, since with two SSBNs always nominally in overhaul, at least one base, probably Bangor, would be operating below capacity.

With the demise of tenders and the downsizing of the San Diego Submarine Base, Bangor could also support several SSNs and thus provide better services to our Navy brethren on the West Coast as well as security for our SSBNs. Also, just as in the SSBN case, this would preclude home porting all our SSN assets in the Pacific in one port, providing both better security and maintenance for our SSN forces.

So, yes we do need Bangor. Continuing to base SSBNs in Bangor makes infinite sense and should more than justify the sunk costs to date, as well as those necessary to make it D-5 capable.

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