Editor’s Note: Lieutenant Reckamp ‘s paper won 1he Naval Submarine League Essay Contest for Submarine Officers’ Advanced Class 98030 in July of 1998.
A major mission of the modem U.S. SSN may be in peril. We are on an incremental path towards completely losing the capability to deploy tactical nuclear warheads on submarine launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM-N). There are several reasons that we seem to be on this path, and those reasons are interrelated. In short, they can be summarized by the following: institutional distaste in the attack submarine community for the mission, the extensive administrative burdens associated with a nuclear weapons program, a perceived lack of importance of the mission in the evolving global political climate, and the ever present tightening budgetary concerns. We will look at the relationships between the many reasons, then examine a possible solution in the utilization of U.S. Naval Reservists in order to augment regenerating SSNs (SSNs tasked with loading and deploying with the TLAM-N).
My perspective regarding the attitudes and perceptions of submarine officers is as a Submarine Officer Advanced Course (SOAC) student in a class of submariners preparing to relieve as department heads. The general perception is that you are lucky if you are going to a submarine that is simply not capable of regeneration. This is in direct opposition to just about any other combat mission capability. No one feels lucky to get a boat that can’t shoot ADCAP torpedoes, can’t talk to the battlegroup, can’t vertically launch Tomahawks, or can’t go under ice. I’m sure everyone would prefer their upcoming tour to be on a platform with the best capabilities in every mission area that submarines could possibly be tasked to perform. Why is it, then, that professional submarine officers would be relieved to know that they are incapable of performing a major Submarine Force mission.
In a previous essay that won the SOAC Naval Submarine League essay award, Lieutenant Michael Kostiuk proposed a “Removal of the Nuclear Strike Option from U.S. Attack Submarines.” The reasoning he uses to defend his proposition is the redundancy provided by other legs of the strategic triad. He refers to TLAM-N as the 11fourth leg” of the triad. 1 Therefore, based on budgetary concerns and a perceived lack of added value to our strategic deterrence, he argues for a removal of the TLAM-N from the U.S. arsenal.
The nuclear triad of strategic forces represent precisely that-a strategic force. If deployed TLAM-N assets in the past have represented some strategic value, that does not take away from the primary nature of the TLAM as a tactical weapon. Kostiuk takes the position that the TLAM-N is not needed since the U.S. had the chance to use it as a tactical weapon (in operations El Dorado Canyon and Desert Storm), but subsequently chose not to.2 This argument totally misses the point of the U.S. policy regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Their existence in the U.S. arsenal is a deterrent. That deterrence can be a tactical one for a regional conflict, or a strategic one for a global conflict.
Let’s follow this thought with an example from Operation Desert Storm. According to General Colin Powell in his autobiography, 11one biological agent we believed the Iraqis possessed was botulinum toxin, one of the deadliest known to man.”‘ We also know for a fact that Hussein possessed chemical agents and showed a willingness to use them against his own population. After swearing to fight the Mother of all Battles, why did Hussein refrain from using his available WMD? If he had, isn’t it entirely possible that a large number of U.S. casualties would have resulted? How would U.S. foreign policy options, public support for the war, and support for future actions against a belligerent aggressor have been affected by a large scale U.S. loss of life in that conflict.
There may have been several complex interacting reasons for Hussein’s restraint from the WMD threshold, but I will submit that one of the overriding considerations was his knowledge that we were capable of responding to his use of WMD with our own, and he would not survive the exchange. Powell states 11 … germ warfare would be terrifying … If we faced unconventional attacks, we had unconventional counterstrikes ready.”In the case of Desert Storm, the U.S. was not planning on responding to WMD use with nuclear options, but according to Powell, they were investigated. He says: 111 told Tom Kelly to gather a handful of people in the most secure cell in the building to work out nuclear strike options … “s While tactical nuclear options were not practical against an armored division dispersed in a desert environment, they may be in a situation like the Korean peninsula. In any case, I submit that the very existence of a nuclear strike option may have been a major factor in Hussein’s decision to use restraint.
Now we will address the argument that this deterrence can be accomplished by our strategic triad. Could we have executed a tactical option with our strategic triad forces? An ICBM launched from a CONUS location would overfly Russia or China on its way to almost any regional conflict. This is obviously unacceptable due to their possible reactions to such a threat. An SSBN is certainly capable of performing the same mission with similar accuracy, but the execution would either be incredibly wasteful or excessively violent due to the number of warheads in a single missile. Bombers have essentially been stood down from the triad (I would say that their leg in the triad has taken a knee), but are certainly capable of this type of a nuclear option.
A bomber would be a likely candidate for a tactical strike in a regional conflict. However, the value to a theater commander of a submerged, undetectable, stealthy submarine continuously on station in theater and ready to execute immediately upon National Command Authority authorization is incalculable. If the U.S. ever needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with South Korean forces against a full scale rapidly advancing combined arms force descending from the North, these capabilities may be the only reason those U.S. and ROK forces do not also have to contend with the nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks on them as well.
These arguments are not lost on most submarine officers. Most accept the utility of nuclear strike capability as a deterrent force and accept it as a valid submarine mission. However, I still see the prospective weapons officer being told by peers that he is lucky if his submarine is not tasked with regeneration. I think the real reason for this attitude is the massive administrative burden of the task. The professional knowledge and experience needed competently to provide for nuclear weapons safety, security, and execution are extensive to say the least.
SSBN weapons officers are sent to an additional six months of school after their SOAC classmates have relieved their counterparts and are serving as department heads. After the additional schooling, prospective SSBN weapons officers still cannot take their job until they have spent a deterrent patrol observing and under the tutelage of a serving weapons officer. This is the training it takes to get a professional in the arena of nuclear weapons.
The knowledge of special personnel requirements, administrative controls, security areas, weapons movements, access restrictions, and command and control is imparted to the crew of a regenerating SSN in about one week. As training budgets contract, the training facilities that provide continuing training in those areas can no longer afford to send mobile teams to all submarine home ports. Submarines expected to maintain a sufficient number of trained people on board are required to spend valuable training travel money to send people to remote locations to learn a mission with which they may never get tasked and for which they will only rarely be inspected. A submarine commanding officer may decide that the bare minimum requirement of TLAM-N trained personnel is more than enough, when the budget cuts get down to the quick.
The corporate knowledge from the Cold War days is moving up and out of the Navy, and we are not training to replace it. The number of submariners used to driving around hot-bunked next to a SUBROC and knowing how differently to respond to a 4FZ alarm (a nuclear weapons associated alarm) compared to other security violations is slowly dwindling.
How do we address this problem? To raise the training requirements and elevate the level of concern shipboard may not be the right answer. The mission may have legitimately dropped down the ladder of importance and thus the ladder of concern. It takes a lot of effort and concern in order to reach and maintain the high level of proficiency required to run a nuclear weapons program painlessly. There really are just so many training dollars and they may well be better spent on shallow water coordinated operations training. However, the mission is still a valid one and must be maintained.
I propose that we utilize a largely untapped (by the Submarine Force) resource, the U.S. Naval Reserves. Currently, it seems like submariners transferring to the fleet reserves end up in surface battlegroup augmentation staffs. What happens to the Submarine Force itself if a national surge is required in response to a regional conflict? … comparatively little. Submariners that transfer to the reserves largely represent a lost asset to the Submarine Force (however great an asset they may be to the surface Navy). Many of these current reservists are precisely the Cold War warriors I referred to above.
The professional expertise required to administer a successful nuclear weapons program seems uniquely suited to a reservist task. One weekend a month to give continuing training to keep current, and two weeks a year to participate in a regeneration exercise of an operational SSN. When an SSN is actually tasked with regeneration, the reservists are called up to augment the crew. The reservists implement the required programs, perform the crew screenings, load the weapons, and provide organic training assets to the rest of the crew through the deployment.
“I believe the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction presents the greatest threat that the world has ever known. We are finding more and more countries who are acquiring technology-not only missile technology-and are developing chemical weapons and biological weapons capabilities to be used in theater and also on a long-range basis. So I think that is perhaps the greatest threat that any of us will face in the coming years.” (From Secretary Cohen’s confirmation hearing, January 1997)
A crucial tool for facing that threat from WMD is the capability of employing tactical submarine launched nuclear weapons. We are slowly eroding that capability with reduced funding, unrealistic training expectations, and normal attrition from the Submarine Force. The task of maintaining that ability seems uniquely suited to a reserve unit’s capabilities. The lack of many submarine specific reserve positions may steer more submariners past the fleet reserve option when they leave the Navy. Let us maintain the most flexible option to counter the threat of WMD while at the same time utilizing the valuable untapped asset of the U.S. Naval Reserves for the Submarine Force.
1. Kostiuk, LT Michael, “Removal of the Nuclear Strike Option from United States Attack Submarines”, SOAC Class 97030, 23 July 97, winner of Submarine League essay award.
3. Powell, Gen Colin, My American Journey, w/Joseph E. Persico, Random House, 1995, p. 494.
4. Powell, p. 504.
5. Powell, p. 486