Captain Bill Norris is a retired submariner who commanded USS MEMPHIS (SSN 691) and Submarine Squadron THREE. He is currently at the Sandia National Laboratories.
Indications in the latest budget submissions to Congress are that we will probably see, sometime late in the next decade, a National Missile Defense (NMD) System. One might expect this system to be capable eventually of detecting and engaging incoming ballistic missile strikes somewhere in the low tens of attackers. While this capability would offer some, if not significant, protection from countries possessing small arsenals of ballistic missiles, including any of the so-called rogue nations, it should also ignite a new debate on how NMD affects our strategic requirements, or in other words, what should be the offense/defense mix?
First, one should note that for the United States, the word offense is somewhat of a misnomer. For years our national strategic nuclear policy has been to have strategic nuclear forces only to respond to an attack on the United States or certain allies, such as NATO. Therefore, the offense in our equation is made up of those forces that would strike the attacker’s soil (and possibly his allies) in response to such an attack. Today those forces are our SSBNs, ICBMs and B-52/B-2 bombers.
Nuclear strategic force levels are marching toward the Nuclear Posture Review recommendations of 14 SSBNs, 500 ICBMs, 66 B-52s (later revised to 72 by the USAF) and 20 B-2s (revised to 21 by the USAF). But those force levels were determined solely on the basis of response requirements, and did not consider an NMD. They were assumed to be able to counter the most likely major threats, and thus by default, any emerging minor threat. Those force levels were sized to be adequate regardless of whether the attack was a total surprise and the response was made after some forces had been lost in the attack or if all forces were available.
In the present construct of these forces, each has its niche. The SSBNs play in any part of the equation since they are survivable assets. (I must add that many of those who delve into the subject of nuclear deterrence cannot believe that the oceans will not one day become transparent, relegating the SSBN to the same status as an ICBM. In fact some of them believe it probably already has occurred and it’s being protected by classification.) With bombers no longer on alert, SSBNs are the only forces considered to be survivable. The size of the SSBN response is determined by the readiness state of the forces (i.e., the number at sea). After the launch of their missiles, the SSBNs could serve as additional attack submarines, which, with today’s dwindling SSN fleet, may become even more important.
The B-52s and B-2s fulfill several roles. First, if they are generated they are considered survivable. Therefore they either significantly increase the number of weapons available to the National Command Authority (NCA) or serve as a backup to the other survivable leg, the SSBNs. Second, they are dual purpose platforms, justified by the nuclear mission, but available for conventional conflict as we have just seen in the Balkans. Les Aspin’s Bottom-Up Review in 1993 called for 100 heavy bombers for a Major Regional Conflict. One should also note that had it not been for the development of the cruise missile, it is doubtful that a B-52 air frame, designed in the ’50s and with the last of those presently in service built in 1961, would still be a viable war-fighting machine.
The ICBMs nominally serve but one purpose since they are not considered survivable. They have traditionally provided a significant portion of the prompt response to a detected, incoming nuclear attack. It is doubtful that they would ever be offered to the NCA as an option in a limited response to an attack by other than Russia because their Polar flight path might not be discernible by Moscow as mere overflight.
From time to time, some strategists have advertised the reason for ICBMs as providing a large number of targets within CONUS to force the potential enemy to use sufficient warheads to allow our early warning systems to recognize a preemptive first strike. Otherwise, an aggressor might need significantly less than 100 warheads to eliminate all bombers and import SSBNs as well as critical nuclear command and control infrastructure. This small strike might not be recognized as a decapitating attack. In fact, some quarters have offered this as the prime reason for ICBMs. These theorists further envision most scenarios as those wherein the NCA would not launch on warning, and thus the ICBMs be lost, vice those in which the NCA would launch on warning, especially if the incoming attack was viewed as less than an all out effort.
One should also note that it is this ready ICBM force that many improperly identify as being under hair-trigger readiness, and thus the major threat to stability. While it is true that the ICBMs might be considered a use-it or lose-it part of the strategic triad, and they are maintained under high readiness, most of us recognize that the ICBMs use many of the same stringent procedures for launch control that are used by our high readiness SSBNs, and some controls beyond those presently in our SSBNs. This makes the unauthorized or accidental launch of an ICBM a virtual impossibility.
It should not be anticipated that any of the above precepts would change in the near term. NMD deployment is probably still at least a decade away. Our strategic forces will not need to be modernized (beyond present budgeted plans for conversion of four Trident Is to Trident IIs and the remotoring and guidance upgrades for the ICBMs) for more than two decades. START II is still to be ratified by the Russians and so its entry into force is probably a decade away. The markedly reduced force levels promised in the still to be negotiated ST ART m, therefore, are even further in the future. Even if the current administration initiative to begin to formally negotiate ST ART III before START II is ratified occurs, and were it even to supersede ST ART II, the proposed increased reductions will ensure it happens no sooner than the present, and now questionably achievable, 2007 date for START II.
However, the creation of a NMD would seem to markedly alter the future requirements for ICBMs. Since the very purpose of NMD is to ward off small attacks, it must have sufficient discrimination to accurately detect and classify small attacks shortly after their launch. The NMD would also allow us to counter, or intercept, this minimum type preemptive attack, described above, and thus preserve more of our forces. Therefore, ICBMs no longer need to serve as target sinks to allow proper characterization of an attack but can, and must, stand on their merit. This leads to a possible conclusion that the future (2020), smaller ICBM forces (that must be envisioned for START III and beyond) under the aegis of NMD might have the same survivability as SLBMs and, for sure, would no longer be characterized as hair trigger or use them or lose them.
The nexus of all these issues will be defined by how coincidental in time they become. Should we see a confluence in the 2020 time frame of reduced (mandated by treaty) requirements for strategic nuclear forces, required force modernization and the realization of an NMD, there could be a real and heated debate and redefinition of strategic nuclear requirements. The holy triad theories would be easier to discredit, and we could easily be marched toward a dyad or even, a monad.
So, submariners, start developing the arguments for the maintenance of your vital contribution to strategic deterrence away from the previously safe and overfocused argument of survivability. What do you face? ICBMs have claimed for years that they are more cost effective per warhead (diminished or reversed when they de-MIRV but increased as everyone goes to smaller forces and submarines reduce their warhead loading). Congress will listen. Putting a new missile in an existing silo will be much cheaper than putting a new missile in a new submarine. This will become a major issue in the 2020 time frame when it is time to design the replacements for both the SLBM and ICBM forces.
A late start by either the SLBM or ICBM advocates might even lead to all strategic nuclear forces being bombers, which is a desired end result of many of the minimum strategic deterrence theorists. These theorists believe that, since bombers take a long time to generate and reach their targets, there is no chance of a surprise attack. Further, in this regime, they believe that a nation’s preparations for nuclear employment have become transparent. There is also believed to be total bomber recall capability and thus time to resolve the crisis short of actual nuclear weapon employment. Bombers are dual-purpose forces that have been employed in the most recent conflicts. Isn’t Air Power alone being credited by many for winning the war for Kosovo?
From the deserts of New Mexico, today’s contributions of the Submarine Force truly represent the Silent Service. While submarines have been cited as contributing to the missile launches (Tomahawks) in recent actions, it appears that it was more the demonstration of capability than necessary contribution. Without a strategic mission and with an apparent waning role in the general purpose forces, one can envision that the nuclear submarine Navy will shrink from an all time high of more than 150 crews in the 1980s to just a handful of SSNs (and maybe even no SSBNs) on each coast 50 years later. Was Billy Mitchell just ahead of his time?