Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


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.

There is growing rumor in the nuclear weapons community that last year’s Congressionally mandated new Nuclear Posture Review will start later this year after the new administration is more fully in place. Already I see and hear of preparations by STRATCOM and the Air Force to have their positions solidified. I see or hear of no such actions by the Navy or the Submarine Force. And one, especially a cynic like me, might ask if the Navy has an interest, because a reduction in Submarine Force requirements would mean more money for the rest of the Navy.

There should be no doubt that this year’s review will have lasting affect on the U.S. nuclear policies or its force structure. Besides taking on the very key and difficult issue of balancing defense (National Missile Defense (NMD)) and offense (Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)), one might expect this review to lay the theoretical foundation for a second Bush Nuclear Initiative. If one tries to read between the lines in today’s news and tries to figure out what SECDEF Rumsfeld is doing with his very close hold defense reviews right now, the answer may even be provided without a new Nuclear Posture Review. Recall that George W. ‘s father surprised many with his unilateral 1991 pronouncement that eliminated nearly half of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal. The just completed campaign rhetoric would lead one to believe that George W. might have similar plans. With Colin Powell at State, this would be within his previous leanings to reduce the nuclear dangers. And SECDEF should welcome added theoretical basis and strategic policy to support the NMD development.

Just as in 1991, the world is ripe for such an initiative. The START II Treaty, written in 1992, is still unratified and clearly a hostage in the US negotiations over the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to push NMD forward. Even if the Russians ratify it, the version their legislature is considering is different than the one the Senate has already ratified. The Russians find their existing deterrent force crumbling and are probably really unable to financially support an offensive force of much more than 1500 accountable warheads. Their posturing over actions they might take if the US goes forward with NMD in violation of the ABM Treaty must be viewed as mainly hollow threats. Just as the 1991 Nuclear Initiative remaining nuclear forces were, coincidentally, the same as those to be negotiated into START II, George W. could take a similar lead in defining the new ST ART III.

Recall also that the Pentagon and STRATCOM have taken the position on the Clinton administration’s START III proposals that roughly 2000 weapons was the lowest they could support and assure that they could carry out the existing directions in the nation’s recently modified nuclear deterrence strategy. The key words are “existing strategy.” Should this new nuclear posture review propose a different or revised strategy, then the military’s objection to going below 2000 could be resolved. A convincing argument could be made that based on the Russian economic predicament, that a new number of 1500, or even less, with some form of NMD, might be a deal maker for a new START Ill.

For those of you have read my past rantings in this periodical, you will remember that my predictions for the future were always no more than 10 Trident submarines. I would not expect the Air Force to walk away from their need to justify 20 B-2 bombers (320 accountable weapons). Nor would I expect STRATCOM to abandon their fixation on a Triad, and therefore, expect at least 2 missile fields (300 accountable weapons). Can the Air Force convince itself to finally part with the B-52 Bomber (and cruise missile capability) and thus, not further cut into the remaining share left for the Submarine Force? If they do, then the submarine share of 1500 would be 880. If they don’t, the Submarine Force share may be even less. Options that come close to this 880 requirement are listed in the following table.

Accountable Warheads Tridents Tubes Warheads per Missile
720 10 24 3
846 9 24 4
846 12 24 4
960 10 24 4

There are no provisions in any of the existing START treaties that allow for de-tubing although a good sea-lawyer might be able to reinterpret one of the protocols. Therefore I have attributed 24 rubes to all options because negotiation of a reinterpretation or new terms with the Russians could well prove to cost more than the U.S. is willing to give. This is the same reason that I do not believe they will accede to letting the U.S. keep Trident submarines for cruise missile platforms since under existing treaties, the only way an exiting SSBN doesn’t have to be counted is if its missile compartment (in toto) is removed or the SSBN is decommissioned. As an aside, I am ignorant as to whether the three-option warheads per missile have ever been flight-tested. Keep in mind that many may take this opportunity to reopen the singlet option. I do not believe that is a saleable option because while one can consider it stabilizing for an ICBM silo, it does very little for a 24-rube submarine.

As Jim Hay would be wont to remind me, so far I have not mentioned anything about what this nuclear posture review might decide about non-strategic nuclear weapons. Last time the Navy stole a march on the Air Force and was able to remove all nonstrategic nuclear weapons from ships and do away with the capability of our surface warships to employ nuclear weapons (i.e. Tomahawk). The Air Force believed that what should have been given up was the Dual Aircraft Capability of F-15’s and F-16s. That position will be further reinforced now by the Air Force desire to reduce costs for the F-22, Joint Strike Fighter, and any other new designs by removing any nuclear capable requirements. The proven capability of precision guided missiles will undoubtedly be pushed by the Air Force as an adequate replacement, and possibly even a viable part of nuclear strategy.

If the Air Force were to give up the B-52 and thus, airborne cruise missile capability (many would say this is an untenable or unacceptable premise), will/should the new national nuclear strategy require a cruise missile capability? It is amazing to think that this 1950 era designed airframe, whose life has seemingly been extended without limit by cruise missile capability, can continue to be a effective platform. (Could you otherwise compare it to a WWI Spad fighting a Korean War Sabrejet?) Even if the Air Force were to give up nuclear cruise missiles, the Air Force might still want the B-52 to carry conventional cruise missiles, and thus treaty compliance and verification would be a real problem. A nuclear cruise missile requirement without B52s would then leave it to the attack submarines, and the semi-dormant Tomahawk that they could carry. Again, from what we can read here in the desert, the force level requirements for attack submarines do not rest on this capability. But as the Air Force learned in 1994, it could be a mission that the Submarine Force is mandated to maintain, and add to the probably already full plate for present and future platform designs.

Does, or will, the Navy and, more importantly to us, the Submarine Force have a position before this critical review begins, or will it again let STRATCOM carry its interests, as Admiral Chiles did so well in the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review? If Admiral Mies isn’t extended, that would mean relying on the new, as yet unnamed, Air Force General, who might be expected to take over STRATCOM this summer, to carry the Navy’s and the Submarine Force’s nuclear future. Are we willing to risk it?

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League