Captain Bill Norris is a retired submarine officer with long experience in the nuclear weapons field, both while on active duty and as a civilian.
It appears that the major strategic arms initiatives of the new Bush administration have played out for the near term. Perhaps it’s time to step back and look at the brave new world in which we find ourselves and where it might be headed.
The combination of the second nuclear posture review and the new strategic nuclear weapons treaty with Russia should characterize the forces we will see in place in 2012. At that time, the oldest of the 14 remaining Tridents committed to strategic deterrence will be nearing 30 years of their projected 40-year life. That is a much easier statement to make than what will be the state of the world. Will Russia continue along its friendlier road and no longer be the monolithic enemy that has defined our strategic force requirements? Will China still be an old guard Communist country that is more our enemy than friend? Two things are probably certain as we begin to think about the next generation of SSBNs and they are that there will still be nuclear weapons in the world and the SSBN will still be the most survivable, credible deterrent platform.
But if we assume that it is more likely that Russia will be our friend and that China will not yet be a monolithic threat, then that deterrent’s capabilities will be different. With Russia removed as a threat, and probably less capable, our strategic submarine forces should be more secure. Even in 2012, China will probably have less global capability than Russia did in 1989 as the Cold War ended. In this projected environment, it is likely that there will be a move to further reduce the numbers of our nuclear forces. At some point, these reductions will lead to the removal of one of the historic legs of the Triad. One would hope that the Submarine Force would be able to modernize and revise its SSBN capabilities such that it would become more dual or multiple capable. The bombers already have that capability but the ICBMs probably can’t and won’t.
What do I mean by dual or multiple capable forces? Historically we have argued that SSBNs are multi-capable because they have torpedoes that can be used tactically before or after their strategic capabilities are needed. Historically, we have seen since 1989, the likelihood of a torpedo being needed from the SSBN has significantly decreased and our existing and future SSN forces should be adequate. I believe that multiple capable forces, in this case, will mean forces that are able to operate across the expected spectrum of nuclear weapon requirements, from being part of the future Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP) to being able to conduct a precision strike against a single deeply buried target.
Many will properly claim that the Trident can already perform this variety of missions. Their fire control flexibility allows onboard retargeting as required. While this is true, there are several problems with the use of a Trident missile against a single target. First the submarine must be positioned so that the first and second stages do not fall in areas that could cause unintended or undesired consequences. This might even preclude its use against some emergent targets. Second, there is more than one warhead mounted on each missile and therefore we are wasting capability. Third, a Trident might still cause anyone with launch warning systems to misinterpret this as a strategic launch. Fourth, this is a very expensive, albeit timely and high probability of arrival, system with which to attack a target.
So what capabilities might we consider designing into the next SSBN or back fining into our existing Trident? First, we might work with the nuclear laboratories to modify the existing warheads to provide less yield. This would allow success against many potential targets while reducing potential collateral damage. While this is not trivial, there is strong resistance in Washington to new weapons. The stockpile we have is probably the one with which we will have to live. The U.S. nuclear weapons community has some experience in this, as previous nuclear test treaties required this type of modification for existing weapons to be tested and be under the upper limits of yield. With probable reduction of SIOP requirements and patrol area restrictions, it is possible that several tubes could be loaded with reduced yield weapons without compromising the SSBN’s principal mission.
Second, the nuclear Tomahawk role is presently a reconstitution capability for our SSNs.
I guess I’m one of those who believe that the further this moves from a real capability, the less likely its use and the more likely its use will fail. On the other hand, the nuclear Tomahawk provides a highly accurate, single warhead option. If we look at this brave new world ahead, it is also likely that if it were ever to be used, it would be in a fairly benign environment in which modifications to its guidance system could make it even more accurate. It is even probably possible to modify its structure and final flight profile to give it some capability against buried targets. Presently, we can fire it out of a torpedo tube or a vertical launcher and are working on adapting it to the Trident tube. Clearly then, modifications of existing Tridents would allow nuclear Tomahawk to be deployed on them in the near term and any of these three capabilities could be built into the next SSBN. Tomahawk also provides a respect-ably long-range capability with no concern for where stages might fall. Passing this capability to the SSBN would reduce the taskings for the SSNs.
Third, other weapon systems and their warhead capabilities might be modified so they can be used by the Trident or future SSBNs. I believe that some work has already been done on the Army’s AT ACM. I’m sure that the SSBN project office has looked at many future capabilities that the Trident missile might be given such as single warhead uses and ability to be used against deeply buried targets. One might even envision its use as an ABM platform. With its existing communications connectivity and forward deployment, it’s probably more capable against many future threats than the planned land based sites. I’m sure that many of you forward-looking thinkers out there can think of many others.
The point of this article is that the Trident is already an extremely capable and flexible national asset that can be made even more so. The war on terror and the peacekeeping missions are detracting attention from the importance of nuclear weapons and making them possible targets for money for other programs. The SSBN has potential that neither the ICBMs, for sure, nor even the bombers can match. The brave new world will be a different place and the first to be there with the most attractive capabilities can be the winners (and survivors).
Mr. Floyd J. Cook
MMCM(SS) John Headden, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Franz Hoskins, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Thomas M. Jaskunas, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Stephen S. Mann, Jr., USN(Ret.)
CDR John S. Mitnik, USN(Ret.)
CAPT Tom B. Thamm, USN(Ret.)