Rear Admiral Hona11d is a retired submarine officer. He has been a frequent contrib11tor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW since its founding.
The Air Force’s recent difficulties related to nuclear weapons resurrects somewhat the attention level on those weapons and their delivery systems that faded with the end of the Cold War. The national absorption with the War Against Terror focused energies and concentrated attention almost exclusively on self- protection, small unit equipment and tactics and political activities related to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attention to nuclear weapons has been “backsliding” from their predominance in Cold War discussions and operations.’ The Secretary of Defense’s forced retirement of both the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force because of errors in the care of nuclear weapons is a signal that those arms remain important and serious attention should be paid to them.
By the time of the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review nuclear weapons had been demoted to the sidelines lumped with precision guided conventional weapons as the offensive strike forces in a new Triad, the other legs of which were Missile Defense and Command, Control and Intelligence. Serious discussions about their usefulness or need nearly vanished from the academic and professional literature except for calls for disarmament. With the accompanying merging of the Strategic Command with the Space Command and replacement of the bomber cadre by the fighter pilots in the Air force leadership, the stage was set for the decline of attention and care in handling nuclear materials.
The coming Administration will have to formulate its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 2009 (to be released in February 2010 with the Administration’s first budget). Even before the QDR gets into high gear, preparation of a new Roles and Missions study, mandated by the Congress, is taking place. As far as nuclear weapons are concerned the end result of these policy guides would likely be “Steaming as Before” without much thought devoted to the makeup of the forces so armed. No reference to nuclear weapons is to be found in the seven topic areas of the Department of Defense’s current Roles and Missions Study directive except perhaps by inference in the topic, “Excessive Overlapping Service Capabilities”.
However, in addition to these two studies, the Congress has mandated a new Nuclear Posture Review. This direction, coupled with the requirements of the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions of 2002 may result in new consideration of the size and composition of the strategic nuclear systems. Under the Moscow Treaty, the United States is required to reduce its operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to numbers between 1700 and 2200 weapons by 2012. To put this in context, in 1987, at its peak, the United States deployed 13,600 warheads. In the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) of 1991, the United States agreed to reduce its strategic nuclear forces to 6,000 warheads on 1,600 delivery vehicles. The first steps to reach reduced numbers involved retiring all 50 of the ten warhead Peacekeeper ICBMs and converting four Trident submarines to conventional service. Some reloading of the remaining missiles, removal of 50 Minuteman II ICBMs and shifting the B-1 bombers from strategic missions to conventional service reduced the total number of weapons deployed today to meet the Treaty limits. 2 Two thirds of those remaining after these steps will have to be removed from service before the end of the next Administration in 2012.
The rules of nuclear arms treaties complicate launcher and warhead counts because of various treaty exceptions and provisions. For example the missile tubes on the two Tridents in overhaul are not counted in the tally of launchers or delivery vehicles. These complications discourage careful examination or clean sheet analysis of strategic forces. The result is that no effort to rationalize the forces that will be armed with these 1700 to 2200 warheads exists or seems to be contemplated. With the Strategic Command embroiled in space and cyber war, analytical and intellectual ferment seems to be engaged in all things but nuclear.
Added to the force infrastructure considerations of military utility, economic costs and international politics will be significant patronage concerns within the Congress. Without wide discussion to raise broader issues, narrow parochial concerns arc likely to sway the end result of any formulation. An instance of this narrow vision was a Congressional earmark in the FY2007 Defense Authorization Act that thwarted the Air Force’s plan to reduce the B-52’s able to carry nuclear weapons to 56 by mandating 75 planes had lo be maintained through 2018.
Consideration of just what those remaining weapons mean, what they might be useful in doing and where they should be based is a desirable but not a likely outcome for the planned studies. The present force distribution spreading the weapons and launchers among three component delivery systems; bombers, land based missiles, and sea based missiles has never been wholly rational. The arrangements grew like Topsy out of a period of frenzy driven by the weapons manufacturers and proponents of overwhelming nuclear forces in the United States and the Soviet Union. With only the numbers of weapons on each side as a basis for analyses, the forces grew out of all proportion to their utility in anything other than impressing their own policy makers and those of the opposing side at which they were pointed. In the Cold War, deterrence was reduced to having a number and variety of weapons superior to or at least equal to those of the potential peer enemy.
Various arguments justifying the individual legs of the TRIAD were developed, usually after the creation of the forces themselves. Eventually arguments for the three different launch platforms created a number of reasons to justify a range of capabilities citing the strengths of each individual delivery system and compensating for the perceived weaknesses of the other components. Over time, launch systems were justified by one or more of the following reasons :
a. complicate enemy targeting,
b. survive an enemy first strike,
c. have the accuracy and explosive potential to attack hardened targets,
d. able to respond quickly, hedge against unexpected problems or developments,
e. hedge against unexpected problems or developments,
f. provide an unequivocal target (a force that had to be attacked in an all-out war),
g. able to create a signal that could be recalled, ” … if a crisis did not escalate into a conflict”.
Most of these theoretical attributes were developed after deployment of a particular weapons system was planned, usually in the process of justifying funding of that system. In the sixties, at the height of the theoretical discussions on nuclear war, no single leg could meet all these attributes. The utility of each attribute- other than suitability- was never closely examined- and most arc of uncertain validity. Each leg grew on its own momentum without much regard for the capabilities of the other legs.
The supporting infrastructure for each launch system was rarely discussed except when it came to large or sensitive expenditures. An elaborate and expensive warning system had to be created to provide warning of an attack to allow bombers to fly out and ICBM ‘s to be launched before arrival of incoming missiles. But no discussion about the reasons for these systems ensued as the original warning systems were black programs. The creation of the very low frequency communications link to submarines (ELF) attracted attention only because it had to be located in the midst of a population predisposed to isolationism, disarmament and political activism.
Even though bombers were postured to fly out almost instantly and ICBMs maintained on a high alert system, only the submarine based system, alone among the legs, always satisfied the survivability requirement. Attempts to improve the survivability of the land based missiles (ICBM) first by mobilizing some on railroads came to naught because of the reactions by populations that envisioned the weaponize of their local train tracks. The next attempts to add survivability to ICBM ‘s by building very hard silos close together (“Dense Pack”) or burying the weapons in mountains (“Deep Underground Missile Basing”) were too complex to gain adherents and too expensive to gain approval.
ICBMs came to be promoted on the basis of their readiness to respond. Yet comparisons that suggested the landlines of communication were faster or surer than those to sea based systems were based on ignorance of the associated command, control and communication systems . By 1985 that canard had been skewered as characteristics of submarine command and control were shown to have been better than those serving the ICBM force at least since the seventies. The reliability of the communications and the responsiveness of the submarine command and control system have been praised by everyone who has studied the details of the country’s strategic command and control systems.
Next, claims for the ICBM’s emphasized their accuracy and explosive potential as necessary for destroying hardened targets, i.e. ICBM silos and command bunkers. Since the deployment of the TRIDENT II 05 missile the accuracy and explosive power desired for attacking hard targets is as good or better in the sea-based weapons as in the ICBM ‘s.
These individual attributes were generated in random order, without necessarily applying to each component leg, and often in attempts to justify improving capability or in response to developments of a competing leg. Nevertheless the three legs continue to be justified using the 1960 era arguments. In 2001, CONSTRAINT TeaM testified, “The ICBM force provides responsiveness, the SLBM force provides survivability and bombers provide flexibility and recall capability”.~ This quote continues to be cited as justification for the three systems. 6 The facets of the original TRIAD deserve serious attention in order to lay a foundation for the coming review of the nation’s nuclear weapons systems. In examining a new force structure, considerations of cost and political interest will be less important than determination of the appropriate force structure to meet the Moscow Treaty limits and the future needs of the United States.
In such an evaluation the Trident submarine and the 0-5 missile are obviously the most utilitarian system both because of the flexibility of operations as well as the security of the launcher. Submarine survivability has never been a question. No country has an effective wide area search capability for submarines and no breakthroughs in ASW threaten the SSBN. The flexibility in loading of the missile provides a relatively easy way to meet the treaty limits while maintaining the mobility of the launcher. The missile is reportedly able to carry up to ten individually targeted reentry vehicles but can be downloaded to fewer. 7 This capability not only allows adjustments to meet the currently expected limit but also provides for future reductions when they arc desired.
Being able to position the launcher around the world allows adjusting the azimuth and range to potential targets. Adjusting the target azimuth could be important in developing strategies that involve selective threats to a small target set or in which the flight path may be very sensitive to other parties. The SSBN’s maneuver- ability permits positioning the launchers to reduce the missile’s time of flight thus making submarine launched ballistic missiles the most responsive in the arsenal.
Additionally the SSBN and its supporting basing system provide the most secure for the stowage and protection of these high value instruments. The number of places where the weapons arc stowed is small. The weapons in the ships launchers arc beyond reach of any reasonable threat of sabotage or blackmail. Finally the weapons are in the custody of relatively large numbers of trusted people supervised by an elite officer corps famous for attention to detail and rigid adherence to procedure.
There arc several general choices for future force alignments. The least rational and most expensive would make equivalent reductions in each of the three legs. Unfortunately this sort of reduction is the most likely. Such a lazy man’s scheme will not take advantage of the improvements in weapons and launchers over the years and perpetuates the dispersal of nuclear weapons within the continental United States.
A more reasoned and logical approach before making these choices would be development of national policy that addresses the roles and values of nuclear weapons in the current and expected future global environment. The short and long term objectives of the United States relative to these weapons would have to be developed from almost a standing start for there arc few theorists in the field and they are divided diametrically between the advocates of total elimination who would disarm immediately and those who consider the world a still dangerous place with peer enemies waiting in the wings and so foster large stockpiles.
But a new national policy and any force development that derived from it needs to lay aside the mythologies of the past so as to address the issues involved in a coherent and current manner. Some of the basic questions that must be studied in such an effort include:
How many of what kinds of weapons do we need lo maintain a believable and effective deterrent force for the foreseeable future?
How large a force is required to discourage any potential enemy competition (i.e. preclude a new arms race) and reassure allies that they need not develop their own weapons’!.
How many and what kind of launch vehicles arc best suited to deploy this force?
In addressing these questions care must be taken to not count how many weapons some others may have but rather to examine how many valid targets exist. In doing this one must recognize that aim points arc not targets and that care must be exercised in this sort of planning not to design forces that arc too large for any practical purpose and weapons assigned to targets in such numbers as to ” … make the rubble bounce.”
A proper approach to a rational force mix would begin with the submarine leg at its maximum size. Among the planning logic for assigning warheads to launchers the ability to threaten a single target or very small number of targets will have lo be considered. Such threats arc likely not to require urgent execution so single warhead launchers (bombers and land-based missiles) might be suitable. Yet considerations of launching such a strike from the central United Slates, rather than from some isolated spot in the ocean, may justify a very small number of single warhead vehicles in submarines. Other than that, every deployed warhead below the number that fit on submarines should address the argument “Why here and not on a submarine?”
Nuclear weapons arc important. They are the ultimate persuader and will remain so for the foreseeable future. While hopefully they will continue to have no actual usefulness, these weapons must not be ignored or treated as second-class citizens. Constructing a new strategic nuclear force mix will require harder policy thinking than the relatively simple peer-to-peer logic of the Cold War. A “blank sheet” analysis is not required because the weapons based on submarines are an obvious choice to all. Supporters of land-based missiles and bombers are waning. Overcoming parochial interests may not be as difficult as in the past as budget pressures on the Air Force squeeze that service’s more desired and more immediately useful programs.
While the same financial pressures discourage enlargement of the Navy’s role in strategic weapons, the present attributes of submarine launched ballistic missile systems arc well established and will remain a first priority nationally whether the Navy wishes to or not. The Navy needs no proponent for its roles or forces but arguing as taxpayers and stakeholders in the Department of Defense’s top line, those who understand the division of labor in the strategic forces ought not acquiesce in a less than most rational policy for deploying these annulments. The Moscow Treaty limits offer an opportunity to rationalize and justify our strategic forces. We ought to take it. As advised by V ADM Lyle Bien, “Where we can, we ought not let any opportunity pass to influence national policy in affairs where we possess special competence.”
1. A National Journal, “The Admiral’s Agenda”, June 21, 2008.
2, Amy F., Woolf, “US Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Development Issues, Congressional Research Service, September 5, 2007, page CRS – 4,
3. Woolf, CRS – 8.
4. Rear Admiral W. J. Holland, Jr. USN, “The Link to the Boomers:, The Triad’s Best!”, Proceedings, January 1988, pg 41.
5. Testimony of ADM James 0. Ellis, USN, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, October 200 I,
www.senate.gov/-armed services/statemnt/200 l /O I 0925ellis.pdf
6. Ellis quoted in Adam Herbert, “The Future Missile Force”, Air Force Magazine, October 2005.
7. Woolf, CRS • 14.