Captain Hay, a retired submarine officer, has served in an SSK, an SS, an SSRN, two SSNs, and two SSBNs-commanding the last two. He was a military assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, commanded Naval Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, and was chief of staff of Submarine Group Eight in the Mediterranean. Currently he is editor of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
Republished with permission from the June 2011 issue of PROCEEDINGS a monthly publication oft/re U.S. Naval Institute of Annapolis, Maryland 21402.
U.S. submarines have long given pause to would-be aggressors. But as the subsurface fleet ages, retaining our edge will be a challenge.
Deterrence is widely accepted within America’s body politic as a prime objective of our national-security structure. That is not to say, however, that it is a widely understood concept. Indeed, commentary on the topic is often either over-expansive or oversimplified. The truth about deterrence is this: Of all the forces the nation needs, only those capable of taking the right action at the right time are effectively deterrent. The deterrent force is the warfighting force that keeps the peace. It is, therefore, a critical force.
It is one thing to recognize a general need for deterrence, but it is not useful to discuss it in vague terms. Today there is great pressure on government funding, and the future can be expected to offer stress on national security in many and varied ways. Now is the time to reassess the costs of all programs versus the needs of our society. Accordingly, every aspect of the national-security structure should be examined closely. In any such examination a firm understanding of the nature of deterrence-and the hardware and policy requirements necessary for its clear use-is fundamental.
The nature of deterrence is subjective. Those being deterred must understand that their unwanted actions will result in very serious and unaffordable consequences. Given that we wish to induce that kind of understanding in those with the potential to do us great harm, we can look for some guidance to our Cold War experience-even if the situations then, now, and in the future are not completely parallel. Some of the threats to be deterred in the 21st century may be quite different; others may bear striking similarities to the Cold War. In either case, the general concept followed in that era is worth examination.
The Cold War Model
A generally accepted Cold War planning objective for deterrence was to have the credible capability to deny an aggressor success and at the same time hold at risk his assets of vital interest. Not surprisingly, given the lethality of modem weapons, the hard part was to make credible any strategy with those broad objectives. In the 1960s NA TO recognized the problem in relying mainly on the launch of U.S.-based ICBMs to deter Soviet aggression against Western Europe. The deterrent strategy was changed to a sequential one that employed three forces: First, meet Soviet armies with NA TO ground forces; next, back that up with in-theater nuclear forces; and finally, introduce the threat of intercontinental nuclear force. Thus a credible deterrence stance of appropriate response was based on a credible warfighting stance, should deterrence fail.
A further development within that strategy came when the Soviet Union fielded its SS-20 mobile intermediate-range ballistic-missile system in the late 1970s. NATO’s counter move was to install land-based cruise missiles in Western Europe-an appropriate response that enhanced the credibility of NATO’s deterrence.
NATO’s strategy modifications of the 1960s and ’70s point to one of the key aspects of credibility in deterrence: The will to use the poised response has to be believable. That is, a potential aggressor might well presume that the United States would not initiate an intercontinental nuclear strike in response to a relatively minor aggression. But that aggressor could be deterred by the knowledge that a less-violent (non-nuclear) force was in place and prepared to strike him decisively.
Effectiveness and Survivability
If the nature of deterrence as a concept is subjective, the actual military capacity required can be quite objective. Qualitatively and quantitatively it may be addressed in terms of effectiveness and survivability. To be effective, any military system has to be seen as having the range, firepower, and performance necessary to get to the target and do what is necessary-whether that is denying the success of aggression or wreaking unacceptable havoc on vital assets. Those deterrent systems must also be regarded by the potential aggressor to be survivable, in both the pre-launch phase and during execution. Thus, if the deterrent force to be employed is non-nuclear in armament it still must have the range, firepower, performance and survivability to stop the aggressor or destroy his vital assets. The U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force provided a significant part of American deterrence in the Cold War. It now is able to accept a greater role for the 21st century, that of a critical deterrent force.
The effect with which the critical deterrent force threatens a potential aggressor must be of sufficient strength and demonstrated accuracy to deliver a blow that is unacceptable to the aggressor. Such strength usually can be estimated by an aggressor in terms of the munitions to be expected and the damage they can cause. The delivery of those munitions also has to be viewed as a timely occurrence; it cannot be something dependent on lengthy transit from home base to launch point.
The mobility of submarine-based weapons makes them uniquely effective for deterrence. Launch can be from an unknown location, perhaps avoiding early initial detection. Variation in attack azimuth, short times of flight, and freedom from the pressure to use the striking power before losing it-these all contribute to the certainty of success, should that force have to be used. Knowledge of such peacetime readiness-lurking in undetected locations and having weapon systems of known capability and reliability-must then be a part of a potential aggressor’s consideration before he takes an action that will invite response from that submarine-based force.
Along with effectiveness and timeliness, it is necessary for that critical deterrent force to have credible survivability. That is, it must not be vulnerable to an aggressor’s preemptive or disarming strike of any sort. The U.S. Submarine Force convincingly demonstrated that invulnerability/survivability during the Cold War. The stealth of an individual submarine is vital, and the United States continuously appraises that performance, operation-ally and technically, as well as evaluating possible threats. That is all done through a rigorous, well-funded submarine-security program. On a force-wide basis, independent operations, the range of land-attack missiles, and the wide dispersion of units all reduce the potential for significant simultaneous force attrition.
Coupled with the military capacity needed for deterrence is the national will to use that appropriate force should an aggressor actually initiate the action(s) we want to deter. How that national will is made known to those who may wish to initiate aggression is a decision made by the National Command Authority; it reflects a fundamental war-making function of the nation. Thus a clear declarative policy statement can be a vital part of a deterrent posture.
The Submarine’s Evolving Role
As the strategy of deterrence evolved during the Cold War, the place of submarines in that strategy also evolved; it can be expected to evolve further during the 21st century. The introduction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in 1960 added a new capability to the U.S. deterrent posture of land-based ICBMs and bombers, but only in small numbers of relatively short-range warheads. The first five submarines so equipped nevertheless were deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis and were credited with having a substantial influence on the Soviet Union’s backing down.
By the end of the 1960s the United States had 41 SSBNs, many carrying multiple-warhead missiles. The Polaris weapon system evolved into Poseidon-bigger missiles, each carrying multiple independent re-entry vehicles- and then finally into the Trident system, with very long-range missiles carrying multiple sophisticated warheads capable of destroying hardened targets. Throughout that period submarine stealth was exploited to ensure the survivability of the SSBN force. Currently the sea-based SLBM force is made up of 14 Ohio-class submarines, each having 24 tubes loaded with D-5 Trident II missiles. Four of that class have been modified as SSGNs- cruise missile launchers-with 22 of the 24 installed tubes each capable of carrying and launching seven non-nuclear Tomahawks, a total load of 154 cruise missiles. (Two tubes on each of those ships are for special operations force use.)
By the final phase of the Cold War the U.S. Navy’s fleet of attack submarines (SSNs) was also in play in our deterrence posture. Although not entered as a strategic force asset in any of the various listings of naval ship categories, SSNs demonstrated that they could hold Soviet strategic submarines at risk. The resultant asymmetry in assured survivability between the widely spread, non-detectable American SSBN force and its Soviet counterpart-deployed relatively tightly near home waters-was apparent to Soviet authorities. Also apparent to the Kremlin was the long-term presence of U.S. attack submarines in waters far from their home ports and out of usual U.S. Fleet operating areas.
Diverse New Threats
The threats we may face today and in the near-to mid-term future are not as focused as those of the Cold War. One very obvious added factor is the diffuse non-state threat, such as that which so tragically succeeded on 9/11. That sort of enemy and attack may not be susceptible to deterrence from nuclear armed forces. There also is the potential of nuclear attack by a rogue state, be it Iran, North Korea, or even an extreme Islamist regime in Pakistan.
Perhaps the most serious threat, however, is that of two peer, or near-peer competitors, Russia and China. There is no guarantee that Russia will not eventually re-emerge with significant attack potential, backed up with ominous indications of aggressive intentions. The United States has experience, however, with Russia. Deterring any perceived threat from China may not be as straightforward. Time could well be the telling factor in how to handle a simultaneous dual-peer threat. China continues to build quite competent land-and sea-based nuclear forces. Russia could regain strength and feel the need to reclaim its superpower status by challenging the United States. Having those two powers in very strong positions to oppose the United States sometime soon-say the 2020s-could be stressful indeed for our deterrence forces.
China is an unknown in how much of a direct threat it may become. Indirectly it can pose a threat to our allies in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Even if not actually the attacking state, China could well be senior guarantor for an attack by North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan. As for being a direct threat, it is well known that the Chinese are building a strategic Submarine Force of new-generation SSBNs, and most observers believe that force will comprise at least five or six submarines.
Since those vessels are still being built, one can only speculate as to their operations, which would disclose some idea of China’s intentions. It does seem possible, even probable, that whatever those operations reveal, or what declarations are made by Beijing, Chinese SSBNs will be able to access the open-ocean areas of the Pacific and put targets in the United States at risk. American attack submarines, therefore, must maintain an ability to track any and all such Chinese SSBN deployments; an effective antisubmarine warfare support structure must exist for day-to-day coverage of all Chinese submarines and detection of any operational moves toward deployment.
Looking at the mid-term future of the non-trivial threat of non-state terrorist action against the United States it is probably safe to assume a resurgence of that potential once U.S. and allied ground forces stand down from proximity to terrorists’ safe areas. In that case deterrence by non-nuclear force will not be the same as postured by NATO in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s-or by the strong air/land posture now in force in Afghanistan. Without a secure base infrastructure from which to launch, the deterrent striking force will have to be based at sea with either carrier-borne tactical air, or cruise missiles, or perhaps both.
Constant, Undetected Deterrence
The SSGN force of four cruise missile-launching submarines can provide that formidable-but-less-than-nuclear (and therefore believable) deterrent force needed to cover terrorist cells in the central Asia area and, if necessary, around the Horm of Africa. With Blue and Gold crews those four ships are fully capable of maintaining the constant undetected at-sea presence necessary for real deterrence, although some time/range relaxation may be necessary during alert patrol. The very sophisticated command centers on those ships are capable of processing intelligence and formulating in-theater strike planning in real time. With that force, enduring presence within range of launch equals constant pressure on those to be deterred.
Additionally, the SSN force is capable of providing cruise missile coverage for reactive fires while conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) patrols in ocean areas adjacent to major and minor threats. Once again it is a case of enduring presence/constant pressure. The advantage of having an SSN force capable of launching land-attack cruise missiles is so compelling there is active discussion about increasing that capability in construction of the new Virginia-class submarines. That advantage is in the increase of in-theater deterrence during peacetime deployments and in wartime firepower.
Submarine participation in the deterrence of major threats will continue to be carried out by the present SLBM force of Ohio-class submarines. Day-to-day coverage by those submarines consists of target packages that are part of the national Single Integrated Operational Plan, which can be executed by the submarine within very stringent time requirements. It is not strictly true, however, that the SLBMs are of use only in scheduled strikes at fixed targets. There is flexibility in target assignment that can be directed by the National Command Authority and introduced on board.
The currently deployed Trident II missile has long range and excellent accuracy. Each multiple independently targeted warhead has enough explosive power, when coupled with the high accuracy achieved, to make a hard-target kill; i.e., it can destroy a silo and most hardened bunkers. The missile’s range also lends itself directly to the survivability of the SSBN since it permits the submarine to operate in very large areas of the ocean yet remain within range of targets.
Three Challenges for Two Decades
Our naval Submarine Force is fully capable of doing its part in today’s deterrence. The problem is not in execution but in planning and building the ships and weapons needed by 2020 and 2030. Three major challenges face the nation as it plans for the deterrence needed to prevent war in that span.
- The primary challenge is to build the ships necessary to replace the Ohio class of SSBNs as they, in turn, reach the end of their useful lives. That program is proceeding through the required process for acquisition of major defense programs. There appears to be broad-based recognition of the need for the replacement program and significant support. The problem, of course, is the projected cost, given that spending is under close scrutiny and unusual pressure. On one hand the individual cost per unit is an attention better. On the other is the matter of relative cost in terms of the overall Navy and Defense procurement pro-grams-and what may not be funded because of the cost of the program.
- The second challenge has to do with the well-known shortfall in the SSN force level. This will occur over several years, as the current Los Angeles-class attack submarines continue to be decommissioned. The cur-rent building program of Virginia-class SSNs, even at the recently extended rate of two per year, cannot keep up with the decreasing numbers; the force level of attack boats will hit a historic low.
- The third challenge (arising at about the same time) will be a shortfall in strike assets available as the en-tire SSGN force (in the oldest of the Ohio-class hulls) wilt have to be decommissioned as its functional lifespan ends.
The potential, of course, is that the period 10 to 15 years in the future, when all these shortfalls could come upon us, will prove to be a very real problem for the United States, and the many allies who depend on its strength. Earlier, a worst-case scenario was postulated: a dual-peer confrontation that could be faced around that time. It’s even possible the non-state terrorists will have recovered enough strength by then to again be flexing their muscles in a worrisome manner.
Worst case or not, U.S. deterrence will have to be up to the task of convincing those wishing to do harm to the United States and its allies that the consequences of their actions will be real, timely, and drastic enough to be unacceptable to themselves and their people. Fortunately, the naval Submarine Force, the Navy’s submarine acquisition community, and their industry partners are treating those three challenges as just that-problems to be met and solved.
Overcoming Hurdles and Shortfalls
The highest-priority SSBN replacement program is recognized as needing constant attention at all levels and real discipline in keeping to all details of requirements, schedule, and cost control. The submarine community was cited for doing all of that in the on-time, below-cost production of the Virginia class, and it knows that the level of effort for the SSBN replacement program will have to exceed that performance.
To avoid making the shortfall in attack boats much worse, it is crucial that performance in the Virginia-class production be of such a high standard that policy makers continue the two-ships-per-year program. In addition, there are some programmatics being studied to level out the anticipated shortfall. The importance of the SSNs, in quantity and quality, is very real. It is their everyday constant and enduring lSR presence/reactive pressure that can produce useful fruit in the minds of potential opponents.
The matter of a shortfall in strike assets on retirement of the SSGNs is not a simple one to solve. One obvious partial solution is the increase of the cruise missile capacity of new-construction attack submarines by adding extra launch tubes. Increasing the capability of the cruise missile itself to permit multiple warheads to be carried and individually targeted might be another solution.
A final observation may well be the most important: Probably the best deterrent is having the force most likely to win the final battle in place and ready to fight-and triumph decisively-at the first flash of combat. The aggressor has to be able to see the resultant end game before he initiates action. U.S. Navy submarines play a major role in that deterrence.