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Jan Kallberg, PhD, is a researcher at the Cyber Security Research Center, Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, at The University of Texas at Dallas. He can be reached at jkal/

“A lot of people don’t like realists. Realists face the world as it is. Most people want the world to be nicer and for people to be better. ”

– Kenneth N Waltz


The federal debt will impact our national security; it was clearly stated by Admiral Mike Mullen when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, during his August 2010 Conversations with the Country tour, that the federal debt is a national security threat. If not addressed properly, it limits the country’s security options.

The national debt will force the United States in the coming decades to suffer unprecedented reductions in military power, redesign the mix of systems available for military operations, and accept a new geopolitical posture. It is logical that the United States prioritize nuclear submarines and submarines, in general; the reasoning is straight forward. The submarine is a versatile platform that maintains deterrence, patrols the seas, and projects power without disclosing its numbers or location. Depending on political climate and how austerity measures reduce the deficit, there are several national security positions that can serve as the new paradigm a few decades from now. When America retracts and reduces its military might to the American homeland, it works in favor of the submarine fleet since the doctrine relies increasingly on submarine capability.


The country enjoys geopolitical advantages; the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are two bodies of water that protect the country from a variety of conventional military threats. Naturally, submariners are well aware of vast oceans, but others forget that the country is protected by these oceans. In comparison to other nations, the country is safe geopolitically. The United States is not foreign to isolationism, the primary position from the founding of the nation to December 7, 1941; World War I was a temporary change of position. Isolationism can occur without a nation being detached entirely from geopolitical maneuvering, but the focus is protecting the homeland and actions are taken only when attacked or major interests are threatened. Isolationism affects the army since the concept is to defend America; with significant oceans on either side, a land invasion is unlikely.

International peacekeeping cooperation requires an expeditionary ground force, likely the Marines. It is questionable if peacekeeping missions predominant in the last two decades will continue at the same pace and magnitude. The first question we have to answer is: have earlier missions been successful? The second question comes naturally: can we afford it? Under the umbrella of NATO or UN, the U.S. component in any peacekeeping or peace-enforcing mission will not be as substantial as earlier operations because global operations are costly.


When I started to write this article, a quote by Henry Kissinger came to my mind: The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously. My intent is to portray the implications of continued budget stress in the federal government, and visualize the opportunity of the submarine fleet in an era of radical defense downsizing.

After an era of endless defense money- as Robert Gates called the years after 9-11- there are some tough decisions to make. Depending on whether you count Veteran Affairs, Department of Energy’s maintenance of the nuclear arsenal, the extra ordinary cost for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other defense-related costs not presented in the actual defense budget, about $600 to $850 billion are spent on defense; this will not continue as it becomes impossible to finance in the federal budget. Initial actions remove waste and redundancy but these will not have a large impact on the budget as tangible and deep reductions. We have to ask ourselves basic questions: should the United States support three air forces- Navy, Marines, and Air Force-or should these units consolidate? Does the United States need a presence in foreign countries? Are VA hospitals and Medicare redundant? Why does not one system for Medicare and VA healthcare suffice when the federal budget pays for both systems?

Intra-departmental budget wars are as furious as any military campaign, and resemble a civil war with few loyalties and no mercy; we have a hard time predicting the outcome since the issue is colored by institutional perceptions of reality, biasness, and is fought all the way down to pork-spending politics. The world arrives where logic resides, after taking a few detours. A logical standpoint is that an isolationistic posture benefits services other than the Army and Air Force. If the deficit is $1.6 trillion, federal credit rating is lowered and Congress finds it difficult to balance the budget; the Air Force does not get the last F-35 of the 1, 763 ordered. It becomes politically _impossible to prioritize the last ordered 1,763rd F-35 before Section 8 housing, Veterans benefits, food stamps, and Social Security.


There is always the option to do nothing; it could last for a number of years with marginal reductions in federal spending, and the debt continues to increase. Eventually the halt is far more brutal and financially unsound since we are forced to send newly commissioned hardware and assets to the scrap yard because we cannot afford to man, operate, and maintain these assets. Doing nothing is inviting; it feeds our status quo biases, but the deficit and the debt are numbers that do not go away. Denial is not an option.

Once the United States stops to plan for a major overseas land war, there is no longer a need for strategic sea transport capacity, nine air carrier task forces that support the mission and offer air superiority, and a variety of land warfare systems. Budgetary survivors in an isolationist scenario include the Marines and the submarine fleet. Less fortunate is the surface corps, and there would be significant reductions in the Air Force and Anny. As an isolationist nation, the Army can be reduced to a few upholding units and a cadre of reserve and National Guard units that can be mobilized within several months. The Army plays a limited role, if any, in the isolationist scenario. The limited role of ground fighting units works in favor of the Marines since they are more versatile than regular army units. Under isolationism, a defense budget could shrink to as low as $250 to $300 billion or less, with an absolute minimum of foreign bases and engagements. Once the Armed Forces reach these low budgetary levels, nuclear arms and submarines become key components to maintain not only deterrence, but power projection.


In the coming decades, nuclear arms play a more central role in comparison to the first decades of the 21st century. Nuclear arms are the only weapons that project power from Spitsbergen to Polynesia simultaneously, without moving military hardware or personnel. Political theorist Kenneth N. Waltz argued that the power of nuclear arms lies in not what you do with them; It is what you can do. (Ed. Note: Emphasis added) Under severe budgetary pressure, nuclear arms maintain the nation as a major power. This reasoning made the United Kingdom prioritize submarines with nuclear arms, even after the deepest contemporary defense cuts. Reliance on nuclear arms to maintain geopolitical equilibrium is visible in Siberia and the Far East where a resource-rich wilderness borders China. Russia’s ability to defend and uphold the territorial sovereignty of Russia’s Far East relies heavily on nuclear arms. Nuclear arms return as tools of power incrementally.

Austerity and extensive defense budget cuts trigger renewed interest in the nuclear ballistic missile submarine; the reason is simple, it is cheap in comparison with other forms of power projection and ability. The ticket price is high, though, because they are expensive to operate, but a nuclear submarine projects power beyond the force any armored division or army corps could ever achieve; the submarine projects power globally in real time 24/7/365. The nuclear submarine-considered expensive and unimportant after the Cold War-rises in interest; a combination of surface corps, submarines, space technologies, and intelligence becomes the pillar of a homeland-oriented defense strategy. The nuclear doctrine adopted by the current administration is likely to change since nuclear arms and embedded geopolitical power cannot be replaced by conventional forces; these forces are too expensive. Instead, the movement reverses and nuclear arms replace conventional forces to project American power. If necessary, the isolationist doctrine is ready to scale up, but peacetime operational military machinery is limited to intelligence, deterrence, and an ability to intercept sea, air, and space operations directed toward the homeland. The federal debt and a radical downsizing of U.S. military power are likely to increase the importance of the submarine fleet, based on its versatility and in combination with nuclear arms.

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