Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
As the world continues to pursue the admittedly noble goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, it appears apparent that the prudent policy of the United States will be to retain some, as a deterrent, as long as others exist. It is also apparent that the most secure and most reliable location for these weapons is in the launch tubes of the Ohio class SSBNs or their successors. A potential developing problem, however, is that as one START1 treaty follows another, with ever smaller mandated warhead inventories, that a decision might be forced to either drop below a force level of 12-14 SSBNs, or send these platforms to sea with empty or pennanently disabled tubes – an illogical and politically unsustainable option. Since the suggestion that such empty tubes be filled with non-nuclear land attack Tomahawk missiles, such as on our four SSGNs was effectively nixed by Congress, other options must be considered to employ these otherwise empty tubes in ways that also support the best interests of the United States.
Both of the above options are disagreeable for one reason or another, but arguably the most disagreeable is to reduce the force level of the weapons system below the fiducial level of platforms that assures adequate coverage of existing and potential missions in spite of a credible worst case situation of unplanned platform non-availability, be it anywhere across the spectrum from a material failure through extensive planned maintenance to loss by enemy action. Arguably, that fiducial level is the minimum of twelve hulls presently planned, so the very real probability is to someday have too many tubes and too few missiles.
We appear to be recovering from the vernacular of the post-Hiroshima world of General Curtis LeMay and others wherein the word strategic (very familiar to the likes of Clausewitz and Mahan) was prostituted to equate to nuclear. In fact, particularly in this era of almost sinfully small CEPs2, it is becoming very apparent that the word strategic is most properly used to describe the target, and not the weapon or weapon system. Tangentially, as somewhat a corollary to this, when even the detonation of a sub-kiloton nuclear device deep in some hole or cave is universally viewed as a strategic event, there is not, and never has been, anything such as a tactical nuclear weapon.
To be capable of exerting great influence on events ashore (an alternative and not too shabby way of describing strategic) across a much broader spectrum of situations other than Annageddon, it would be helpful if a platform could do other than quickly export many kilograms of plutonium vast distances. For example, its been shown that the kinetic energy (KE) of something of the mass of the throw weight of a modem SLBM3 impacting the earth at the multi-Mach number that reentry vehicles possess deposits, thanks to the KE .., Y2 MV2 of classical physics4, energy the equivalent of thousands of tons of high explosive (HE), and would create a very wide, very deep crater-very close to the aim point due to the above mentioned almost sinful CEPs (and with no fission products drifting about to complicate the geopolitical issues). After all, it was an event of this kind which some claim killed all the dinosaurs. So, even though Congress, as mentioned above, has reportedly rejected the idea of a mixed loadout of nuclear/non-nuclear offensive weapons on an SSBN, there could be future considerations for such as a KE payload on existing boosters (HE payloads don’t make sense, since above about Mach 3, there is more energy deposited by the mass of an object than by the detonation of an equal mass of HE). It would be an interesting addition to the military portfolio of the President of the United States if he were able to put his finger on any spot on the globe, and inside of an hour, there would be a large hole at that very location.
There is another school of thought that maintains that any serious future conflict will involve a space war in that the intelligence, communications and navigation satellites of the adversaries will be attacked. After each entity’s means of doing this are consumed or suppressed, there will be a great advantage gained by the side that most rapidly repopulates these constellations which have become almost indispensable in modern warfare. If each deployed SSBN had some launch to orbit intel, comms and nav satellites in what would otherwise be empty tubes, the winning of this race would be assured.
Much work has been done in many quarters to support the concept of a lightsat family, where most of the existing capabilities of navigation, intelligence and communications satellites could be packaged in much smaller form factors (perhaps trading off on-orbit lifetime), possibly enabling something with the enonnous throw weight capability of a DS-like booster to deploy more than one satellite per launch, a capability that would significantly improve the flexibility and effectiveness of a constellation repopulatia11 effort.
In many out-year war games that investigated the subtleties of a space war against one another’s vital space assets, the interesting concept of antipodal nodes was discussed at length-the antipodal node of a given spot being a point defined by a spot having the same latitude, but transposed north to south or vice versa, and having a longitude displaced by 180°-in other words, a point literally on the other side of the world. The reason antipodal nodes were of interest is that when something is launched to orbit, orbital mechanics dictate that some 30-45 minutes later it must pass directly over its launch point’s antipodal node-a nice place to be sitting with an ASA T5 capability if one wants to limit an adversary’s capability to place things in orbit. All antipodal nodes for launch sites on the Eurasian land mass lie between South America and Australia, and for the continental United States, lie in the Indian Ocean (potentially strategic places to be controlled by the US or its allies in the event of a potential space war and subsequent satetlite constellation repopulation). However, since the launch site from an SSBN can be virtually anywhere in the world’s oceans, and it is not known until the launch itself, it follows that, unlike land-based sites such as Canaveral or Vandenberg, the location of its antipodal node is also unknown until launch. One option an SSBN could have would be to launch from a site whose antipodal node is in Kansas or Ayers Rock in Australia.
It has been a major accomplishment to have brought the world’s inventory of nuclear weapons from many 10’s of thousands to merely several thousands in the space of two decades. It is clear that the leadership of the globe’s major powers intend to reduce this number even further-perhaps asymptotically approaching zero sometime this century. During this effort, however, the concept of credible deterrence which saw us through the Cold War must remain strong-in some form. If not MAD6, which promised both sides in a conflict utter and complete devastation of their social fabric, it must clearly present a situation where things of great value (perhaps leadership itself) to an aggressor are kept under real and relatively immediate risk by non-nuclear means while at the same time the command, control and preciseness of these deterrence systems are virtually invulnerable to outside interference or degradation.
The primary platform to cover this enormous transformation of the geopolitical equation is almost certainly the present and successor fleets of SSBNs, of numbers adequate to provide surety, and carrying a payload mix which constantly evolves to match and meet the dynamics of the global situation and international laws and treaties.