Saturday, September 14, 2013

Do We Need An SSBN?

The current issue of Proceedings has an interesting article on the SSBN(X) Ohio replacement submarine (1).  In short, the author’s premise is that the SSBN(X) program will be far too expensive and, more importantly, the need for the submarine based leg of the strategic triad is no longer valid.  The strategic triad and the submarine leg, in particular, historically served as an assured and invulnerable nuclear second strike capability.  The need for an assured second strike is predicated on the possibility, however remote, of a disabling first strike by an enemy against our land and air based nuclear weapons.  Thus, the SSBN provided the guarantee that an enemy would be totally destroyed even if they succeeded in executing a disabling first strike on the other two legs of the triad. 

The author claims that no likely enemy currently possesses the capability to launch a disabling first strike and, hence, there is no need to maintain a second strike (SSBN) capability.  The premise is fascinating and worthy of additional serious consideration.

Before I go any further I must state that I am not an expert on nuclear deterrence or nuclear strategy, by any means.

SSBN Still Needed?

That said, I’d like to look briefly at the author’s concepts from a bit more unorthodox perspective.  The author postulates that no other country or non-state actor has the capability to execute a disabling first strike.  He explains that this means that no other country has a sufficient quantity of nuclear weapons and delivery systems to achieve a disabling first strike.  The author acknowledges that the Russians do have the capability but dismisses them as a threat on the basis of recent “warm” relations.  He further acknowledges that relations could turn bad and suggests that if that happens we can reconstitute our SSBN capability though the extremely long lead time for design and construction of a new SSBN class would seem to render that option moot.

With the caveat of the Russians, the author’s premise is not without validity and, as I said, warrants serious consideration.  But, what about unconventional disabling first strikes?  Could an enemy, whether a nation or non-state actor, execute a disabling first strike without using nuclear weapons?

Could a nation or non-state actor execute a cyber attack that could disable our ability to control and launch nuclear weapons?  Such an attack could be direct, via software viruses inserted into and spread throughout our control software or indirect by disabling electrical grids and the like.  Now before you go and pound out a reply telling me all about backup electrical supply systems and whatnot, recognize that I’m posing an outside the box question rather than suggesting that the scenario is feasible or imminent.  However, just because we can’t imagine the scenario today, doesn’t mean it can’t happen tomorrow.  I bet Iran thought their centrifuges were secure before they were hacked.  Speaking of which, China has devoted a significant military effort towards offensive computer attacks.  Is such a scenario beyond them?  Are we willing to bet our country on it? 

Could a nation or non-state actor execute an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that would disable our land and air based nuclear assets?  Again, just posing the outside the box question.

Returning to the Proceedings article and the author’s premise that the SSBN leg of the triad is no longer needed, if we can answer the above questions with even a hesitant “highly unlikely but maybe” or “it can’t be 100% totally ruled out” then the SSBN leg is still needed.

This is one of those posts where I don’t have an answer, only questions.  People with more knowledge than me will have to address this.  The question the author poses is fascinating and, in this era of severe budget limitations, the possibility of eliminating the SSBN leg of the triad must be very appealing to Congress and the carrier Navy leadership.  I hope we make this decision on the basis of military reality rather than politics and wishful thinking.


(1)United States Naval Institute Proceedings, “The Future of Deterrence? Ballistic Missile Defense”, Maxwell Cooper, Sep 2013, p.52.

40 comments:

  1. I definitely think that questioning the nuclear triad and the need for an SSBN force is valid.

    However, I am very skepitcal that AEGIS BMD will be able to take it's place. Despite all the propaganda from the MDA, AEGIS BMD has a very spotty record in highly scripted tests.

    I'm also not that convinced that a purely defensive system like AEGIS BMD will have the deterrent effect that Mr. Cooper envisions. History has shown that once a defensive system is understood and publicized, foes can often develop workaround in quick order.

    I'm not slamming Mr. Cooper's article. He's given us a lot to think about.

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  2. Is he Crazy, we need those SSBN's as a last resort in case they take out the Missile Silos and Bombers. The SSBN's are our last resort Insurance policy.

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    1. Nicky, assuming you're serious with your comment. The author's point was that there is no enemy who has the capability to disable our first strike. Even if we don't defend ourselves, no one has enough nuclear weapons and sufficient delivery systems to account for all of our first strike (the author's thought, not necessarily mine). Whether you agree or disagree with that premise, it has enough validity to at least warrant serious consideration.

      If you believe the author is wrong and that someone can take out our first strike you need to identify who that someone is and how they will do it.

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    2. Just think what would happen if we don't have SSBN's. What would happen if someone takes out the Manned bombers and ICBM's. The SSBN's are our last resort Insurance policy if they take out the Manned Bombers and ICBM's. The SSBN's stealth makes it so hard for the enemy to find. If we don't have enemies, having an SSBN is like having an insurance policy in case we do have an enemy.

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    3. Nicky, no one, including the author, disputes the purpose or function of the SSBN. The question is what enemy possesses the capability to take out the land and air legs of the triad. If no potential enemy has the capability, we don't need the SSBN, according to the author. I'll repeat, which enemy has the capability to take out our air and land legs and how will they do it? If you can't answer that then you have to concede that the author's premise just might be valid.

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  3. Look at china, they are rebuilding their SSBN fleet and so is Russia. The SSBN's are needed as a last resort insurance policy.

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    1. Nicky, do you believe that China has, or will have in the next 40 years (life of a new SSBN) the ability to launch a sufficient number of ICBMs as to incapacitate our air and land legs? That's a lot of ICBMs! Merely being able to launch a handful of missiles is not sufficient. The author's point was that they don't and won't.

      You sound like you're having a knee jerk reaction to the idea. That doesn't mean you're wrong, only that you may not have thought through the rationale for SSBNs and who, if anyone, that rationale now applies to. It was created for the Soviet threat which is now gone.

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  4. (Disclaimer: I don't know a whole lot about this, so don't hang me for ignorance. :D)
    I thought SSBNs had a first strike capability? They can get alot closer to enemy shores than ICBMs, which cuts a considerable amount of time off of time to impact.

    Since we have only 450 Minuteman 3 silos, it would only take say 2 or 3 to make sure it's destroyed? That puts us at 1350 warheads to knock out all our silos. Perhaps 1500 to hit early warning sites and C&C too, though you can probably get those 10 minutes later with some ICBMs, or cruise missiles perhaps.

    The Russian Borei class is planned out to 10 subs, armed with 20 missiles each carrying 6 to 10 MIRVs. Being conservative , that puts them at roughly 1200 warheads. Including whatever leftovers they might have left from USSR times, they will have more than enough to cripple our second strike capability, considering what our strategic bomber force looks like, or will look like in 5-10 years.

    From what little I can figure out about the Chinese, they simply don't have the numbers now or in the near future to pull off a first strike. Though considering how secretive they are, and the rate they are arming up, I wouldn't bet my life on them not having the capability sooner than we think.

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    1. TR, certainly the SSBNs can be used as first strike although that's not US policy. We would launch nuclear weapons only in retaliation. The ultimate rational for the SSBN is an assured second strike (MAD). So what do you think? Do we still need the SSBN leg?

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    2. Yes. Two thirds of our current strategic arsenal is in our subs, some 288 Tridents, and 1152 warheads out of 1550 we can have deployed (START II).

      I also doubt we will start new construction on missile silos to bring our missiles back up to strength, considering the considerable expense. We built our last silos in the 1980s I believe, and nearly all of the modern silos that were decommissioned were imploded, so no retrofitting on the cheap. :P

      On the other hand, it seems Russia and China are both moving towards more SSBNs, and mobile land launchers. I would go so far as to say silos are obsolete form of protecting our missiles. Stealth or mobility are the best forms of protection, and subs give us both.

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    3. TR, so you seem to be suggesting that the SSBN leg is taking over the responsibilities of the land and air legs? If so, do you even see a need for the air leg, in particular?

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    4. Strategic nukes wise, not really. We don't have the 24/7 in the air SAC B-52s we once had, not to mention the huge bomber fleets necessary to make a second strike overwhelming and massively destructive. We still like tactical nukes though, so as long as we have those we need a delivery system. Not to mention redundancy is always nice, especially in something like this.

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    5. TR, I don't follow nuke issues closely. Do we still officially maintain a tactical nuclear capability? I was under the vague impression that we abandoned that though we may still have weapons in storage. Similarly, my impression is that we don't have tactical nukes on any ships.

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    6. The U.S. maintains about 400 nuclear gravity bombs capable of use by F-15, F-16, and F-35. Some 350 of these bombs are deployed at seven airbases in six European NATO countries; of these, 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs fall under a nuclear sharing arrangement.

      I got this information from wiki, but it seems right under START II. As for the naval ships, they don't give us much to go with on those.

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  5. One good reason for getting rid of the SSBN's is that, with the money saved, the Navy could then buy more LCS's. Sorry, Commander, I couldn't resist.

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    1. JI, now that's thinking like a Navy Admiral! Outstanding!

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  6. This debate reminds me of an article written by Steve Andreasen in June. He argues that the B61--a nuclear bunker busting bomb--is a drain on American resources, and, ultimately, that we should stop paying for them to be forward deployed in other countries. Andreasen is not alone in his analysis, and America's nuclear triad has been attacked at all angles over the past several years. Our arsenal has been increasingly viewed by many as archaic in both size and structure.

    In my mind, however, the biggest benefit of our massive arsenal is that it serves to reassure allies under our nuclear umbrella, thereby discouraging proliferation among nations. If we begin to dismantle our triad, will other nations begin to question our intent to uphold our defense treaties? Then, will we have to worry about nations like South Korea, Japan, or worse, a Middle Eastern country trying to create their own Weapons of Mass Destruction?

    Of course, I'm no expert. Our nuclear force is a pretty big drain on resources that could be spend elsewhere, whether it be on maintaing non-nuclear military systems or rebuilding crumbling highway infrastructure.

    --Tom

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    1. Tom, your point about the nuclear umbrella is excellent. As you say, and others have pointed out, if we drop our nuclear shield below a critical threshold we may well trigger a nuclear arms race by friends and foes seeking to fill the vacuum for their own protection or more nefarious reasons.

      Is the mere existence of our nuclear arms preventing a widespread nuclear arms race? An interesting thought!

      Good comment!

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  7. Well.... I'm sure I might tick off the other services.. but I'd almost rather see the bombers and the silos go away. At least the silos. IIRC alot of our Minuteman III missiles are quite old; and that's all that's left out there. They could still be effective, but I'm wondering if the cost of maintaining them (and defending their fixed sites) will continue to grow.

    The Bombers have a place, but I don't think they'll be as effective. The BONE might be able to make flights into enemy territory to hit its targets. I don't think the B-52 could. (though it has other roles).

    The SSBN's though are effective, can serve as a first strike or retaliatory strike platform, are *extremely* difficult to find and kill, and can hold enough missiles to act as our nuclear deterrent.

    To me, in an age of budget tightening, I think we could go with these and retire the other two legs.

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    1. Jim, that's an interesting twist on the author's premise. Unfortunately, I don't know enough to even have an intelligent opinion. Good thought, though!

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    2. Silos and the missiles in them are pretty inexpensive to maintain once setup. However, new construction of missiles and silos would be a crushing expense. The Peacekeeper missiles we built in the 80s and 90s to replace the Minuteman 3 cost $70-80 million for each missile, with total costs running around $400 million to get it in the ground and operational. You can do the math on what a modern replacement might run...

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    3. Minuteman 3s are expected to be in service till 2030*.

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  8. I am unsure of the difference in accuracy between the land-based Minteman III missiles and the Trident D5 missiles, but if the difference is negligible, then the Ohio-replacement program is a better bet in the long run than the land-based missiles are, given its mobility and stealth.

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  9. The idea has been put forth in these comments to keep the SSBNs and let the land and air legs of the triad go. I'm not arguing for or against that - I just don't know enough - but here's a related thought:

    If I understand it correctly, it appears that we have 450 land silos. By comparison, when the new SSBN enters service we'll have 12 submarines. At any given moment, around a third (4) are on patrol and available. If we were to abandon the land and air legs, that's a lot of risk riding on 4 (or 12 total) subs. Could an enterprising enemy (China) kill 4 subs? Would that be easier than destroying 450 dispersed silos? Just thinking out loud.

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    1. I hope we continue to use all 3 in the future. I remember reading about how the Russians were caught trailing on of Britains Vanguards, so if the Chinese sneak in and trail all 4 of ours at the same time, then that would be very dangerous for us. But then again that would take immense effort, and would be major disaster if they were caught doing that.

      On the other hand, they know where all of our silos are, and a first strike with subs could see all of them destroyed if they manage to knock out a large portion of the chain of command. I am quite sure we don't operate on LOW anymore. (Launch on Warning) If they struck most of our relevant early warning sites too, that would give those left in the chain of command less than 10 minutes to make a decision. Maybe 5, due to launch prep and whatnot.

      Off topic: One of the things I have wondered about, is what we would do if just subs started launching at us? How would we identify who was shooting at us so we could respond? Launch at everyone we don't like to make sure we get them? It's one thing for our satellites to see the launches coming from Siberia, it's another thing indeed if they come out of the Pacific.

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    2. Supposedly, we trailed Soviet boomers at all times. Presumably, (geez, I hope!)we do the same for Chinese subs. If so, the launch location and our trailing subs would quickly provide positive ID. If we're not trailing them then we're idiots and our Navy leadership is even more inept than I've thus far accused them of being.

      I suppose Russian subs could launch (if I were the Navy, I'd still be trailing them, too) but Russia would have absolutely nothing to gain so it seems highly unlikely.

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    3. CNO; I wasn't aware we had that many land silos. For whatever reason I thought we had drawn that down by quite a bit. I'm of two minds: A) I don't think that we can replace that with the tridents we have, unless B) we close those 450 and use the money to build more SSBN's. However, the politics and economics behind that are staggering. I don't see any chance of convincing the air force to get out of the nuclear game. And you'd be early retiring an already sunk cost.

      That said, I worry that we don't have a follow on for the minuteman III; at least not that I know of. When they retire, what happens to all of those silos and missiles?

      (As an aside, I worked with a guy who was a missal launcher back in the day. Not a job I'd want.)

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    4. Jim, you've loosely summed up the future dilema. The Minuteman is scheduled to be replaced in 2030 or so, I think. The development and replacement costs will be staggering. Do we maintain all the legs of the triad? If so, how do we pay for them? Are they even needed? Could we get rid of one or two legs. While 2030 seems far off, given the lead time for development of new weapons, it's just around the corner. That's why the article is quite timely. Whether you agree or disagree with the author, he's raising questions that our national and military leadership need to be answering now so that we can begin planning. Hopefully, that's what they're doing but I have my doubts!

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  10. By the time new SSBNs would be in service (probably not before 2030), not only countries like Russia and China will have effective (not perfect, but highly effective) ballistic missile defences. By 2030, countries like Iran and North Korea will also have effective missile defences.

    Spending $100 billion on an (optimistically) undetectable and invulnerable platform that exists solely to launch obsolete and impotent weapons doesn't make a lot of sense to me. That $100 billion would, in my opinion, be much better spent on missile defences.

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    1. MC, assuming you grant that no defense is perfect and that it doesn't take but a few nuclear missiles to get through a defense, ours or an enemy's, do you still view the SSBN as not worth the money?

      Also, the only way we can influence an enemy country is by offensive threats. Defensive measures don't threaten other countries. If you don't want to spend the money on SSBNs, how do you propose to threaten other countries who might want to attack us with nuclear weapons?

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    2. A country such as Iran or North Korea (or any country) is either rational or not rational. Let's consider both cases.

      Case 1: They're rational. They have, say, 100 missiles and estimate that 1 or 2 or 5 could get through our defences. They know that, following such a scenario, the American people would be 100 times more pissed off than after 9/11 and we would send the marines and they would no longer be in power or enjoy a nice life. Any rational country would be dissuaded.

      Case 2: They're irrational. If they're irrational, no counter-strike capability will deter them at all. They may believe that attacking the US will result in going to paradise and getting to enjoy 69 fresh virgin boys every week for eternity, or any other crazy idea. If any country might acquire nuclear weapons and become irrational, the best we can do is prepare to defend ourselves as best we can.

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    3. MC, I think there's a third case that lies between the two you described. Iran, NK, and China may have rational leaders but may see a different "rationality" than we do. Specifically, they won't risk total annihilation that means their own deaths (that's the rational part) but may be willing to accept a nuclear exchange that works out in their favor. While they may lose a few cities or hundreds of thousand civilian deaths, what do they care? They can always grow more people. That's the irrational part from our perspective but it may seem rational to them.

      In this case, the threat of counter-strike is a deterrent (because they're rational to a point) unless we allow the threat to deteriorate to the point that an exchange seems like a win to them (that's the irrational aspect, at least as we view it).

      What do you think?

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    4. Missile defenses against nuclear tipped ICBMs are a joke and will always be a joke. Do you know why we stopped using nuclear tipped interceptors? It was because they would blind their own radars and thereby allow follow on enemy missiles to attack us while we couldn't even track them. You see a nasty side effect of the detonation of a high attitude nuclear blast is a electromagnetic pulse. Now a nuclear HEMP will also ionize the upper atmosphere turning it into a plasma (remember plasma stealth?) and render it impassable to radar waves temporarily. Depending on the size of the nuclear explosion the effect could last for hours. Now what is to stop an enemy from intentionally doing this with his own ICBMs or SLBMs, to open up a way for a first strike? If your sea and/or ground based radar can't direct your interceptors to the enemy ballistic missiles attacking you, then what use are your missile defenses? All the attacking country has to do is stage their first strike a few minutes apart. Missile defense is a technology that can be overcome by simiple tactics. Like say nuclear tipped air/sea launched cruise missiles destroying your tracking radars. Oh wait, our missile defenses can't even descriminate between anything other than decoys that look nothing like warheads (large spherically shaped balloons versus cone shaped warheads) and are bigger than the warhead itself, with real warheads. I sure hope the Russians and the Chinese don't put rod and/or cone shaped decoys on their ICBMs. Oh, then you could simply put more warheads on your missiles, tear up arms control treaties and build more missiles. And since you want to hit a bullet with a bullet, what happens when I make my warhead manueverable? Now your interceptor has to be more manueverable than my warhead to intercept it. But I can make my warhead as manueverable as your interceptor. Now combine MARVs with fractional orbital bombardment to diverisfy flight plans. You now need more interceptors in more places. All these are reasons why we gave up on ABM defense during the Cold War. The technology was useless! There are simply to many ways to overcome missile defense when you are talking about nukes.

      Nevertheless, the religion of missile defense continues unabated because people want to use it to aid in a first strike against an opponent. That is the real reason for missile defense and stealth bombers. You attack first, nuke your opponent to hell, destroy most of his nukes, and then attempt to weather his second strike . And if we ever pull this first strike capablity off, then it gives any and all nuclear opponents the incentive to strike first and use it before they lose it. Missile defense isn't about surviving an enemy first strike, it is about being able to conduct your own. And it is highly destabilizing because if we ever get it right then Russia/
      China has an incentive to immediately nuke us before we nuke them.

      E.L.S.

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    5. There is probably a Pentagon slide somewhere with this:
      1) Take out land based silos- Rods from God, Boost-Glide Hypersonic Weapon, Conventional Ballistic Missile
      2) Take out road mobile ICBM- Long Range Persistent Endurance Stealth UCAV
      3) Take out SSBN threat- UUVs
      4) Missile defense to handle anything left.
      5) Impose American will on our opponent.

      Problem comes when the other guy has the same slide. They would just have to nuke us before we forcefully disarmed them. Well the good news is that there is plenty of land in rural America available.

      E.L.S.

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  11. I think the leaders of a country, such as you describe, are not at all deterred by a second-strike capability because they would sit it out in their bunkers. They wouldn't care if they lost a million civilians to a few warheads that might leak through their defences. Such leaders are only deterred by the threat of an invasion which would remove them from power.

    I think the deterrence value of a second-strike capability is already small compared to the deterrence value of a possible invasion and getting smaller every year.

    On the other hand, the stronger our missile defences are, the less attractive it is for any enemy to build an offensive force.

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    1. How does one sit out a second strike? The result would be a radioactive wasteland and the leaders would be condemned to life in a bunker. That would seem likely to have a deterrent effect, don't you think?

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    2. It depends on whether we're talking about real nuclear weapons or Hollywood. If your hypothetical semi-rational enemy leaders base their beliefs about the effects of nuclear weapons on Hollywood, then perhaps they might be deterred by the idea of spending months or years in a shelter. On the other hand, if they base their beliefs on what their scientists tell them or read serious sources (for example, Glasstone and Dolan's definitive book The Effects of Nuclear Weapons or Cresson Kearny's Nuclear War Survival Skills), then they'll expect to spend days or weeks in a shelter, depending on the direction of prevailing winds, etc.

      So, Hollywood nuclear weapons might have a deterrent effect against the semi-rational leaders you describe, but real nuclear weapons would not.

      BTW, it only took a few years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki recovered to the point where no one who didn't know exactly where to look for war memorials would have been able to find any residual effects. Eizo Nomura was 170 meters from ground zero in Hiroshima. He lived into his 80s. Several trainloads packed with refugees from Hiroshima went to Nagasaki, so there were thousands of "double survivors". The first double survivor to be official recognized as such was Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a resident of Nagasaki who had been on a business trip to Hiroshima, who lived to be 93.

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    3. MC, you make a good point about the long lasting effects of nuclear weapons. In addition to the Japanese cities, the effects on the Bikini Atoll have been far less than what was predicted. Medical studies have long shown that nuclear effects on the body are less than predicted. Of course, much of that was based on the early WWII era bombs and the basic makeup has since changed. What impact that has, I don't know.

      I know we have specific "bunker busting" nuclear weapons that, again, would seem to provide a deterrent effect.

      Since you don't see a deterrent value in nuclear weapons what means, if any, do you see using to influence (threaten) other countries into desired behavior?

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  12. First let me clarify that I think that, today, there is still some deterrent value to nuclear weapons, at least with respect to rational enemies. I just don't believe there will be any significant deterrent value by 2030 or so -- both for the reasons I've already written above and because more time passes since the US actually used them in anger. I'm not in favor of reducing the current offensive force levels before they can be replaced by defences.

    Bunker buster bombs are too big and heavy to put on an ICBM. We could develop and build a bunker buster with a nuclear warhead that could fit on a Trident II missile, but that would be just one warhead per missile rather than the twelve possible with conventional MIRVs (of which only four or five are carried now). It would be a lot less capable than the best bunker busters we have now. Realistically, bunker busters are carried by aircraft.

    So, lets imagine the proposed new SSBN fleet of 12, each with 16 missiles, so a total of 192 bunker busters. Say five or ten make through the 2030-era missile defences of a country like Iran or North Korea (with countries like Russia or China, it's difficult to imagine more than one or two getting through -- zero if they have a fleet of chemical lasers in orbit plus ground-based interceptors). How many bunkers do they need to build to defeat such a strategy, knowing that we won't know which bunker they'll be in? We'd have to agree on several assumptions before we could even begin to apply probability theory (it's essentially a combinatorics problem) but suffice it to say that they could potentially have a lot of confidence.

    I have never been able to find a case of economic sanctions that were effective in changing national behavior -- with the one arguable exception of South Africa, where it's not clear whether or not the sanctions played a role. No matter how bad things may get for ordinary citizens, the leaders are always able to get whatever luxury goods they want.

    Ultimately, I think the only ways to influence the behavior of other countries are 1) setting incentives so that interests are aligned and 2) the threat of invasion. Rather than trying to influence the behavior of other nations, I think the US Navy should be focused on keeping open worldwide sea lines of communication (freedom of the seas) and on ensuring that no country can ever invade (or seriously threaten to invade) the US by sea. There may also be an ABM role for the Navy -- at least with respect to North Korea.

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