The current issue of Proceedings has an interesting article on the SSBN(X)
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program will be far too expensive and, more importantly, the need for the submarine based leg of the strategic triad is no longer valid.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. Ohio
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?|
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
thought their centrifuges were secure before they were hacked. Speaking of which, Iran 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? China
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.