Friday, January 18, 2013

Why I Advocate Scrapping SSBN's

Several times in the past year, I have dropped mentions into my blog posts here at ID advocating that the US Navy be relieved of its strategic nuclear weapons watch, the latest of which was in my recent post about a GOP based national security strategy.  One of the pillars of such a strategy was to make real choices, choices that are strategically based, which challenge dogma, and which have real results.  Invariably, my suggestion that we move away from the nuclear triad solicits comments from those who believe my approach unwise.  They raise time-tested arguments and generally wish to engage me in a comment section debate.  I have avoided such a debate until now for two reasons: 1) my thinking was less mature than it is now  and 2) I generally don't like comment section serve and volleys.  Most of the time, I say what I say, you say what you say, and third parties then think for themselves.  I enjoy a good give and take in person, but do not derive much pleasure from its poor relation blog cousin.

It was clear however, that I needed to address this issue in some more coherent form.  Serious people disagree with me, people who I respect greatly, including the estimable Dr. Bridge Colby. Additionally, a piece on the Daily Caller earlier this month by Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Heritage Foundation brought my attention to the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Report co-authored by Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel. This report advocates a dramatic drop in the number and type of our nuclear weapons, in addition to removing the land-based ICBM portion of the nuclear triad from the inventory.  They do so for a number of reasons, most of which resonate with me.  Where we differ ultimately is on which leg of the triad to remove.

That Chuck Hagel would argue for the Global Zero position is not surprising; what might be surprising to some is the degree to which I agree with him and his co-authors, at least on the logic.

What is most gratifying to read in the Global Zero report is the readiness of its authors to take on what my friend Frank Hoffman calls the "Nuclear Priesthood" and the theology under which they have operated for decades.  By questioning long held dogma, the authors of the report give us the intellectual space necessary to consider the kind of strategic change that offers the prospect of real defense re-alignment appropriate to the 21st century security environment.  Just as Eisenhower saw the promise of nuclear weapons in the potential they provided to reduce conventional force levels, decision-makers now can and should evaluate the environment and realize that it has shifted.  Conventional deterrence simply means more today than it did in the 1950's, and the contribution of nuclear weapons to U.S. national security has significantly decreased.  I will not rehash the Global Zero logic here, I will only urge you to read it. Please don't ask me in the comments to state the logic--again, I am borrowing theirs.  My task here is to justify my position to scrap the SSBN force.

1.  Return on Investment.  In order to replace the Ohio Class SSBN's, the U.S. will spend approximately $350B over the course of 30 years in total ownership costs, over half of which would logically come out of Navy shipbuilding and operations accounts.  For the life of the acquisition program, roughly half of the Navy's shipbuilding budget would be dedicated to building SSBN's, at a time when a shrinking fleet hazards the very basis upon which this entire approach hangs--conventional deterrence--which I take to be a far more valuable capability and naval contribution to U.S. national security.  Keep in mind....this $350B investment represents one of THREE methods at our disposal of accomplishing the increasingly dubious aims of strategic deterrence.  

2.  "Survivability" Hype.  When locked into a global nuclear superpower struggle with the Soviets, "survivability" had relevance as a discriminator in the psychology of nuclear exchange, though even then, it would be questionable whether anyone would wish to survive in a world in which the "second strike" was relevant.  Survivability simply isn't as important a discriminator today.  We have had decades of experience with nuclear weapons, and the prospect of a modern nation state with the capacity to launch a crippling first strike is so remote as to render preparing for such a strike financially irresponsible.  Those agents more likely to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons are far less likely 1) to buy into the psychology of survivability that justifies the our investment 2) to be deterred by the threat of nuclear weapons in the first place. 

3.  Conventional Flexibility.  One of the draw-backs to fielding an SSBN force is that we have built up a strategic arms control regime over the past few decades that severely restricts conventional capabilities, specifically, serious modern discussions about global conventional strike often immediately dismiss submarine launched conventional ballistic missiles because of the possibility that they might be mistaken for a nuclear launch.  Putting aside for a moment the fact that our current primary military planning focus (China) is in no way hamstrung by such concerns (nor is Iran, for that matter), we are under-utilizing what is perhaps our most notable competitive advantage over the Chinese, our SSN force.  While submarine launched TLAM's would likely be very important in a conflict with China, their dependence on GPS could jeopardize their effectiveness.  The development of a submarine launched conventional ballistic missile of sufficient range (likely to be in the current INF Treaty no-go zone)--one not dependent on satellites for targeting--ensures the ability to hold Chinese interests at risk in a satellite denied environment.  Treaty limitations (with the Soviets, now Russia) limit our ability to do this.  Many observers find themselves baffled (me included) as to why the Chinese--comparatively speaking--spend so little on ASW.  I have come to conclude that they simply don't fear our SSN advantage as much as we think they do...or should.  Giving them an important additional reason to fear it could alter the current "wrong side of cost curve" we find ourselves on by inducing them to spend more on both ASW and on Ballistic Missile Defense--which is also something they spend comparatively little on. We would also acquire a very useful capability for a war-time environment we would likely face.

4.  Reinforces the Emerging Role of American Seapower.  Were the Navy to be relieved of its "strategic global thermonuclear war" responsibilities, it would reinforce within the U.S. defense establishment the place of modern American Seapower as the primary method of U.S. military engagement, assurance and deterrence in the world--with the U.S. Air Force and Army assuming largely (but not solely) critical strategic war-fighting roles including nuclear deterrence, conventional major power war and the conduct of nuclear war. 

5.  Reversibility.  (Updated).  This one just occurred to me.  In the Defense Strategic Guidance issued by the Obama Administration a year ago, the concept of reversibility was raised there as one of the principles of their strategy.  I think it is a good one.  Applied here, it means that if for some reason, a new nuclear arms race broke out, we could change course and once again raise the triad.  We would not be--as we were in the '50's--building the SSBN capability from scratch.

I hope this is sufficient rationale to advance the conversation.  If I felt like a U.S. Defense establishment were capable of funding the conventional Navy sufficiently AND recapitalizing the SSBN force, I would withdraw this argument.  But the plain truth is that in order to do that (within this Administration's priorities), the Army and likely the Air Force would lose budget share in a manner that I believe is unlikely to occur as long as Jointness continues to euthanize true strategic thinking. 

Bryan McGrath

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