Don’t Scrap America’s Ballistic Missile Submarines

Some argue that the U.S. should eliminate its SSBNs or “boomers” to save money. Don’t listen.

Last week, Bryan McGrath of Information Dissemination made a surprising argument about the U.S. Navy’s boomer flotilla. McGrath argued that rather than spend a tremendous amount of money replacing the force (which will reach obsolescence by 2040), the U.S. should seek alternative deterrent options. 

This argument comes at an interesting time for world Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN) fleets. In the United Kingdom, the battle over the Trident replacement has been fully joined, with many in Labour suggesting that expensive new boomers are a waste of money. At the same time, other SSBN operators have decided to modernize their fleets. The Russians continue to push forward with the Borei-class submarines, while the PLAN has now built up to five of the Type 094 class boomer.  India’s first SSBN, INS Arihant, will likely enter service in the first half of 2013. Only France, with submarines roughly a decade newer than the UK, is not currently pursuing a substantial revision of its SSBN force.

McGrath’s case rests on five points.  First, boomers take up a disproportionate share of the shipbuilding budget for the utility they provide.  Second, in the modern nuclear environment “survivability” means considerably less than it did in the Cold War.  Third, eliminating the boomers might open the door to more effective conventional strike options, including Prompt Global Strike. Fourth, it allows the Navy to concentrate on warfighting and forward presence, rather than strategic deterrence.  Finally, if the global political environment changes, we can always build new boomers.

As much as I would like to agree with McGrath’s argument, I’m not convinced.  I do think that Trident replacement is a waste of resources for the United Kingdom, but then the UK does not play the same kind of global role as the United States. While concerns about boomers crowding out other platforms should be taken seriously, other parts of the triad suffer from similar problems.  The U.S. ballistic missile force is aging, although some studies suggest that the basic architecture could remain in place as late as 2075.  The bomber force has also grown old, even as the Air Force has increasingly diverted bombers to non-nuclear tasks. 

Any option, thus, involves unpleasant decisions. Maintaining all three legs of the triad probably won’t be possible.  Because long range bombers inherently have dual conventional and nuclear purpose, the United States cannot eliminate the bomber leg in any traditional sense, although it can reduce numbers and certain metrics of readiness. Thus, the choice comes down to the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force and the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) force.  My own view is that the United States can accept a lower threshold for at sea nuclear deterrence, but this leg should still retain a rump deterrence capability.  Survivability concerns may not be what they were, but they are still relevant, and SSBNs have both survivability and flexibility advantages over ICBMs. It isn’t accidental that China, India, and Russia are all choosing to develop or upgrade their SSBN capabilities at the same time. Concerns about shipbuilding costs should be remedied by resource transfers between services; if the Air Force no longer operates an ICBM force, then funding can (at least theoretically) shift towards the Navy.

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Replacement of the Ohio boats will still be expensive, but circumstances may allow life extension beyond current expectations. The long term answer may not be an entirely new SSBN design, but rather a modified Virginia class boat that could carry ballistic missiles. The Navy has argued that this design would become more expensive than an Ohio replacement, but issues of number and vulnerability may prove more manageable if the option is no boomers at all.  No other state in the world can match such a capability, and yet the U.S. presumably feels deterred from launching pre-emptive nuclear attacks on China or Russia.  A reduced SSBN force is still the best option for providing a foundational level of nuclear security.