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The SSBN in National Security

The SSBN in National Security

by ADM Richard W. Mies


Adaptability and responsiveness have long been hallmarks of our strategic submarine force. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, and our Nation was alarmed by an apparent missile gap, the Submarine Force was called upon to accelerate development of a ballistic missile submarine. Many people believed ballistic missiles were too large and dangerous for submarines – and that a submerged ballistic missile submarine was something from Jules Verne’s science fiction. But a handful of visionary, innovative people thought otherwise. A little more than three years later, USS George Washington (SSBN-598) went to sea on its first strategic deterrent patrol – the first of almost 3,500 patrols to date.

ADM Richard W. Mies

Admiral Richard W. Mies is Commander in Chief, United States Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The Command has responsibility for all U. S. Air Force and U. S. Navy strategic nuclear forces supporting the national security objective of strategic deterrence. Admiral Mies graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1967 with a Bachelor of Science degree with majors in mechanical engineering and mathematics. After completing training for submarine duty he served on two nuclear attack submarines, USS Sunfish (SSN-649) and USS L Mendel Rivers (SSN-686), and a ballistic missile submarine, USS Nathan Hale (SSBN-623) (BLUE), before commanding the nuclear attack submarine USS Sea Devil (SSN-664). He has served in various command positions including Commander Submarine Development Squadron Twelve, Commander Submarine Group Eight and, and Commander Submarine Force U. S. Atlantic Fleet. His staff positions include, Chief of Staff to Commander Submarine Force, U. S. Pacific Fleet, and Director Strategic Target Plans and Deputy Director Plans and Policy on the staff of Commander in Chief, U. S. Strategic Command. Admiral Mies has completed post-graduate education at Oxford University, England, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard University. He holds a Masters degree in government administration and international relations.   
The achievement was remarkable; George Washington was completed 5 years ahead of schedule and incorporated into a single weapon system many of the great scientific developments which have so revolutionized warfare - the nuclear warhead, the ballistic missile, nuclear propulsion, inertial guidance for navigation, and atmosphere regeneration and control. In the early days of the Cold War, we built 41 fleet ballistic missile (FBM) submarines in 7-1/2 years - an interesting comparison to today's construction rates and a remarkable statement about what our country can do when it sets its mind to it.

Without fanfare and recognition, our ballistic missile submarines patrolled the oceans of the Cold War in silent vigil, undetected and invulnerable, ready to strike, to deter our adversaries, and reassure our allies. And just as quietly, they set the standard for strategic deterrence and became the dominant leg of our strategic deterrent triad - our "ultimate insurance policy." As Colin Powell said on the occasion of the completion of the strategic submarine force's 3,000th patrol by USS Tennessee (SSBN-734),

"…the Cold War was won especially by…America's Blue and Gold crews manning America's nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine fleet…no one has done more to prevent conflict, no one has made a greater sacrifice for the cause of Peace, than… America's proud missile submarine family. You stand tall among all our heroes of the Cold War."

Today, the Cold War has been over for a decade, and in its wake we have emerged as the only true superpower in the international arena. At the same time, the world has changed dramatically since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The predictable, monolithic world we once faced has now been replaced by a multi-polar world of greater uncertainty - uncertainty in the hills of the Balkans, the streets of Somalia, the deserts of Iraq, and the bunkers of North Korea. And despite our singular superpower status, we find ourselves in a world of more diverse, asymmetric threats.

Strategic Nuclear Policy
Deterrence of both aggression and coercion is a cornerstone of our national security strategy. Our strategic nuclear forces serve as the most visible and important element of our commitment to this principle. Although the risk of massive nuclear attack has decreased significantly, and the role of nuclear weapons in our national military strategy has diminished, deterrence of major military attack on the United States and its allies, especially attacks involving weapons of mass destruction, remains our highest defense priority. Our National security strategy reaffirms that:

"Nuclear weapons serve as a hedge against an uncertain future, a guarantee of our security commitments to allies, and a disincentive to those who would contemplate developing or otherwise acquiring their own nuclear weapons." - A National Security Strategy for a New Century, 1998

Strategic Deterrence in the Post-Cold War Environment
As outlined in our National Military Strategy, although our Nation is at peace and the Cold War has ended, there remain a number of potentially serious threats to national security, including regional dangers, asymmetric challenges, transnational threats, and "wild cards." Russia still possesses, and continues to modernize, their substantial strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces. Because of the deterioration of their conventional forces and severe economic turmoil, Russia has placed increased reliance on nuclear weapons.

Russia has made great progress toward creation of a stable democracy, but that transition is not assured. Hence our strategic forces serve as a hedge against the possibility of Russia's reemergence as a threat to the U.S. and its allies. Although China possesses a much smaller nuclear force, it is modernizing its strategic forces, and we cannot discount the emergence of China as a potential threat.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery pose the greatest threat to global stability and security and the greatest challenge to strategic deterrence. The issue may not be whether weapons of mass destruction will be used against the West by a rogue nation or transnational actor, but where and when.

Accordingly, our present strategic force's mission reflects continuity with the past:

"To deter major military attack on the United States and its allies; and if deterrence fails, to employ forces,"

while simultaneously providing support to the geographic Commanders-in-Chief for countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery.

Strategic Force Structure
To deter a broad range of threats, our National Security Strategy requires a robust triad of strategic forces. Both the Nuclear Posture Review and the Quadrennial Defense Review have reaffirmed the wisdom of preserving a complementary strategic triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Each leg of the triad contributes unique attributes that enhance deterrence and reduce risk: Intercontinental ballistic missiles provide prompt response, bombers provide flexibility, and submarines provide survivability. Together they comprise a robust deterrent that complicates a potential adversary's offensive and defensive planning. The triad is also a synergistic force that provides protection against the failure of any single one of its legs.

Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) will continue to carry the largest portion of our strategic power, regardless of whether they are subject to START I or START II treaty ceilings. With approximately two-thirds of the force at sea at any one time, the SSBN force is the most survivable leg of the triad, providing the United States with a powerful, assured, retaliatory capability against any adversary.

Submarines at sea are stabilizing; by contrast, submarines in port are more vulnerable and could offer an extremely lucrative target in time of crisis. Thus, in any foreseeable arms control scenario, the United States must preserve a large enough SSBN force to enable two-ocean operations, with sufficient assets to ensure a retaliatory force at sea capable of dissuading any adversary in a crisis. Because the Russian Duma has failed to ratify the START II treaty, we have a Congressional mandate to maintain our strategic forces at START I levels. At the same time, the TRIDENT I, C4 missile is already beyond its design service life and can only be sustained at substantial cost and considerable risk to the middle of the next decade. Consequently, we have recently sought Congressional authority to transition the strategic submarine commitment from an 18-boat, mixed-missile force to a 14-boat, all TRIDENT II, D5 missile force. Backfit of four TRIDENT submarines to carry the D5 missile is the most cost-effective means to ensure a reliable sea-based deterrent well into the next century. A modernized 14-boat, two ocean, all D5 missile force is in many ways a more robust, credible, and reliable deterrent than the present 18-boat force.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles provide prompt response

bombers provide flexibility and submarines provide survivability
Intercontinental ballistic missiles provide prompt response, bombers provide flexibility, and submarines provide survivability.

Strategic Force Posture
Our strategic forces, particularly our strategic submarines, are postured to provide an assured response capability to inflict unacceptable damage to a potential enemy. Our strategic plans provide a wide range of options to ensure our Nation can react appropriately to any provocation, rather than being limited to an "all or nothing" response. Additionally, our forces are postured such that we have the capability to respond promptly to any attack, without relying upon "launch on warning" or "launch under attack." The high flexibility, survivability, and diversity of our strategic forces are designed to complicate any adversary's offensive and defensive planning calculations.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States has changed dramatically our strategic force posture: Our strategic forces no longer target other countries during normal peacetime operations. Our strategic bombers and their supporting tankers have not been on alert since 1991. Our Strategic Submarine Force, while positioned at sea for survivability, patrols under more relaxed and flexible conditions of alertness.

Strategic Force Reductions
From an historical perspective, the end of the Cold War has brought dramatic change to our strategic forces. Cooperative threat reduction, arms control, Presidential initiatives, and numerous confidence-building measures have brought about many positive developments in the strategic postures of the U.S. and Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, we have reduced our strategic nuclear systems by over 50 percent and non-strategic nuclear systems by over 75 percent. We have reduced the number of people involved in our strategic forces by approximately one-half and the number of military bases supporting them by approximately 60 percent. While overall defense spending has declined roughly 11 percent since the end of the Cold War, strategic force costs have dropped from eight percent of DoD's total obligation authority in 1990 to less than three percent today. This represents a pretty good "peace dividend" and a cost-effective premium on our Nation's "ultimate insurance policy."

These changes also reflect a new, constructive relationship between the United States and Russia - a relationship in which stability is a central consideration. Stability is the most important criterion to satisfy as we proceed down the glide slope to lower numbers of nuclear weapons. Dr. Thomas Schelling, a noted writer on international strategic matters has written:

"The dimension of 'strength' is an important one, but so is the dimension of 'stability' - the assurance against being caught by surprise, the safety in waiting, the absence of a premium on jumping the gun."

Because of their stabilizing attributes of survivability and assured response, strategic submarines will play an increasingly prominent role in future START environments. Both the Nuclear Posture Review and Quadrennial Defense Review reaffirmed the importance of 14 TRIDENT SSBNs each equipped with 24 D5 missiles as a part of the START II-compliant nuclear force structure. These capital ships will form the backbone of the Nation's strategic nuclear force well into the 21st century.

The SSBN Contribution: Survivable Deterrence
The TRIDENT submarine provides a formidable array of capabilities to the National Command Authorities (NCA). As previously mentioned, these ships are the most survivable leg of the triad. Additionally, TRIDENT submarines provide unsurpassed reliability. To date there have been nearly 3,500 SSBN patrols which account for almost 130,000 man-years spent on patrol; at the same time the D-5 missile system has established an unprecedented record of 85 consecutive successful test flights. In addition to survivability, several specific characteristics of this formidable platform make it an indispensable part of our Nation's triad:

Responsiveness. Because of its survivability, the TRIDENT weapon system can be effective under any strategic scenario. SSBNs can provide a sufficiently prompt response to meet any required mission, but their attack can be delayed as desired. Because TRIDENT submarines cannot be preempted, they are inherently stabilizing. There is no need to "use them or lose them." Response is assured, thus providing a highly credible deterrent.

Flexibility. TRIDENT submarines have a unique ability to move undetected to any launch point. This mobility provides NCA with the option of holding at risk virtually any spot on earth, while avoiding overflight concerns. Submarine launched ballistic missiles can be readily retargeted, providing additional flexibility. Additionally, the present patrol cycle affords more operational flexibility during mod-alert coverage periods, allowing our SSBNs to be available to support participation in national exercises (e.g., JTFEX, POMCERT), PCO operations, and other taskings not historically performed by strategic submarines.

Endurance. TRIDENT submarines have sustained an OPTEMPO in excess of 70 percent since the first TRIDENT patrol by USS Ohio. TRIDENT submarines operate at sea with no external support for long periods of time. They are truly limited only by the provisions which can be loaded.

Readiness. The SSBN force has trained and operated the same way we expect to fight - in the ocean depths and under conditions as close to actual contingen cies as possible. The TRIDENT force has demonstrated the ability to operate under unusual and extremely difficult circumstances. During a series of strategic continuity of operations (SCOOP) exercises, these ships have obtained patrol support under a variety of stressed scenarios, in places far from the dedicated bases at Bangor and Kings Bay. Some of these exercises included remote site replenishments, refits, and crew exchanges, an open-ocean torpedo reload from an anchored tender, at sea replenishment by helicopter, and port ingress/egress security exercises.

Connectivity. TRIDENT submarines are supported by a reliable, robust, and survivable communications network. Numerous communication resources, including the Navy E-6B Airborne National Com- mand Post (ABNCP), the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), TACAMO aircraft, and satellite and shore-based transmitters are tasked with SSBN support. These assets utilize multiple independent paths across the full frequency spectrum from extremely low frequency (ELF) to extremely high frequency (EHF) to ensure reliable, redundant connectivity from the NCA to the SSBN force. Long-term actual TRIDENT connectivity of greater than 99.99 percent has been demonstrated, and no alert TRIDENT submarine has ever missed an exercise launch order or actual retargeting message. The strategic connectivity system is robust, reliable, and functional in all postulated scenarios. The system has been thoroughly tested and is fully Y2K certified. If the NCA releases a message, it will get to the strategic submarine force. These and other attributes correlate well with our National Military Strategy and with the four concepts of precision engagement, full-dimensional protection, dominant maneuver, and focused logistics identified in Joint Vision 2010.

The Command Center at STRATCOM
The Command Center at STRATCOM

In his 1998 Congressional testimony, the Chief of Naval Operations reaffirmed the Nuclear Posture Review position that 14 of our existing TRIDENT submarines would be sufficient to meet U.S. national security requirements. Once the remaining four TRIDENT submarines are removed from strategic service, they have the potential to alter the shape of our maritime strategy and force structure by employing their intrinsic attributes in innovative and cost-effective ways. The concept of converting TRIDENT submarines to deliver special forces and strike missiles ashore - a submerged arsenal ship (SSGN) - is an exciting example.

The conventional roles these large-volume, very stealthy, and very capable ships could perform include carrying up to 154 land-attack missiles and/or a combination of dry deck shelters or Advanced SEAL Delivery Systems (ASDSs), along with 66 Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel. Initially, the advanced precision strike missiles would be Tomahawk, but the submarines could later be modernized to carry the Land Attack Standard Missile (LASM), or the Navy Tactical Missile (NTACM). Although there are arms control issues that may need to be solved to bring the SSGN concept to fruition, the tremendous advantages to the Nation make that effort worthwhile. While the ultimate cost of converting the four ships is subject to final design criteria, the dollar amount is small when compared with the cost of acquiring comparable platforms. Additionally, by using the SSGN to free other naval assets for directed tasking by the commander at sea, the cost of conversion also provides increased net ship availability to the warfighting commander.

When the four excess TRIDENT hulls are removed from strategic service beginning in 2002, each will have more than 20 years of useful life left. These ships represent an enormous capital investment by the United States, and careful consideration is called for before they are lost irretrievably beyond our reach. While the several possible variations are still being studied, the advantages of having these ships, armed with a significant number of advanced land attack missiles and SOF, are compelling. For example, during recent operations against Iraq, and also in the Kosovo conflict, several SSNs and surface ships were required on hand continuously for strike operations. As the number of ships in the fleet shrinks and each ship's individual capability grows, the relative value of each hull increases. This translates to increased opportunity cost for each ship that is unavailable to perform the full spectrum of missions for which it was designed. With a TRIDENT SSGN available to cover strike tasking, the remaining ships in the Iraq and Kosovo scenarios would have been available for other missions, such as reconnaissance, anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, theater missile defense, or maritime interdiction operations, or any of the advanced warfare missions that today's Navy provides. This increased operational flexibility is an extremely attractive tactical advantage, which an SSGN could provide.

The operational impact on potential adversaries is likewise compelling. Opposing forces react defensively to observable events, such as positioning strike platforms within reach of potential targets. This results in our striking targets that were emptied or otherwise rendered less valuable because the enemy had time to prepare. If a strike platform is covert, the unpredictability and subsequent impact of its operations would be greatly magnified. Additionally, the inherent ability of the submarine to conduct intelligence and indications-and-warning operations only improves the commander's situational awareness and ability to get inside the enemy's decision loop to maximize any strike/SOF operations.

While several SSNs have the ability to insert SOF, none would have the large capability inherent in the SSGN. Once again, with his the SSNs freed to conduct other taskings by using the SSGN in the SOF role, the commander's forces would be multiplied. USS Sam Houston, USS John Marshall, USS Kamehameha and USS James K. Polk have already paved the way for converting SSBNs to SOF operations.

Basing the SSGN submarine on a TRIDENT leverages years of operational experience and support of the TRIDENT weapon system. Four converted SSGNs at the present TRIDENT operating bases could provide one ship continuously available in both the Atlantic and Pacific. These ships would utilize the already well proven two-crew concept, along with our extended operational experience gained from previously conducted SCOOP exercises, in order to provide continuous two-ship presence, while still providing time for crew certification, crew exchange, and regular ship maintenance. The recent great advances in submarine communications, along with the room available in a TRIDENT sail for additional enhancements, could provide the necessary connectivity for any strike and SOF missions.

Finally, the utility of these ships extends beyond our current capabilities. Their size, flexibility, and growth volume make them ideal platforms for new initiatives in undersea warfare, such as unmanned underwater and air vehicles (UUVs, and UAVs) and new command/control or sensor developments.

Our strategic forces stand as America's "ultimate insurance policy"- a cost effective force which is the underpinning of our national securitystrategy. This requires a strategic military capability that directlyaffects an adversary's decision process. This task goes beyond the ability to destroy forces on a battlefield. It is the ability to encourage peace rather than war, restraint rather than escalation and conflict termination rather than continuation. Our SSBN force has played and will continue to play a vital role in America's strategic defense.

Since the beginning when, against long odds, the SSBN force came into being,it has helped keep the world peace. Our SSBNs played a critical, if not the pivotal, role in winning the Cold War and they play a critical role inmaintaining stability and security in today's changing world. Today's SSBNforce is reflective of the imperatives placed on all of our strategicforces. Our two-ocean Trident submarine force is one of immense capability requiring a relatively modest national investment.

Today more than half the Nation's strategic arsenal is carried byTRIDENT submarines using less than 1.5 percent of naval personnel and at a cost of less than 35 percent of the strategic budget. That's a bargain, that's leverage, and that's relevance.

The strategic submarine force has a proud heritage, rich in tradition. They also have a promising future. Because our national leaders are committed to maintaining a viable, robust, and credible strategic deterrent, the submarine force will remain an indispensable element of our deterrent strategy well into the 21st century. No one has done more to prevent conflict than the men and women of our strategic forces.

Our SSBN force is manned by the Nation's best and its brightest, charged with operating the greatest technological marvel to ever put to sea. They are what defines the strategic submarine force. They are the best-trained, best-prepared and most capable sailors in the world. Our Nation is safer because of them.


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