Published December 09. 2012 4:00AM
Unfortunately for future world peace, defense budget austerity might tempt Congress to not give high enough priority to the U.S. Navy's next-generation design to replace the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile strategic nuclear deterrent submarines, nicknamed "Boomers" and denoted as a type by "SSBN." But the global proliferation of long-range nuclear weapons remains a dangerous threat.
Since the end of the Cold War the governments of several nations, not all of them friends to democracy, have invested heavily to acquire and modernize their nuclear arsenals.
A survivable nuclear deterrent - one able to deliver a retaliatory second-strike no matter what - needs a triad based in part within a Navy's submarine fleet. Submarine survivability demands top quality, especially in stealth. A credible deterrent also needs ample numbers to allow for maintenance and training in peacetime and combat losses during war; the U.S. Navy has determined that 12 submarines of this new, developmental "SSBNX" class of boomers is the irreducible minimum.
Russia and China are now both fielding their own next-generation SSBNs, along with improved sub-launched strategic ballistic missiles. They are also working hard on better fast attack submarines - of the SSN type, armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles - to protect their SSBNs and harry an adversary's. A rapid learning curve on Moscow's and Beijing's parts, aided by big spending and aggressive espionage, means their technological and training standards could gradually catch up to America's. Effective parity is not inconceivable on a 2035 timeframe. In contrast, our SSBNX fleet will need to serve until 2080 alongside later versions of our own superb SSNs, the ahead of schedule and under budget Virginia-class fast attack submarines. Thus any shortfalls in quality or quantity will get locked in rather soon.
Israel reportedly has deployed deterrent nuclear cruise missiles on its small submarine fleet, within range of Iran. The world's biggest submarine exporter, Germany, provides Israel state-of-the-art diesel submarines, but might soon sell them to Egypt as well. Other countries, such as India, in a mutually assured destruction faceoff with Pakistan, and Brazil, which has sworn off nuclear arms, are starting to buy or lease their own nascent nuclear submarine forces.
Then there is North Korea. Despite best efforts at sanctions and diplomacy, the ruling Kim dynasty succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran makes more and more headway in at least the possibility of homegrown nukes, and has talked about basing its own diesel-powered deterrent submarines in the land-locked Caspian Sea.
One could argue that the world is falling into another undersea nuclear arms race, and the ideal response might be to not play along. But SSBNs even in peacetime can be used by aggressor states for intimidation; their existence, if unchallenged, lets bad actors bully the weak. History shows that economic sanctions alone do not deter dictators, that economic interdependencies do not prevent wars, and in an arms race it is whoever has the best arms and deploys them most skillfully who prevails.
Congress needs to expedite adequate funding for the new SSBNX strategic deterrent submarine program.
Joe Buff is an author of undersea warfare non-fiction and fiction books. He lives in Milan, N.Y.