Are U.S. Submarines Vulnerable?
The most survivable leg of the U.S. strategic nuclear Triad of bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are the submarines. Ballistic missile submarines are the last best line of deterrence and defense to defeat surprise nuclear attack.
Today, U.S. strategic bombers and ICBMs have never been more vulnerable to a surprise attack. U.S. strategic bomber bases are reduced from 45 during the Cold War to just three today. Unlike Cold War readiness, today no U.S. strategic bombers are nuclear-armed on strip alert, ready to fly on short-warning. Even North Korea could destroy all U.S. B-52 and B-2 bombers by surprise nuclear attack on their three bases at Minot AFB (North Dakota), Whiteman AFB (Missouri), and Barksdale AFB (Louisiana).
U.S. ICBMs are reduced from about 1,000 during the Cold War armed with about 2,000 warheads, to 400 ICBMs with 400 warheads today.
Russia's SS-18 ICBM, armed with ten warheads, or China's DF-5 ICBM also ten warheads, could with just 50 missiles deliver 500 warheads having yield/accuracy combinations capable of a disarming surprise first strike destroying:
- All U.S. strategic command centers, like NORAD HQ at Peterson AFB and NORAD’s Alternate HQ inside Cheyenne Mountain;
- All U.S. strategic bombers;
- All U.S. ICBMs;
- Two-thirds of U.S. SSBNs (9-10 submarines) typically anchored at King's Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington.
Thus, the chief U.S. deterrent against surprise nuclear attack is 4-5 U.S. SSBNs normally on patrol at sea, from a total fleet numbering 14 ballistic missile submarines (reduced from 35-45 Cold War SSBNs). Today’s 14 Ohio-class SSBNs will be replaced beginning in 2031 with a smaller new fleet numbering 12 Columbia-class SSBNs, slightly reducing submarines sustainable on daily patrol from 4-5 boats to 4 boats.
Anything that threatens the survivability of U.S. submarines on patrol at sea would fundamentally undermine U.S. nuclear deterrent credibility and could have the gravest consequences imaginable—including inviting a surprise nuclear attack.
Bad Idea—The W76-2
Due to Russian cheating on the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiative, the U.S. retains only about 180 aged tactical nuclear gravity bombs bunkered in Germany and Turkey. Gone are virtually all 15,000 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, dismantled more or less unilaterally.
Today, Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear weapons is overwhelming, outnumbering the U.S. by at least 10-to-1, and perhaps much more. Russia originally had 20,000 tactical nuclear weapons which some official Russian sources claim is reduced to 7,000 (not to 2,000 weapons, assumed by most U.S. analysts, making Russia’s superiority “only” 10-to-1, not 35-to-1). Moreover, Russia has new generation tactical and strategic nuclear weapons for specialized effects having no counterparts in the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Russia’s numerical and technological advantages in nuclear weapons support a dangerous new strategy of nuclear blackmail and warfighting, wherein Moscow thinks about prevailing over NATO through nuclear intimidation, limited nuclear use, or if necessary all-out nuclear war.
China is moving in the same direction, deploying increasingly sophisticated offensive nuclear capabilities. Until recently, North Korea has successfully been nuclear blackmailing the U.S. and allies for years. Pyongyang in 2017 successfully tested an H-bomb they describe as capable of “super-powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack” that could blackout North America.
The U.S., to address the crisis, plans to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon—the W76-2—on Ohio and Columbia ballistic missile submarines, to counter these growing tactical and strategic nuclear threats.
The Heritage Foundation's Michaela Dodge, in her excellent report "New START and the Future of U.S. Nuclear Strategy," notes the very grave implication of using the W76-2 to convert SSBNs into a tactical nuclear weapons platform:
"To understand the seriousness of the issue, one must realize that uploading a low-yield warhead on a Trident II D5 SLBM means that the United States is not able to use these particular missiles for its higher-yield nuclear warheads, thus trading off part of its strategic nuclear weapons capability for tactical nuclear weapons. The Trump Administration judged the developments in Russia's doctrine to be so serious that it was willing to make that trade."
Currently, U.S. Ohio-class SSBNs each carry 20 missiles (reduced from 24 missiles), with a mix of high-yield strategic warheads, some missiles armed with the W76-1 warhead (100 kilotons) and some with the W88 warhead (475 kilotons). Their yield/accuracy combinations can hold at risk hundreds of adversary highest-value targets, including hardened underground bunkers, military bases, and industrial targets.
The capability of U.S. SSBNs to threaten adversary highest-value targets deters nuclear war. In the event of nuclear conflict, our high-yield W-76-1 and W88 warheads would deter attack against U.S. highest-value targets—including U.S. cities and 330 million American lives.
The W76-2 tactical nuclear weapon is just the primary of the W-76-1, reducing its yield from 100 kilotons to 5 kilotons (and thereby also continuing the U.S. unilateral moratorium on developing a new design, advanced nuclear weapons).
The W76-2 is an act of desperation, dangerous to U.S. national security:
- Every W76-2 that replaces high-yield W76-1 and W88 warheads reduces U.S. capability to threaten adversary highest-value targets and puts at greater risk U.S. highest-value targets, including U.S. cities.
- Launching a tactical nuclear weapon like the W76-2 from a ballistic missile submarine runs the very high risk the adversary will assume the worst, that he is under attack by a high-yield W76-1 or W88, and escalate to a massive preemptive strategic strike against the United States. On January 25, 1995, Russia nearly did precisely this when Moscow mistakenly thought a Norwegian meteorological rocket was an incoming U.S. submarine missile performing an EMP attack (see my book War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink).
- The effectiveness of W76-2 as a tactical nuclear weapon, given its ballistic trajectory, accuracy, and time-on-target (launched from an SSBN that may be thousands of kilometers away) is dubious. Unlike Russian advanced tactical nuclear weapons having adjustable yields and are "clean" making little or no radioactive fallout, W76-2's yield is not adaptable to the tactical situation and being plutonium is very "dirty." Presidents and especially NATO allies may be loath to explode over Europe even one W76-2, 5-kilotons of radioactive fallout, enough to irradiate the territories of smaller NATO European states.
Most importantly, the W76-2 tactical nuclear mission threatens the far more critical strategic mission of SSBNs by risking the submarine's destruction. The most plausible tactical nuclear scenarios entail launching only one or a few weapons early in a conflict—giving the adversary a golden opportunity to locate and destroy our submarines.
The late great James Schlesinger (former Secretary of Defense under two presidents, CIA Director, and one of our nation’s most profound strategic thinkers) once warned: “As soon as you fire, you expose the boat.”
Washington elites, encouraged by the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense, have for too long assumed U.S. SSBNs are invulnerable, a dangerous assumption also in the Nuclear Posture Review that advocates W76-2 giving a tactical nuclear mission to ballistic missile submarines--because of their alleged invulnerability.
However, even during the Cold War, serious people warned that Moscow—using means much less sophisticated than those available today—could pose significant threats to the survival of U.S. submarines. Forgotten, those Cold War threats and new threats arriving on the scene largely ignored should be considered now—before we make the destruction of our SSBNs easier for adversaries by the W76-2.
Espionage Threatens SSBNs
Old fashioned spy-craft and new-fashioned cyber-espionage could pose a mortal threat to U.S. submarines—as spying did during the Cold War. Cold War Soviet agent John Walker and his spy ring, for example, had access to information disclosing positions of U.S. submarines that he provided to the USSR. Soviet double-defector KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko had Walker in mind when, in describing how the KGB scored against the U.S. Navy, he remarked: “We deciphered millions of your messages. If there had been a war, we would have won.”
U.S. Navy Secretary, John Lehman, shared Yurchenko’s opinion of the damage done by the Walker spy ring: “Had we been engaged in any conflict with the Soviets, it could have had the devastating consequences that Ultra had for the Germans.”
Then CIA Director, Admiral William Studeman, said the Walker ring betrayal of U.S. Navy secrets created "powerful war-winning implications for the Soviets" and "jeopardized the backbone of this country's national defense." Also, former CIA Deputy Director, George Carver, who spent much of his 24-year career working cryptography and communications, believed Moscow could continue exploiting the Walker data “for years and even decades.” Carver:
"The United States…can never be positive that it has locked all the barn doors…cannot be totally confident about the security of its communications, particularly its military and especially naval communications. And the damage thus was done…could significantly, if not irrevocably, tilt the very strategic balance on which our survival as a nation depends."
Whether and to what extent Russia and China can find U.S. SSBNs is unknown. Maybe they are entirely in the dark. Or, maybe their spies know the location of every U.S. submarine.
Oceans Transparent Already?
During the Cold War and today, Moscow for decades spent vast resources on an enormous array of technologies, including satellites like EORSAT, trying to locate U.S. submarines hiding at sea. Today, Russia and China have hydroacoustic capabilities for locating SSBNs far more technologically sophisticated than those available to the USSR during the Cold War.
Cold War defense analyst Roger Speed, then a consultant to the U.S. Navy, calculated Soviet ships sweeping the oceans with towed hydrophone arrays could locate U.S. SSBNs for destruction in two days. According to Speed’s book Strategic Deterrence in the 1980s:
“The development of a line array of hydrophones that can be towed through the water represents a potential breakthrough in acoustic ASW technology….this new technology could pose a serious threat to SSBNs. If the detection range is…at least 50 nm, the SSBN patrol area can be searched in two days or less.”
Modern technology is making possible miracles, such as rendering transparent the jungles of Guatemala. LiDAR (Light Detection And Range) in 2018 used airborne laser technology to penetrate Guatemala’s thick jungle canopy, discovering 60,000 previously unknown Mayan ruins, including hundreds of previously hidden Mayan cities and towns, revolutionizing archaeology and re-classifying the Maya as among the greatest civilizations. LiDAR’s revolution in surveillance technology is the product of collaboration between private sector Teledyne Optic Titan and the University of Houston—not great power nation states.
We should not rule out the possibility Russia and China have achieved a technological breakthrough in locating submarines—which they would keep secret until wartime. If submarines can be found, they can be destroyed.
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM)
ASBMs are a new technology that combines ballistic missiles with maneuvering warheads having electro-optical, infrared, or other seekers to precisely target even moving vessels for destruction. China’s DF-26 and DF-21 pose long-range threats to U.S. aircraft carriers, outranging carrier aircraft, threatening to upset the balance of power in the Pacific.
Even Iran has developed ASBMs, the medium-range Khalij Fars (Persian Gulf) and short-range Fateh-110, that have been used successfully to target a ship, appearing to demonstrate an accuracy of 8 meters. ASBMs armed with nuclear warheads could destroy submarines, even if the SSBN location is not known precisely, just approximately. The underwater shockwave from a nuclear weapon would have a very large lethal radius, extending many kilometers against an SSBN.
ICBMs too could be used to destroy SSBNs with a nuclear barrage of their ocean patrol area, even with considerable uncertainty about the submarine's location. A 1981 study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment suggested the Soviets could conceivably attack submarines with ICBMs.
President Reagan’s White House Science Advisor, George Keyworth, in a 1984 TV interview warned: "A…warhead such as the SS-18 carries ten of when dropped in the water…will destroy any submarine within a distance of about seven miles." According to Keyworth, if the Soviets could roughly locate U.S. submarines, “find out approximately where they are, not track them the way we did in the Second World War, but just know approximately if they are in that 100-mile by 100-mile square…then they can be destroyed in a preemptive attack.”
My book Nuclear Wars: Exchanges and Outcomes (1990) calculated that Moscow, using only their SS-19 ICBMs, could destroy all U.S. SSBNs, if their at-sea locations are very roughly known, at a time when the U.S. had 36 SSBNs (not as today 14 reducing to 12 SSBNs). My calculations indicated our submarines will be most vulnerable if their locations are disclosed by launching even one missile for a limited nuclear strike—as is now planned for tactical nuclear scenarios employing the W76-2.
My report POSEIDON: Russia’s New Doomsday Machine (2018) warns that this new Russian nuclear autonomous “torpedo” may be a secret weapon to destroy U.S., British and French SSBNs. Poseidon is a nuclear-powered robot submarine or torpedo, armed with a nuclear warhead described by various Russian sources as ranging from 2-200 megatons, the later by far the most powerful nuclear weapon ever built. The yield may be mission selectable.
Moscow advertises Poseidon’s mission as a doomsday machine, designed to raise radioactive tsunamis to inundate the U.S. coasts, or to destroy U.S. ports, or to trail and destroy U.S. aircraft carrier groups. None of these missions makes sense for Poseidon, as Russia can already accomplish all of them by other existing means.
The one mission that makes the most sense for Poseidon, not mentioned by Russia, is trailing and destroying at-sea SSBNs. Nuclear-powered, Poseidon could tail SSBNs for months or years, waiting outside ports for their target to resume patrols. Artificially Intelligent, Poseidon could be programmed to recognize the acoustic signature of its target submarine and detonate on command. The lethal radius of a 100-megaton warhead against submarines is over 100 kilometers. Russia plans to deploy 32 Poseidons. Perhaps not coincidentally, enough to assign two to tail each of 12 U.S. Columbia SSBNs and 8 Poseidons to target the 8 SSBNs of allies Britain and France.
EMP Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)
Super-EMP weapons deployed by Russia, China, and probably North Korea can generate 100-200 kilovolts/meter, far exceeding the U.S. military standard for EMP hardening—50 kilovolts/meter. Thus, across North America, even the best protected U.S. military forces—including the strategic Triad and its C3I—could be paralyzed.
U.S. SSBNs at sea cannot launch without receiving an Emergency Action Message (EAM) from the president. The EAM includes an unblocking code to arm nuclear warheads. Thus, submarines cannot execute nuclear strikes without the EAM.
A Super-EMP attack could destroy satellites, land-based VLF communications, TACAMO aircraft, and other redundant means to convey EAMs to submarines on patrol, neutralizing them. EMP could also attack submarines at sea directly.
A high-yield warhead detonated 400 kilometers above the ocean would generate an EMP field 2,300 kilometers in radius, an area nearly as large as North America. E3 EMP would penetrate the ocean depths and possibly couple into submarines, damaging electronics. Submarines would be especially vulnerable when deploying their very long antennae—which they need to do in order to receive EAMs.
W76-2 Obama’s Bad Idea?
Returning to the W76-2, which is attributed to the Trump Administration because it appeared in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, I wonder if this bad idea originated in the Obama Administration and is advancing through Obama-holdovers in the Pentagon?
The Obama Administration’s policy was to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear forces, hoping eventually to achieve "a world without nuclear weapons." They surely noticed Britain's adoption of a tactical nuclear mission for their Vanguard ballistic missile submarines contributed, by accident or design, to Obama’s anti-nuclear agenda.
Britain’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review began the U.K. on a slippery slope toward unilateral nuclear deep reductions. In 1998, consolidating tactical and strategic nuclear missions on Britain's SSBNs provided a rationale to cancel this role for bombers, eliminating nuclear-armed aircraft and turning the UK's nuclear deterrent into an SSBN monad. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rep. Adam Smith, Democrat Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, advised by such international anti-nuclear groups as Ploughshares, has proposed eliminating U.S. strategic nuclear bombers and ICBMs and relying on an SSBN monad reduced to 6 boats.
The UK’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review approved replacing high-yield strategic warheads with low-yield tactical warheads on submarines, while reducing the warhead load per missile, and also reducing the readiness of their SSBNs to fire, extending operational procedures to launch missiles "to days rather than minutes."
The UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review reduced Vanguard SSBN missiles per boat from 16 to 8. It also further reduced operational warheads to 5 per missile, thereby reducing the number of operationally available warheads “from fewer than 160 to no more than 120” compared to 520 during the Cold War.
While Ploughshares would approve, these measures significantly decrease the capability and credibility of the UK’s strategic deterrent. Some make their SSBNs more vulnerable to the threats described earlier.
Do not deploy W76-2 warheads on U.S. ballistic missile submarines or otherwise degrade SSBN capability to survive, threaten adversary highest-value targets, and deter attacks against U.S. highest-value targets, including American cities.
Deploy at least 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons to reduce Russia’s preponderant advantage. Nuclearize the U.S. Navy by proliferating preferably nuclear-armed cruise missiles on attack submarines, guided missile cruisers, destroyers and other vessels that can operate in forward areas to maximize survivability, accuracy, and time-on-target for tactical situations.
To reduce escalatory possibilities, as during the Cold War, U.S. strategic and tactical nuclear platforms should not mix capabilities and missions, but be distinct as possible.
A crash program to develop advanced new generation nuclear weapons should begin immediately. A crash program to deploy space-based missile defenses that could initially defend U.S. SSBNs and other Triad assets, eventually shield the U.S. and allied homelands and possibly render nuclear missiles obsolete, should begin immediately.
A highest-priority crash program to harden U.S. military and critical civilian infrastructures from EMP and cyber-attack should begin immediately. The potential of Russia, China, and even North Korea to possibly paralyze the U.S. Triad, including SSBNs on patrol, with an EMP "cheap shot" invites aggression.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, on the staffs of the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA.