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A dangerous out-dated ”zombie” U.S. Navy policy on ballistic missile submarines

 one of those zombie policies that keeps going long after it ought to be dead and buried.

Failure to consider new technology may result in a situation where a nuclear first strike is seen as the only way to guarantee “winning” a war, despite the almost incomprehensible levels of destruction involved. As the situation gets complex with China developing its own submarine-based deterrent force, such instability will be dangerous to everyone.

Dismukes argues that to reduce this danger we have to recognize the two factors it stems from: advances in submarine detection technology; and a dubious, outdated U.S. policy on strategic ASW. The new administration should tackle that policy ASAP. 

 

A U.S. Navy policy on ballistic missile submarines may threaten the stability of the strategic nuclear balance.

This seems to be the result of the inertia of a strategy laid down in a different era, one which is becoming increasingly precarious as technology advances.

Previous administrations have failed to spell out the actual policy, preferring to keep it under wraps. Continuing this lack of clarity could prove catastrophic.

Bradford Dismukes is a strategy expert with thirty years’ experience at the Center for Naval Analyses or CNA, having headed a group which supported and developed U.S. Navy strategy. His new blog challenges ideas which have, as he says, “marched zombie-like out of the Cold War,” without being questioned. One such idea is the policy of Strategic Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), which Dismukes says makes nuclear escalation more likely, not less, if threatened in time of crisis or executed in war.

ASW is all about finding, tracking and destroying enemy submarines. Strategic ASW targets the submarines carrying nuclear missiles. During the Cold War, Strategic ASW was about tying up enemy forces and affecting the war on the ground, but now the situation is quite different.

Today, the Russians would have every reason to see the mission primarily as preparation for a U.S. first strike,” says Dismukes.

The rationale for putting missiles on submarines is to ensure second-strike capability. The argument is that while land and air-based weapons might be knocked out in a surprise attack, the underwater force would survive because submarines cannot be located. This makes submarine-based weapons a linchpin for the nuclear deterrent, the most secure leg of the U.S. nuclear triad as well as the Russian one.

Any threat to a nation’s ballistic missile submarines makes it vulnerable to a first strike, and, in a time of crisis, might prompt them to act first. Hence the question that Dismukes is trying to raise: is strategic ASW still official U.S. policy?

“I have not seen anything in the public domain that explicitly says strategic ASW is or is not U.S. intent. All we get is this Byzantine, almost Soviet-Russian parlance, saying we are going to deny Russia their bastions and defend our homeland.”

(The ‘bastions’ here are strategically secured sea areas where Russian nuclear-armed subs lurk, mainly under ice, protected by cordons of attack submarines, ships and aircraft. Denying these bastions tends to suggest a strategic ASW policy.)

There is no official answer. The last National Security Strategy to be completely declassified was from the 1986 Reagan administration, which explicitly tasked the Navy with strategic ASW. The most recent National Security Strategy, from 2018, has only been released in summary form, and says nothing on the topic.

Actions speak louder than words though, and from the U.S. Navy’s actions, they are still very much in the business of pursuing Russian subs in the Arctic. For example, there are regular ‘ICEX’ exercises which include submarines test-firing torpedoes at targets under the ice.

“I find it impossible to think what targets an under-ice torpedo in the Arctic might have except Russian submarines. If there are other reasons for under-ice torpedoes, the Navy hasn’t said what they are,” says Dismukes. “Also, the fact that the U.S. Navy has bought submarines hardened for under-ice operations – that expresses a kind of intent.”

In fact it is not even clear whether there has been any decision-making process, or whether strategic ASW has become the default policy.

“No one knows how much the Navy is going on its own – whether it’s been directed or approved up the command chain – or whether the policy is simply chugging along on a Cold War logic propelled by bureaucratic momentum,” says Dismukes.

This would make it one of those zombie policies that keeps going long after it ought to be dead and buried. And, while strategic ASW might have made strategic sense 30 years ago it, does not today. This is partly because technology is improving and submarine detection keeps getting better. Each new advance makes the ability to threaten ballistic missile submarines more serious.

“The technology for submarine detection is advancing, and this may be destabilizing. Some people have been thinking that the Russians already have non-acoustic space or airplane-based detection,” says Dismukes.

This is similar to the technology for detecting submarine wakes with radar that the U.S. Navy is currently developing. If it works out, leadership would be faced with the dilemma of ‘use them or lose them,’ which would be dangerous for the world at large – starting with America itself.

Dismukes and like-minded analysts and academicians want to encourage the new administration to state clearly whether strategic ASW is still U.S. policy, and if so who is driving it. His aim, for starters, would be to ensure the policy is disowned, which could at least reduce the risk and open up the way for discussion.

“Declaring at the highest levels that strategic ASW is no longer policy would be the minimum,” says Dismukes. “This could open the possibility of some kind of cooperative exchange with the Russians, with the aim of negotiating a more stable situation, to the benefit of both sides.”

Dismukes is not optimistic about such negotiations, given the entrenched distrust. More fundamentally, once the other side has a capability, how can you trust them not to use it? Disarmament treaties need measures for verification. The problem here is that equipment used for tactical, defensive ASW might be retasked with offensive, strategic ASW.

Strategic ASW is also part of a bigger picture of how non-nuclear systems affect nuclear war-fighting. At present, U.S. nuclear planning gives only limited recognition to how conventional systems affect the nuclear balance. Beyond anti-ballistic missile systems. Dismukes believes that we need to consider other technologies, too. This may include conventional hypersonic missiles (soon to be carried by U.S. submarines) which might knock out land-based ICBMs, and would definitely include strategic ASW.

Failure to consider new technology may result in a situation where a nuclear first strike is seen as the only way to guarantee “winning” a war, despite the almost incomprehensible levels of destruction involved. As the situation gets complex with China developing its own submarine-based deterrent force, such instability will be dangerous to everyone.

Dismukes argues that to reduce this danger we have to recognize the two factors it stems from: advances in submarine detection technology; and a dubious, outdated U.S. policy on strategic ASW. The new administration should tackle that policy ASAP. 

 

 

January 26, 2021 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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