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Ever since the horrors of submarine warfare became a key issue during World War I, submarines have had a sinister reputation.  And the building of new, immensely costly, nuclear-armed submarines by the U.S. government and others may soon raise the level of earlier anxiety to a nuclear nightmare.

This spring, the U.S. government continued its steady escalation of research and development funding for the replacement of its current nuclear submarine fleet through one of the most expensive shipbuilding undertakings in American history -- the phasing-in, starting in 2031, of 12 new SSBN(X) submarines.  Each of these nuclear-powered vessels, the largest submarines the Navy has ever built, will carry up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles fitted with multiple nuclear warheads.  All in all, this new submarine fleet is expected to deploy about 1,000 nuclear warheads – 70 percent of U.S. government’s strategic nuclear weapons.

From the standpoint of the U.S. military, nuclear-armed submarines are very attractive.  Capable of being placed in hidden locations around the world and remaining submerged for months at a time, they are less vulnerable to attack than are ground-launched or air-launched nuclear weapons, the other two legs of the “nuclear triad.”  Moreover, they can wreak massive death and destruction upon “enemy” nations quite rapidly.  The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review of 2014 explained that the U.S. Navy’s future fleet would “deliver the required presence and capabilities and address the most important war-fighting scenarios.”

From the standpoint of civilians, the new Trident submarine fleet is somewhat less appealing.  Strategic nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons in world history, and the use of only one of them over a large city could annihilate millions of people instantly.  If the thousands of such weapons available to the U.S. government and other governments were employed in war, they would incinerate most of the planet, reducing it to charred rubble.  Thereafter, radioactivity, disease, nuclear winter, and starvation would end most remaining life on earth.

Of course, even in an accident, such weapons could do incredible damage.  And, over the years, nuclear-armed submarines have been in numerous accidents.  In February 2009, a British and a French submarine, both nuclear-powered and armed with nuclear missiles, collided underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Although the two vessels were fitted with state-or-the-art detection equipment, neither spotted the other until it was too late to avert their collision.  Fortunately, they were moving very slowly at the time, and the damage was limited (though enormously expensive to repair).  But a sharper collision could have released vast quantities of radioactive fuel and flung their deadly nuclear warheads across the ocean floor.

In addition, when the dangers are so immense, it is worth keeping in mind that people, like the high-tech nuclear submarines, are not always infallible or reliable. Submarine crews -- living in cramped quarters, bored, and isolated for months at a time -- could well be as plagued by the poor morale, dishonesty, drug use, and incompetence found among their counterparts at land-based nuclear missile facilities.  

Taxpayers, particularly, might be concerned about the unprecedented expense of this new submarine fleet.  According to most estimates, building the 12 SSBN(X) submarines will cost about $100 billion.  And there will be additional expenditures for the missiles, nuclear warheads, and yearly maintenance, bringing the total tab to what the Pentagon estimated, three years ago, at $347 billion.  The expected cost is so astronomical, in fact, that the Navy, frightened that this expenditure will prevent it from paying for other portions of its shipbuilding program, has insisted that the money come from a special fund outside of its budget.  This spring, Congress took preliminary steps along these lines.

People might be forgiven for feeling some bewilderment at this immense U.S. government investment in a new nuclear weapons system -- one slated to last well into the 2070s.  After all, back in April 2009, amid much fanfare, President Barack Obama proclaimed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  This was followed by a similar commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world made by the members of the UN Security Council, including five nuclear-armed nations, among them the United States.  But, as this nuclear weapons buildup indicates, such commitments seem to have been tossed down the memory hole.

In arguing for the new Trident submarine fleet, U.S. military leaders have pointed to the fact that other nations are maintaining or building nuclear-armed submarines.  And they are correct about that.  France and Britain are maintaining their current fleets, although Britain is on the verge of beginning the construction of a new one with U.S. assistance; Israel reportedly possesses one; China is apparently ready to launch one in 2014; India is set to launch its own in 2015; and Pakistan might be working to develop one.  Meanwhile, Russia is modernizing its own submarine ballistic missile fleet.

Even so, the current U.S. nuclear-armed submarine fleet is considerably larger than any developed or being developed by other nations.  Also, the U.S. government’s new Trident fleet, now on the drawing boards, is slated to be 50 percent larger than the new, modernized Russian fleet and, in addition, far superior technologically.  Indeed, other nations currently turning out nuclear-armed submarines – like China and Russia -- are reportedly launching clunkers.

In this context, there is an obvious alternative to the current race to deploy the world’s deadliest weapons in the ocean depths.  The nuclear powers could halt their building of nuclear-armed submarines and eliminate their present nuclear-armed submarine fleets.  This action would not only honor their professed commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world, but would save their nations from making enormous expenditures and from the possibility of experiencing a catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude.

Why not act now, before this arms race to disaster goes any further?

Lawrence S. Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

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Comment Preferences

  •  In the words of a 16 year-old, "Some are blue and (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mookins, DeadHead

    some are red, but they're all green".

    We can't afford clean water, education, communications, good road or sewer systems, but there is no amount too large to keep the corporate trough full to the brim.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

    by Greyhound on Mon Jul 07, 2014 at 02:10:12 PM PDT

  •  Current U.S. Trident subs are aging out. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    G2geek, kurt, Bluefin

    The SSBN program is not as insane as it sounds at first.

    The first Ohio class boat started construction in 1976, or nearly 40 years ago. The last was commissioned 17 years ago. By the time a new class of SSBN's enters service, the Ohios will be getting dangerously old, meaning they will be increasingly hazardous maintenance nightmares.

    Nuclear weapons are not going to disappear just because we don't like them, or because we would prefer the money for them be spent on something more constructive. The U.S. will continue to maintain some kind of nuclear armed retaliatory force far into the future.  

    Given the reality that the U.S. will continue to maintain some strategic nuclear force far into the future, SSBN's are intrinsically much less dangerous, less destabilizing, than the alternatives.

    Land based nuclear missiles, even in hardened silos, are no longer a viable retaliatory force. Modern technology permits ICBMs and SLBMs to be so accurate they can destroy enemy missiles in their silos. The only way to avoid the destruction of silo-based missiles is via a hair-trigger 'launch on warning' policy. Even the Russians abandoned this idea as insanely dangerous. Consequently the existing U.S. Minuteman missiles, and their Russian equivalents, are more hazardous every year, little more than 'warhead magnets'. During the development of the since decommissioned "MX"/Peacekeeper ICBM, every conceivable method of hardening, protecting or hiding land based missiles was considered, from running them around on railroads to underground hardened 'race-tracks'. Nothing proved workable. The lunacy of moving fully fueled, fully armed ICBM's around on trains or giant trucks speaks for itself.

    Bombers are little better. Their airfields will naturally attract incoming warheads in time of conflict. By the time they reached their target, the U.S. would already be a radioactive wasteland. And decades of Cold War experience indicates that flying bombers laden with thousands of gallons of fuel and live nuclear warheads guarantees the occasional disaster.

    SSBN's, at least in U.S. service, have proved to be remarkably reliable and relatively safe. At this point they still appear to be practically undetectable, and therefore provide the capacity to obliterate an attacker after a first strike on the U.S., making such an attack far less likely.

    My biggest objection to the program is more practical than ideological. The U.S. Navy's shipbuilding competence has simply collapsed in the last two decades. From the Littoral Combat Vessel to the Gerald Ford aircraft carrier to the Zumwalt class destroyers, recent ship programs have consistently been grotesquely over-budget, years late, and riddled with intractable hardware and software failures. The Zumwalt class destroyers have proved to be so outrageously costly they are being abandoned after only two units in favor of resuming production of the more than 30 year old Burke class design. This is a pathetic admission of failure.

    Honestly, the SSBN program should be halted until the U.S. Navy's catastrophically dysfunctional shipbuilding program is revamped from the keel up.

    •  aack, what is the Navy's problem? (0+ / 0-)

      We need the new SSBNs to maintain viable deterrence.  We need new-gen Naval ships to deal with new tasking & configurations of forces in modern times.  And the consequences of not being properly equipped, are increased likelihoods of conflicts at all levels.

      To what do you attribute the decline in shipbuilding competence?   What's it going to take to fix that?   Where are the relevant political pressure points?

      We can't allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency to the point where our military forces don't have the hardware they need.  Shades of the IED war and up-armoring fiascoes in Iraq.  This is just nuts!

      We got the future back. Uh-oh.

      by G2geek on Mon Jul 07, 2014 at 07:58:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Revolving door corruption + naval culture (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        1) Naval shipbuilding has been dominated by giant private contractors in the post-WWII era, and it has been subject to the same kind of consolidation other industries have experienced. There are now only 3 or 4 big shipyards left. They are so politically well connected and so economically important to their home states that they are effectively 'too big to fail' and therefore immune to any consequences of their own incompetence or corruption, no matter how bad. And it's been very, very bad. From falsified x-rays of critical welds on submarine hulls to $100 million accidents flooding ships under construction to disastrous fires, it's an ongoing litany of stupid. And when a ship costs $2 billion, the price of these blunders is colossal.

        These contractors naturally want to influence the awarding of contracts, so procurement officers on active duty are courted with promises of a cushy gig with the contractor upon retirement. Consequently the 'competition' for production of  the next class of ships has deteriorated into a festival of bribery.

        2) Within the Navy's culture, combat command is the only thing that matters when it comes to promotion. Being assigned to oversee ship construction is widely regarded as career purgatory. Consequently highly competent officers do everything they can to avoid such assignment. This results in a kind of 'adverse selection' that guarantees the officers overseeing the design and construction of ships are the least talented in the Navy. This won't change until there's a 'root and branch' reform of the Naval promotion system to reward managerial competence.

        •  The Coast Guard has gone down the same rathole. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          The USCG once designed and built in their own yard many of the cutters and other craft in the fleet. The ones that were contracted out were overseen with an eagle eye. The resulting ships tended to be very good vessels for the purpose.
          One result of that system is that today the Coasties are still limping along with 40 year old+ hulls in cutter classes that have been quite durable, but are way long in the tooth.
          Newer build programs have sometimes been financial, technical, and quality disasters, like the "Deepwater" fiasco.
          The political influence and corruption tied to this major, multi-asset  project would probably make a good expose book, if we had any real journalists left to write it.

          And I guess we don't even need to mention the bottomless Air Force (F-effen 35, eh?), Marine and Army ratholes that we taxpayers shovel money into.

          "The church of life is not in a building, it is the open sky, the surrounding ocean, the beautiful soil"...George Helm, 1/1977

          by Bluefin on Tue Jul 08, 2014 at 12:43:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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