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 surprise attack.
U.S. strategic bomber bases are reduced from 45 during the Cold War to just 3 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 10 warheads, or China’s DF-5 ICBM, also 10 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) normally anchored at King’s Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington.
Thus, the chief U.S. deterrent against surprise nuclear attack are 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 survivability of U.S. submarines on patrol at sea would fundamentally undermine U.S. nuclear deterrent credibility and could invite surprise nuclear attack.
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 KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko had Walker in mind when, 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.” (See John Barron’s excellent book "Breaking the Ring: The Bizarre Case of the Walker Family Spy Ring" for quotes from Yurchenko, Lehman, Studeman, Carver and more.)
U.S. Navy Secretary, John Lehman, shared Yurchenko’s opinion of 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 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.”
Then-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 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 completely in the dark. Or maybe their spies know the location of every U.S. submarine.
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.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the Congressional EMP Commission as chief of staff, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of "Blackout Wars."
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