I have had the impression of late that what passes for the debate on U.S. national security tends to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Too many defense experts have written articles and reports that blithely suggest cancelling this or that major weapons systems in favor of retention of the current aging capability or accelerating the development of a newer, sexier alternative platform or capability without any consideration being given to such issues as the evolving threat, state of the industrial base, the feasibility of alternative technologies or the cost associated with changing horses in midstream. I grant you that subjects such as the state of industrial tooling (or the lack thereof) in various sectors, the character of supply chains and the availability of scientific talent can be difficult to research and boring to study. Nevertheless, if the current debate is to be more than an exercise in grandstanding and arm waving, those who want to participate had better start doing their homework.
My sense of the trivialness of what passes for a debate was driven home by a recent article in Aviation Week about the U.S. Navy’s efforts to defend the SSBN(X) program. Apparently, in recent months, a number of defense experts had publicly suggested that the program to design and build a new generation of ballistic missile submarines be cancelled in favor of restarting the old Ohio-class SSBN line or designing an SSBN based on the Virginia-class attack submarine. What was striking about the article was that the Navy wasn’t trying to argue the merits of a robust sea-based nuclear deterrent or even the appropriate number of boats or missiles to be deployed. It was engaged in a basic tutorial on the states of the submarine and ballistic missile industrial bases, the desirable design features of an SSBN and what happens to old production lines when the last platform is built.
Did the Navy really have to explain to its critics that the Virginia-class SSN, while the best attack submarine in the world, could not easily or cheaply be converted into an SSBN? Apparently it is necessary to explain that one cannot simply drop a missile compartment designed for a very large Trident II ballistic missile into the middle of a Virginia-class SSN. There are issues of hull shaping, engine design and power, sea control and quietness that would have to be addressed at great cost and small difficulty. Regarding the idea of restarting the Ohio-class production line, apparently those who advocated such a solution never bothered to ask themselves what happened to the production facilities, tooling and specialist personnel associated with that program in the fifteen years since the last boat was built. Guess what: it’s all gone.
In response to those defense analysts who suggested that the solution was to build a smaller missile to go into a smaller compartment that would fit more readily into a Virginia-class hull the Navy’s response as reported in the Aviation Week article was priceless.
Some have encouraged the development of a new, smaller missile to go with a Virginia-based SSBN. This would carry forward many of the shortfalls of a Virginia-based SSBN, and add to it a long list of new issues. Developing a new nuclear missile from scratch with an industrial base that last produced a new design more than 20 years ago would be challenging, costly and require extensive testing. We deliberately decided to extend the life of the current missile to de-couple and de-risk the complex (and costly) missile development program from the new replacement submarine program.
Were the problem just about submarines, whatever the type, this would not be much of an issue. But similar simplistic solutions are being proposed for other parts of the U.S. military. The Pentagon hasn’t yet figured out how to ensure control over its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – remember the super-secret drone that crashed in Iran last year? Yet, there are more than a few defense experts proposing to reduce the size of the F-35 procurement and take a chance on UASs. Or worse, they want to eliminate any new fighter program in favor of continuing to produce air platforms designed in the 1970s.
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