This week’s issue of Inside the Navy includes deputy defense secretary Bill Lynn’s response to a funding idea I floated before the House seapower subcommittee in January. I had proposed that one way of covering the cost of a replacement for the Trident ballistic-missile submarine without wrecking the rest of the naval shipbuilding program might be to establish a separate budget category for strategic programs. I noted that if the Trident replacement, designated SSBN(X), were funded outside normal shipbuilding accounts, that would largely resolve funding doubts about construction of other warships over the next 20 years. At the same hearing, Congressional Research Service analyst Ron O’Rourke cited the special treatment of national missile-defense programs as an example of how such a process might work.
Although the Navy hasn’t completely given up on the idea, Secretary Lynn doesn’t like it. Here’s what he said, as reported in Inside the Navy:
“There isn’t a budget class for strategic programs. All of the programs that all of the services have contribute to the nation’s security. They don’t contribute to the Navy’s security, they contribute to the nation’s security. So I don’t know exactly what the definition of a strategic program is in that context. The suggestion that somehow there’s some split there — that I don’t buy.”
That reasoning may answer the mail for Pentagon bureaucrats, but it doesn’t reflect much thought as to the broader strategic significance of replacing Trident in a timely fashion while keeping other shipbuilding programs viable. Inside the Navy describes me in its story as a consultant, but in a previous life — while I was deputy director of Georgetown University’s security studies program — I used to teach nuclear strategy. I also wrote a 600-page doctoral dissertation on the subject. So I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the role of strategic deterrence in our nation’s defense posture. It isn’t so clear from Secretary Lynn’s response that he has.
Nuclear deterrence isn’t like sea control or forcible entry, because it concerns national survival. If there were a breakdown in the deterrent relationship between America and Russia today (or China tomorrow), there would be a real possibility that the United States might cease to exist as a functioning nation-state by sundown. No kidding: a hundred million Americans could die in a few days if America goes to war with a well-armed nuclear adversary. All of our utilities would fail, our food-supply system would collapse, every form of service would become unavailable and political institutions would largely disappear.
None of that will occur if we decide to forgo forward presence for a few years, or walk away from amphibious warfare. But a failure of nuclear deterrence might well prove to be the end of the road for America. So the idea that strategic nuclear programs should be funded through the normal ebb and flow of the budget process doesn’t seem very sophisticated — especially when new nuclear actors are appearing on the world stage and the two former superpowers are scaling back their nuclear capabilities.
Secretary Lynn says he isn’t sure what the definition of a strategic program is. I don’t believe him — he’s too smart to really mean that. Like me, he spent the early years of his career in a system where everybody knew what phrases like “strategic arsenal” and “strategic deterrence” meant. The terms basically refer to nuclear weapons and the systems used to deter or defeat them. You know, like missile-warning satellites and national missile-defense programs. “Strategic” programs thus defined are a lot easier to identify than programs for “irregular warfare” or “information operations.”
If Secretary Lynn needs help in defining what a strategic program is for purposes of budgetary prioritization, I’m sure Under Secretary Carter can help him — Carter produced a 400-page book on the subject for the Brookings Institution back in the 1980s. But Lynn doesn’t really need any help, he knows exactly why the term “strategic” used to be reserved for nuclear programs, and why other military activities just aren’t as important. What he needs to give some thought to, though, is the danger of allowing such vital programs to be exposed to the vagaries of our baroque annual budgeting process when many of the participants really don’t understand the importance of nuclear deterrence the way he and Carter do. We’re talking about national survival, and that suggests the need for special budgetary status.
Find Archived Articles: