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Strategic Deterrence: Foundational to Our National Survival
Charles Richard
In “The Art of War” Sun Tzu says: “To fight and conquer in all battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Not all Americans realize the importance of nuclear deterrence to their security and prosperity—and ultimately to our nation’s survival. At least one country poses a significant threat to the U.S. and can destroy our country within hours. Several others pose similar threats to our allies and possess sufficient nuclear forces to disrupt severely our way of life.

A frequently stated yet incorrect notion is that nuclear weapons are never used; while they may not have been fired so far in war, we do employ all legs of the nuclear triad to deter adversaries and assure allies every day. It’s easy to take for granted that this daily commitment to the nuclear mission is what has helped our nation enjoy 70-plus years free from nuclear war and eliminated major power war as a way for countries to resolve political differences. The ultimate importance of deterrence is why maintaining and modernizing the Sea-Based Strategic Deterrent (SBSD) is the Navy’s highest priority.

All three legs of the nuclear triad are important and provide unique capabilities necessary to deter attacks on the U.S. Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) provide a prompt response capability; bombers provide flexibility and signaling; and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) provide survivability. SSBNs have completed more than 4,000 patrols in two oceans nonstop over the last 60-plus years. On patrol for months at a time, our SSBNs ensure no country will ever threaten our survival. Potential adversaries are deterred because they know we will respond at the time and place of the U.S. president’s choosing with credible, devastating combat power.

Ohio-class SSBNs have been the backbone of our strategic deterrent force since commissioning in the early 1980s. Ohio-class submarines carry more than half the accountable warheads in the U.S. strategic inventory. This percentage will increase to approximately 70 percent as New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limits are reached in 2018.

Submarines, like any other machine, have a limited lifespan. The Navy will begin to retire Ohio-class SSBNs at a rate of one hull per year in 2027, when the USS Henry M. Jackson reaches the end of its 42-year lifespan. The Ohio-class service life has already been extended from 30 to 42 years (a remarkable 40 percent increase from the original design), but prudent engineering practices prevent further extension without incurring unacceptable risk to personnel and the mission. This service life extension allowed a delay in the requirement to recapitalize the SSBN force. As with any machine, there are known and unknown challenges the Ohio SSBN fleet will encounter in order to continue meeting U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) requirements until Ohio Replacement (OR) SSBNs come online in the 2030s. The Navy fully appreciates these challenges and has initiatives in place to ensure Ohio SSBN performance at end-of-life maintains certain standards.

This is not the first time the nation has recapitalized the submarine leg of our strategic deterrent. In the 1970s and 1980s we built 18 Ohio-class vessels, replacing the original “41 for Freedom” class of SSBNs, for just under one percent of the Department of Defense budget. To build the OR-class SSBN, the same relative cost to the taxpayer will be required. A small price to pay considering the last large-scale, major power war (WWII) saw more than a million people die every month for 4.5 years. The role that our nuclear deterrent plays in preventing major power war cannot be overstated. We currently execute sea-based strategic deterrence with 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. The OR-class will meet the same mission requirements with only 12 submarines; a reduction saving taxpayers $40 billion in life cycle costs and is made possible by a life-of-ship reactor core that reduces the span of the mid-life overhaul period. A 12-ship, 16-missile tube OR SSBN force has sufficient flexibility and capacity and satisfies USSTRATCOM requirements.

Additionally, the OR-class is leveraging mature technologies from Ohio- and Virginia-class submarines, including the TRIDENT II (D5) Life-Extended Strategic Weapons System (SWS). The TRIDENT II (D5) missile carried by current Ohio-class SSBNs is tested several times annually and has an impeccable record. The demonstrated success of our SSBNs and their missiles is readily known by potential adversaries and is integral to the effectiveness of our strategic deterrent.

To outpace future threats, the OR design will also feature advanced technologies to remain survivable into the 2080s. OR will be the quietest submarine ever developed when it goes to sea in 2030, integrating an electric-drive propulsion train with other advanced acoustic-quieting technologies, including quieter internal machinery and advanced hull coatings.

The nation is at the point where we can no longer wait to replace the Ohio-class. This is a responsibility that comes along every other generation, and, at about the same relative cost as previous SSBNs, it is affordable and simply a matter of priority.

The last 70-plus years free of nuclear and major power war have lasted longer than the Cold War, and the effectiveness of our deterrent remains ironclad in the minds of our adversaries and allies. Every morning when I wake, I take solace in knowing that our brave sailors are patrolling in two oceans, always ready and keeping the peace among major powers in a complex geopolitical world. Strategic deterrence is foundational to our survival as a nation and is not something I take lightly. I urge you to do the same.

RAdm. Charles “Chas” Richard is the director of the Undersea Warfare Division (N97) in Washington, D.C., and is responsible for the planning, programming and budgeting for acquisition, operational readiness and modernization of the submarine force. A career submarine officer, he has been nominated to become the next deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command.


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