Trident Can Fire More than Nukes

By Captain James H. Patton, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

What then often followed in these games was a race (on both sides, because being reduced to a lesser system of systems could provoke a U.S. response in kind) to reestablish or reconstitute these constellations while inhibiting or preventing the opponent from doing so. Many issues and problems evolved:

  • There are—and are likely to be—few reserve assets of quickly launchable and militarily essential navigation, communications, and intelligence satellites mated to the appropriate boosters.
  • It is a vulnerability to depend on launching (or even storing) these replacements from the few, well-known sites on or close to shorelines.
  • In less than a global conflict, it would be difficult to obtain overflight or booster drop-off rights from adjacent countries if inland sites were to be considered.
  • Many desirable orbits require that the satellite be maneuvered considerably after being launched from existing fixed sites.
  • Then-available technologies could permit interdiction of launch-to-orbit satellites at the antipodal nodes of known, fixed sites.
  • Great leverage is obtainable from a capability to respond quickly, in a sensor-to-shooter sense, to a suddenly emergent high-value target.
  • A requirement exists to be able to engage at will heavily defended and deeply buried command sites and production or storage sites for weapons of mass destruction, without measurable collateral damage.

These are all truly strategic issues, but counter to the Cold War vernacular, they do not necessarily involve nuclear weaponry, and certainly not the variety where many are "sprinkled" over an opponent's silo fields. The survivable Trident ballistic-missile submarine force will be the nation's principal strategic asset through the next many decades, but these platforms can contribute much more than "just" imposing the threat of a nuclear Armageddon upon another political entity.

Low observability has been recognized by all armed services as a key to both effectiveness and survivability in the coming decades, as witnessed by the B-2, F-22, and Comanche programs. There is a great appreciation that:

  • If you are observable, you will be seen.
  • If you are seen, you will be targeted.
  • If you are targeted, you will be hit.

The benchmark of non-observability remains the Trident submarine, whose detection while in a patrol status, even against the best adversarial systems that the United States could muster, can be measured in ship lengths. It has and likely will retain that most critical element of a strategic system—non-engagability—because engagement, obviously, is a post-detection event. As such, what could the Trident do in support of the identified strategic issues?

Fortunately, through START I and START II, the number of nuclear warheads required or allowed is being reduced dramatically. After all, in 1945, when President Harry Truman asked how many atom bombs the United States would need to defeat the Soviet Union, if it came to that, the result of the studies was 66—an answer that had increased to "five to six thousand" by 1952. From that point, inventory continued a mission creep upward to about 70,000. Today, it is being negotiated down to a few thousand, which means downloading warheads from deployed missiles, empty tubes, or fewer Trident platforms.

What this means to the existing Trident force is that, as configured, they are overqualified for the perceived mission. What they are superbly qualified for is the actual mission—maintaining their role as the principal strategic platform of the 21st century. To fulfill this mission, however, requires a rethinking of many entering assumptions.

Do Tridents need to be armed entirely with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRVed) nukes? Of course not. As many strategic thinkers have stated, the need for nuclear weapons will not go away quickly, but many reasonable scenarios would call for one relatively low-yield weapon quickly delivered. The two-ocean Trident force could do that—anywhere, anytime.

Is it feasible that a strategic platform could carry nonnuclear as well as nuclear weapons? Certainly. Air Force tactical aviation squadrons, Army artillery battalions, aircraft carriers, and other naval platforms have had that implicit—if not explicit capability—for decades. If this were accepted as an option for SSBNs, then a new set of capabilities would result. Stepping down the list of "problems" that recent war gaming has uncovered can provide some insights.

As the requirement for MIRVed nuclear weapons drops, the empty tubes or unneeded platforms could employ now-out-of-business D-5 boosters to carry secure, contingency responsive navigation, communications, and intelligence "light-sat" payloads. With the wide dispersion of deployed Tridents, these could be launched to any number of initial orbits and inclinations—without the political ramifications of overflight or booster drop-off—and from unpredictable positions, thwarting an enemy's chance for antinodal node interdiction.

In a nuclear strategic sense, the president of the United States has long had, and depended on, the intrinsic capability to "reach out and touch somebody" within an hour of making the decision. Is it conceivable and in the best interests of the United States that he could use that same ability in a nonnuclear sense? Those who would argue that a Trident-launched nonnuclear weapon would be far too expensive should be reminded that the principal consideration is the worth of the target, not the cost of the bullet. If national sensors determined that weapons of mass destruction were being deployed for use from some presidential palace somewhere whose inspection had been denied to U.N. observers, it would be an invaluable capability for the National Command Authorities (NCA) to be able to inform that political entity immediately that it had 45 minutes to evacuate the site, to inform other key political entities to disregard the thermal scar that would appear at a certain location in 15-20 minutes, and to have the entire complex destroyed within an hour without any residual radiological effects. For this type of employment, it would hardly be necessary for the warhead to carry even conventional explosives—the kinetic energy of the mass involved being more than enough to accomplish the task.

Having voided an adversary's option for antipodal node interdiction by launching from random, previously unknown sites, what could this strategic platform do to interfere with the enemy's attempt at space regeneration?

As difficult as the physical interception of satellites is, knowing in advance from national strategic sensors where and at what time the launch occurred greatly simplifies the fire-control problem. The exact time of passage through the launch point's antipodal node also can be calculated, and it would appear that the intercepting launch platform would need only these values to place an exo-atmospheric antisatellite (ASAT) missile on target, without any organic detection and tracking sensors of its own. The Navy's upper tier ASAT program for Aegis platforms, being provided targeting data through a cooperative engagement capability variant, would be an example of this capability. However, this mission would remove them from the inventory of weapon systems available for other essential tasks, and Aegis platforms have the additional disadvantages of being observable and, by several then-credible political/military competitors, targetable.

What this scenario suggests is the need for a ubiquitous, generally non-detectable platform that has the intrinsic capability to place an object at a certain point in space at a certain time within 30 minutes of receiving unambiguous direction from the National Command Authorities. This nicely matches a current description of the Trident weapon system and its associated worldwide command, control, and communications system, given one additional requirement for rapid transmission/receipt of the required values to calculate the intercept point (a capability on which the entire system of systems depends). Given the immense power of the D-5 Trident booster, it would not appear an insurmountable engineering effort to equip it with a nonnuclear, possibly kinetic energy ASAT warhead. It also is expected that the footprint from which this ASAT could be released for a given intercept would be very large.

Another reevaluation of current assumptions is required here. If, for instance, the Blue crews of SSBNs conducted their patrol transits from Bangor, Washington, to Kings Bay, Georgia, and the Gold crews did the opposite, at any time there would be several such platforms in the footprint from which they could respond to NCA direction to interdict a Eurasian launch-to-orbit at its antipodal node. The cost over the length of a 60-70 day patrol would be an average speed of advance of perhaps 7-8 knots.

The Trident weapon system has the potential for continued contributions to the nation's strategic security for several more decades. Consider, for example, if each of the 18 Tridents in the force were to evolve toward something like the following loadout as the need for many MIRVed nuclear weapons is reduced or negotiated away:

  • 6 MIRVed (nuclear) D-5 missiles
  • 4 single warhead (nuclear) D-5 missiles
  • 4 single warhead (high explosive or kinetic energy) D-5 missiles
  • 2 D-5 missiles with 4 global positioning system navigation satellites apiece
  • 2 D-5 missiles with 4 light-sat intelligence satellites apiece
  • 2 D-5 missiles with 4 light-sat communications satellites apiece
  • 4 ASAT warhead D-5 missiles

There are, of course, both political and technical issues involved here. Can the United States afford to have nuclear "countable" assets under START I and START II not so employed? Probably, and a precedent is the cruise missile launch by B-52s at Iraqi targets—it was conventionally warheaded but nevertheless countable against then-existing treaty limitations. What would be the dollar cost of modifying some existing tubes for nonnuclear payloads? It would seem that this would be greatly mitigated by employing existing D-5 boosters. How well would existing extremely low frequency, very low frequency, and satellite-based command, control, and communications systems provide strategic connectivity in those portions of the southern hemisphere under discussion? Significant data on this issue must exist as a result of years of UNITAS operations by attack submarines on both sides of South America. Can the missile dynamics of a D-5 booster accommodate the various payloads suggested, and can some of the proposed payloads even be constructed practically? I don't pretend to bring anything but optimistic intuition to those engineering issues.

In its purely massive nuclear retaliation form, the SSBN—epitomized by the Trident—has been the quintessential strategic platform. The current trend in international politics toward minimizing the threat of nuclear warfare should not detract from the service that this same, essentially unengageable platform with an expected service life of more than 40 years can provide. The Trident weapon system could carry, in its 24 secure and always available (within about 15 minutes) silos, not only enough massive retaliatory nuclear firepower to deter adventuristic superpowers under any reasonable treaty limitations, but also enough other usable "things" to provide the NCA of the 21st century an enduring and varied menu of strategic options.

Captain Patton , U.S. Naval Academy class of 1960, served in five SSNs and two SSBNs, commanding the USS Pargo (SSN-650). Upon retirement in 1985, he established Submarine Tactics and Technology, Inc., and has consulted for a number of government agencies and private corporations, including Paramount Pictures for The Hunt for Red October .


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