In addition to such big-ticket items will be the expense of replacing the equipment worn out by the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But regardless of arguments from supporters of other programs, the highest levels of government will ask for the Ohio replacements as the first order of business. The importance of this facet of national defense and prestige can be seen in Great Britain’s plan to replace its SSBN force in the face of even more severe budget cuts and force reductions than those expected in the United States.
When development of the submarine-launched ballistic missile began in 1956, the Navy was still suffering from drastic reductions following the Korean War. Funds for everything from personnel to repair parts were scarce in an atmosphere of penury that enveloped all the services. Yet in these dire circumstances, Admiral Arleigh Burke, then Chief of Naval Operations, sequestered monies from every part of the Navy’s budget to fund the first fleet ballistic-missile submarines within existing budget caps. The Fiscal Year 1956 through 1959 budgets were stripped of much, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to fund the SSBNs in what naval analyst Norman Friedman described as a wartime mobilization program. This historical record testifies to the unique importance, strategic value, and national prestige that these ships embody.
The recent nuclear arms reduction pact is not likely to be the end of efforts to further limit the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons or their launchers. Predicting the number of weapons and launchers that will be needed or allowed in 2025 is difficult, but certainly it will be fewer than are deployed now. As the number of weapons declines, the value of each remaining one increases; therefore, its security, survivability, and reliability becomes even more important. These features are the hallmarks of submarine-based nuclear weapons; in these attributes, SSBN basing far exceeds its fixed-point land-based cousins.
Because only a small fraction of the Navy’s officers are employed in submarine-based strategic weapon systems, and because the activities of fleet ballistic-missile operations are isolated from routine naval operations, the importance of the submarine-launched ballistic missile goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by most in the Navy and among its supporters. In the four essays on the future of the Navy in February’s Proceedings , there is no mention of nuclear weapons, strategic forces, deterrence, or SSBNs.
But recognized or not, strategic nuclear deterrence is the first and most important DOD mission. No unit, effort, or force is as valuable as the strategic weapons based in submarines. The Ohio replacement will go forward regardless of the state of the budget or top-line caps on total allotments. The mission needs the Navy more than the Navy needs the mission.