The Future of Deterrence? Ballistic-Missile Defense

By Maxwell Cooper

The need for a more stable deterrent informed the development of MAD and created the strategic triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers, and ballistic-missile submarines. If one could not preemptively destroy all three legs of an opponent’s strategic triad, the instigator became susceptible to a retaliatory nuclear strike from the remaining legs, the results of which would be so catastrophic as to effectively prevent a preemptive attack. MAD required two things: both sides had to consider the other to be a rational actor capable of making decisions based on logic and their best long-term interests, and both sides had to possess near-invulnerable second-strike capabilities. The fear that the Soviets could destroy U.S. land-based nuclear missiles and bombers through a preemptive attack drove the requirement for the development of a new, near-invulnerable second-strike platform. The submarine’s natural stealth allowed it to fill this second-strike requirement, and the ballistic-missile submarine was created.

Today’s nuclear political landscape is different from that of the Cold War. The bipolar system of two superpowers representing opposing ideologies and equipped with large nuclear arsenals became a U.S.-dominated unipolar system with no clear nuclear rival. Whether the system returns to bipolar between the United States and China or a series of regional multipolars within a larger unipolar, neither outcome is likely to require a guaranteed second strike. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) states that “the nature of the U.S.-Russia relationship has changed fundamentally since the days of the Cold War . . . Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.” 1

Russia has become an important partner in reducing nuclear stockpiles, but a need to ensure strategic deterrence still exists. The United States and Russia should continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals through treaties such as New START, which sets the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550, a number more than sufficient to ensure deterrence against both one another as well as new nuclear threats. As noted in the NPR, “Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have reduced operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons by about 75 percent, but both still retain many more nuclear weapons than they need for deterrence.” 2 Far fewer nuclear weapons are required to deter China, Iran, and North Korea, as none of them is capable of destroying all U.S. land-based nuclear missiles in one attack.

Changed World = Changed Nuclear Needs

Russia is the only state representing the possibility of nuclear parity, which is increasingly unnecessary as Russia and the United States continue to reduce nuclear stockpiles and improve diplomatic relations. Given that in-service Ohio -class SSBNs are not scheduled to begin decommissioning until 2027 and will not be totally phased out until 2039, the United States has a minimum of 14 years to continue improving relations with Russia to the point where a guaranteed second-strike capability is no longer required. 3 During that time, should relations with Russia deteriorate or another state decides to begin a massive buildup of its nuclear inventory that genuinely threatens to overwhelm U.S. nuclear capability, the United States would still be able to maintain strategic deterrence by extending the life of existing systems while working to develop replacement capabilities. While the NPR concludes that “the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces—with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time—should be maintained for the present,” other reports support shifting from a triad to a dyad or monad. 4 Different combinations have been suggested (e.g., SSBN and ICBM, ICBM only, etc.) but all rest on the premise that replacement systems cost too much to develop and maintain and are increasingly unnecessary in a post–Cold War world.

The diminishing possibility of open warfare with Russia and lack of other near-peer nuclear powers has shifted the emphasis from traditional deterrence to preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation. The NPR identified five objectives for making the world safe from nuclear attack:

• Preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism

• Reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national-security strategy

• Maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear-force levels

• Strengthening regional deterrence and reassuring U.S. allies and partners

• Sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. 5

The prominence of nuclear terrorism and proliferation over traditional strategic deterrence in the NPR shows that modern nuclear fears are based on terrorist groups using nuclear weapons, or states ignoring the threat of a retaliatory strike and launching small numbers of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Modern nuclear strategy addresses those fears by securing existing nuclear stockpiles, preventing new states from developing nuclear capabilities, deterring existing states from using nuclear weapons, and developing and fielding BMD. These efforts are focused on Iran and North Korea, where the threats of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism and ballistic-missile launches are intertwined.

Iran and North Korea are similar in terms of their nuclear aspirations and status as rational states. While there is debate as to whether either can be considered a rational actor, it is difficult to believe either country’s leadership would launch a nuclear attack knowing the consequences of a U.S response. Regardless, neither country possesses enough nuclear weapons to require a guaranteed second strike to maintain deterrence, which removes the need for SSBN(X). Of greater concern is that both countries possess large and growing inventories of conventional ballistic missiles, against which strategic deterrence has no value, as it is U.S. policy not to respond to a conventional attack with nuclear weapons. In either case, SSBN(X) provides no added benefit as it is not required to maintain deterrence and, in the event of a missile launch, whether conventional or nuclear, BMD-equipped ships would be the next line of defense.

A Time for BMD

The lack of realistic nuclear threats requiring a guaranteed second strike and the limited utility of strategic deterrence against Iran and North Korea raise the question of which platform best addresses modern nuclear-armed ballistic-missile threats. In the event that deterrence fails, BMD becomes the best way to reduce an attack’s likelihood and minimize its consequences. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is responsible for developing the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS), which is used by the Navy, Army, and Air Force, and includes Aegis-equipped ships conducting patrols, sea-based sensors, land-based versions of Aegis, ground-based interceptors and sensors, deployable land-based radars and missiles, and space-based sensors. BMDS is designed to protect against Iranian and North Korean missile launches (nuclear and conventional) and has made significant strides in recent years, particularly the Aegis-integrated radar, tracking, and weapon system equipped on board Ticonderoga -class cruisers and Arleigh Burke –class destroyers (DDG). The successful completion of the April 2011 flight test, FTM 15, demonstrated that an Aegis destroyer can launch a ballistic-missile interceptor (SM3 Blk IA) and successfully destroy an enemy ballistic missile based on tracking data from an Army radar relayed through an Air Force satellite. 6 The Navy and MDA followed up this test with another successful launch, FTM 20, in February, when an SM3 Blk IA destroyed a ballistic missile based solely on track data provided by an Air Force satellite. 7 Additionally, the Navy and MDA have demonstrated the next series of ballistic-missile interceptors (SM3 Blk IB) can successfully discriminate a target from potential decoys and debris and destroy the proper target. 8

The Navy and MDA are building on these achievements by developing and fielding more powerful BMD capabilities as well as working with European and Middle Eastern allies to defeat Iranian missiles through the European Phased Adaptive Approach. In response to North Korea, the United States has developed a special partnership with Japan, which is co-developing the SM3 Blk IIA ballistic-missile interceptor, has four Aegis-equipped ships, and provides basing rights to land-based BMD systems. The BMDS has proven itself in both testing and real-world conditions and should continue to be developed and deployed to defend against Iran and North Korea.

What About the Burkes ?

Arleigh Burke –class destroyers are being upgraded with increasingly more sophisticated BMD capabilities but are hindered by funding shortfalls and competing requirements. The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) analysis of the Navy’s current 30-year shipbuilding plan projects a DDG shortfall below the required 90 by 2029:

The current shipbuilding plan calls for buying 70 destroyers based on the existing Arleigh Burke –class destroyer (DDG-51) design. Those purchases would allow the Navy’s inventory of large surface combatants to meet the goal of approximately 90 ships (defined by CBO as 88 or more) for 11 years over the next 30. Specifically, it would meet that goal for seven years in the mid-2020s, then would fall to a low of 78 in 2034 before increasing back to the high 80s by 2039. 9

Such analysis assumes DDGs will meet a 40-year expected service life. The report concedes this is unlikely, and “if the DDG-51 class met the same fate [as previous surface combatants that failed to meet an expected service life of 40 years], the shortfall in meeting the Navy’s inventory goal for destroyers and cruisers would grow substantially.” The Ohio -class replacement program exacerbates that shortfall by claiming funding and lengthening the time DDGs fall below the 90-ship requirement. 10 As Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter noted in the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Report to Congress on Long-Range Plans for Construction of Naval Vessels :

The greatest planning concern during the far-term period involves our Large Surface Combatant force (which includes DDGs). The 33 Flt III DDG 51s to be procured between FY 2016 and FY 2030 will replace legacy CG 47-class Guided Missile Cruisers, and improve the integrated air and missile defense of the battle forces. Due to the already pressurized funding situation in the mid-term planning period due to the SSBN(X), however, the DoN will not be able to start building the follow-on LSCs soon enough to keep up with the large number of legacy DDGs scheduled to retire in the FY2033–FY2042 timeframe . . . . as this problem demonstrates, the impact of the SSBN(X) program will be wide and deep throughout the mid-and-far-term planning periods. 11

SSBN(X) pushes the shipbuilding budget $5–15 billion over the 20-year historical average and is unlikely to be funded in the best of times, let alone the current economy. The CBO report further defines the funding required to develop and field the Ohio -class replacement and its effect on the shipbuilding budget:

To cover both the SSBN(X) program as well as other shipbuilding programs, yearly shipbuilding expenditures during the mid-term planning period will need to average about $19.5B/year. This is over $4B more per year than in the near-term planning period, and nearly $3B more per year than the steady-state 30-year average requirement of $16.8B/year . . . . sustaining a viable overall ship construction plan during this period will be the key challenge for the Department over the 30-year panning period covered by this report. 12

The SSBN(X) Money Pit

If the Navy cannot count on additional shipbuilding funds, it will likely have to shift money from other shipbuilding accounts to cover the required funding. Further complicating the 30-year plan is a lack of consensus on SSBN(X) costs. Estimated cost per SSBN(X) has varied between $3.6 billion and $7.5 billion per ship, but if the actual costs exceed projected amounts, more funding will have to be shifted to cover shortfalls. 13 As Ashton Carter noted, “The [30-year] plan is affordable within the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) but presents a resourcing challenge outside the FYDP largely due to investment requirements associated with the SSBN(X) program.” 14 By comparison, Arleigh Burke –class destroyers have established and stable prices. The Navy has delivered DDG-51s since the early 1990s and average procurement unit cost (APUC) in FY 87 dollars has increased by only 9.63 percent, from $684 million in 1988 to $750 million in 2011. During the same time period, program acquisition unit cost (PAUC) in FY 87 dollars increased by only 8.63 percent, from $727 million in 1988 to $789 million in 2011. 15 More impressive is that while APUC and PAUC have remained relatively stable, overall capability has improved, including two major in-service flight upgrades and increases in system performance. Flight III is the next major upgrade and includes the Air and Missile Defense Radar, which is specifically designed to counter modern ballistic-missile threats. Flight III will cost more than previous DDGs but even with increased unit costs the Navy could procure at least two Flight III DDGs ($2.3 billion per ship in FY 13 dollars) for every one SSBN(X) ($5.6 billion per ship in FY 13 dollars). 16 Stated differently, the Navy will lose at least two DDGs for every one SSBN(X).

To put the cost in even more glaring terms, the Missile Defense Agency’s entire yearly budget is equal to the cost of a single SSBN(X). 17 As Carter stated, “Obviously, spending $5–6 billion per year for a single ship over a 10- to 12-year period will strain the DoN’s yearly shipbuilding accounts.” 18 Canceling SSBN(X) would relieve the strain on DDGs and accelerate BMD deployment.

The New Reality

Modern nuclear threats are different from those faced during the Cold War, and new strategies are required to address emerging security challenges. Russia is no longer an adversary and has significantly reduced its nuclear capability; China possesses only a few hundred nuclear weapons; North Korea can barely launch a single missile; and Iran has still not managed to develop a nuclear bomb. The strategic triad of land-based missiles, strategic bombers, and ballistic-missile submarines was an effective way to maintain relative peace between the United States and the Soviet Union, but modern regional nuclear powers require a different form of deterrence. As noted in the NPR:

Effective missile defenses are an essential element of the U.S. commitment to strengthen regional deterrence against states of concern. Thus, while the United States will maintain a nuclear deterrent to cope with such states, we are also bolstering the other critical elements of U.S. deterrence, including conventional and ballistic-missile defense capabilities. 19

Regardless of whether or not Iran and North Korea are rational actors, neither state possesses enough nuclear weapons to threaten the U.S. land-based nuclear arsenal, which removes the need to maintain a guaranteed second strike and develop the SSBN(X). This is a good thing, for as Carter observed, “the need to recapitalize our Fleet ballistic-missile submarine force will cause noteworthy risks to the Navy’s overall shipbuilding plan.” 20 Canceling the SSBN(X) will allow the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan to return to normal levels and accelerate development and fielding of new DDGs and BMD capabilities. This supports the NPR’s goal of “lower[ing] nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons . . . without jeopardizing our traditional deterrence.” 21

BMD is the future of strategic deterrence and should be viewed as the new sea-based leg of the strategic triad. Canceling the SSBN(X) and increasing the development of DDGs and BMD would represent full acceptance of this reality—and should be done before too much funding is spent on an unnecessary and outdated program.

1. 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report (U.S. Department of Defense, April 2010).

2. Ibid.

3. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress , Congressional Research Service, 10 December 2012.

4. Ibid. Dana J. Johnson, Christopher J. Bowie, Robert P. Haffa, Triad, Dyad, Monad? Shaping the U.S. Nuclear Force for the Future (Portland, ME: Mitchell Institute Press, 2009). Jeff Richardson, “Shifting from a nuclear triad to a nuclear dyad,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists , vol. 65, no. 5 (September/October 2009), . Christopher A Preble, “Nuclear Proliferation Update: From Triad to Dyad,” CATO Institute, February 2010.

5. Nuclear Posture Review.

6. .

7. .

8. .

9. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2013 Shipbuilding Plan , July 2012.

10. Ibid.

11. Ashton Carter, Annual Report to Congress on Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for FY 2013 , April 2012.

12. Congressional Budget Office, Analysis .

13. O’Rourke, Navy Ohio Replacement .

14. Carter, Annual Report to Congress .

15. CAPT Mark Vandroff, USN, Selected Acquisition Report: DDG-51 , 31 December 2011.

16. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress , Congressional Research Service, 11 February 2013.

17. .

18. Carter, Annual Report to Congress .

19. Nuclear Posture Review.

20. Carter, Annual Report to Congress .

21. Nuclear Posture Review.

Mr. Cooper is a former surface warfare officer who served on board the USS Decatur (DDG-73) and Carl Vinson (CVN-70), and at Military Sealift Command headquarters. As a contractor, he was a requirements officer for OPNAV N96 as well as the Navy liaison to the Missile Defense Agency. As a civilian, he is serving as the Manpower, Personnel, and Training projewct manager for NAVSEA’s PMS 339, Surface Training Systems Directorate.


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