This post covers ground that is already well-covered in “It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World“, “MAD, Again“, and ““MAD, Again”: A Footnote“. But those posts are now going on three years old and the issue at hand is too important to ignore.
Here is David Hambling, writing at Forbes (“The Hidden Nuclear Policy the Biden Administration Needs to Tackle“, January 26, 2021):
A U.S. Navy policy on ballistic missile submarines may threaten the stability of the strategic nuclear balance. This seems to be the result of the inertia of a strategy laid down in a different era, one which is becoming increasingly precarious as technology advances.
Previous administrations have failed to spell out the actual policy, preferring to keep it under wraps. Continuing this lack of clarity could prove catastrophic….
ASW is all about finding, tracking and destroying enemy submarines. Strategic ASW targets the submarines carrying nuclear missiles. During the Cold War, Strategic ASW was about tying up enemy forces [Soviet submarines armed with nuclear missiles, thus] affecting the war on the ground, but now the situation is quite different….
The rationale for putting missiles on submarines is to ensure second-strike capability. The argument is that while land and air-based weapons might be knocked out in a surprise attack, the underwater force would survive because submarines cannot be located. This makes submarine-based weapons a linchpin for the nuclear deterrent, the most secure leg of the U.S. nuclear triad as well as the Russian one.
Any threat to a nation’s ballistic missile submarines makes it vulnerable to a first strike, and, in a time of crisis, might prompt them to act first. Hence the question … is strategic ASW still official U.S. policy?
There is no official answer. The last National Security Strategy to be completely declassified was from the 1986 Reagan administration, which explicitly tasked the Navy with strategic ASW. The most recent National Security Strategy, from 2018, has only been released in summary form, and says nothing on the topic.
Actions speak louder than words though, and from the U.S. Navy’s actions, they are still very much in the business of pursuing Russian subs in the Arctic. For example, there are regular ‘ICEX’ exercises which include submarines test-firing torpedoes at targets under the ice….
In fact it is not even clear whether there has been any decision-making process, or whether strategic ASW has become the default policy….
This would make it one of those zombie policies that keeps going long after it ought to be dead and buried. And, while strategic ASW might have made strategic sense 30 years ago it, does not today. This is partly because technology is improving and submarine detection keeps getting better. Each new advance makes the ability to threaten ballistic missile submarines more serious….
[Some] analysts and academicians want to encourage the new administration to state clearly whether strategic ASW is still U.S. policy, and if so who is driving it. [The] aim, for starters, would be to ensure the policy is disowned, which could at least reduce the risk and open up the way for discussion.
And so, the non-problem of strategic ASW is to be solved by a non-solution: a treaty that would be hard to enforce.
Why is strategic ASW a non-problem? First, as Hambling suggests, it wasn’t a problem during the cold war, but not for the reason given by Hambling; namely,
Strategic ASW was about tying up enemy forces and affecting the war on the ground, but now the situation is quite different….
That’s tail-wagging-the-dog reasoning. Whatever strategic ASW was about during the Cold War — in the minds of American strategists — it could only have been about one thing in the minds of Soviet strategists: a threat to Soviet second-strike capability. The possibility that the U.S. would engage in strategic ASW was never an actual threat to Soviet second-strike capability because the precondition — a ground war in Europe being lost by the Allies — was never met.
Moreover, the U.S. rationale for strategic ASW during the Cold War was flawed, and the Soviets knew it. The rationale, as Hambling says, was to tie up Soviet forces defending Soviet submarines armed with nuclear missiles (the Soviet second-strike capability). But those defensive forces were in place long before strategic ASW became a U.S. policy. And those defensive forces wouldn’t have been used for any other purpose, so intent were Soviet strategists on protecting their second-strike capability.
Further, an actual effort to take out the Soviet second-strike capability during the Cold War would have met the same response as an actual effort to take out Russia’s second-strike capability now or in the future: an ultimatum followed, if necessary, by a warning shot across the bow. The ultimatum would be along these lines: Make a move toward our second-strike capability and we will take out one of your cities. And if the ultimatum were ignored, the city would be taken out. (Why, then, the need for defensive forces? Well, why do some men wear both belt and braces (suspenders, in American)? “Just in case”is the best answer to both questions.)
You can play what-ifs and if-this-then-thats all day long. But the bottom line will always be the same: Strategic ASW wouldn’t be conducted in the first place (and wouldn’t have been conducted during the Cold War) because no U.S. president would want to risk having a U.S. city taken out (or worse), nor would he want to risk being humiliated by having to back down in a game of nuclear “chicken”.
The Soviets understood all of that. The Russians (and Chinese) understand all of that. So any talk of strategic ASW is simply irrelevant. Just as irrelevant is the notion that U.S. Navy talk of strategic ASW is destabilizing. It’s not destabilizing because the Russians (and Chinese) know that it won’t happen.
But what could happen? The U.S. could sign on to — and honor — an agreement that limits the ability of the U.S. to detect enemy submarines, even as Russia (and China) — acting clandestinely in bad faith — would develop more sophisticated means of detecting U.S. submarines. Such capabilities, even if irrelevant to a nuclear showdown, would be invaluable in a war where U.S. interests are at stake (e.g., a contest for control of the South China Sea).
So, wittingly or not, Hambling and those U.S. analysts whom he represents are playing into the hands of our adversaries by advancing a “solution” to a non-problem. The “solution” — a hard-to-enforce agreement — would weaken the ability of U.S. forces to defend America and Americans’ overseas interests.