Strategic ASW in 2019 – A Stunningly Bad Idea

Purpose

To assess the desirability of strategic ASW as a wartime mission of the Navy today and for the foreseeable future. The mission is defined as attacking Russian SSBNs to alter the intercontinental nuclear balance in the favor of the US on behalf of larger purposes. During the Cold War these strategic purposes included: 1) SLOC protection—by forcing the Russian GPF navy to stay tied up defending SSBNs; 2) reducing the overall strength of a possible Russian nuclear attack on the US and so protecting the US proper; and/or, 3) to gain strategic leverage to affect the course of the war on the ground. This is not a theoretical issue. A Navy spokesman recently let it be known that, in a war with Russia, the Navy intends to use its submarines “to deny bastions to the Russians,” on behalf of “defending the homeland:” presumably meaning reducing the weight of a Russian intercontinental nuclear strike.

Assumptions

It is not known how authoritative the “announcement” of intent to execute strategic ASW was. At a minimum, however, it must be assumed that the idea is being entertained in some parts of the Navy’s system of strategic planning. It is also not known whether the Navy possesses the capabilities to execute the mission. The Navy spokesman did not address the matter, nor will this writer. Still, strategic ASW will always be a possibility as long as SSBNs exist. The serious problems it raises must be recognized and dealt with via the actions suggested here or otherwise. It is one of those rare missions where failure would be a far better outcome than success.

The Logic of Strategic ASW in the Current Era

Although the mission is to be carried out with conventional weapons, its consequences are mainly nuclear. Let’s look at three likely effects of prosecuting the mission and the policy actions implied for each.

Intercontinental nuclear war. Is a strategic ASW campaign a sensible choice? The answer is an unqualified No. The logic of the Cold War cannot be extrapolated to the situation vis-à-vis Russia today, or in the foreseeable future. A particularly misguided idea is that a successful ASW campaign would significantly reduce the damage the US would suffer should there be an intercontinental nuclear exchange. “Defending the homeland” through strategic ASW, as the Navy spokesman suggested, is simply impossible. SLBMs comprise a relatively small fraction of Russian intercontinental strike power. Even if the entire SSBN fleet were eliminated, a huge strike potential would remain in Russian ICBMs ashore, and only a small fraction of that would be more than capable of destroying the US as a nation.

In addition, a strategic ASW campaign could destabilize the longstanding, stable intercontinental nuclear relationship. The Russians might reasonably conclude that US willingness to attack the most secure components of their triad—missiles the US knows are the ultimate guarantors of the Russian state, missiles whose principal targets are the cities of the United States—must presage dire intent: regime change in Moscow, seizure of Russian territory, or even a disarming nuclear first strike. This last, backed up by air and missile defense of US territory against Russian retaliation, would mean that the US contemplates fighting a nuclear war. This idea was correctly rejected as a lethally dangerous impossibility during the Cold War. It makes no more sense today.

Strategic ASW is a grave step. It can only be justified if undertaken on behalf of the defense of a value deemed vital to the survival of the US as an independent nation. During the Cold War the US saw the prevention of Soviet dominance of Western Europe as exactly such a vital interest. The US committed itself to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons on behalf of that goal—first at the tactical battlefield level, then at the theater level, and ultimately at the intercontinental nuclear level. The logic of strategic ASW during the Cold War—which a number of US strategic thinkers strongly rejected at the time—was simple: Faced with possible defeat on the ground at the conventional level, the US planned to engage in strategic ASW to gain leverage over the Soviets, avoid nuclear escalation, or add to its strategic effect. Strategic ASW was indirectly endorsed by US allies in NATO for obvious reason: It reinforced the US commitment to the Alliance by showing that the US was willing to put its territory immediately at the same, or even greater, level of nuclear risk that its allies in Europe already faced.

Today, no US interest of comparable magnitude has been identified that would justify the risks entailed by strategic ASW. Moreover, no threat at the conventional level to any such interest has been identified or foreseen. On the contrary, while Russia enjoys local conventional superiority on the ground along its immediate periphery, it is the West that has the greater overall potential at the conventional level, especially at sea. Indeed, Russian strategists are likely well aware that Russia can use the world ocean only at the sufferance of the US and its allies (see the post “Global Blockade vs. Russia“).

The general conventional superiority of the West, particularly at sea, in and of itself, is a powerful reason for the West to avoid any actions that push the Russians in the direction of nuclear use. Threat of escalation is a common feature of Russian strategic declarations and seems hardly unexpected from the party that knows itself inferior in conventional capabilities.

Beyond the veiled “announcement” cited, little is known about current Navy thinking regarding the strategic ASW mission. However, during the Cold War two arguments were made in favor of its execution. First, it was said that by attacking Soviet SSBNs the US would tie down the GPF navy on the defensive and thus protect Western SLOCs.But protect against what threat? It is now generally recognized that the Soviet navy never in its 70-year history had any intention of attacking Western SLOCs on the high seas and indeed was not up to that mission if it had been ordered to execute it. Faced by an opponent possessing 60-plus of the quietest SSNs in the world—a most potent “fleet-in-being”—Soviet planners had little choice but to hold their GPF navy in an essentially defensive stance under almost all circumstances. If SLOC defense were the goal, actually executing strategic ASW to achieve it would have been superfluous—pointlessly putting at risk irreplaceable resources. 

Second, some in the US argued that attacks on Soviet SSBNs would not have had immediate escalatory effects because Soviet planners expected them. This last is almost certainly true but says little about how the Soviets might respond to a generally successful US campaign, especially if success came fairly quickly. The “use-them-or-lose-them” decision would have been extremely fraught for the Soviets. In August 1991 the Soviets conveyed to the world that they were capable of the “use” option when, reportedly, a Delta IV launched all sixteen of its missiles in less than four minutes. However, if missiles in the nuclear reserve were fired early, then the reserve would have failed to fulfill its reason for being, undercutting the broader Soviet design for war. Reserve nuclear missiles are not like committing a reserve battalion of tanks. If the missiles are fired at their presumed targets—US cities—the result would be an answering salvo of US missiles against Soviet cities. Acknowledging that the Soviets would not have been surprised when they found their SSBNs under attack says nothing about how they might actually have responded.

Suggested actions: These assessments of probable consequences mean that careful analysis of Russian calculations must be completed before reaching a decision about the desirability of the strategic ASW mission—or the absence thereof. Such analysis should be carried out at a level within the government commensurate with the potentially dire national impact of its results. Perhaps an assessment akin to the Nuclear Posture Review would seem appropriate. It is obvious that decisions of such gravity for the nation should not be made by one of the military services on its own, especially where within the Navy its submarine service is uniquely central to Navy decision-making regarding the mission.**

During the Cold War the Navy introduced the concept for strategic ASW, first through intensely private planning but, after a fairly short interval, quite publicly. It has now put strategic ASW back into the public domain today. Thus far, it appears to be acting on its own. Saying things like “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy” (based on a GAO report reflecting strong Navy input) does not suffice. A strategic ASW campaign would put the survival of the nation directly at risk. The national decision-making process should be fully engaged. The NCA should issue explicit directions to the Navy on what to do, and not do, regarding strategic ASW vis-à-vis the Russians and generically for the long-term future of a mission that will likely be a potential as long as SSBNs are a factor in naval planning.

If the NCA’s decision goes against strategic ASW, then the mission should, at a minimum, be held in abeyance and that decision should become the object of national declaratory policy and of military-to-military diplomacy with the Russians. Words should be accompanied by deeds. Navy operations that can be construed as preparations for strategic ASW should be reviewed and adjusted accordingly. The Navy should suspend or end its ICEX operations, the most recent having occurred in the summer of 2018. One of the high points of ICEX is to practice and display improving capabilities to fire torpedoes under Arctic ice. Under-ice torpedoes are uniquely target-specific weapons. Their only conceivable targets would be Russian submarines, obviously including Russian SSBNs: a reality doubtless not lost on Russian navy planners.

A decision if, when, and how to suspend ICEX should itself be subjected to careful analysis. It could be argued that if the US is “giving up” a strategic capability, it should seek some “concession” of comparable strategic weight from the Russian side. Possibly. But it does not seem logical to continue to develop capabilities like under-ice torpedoes that you never will want to use. Never is used here advisedly. It is up to proponents of the strategic ASW mission to articulate the circumstances, if any, under which it might be executed. If under-ice torpedoes are needed for non-strategic ASW purposes, those purposes should be articulated and evaluated in light of their inescapable strategic ASW implications.

If, despite the logic and evidence adduced above, the NCA should decide that strategic ASW is desirable, then the Navy should be prepared to address, and answer with confidence, two questions that arise should execution of the mission become successful: First, would it lead to tactical nuclear war at sea?; and/or, second, would it have undesirable nuclear ecological consequences of unknown scale?

Tactical nuclear war. The Russians would be highly unlikely to accept defeat at the hands of US conventional strategic ASW forces without resort to use of their tactical nuclear ASW weapons. The Russians, like their Soviet predecessors, have many such weapons in their arsenal,*** and the threshold for their use is low for at least two reasons: 1) in contrast to their use ashore, nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage; and, 2) the Russians have placed great emphasis on their readiness to go nuclear in response to Western conventional superiority. The US no longer possesses nuclear ASW weapons and so could not answer in kind at sea, even if it wanted to, and would have no reason to escalate ashore. Independent of these military factors, the Russians could reasonably expect their decision to use nuclear weapons at sea would have a powerful demonstration effect on their adversaries, perhaps producing a fracture in the Western alliance if the US is seen as taking actions at sea, on a unilateral basis, that lead to nuclear escalation.

Suggested Actions: The Intelligence Community should be directed to estimate the capabilities for, and likelihood of, the use of Russian nuclear ASW weapons. The Navy itself should evaluate its readiness to fight a strategic ASW campaign in a tactical nuclear environment with existing conventional ordinance or, if deemed necessary, a new generation of US nuclear ASW weapons. Analysis should focus on the expected effects on the West should the Russians cross the nuclear threshold at sea in a variety of scenarios of war ashore. The course of war ashore is likely to be an important, if not the dominant, factor in determining the decisions of the Alliance—primarily the US NCA—regarding responses at sea and ashore. The degree of endorsement of US strategic ASW plans by allies should be assessed and, if need be, sought in advance.

Nuclear Ecological Damage. A successful campaign to kill Russian SSBNs would result in unavoidable and possibly catastrophic damage to the environment. At a minimum it would leave the sea floors of the Arctic Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk, and adjacent Pacific waters littered with large amounts of radioactive material from nuclear reactors and from the many megaton-scale missile warheads that would be destroyed or damaged. In a worst case, a missile warhead might detonate resulting in the vaporization of the considerable volume of nuclear materials in other warheads if not their detonations as well. The intensity of the radiation and the area of its dispersal could be large. Immediate effects on US territory in Alaska and on allies like Canada, Norway, the UK, Japan, and Korea might be severe. Should longer term contamination of the global ocean follow, the continental US itself could be threatened.

During the Cold War, ecological damage of this kind was a lesser-included case in the nuclear Armageddon that confronted the world. Today, there are no issues at stake between the US and Russia that are remotely comparable to those vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. (Indeed, some students of US national security policy regard Russia as a minor “regional” annoyance compared to the emerging strategic competition between the US and China.)

Suggested actions: Review existing studies or initiate new studies of the ecological consequences of even a moderately successful campaign against Russian SSBNs, including estimates of the probability that attacks might detonate strategic nuclear warheads. The aim would be to verify that a strategic ASW campaign would not be ecologically self-defeating: a 21st century definition of Pyrrhic victory—sea control of waters that can no longer be used by humans. The Navy obviously must study these ecological questions internally and be able to able to answer them satisfactorily in public. Such questions would seem certain arise in the Congress from Alaska’s delegation, for example, or from private parties with deep commercial commitments in the Arctic like Exxon-Mobil. They will likely come from close allies who may fear exposure to toxic waters. Indeed, it will be surprising if US critics abroad, who have long charged that the US is indifferent to the fate of its allies in war, do not pick up this line of argument. The specter of apocalyptic damage to the world ocean will likely be raised.

Conclusion

The weight of fact and logic means that strategic ASW in the new era is simply a stunningly bad idea.

* Jeffrey Barker, deputy branch head for Policy and Posture in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Op 515B) in remarks delivered Dec. 4, 2018, at a forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, entitled “The Arctic and US National Security.” The Forum was streamed in real time and is available from the Center as a Webcast. Mr. Barker’s remarks were not a part of his prepared presentation. In Part 1, starting at 2h 9m, during Q&A, Mr. Barker observed that the purpose of bastion denial was “So that the Russians don’t have bastions to operate from—defending the homeland.” And “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy.” First reported by Richard R. Burgess, “Navy Must Be Agile But Sustainable,” Sea Power Magazine, 04 Dec 18.

** The exact process through which strategic ASW was officially approved by the NCA is open to some uncertainty for future historians to resolve. That the Navy initiated the mission is not.

*** Wikipedia “R-29RM ‘Shtil’’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-29RM_Shtil

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, July 1, 2019

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