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Ballistic Missile Submarines: The Only Way to Go

Stratfor Global Intelligence Brief, 24 Apr 07

 

Summary -- Russia and China are both in the process of fielding a new class of ballistic missile submarines. These submarines, longtime prudent investments for states with nuclear weapons, are becoming an essential -- and ultimately, the only -- option for a survivable nuclear deterrent.

 

Analysis

 

For the better part of a decade, four nations have maintained a

regularly patrolling strategic deterrent at sea: the United States,

France, the United Kingdom and Israel (whose use of nuclear

warheads mounted on cruise missiles aboard its three Dolphin-class

submarines is an open secret). However, that decade also has seen

China and Russia complete nuclear-powered ballistic missile

submarine (SSBN) programs. This is particularly important because

diving beneath the ocean's surface is quickly becoming the only way

to hide.

 

Russia

 

At its peak, the Soviet navy operated more than 60 SSBNs. The fleet

is now one-quarter that size, and most of the boats are in poor

condition. In 2002, the Russian navy did not conduct a single

strategic deterrence patrol. The current fleet of aging SSBNs can

barely hold the line. Not only is Russia investing in the future of

its SSBN program, but it also is essentially starting from scratch.

 

The Yuri Dolgoruky, the lead boat of Russia's newest Borei-class

SSBN, has a troubled past. Laid down in 1996, the Yuri Dolgoruky

was neglected and construction was held up because of economic

troubles after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The parallel

development of the SS-NX-28 submarine-launched ballistic missile

(SLBM) failed, and the design had to be adjusted during

construction to accommodate a different missile, the SS-NX-30

Bulava.

 

Although the Bulava has had several successful launches, three

failures in the fourth quarter of 2006 demonstrated the missile was

far from ready. Nevertheless, the Yuri Dolgoruky was launched April

15. (It will spend at least a year being fitted out.) Deputy

Defense Minister Gen. Alexei Moskovsky has promised seven more by

2017.

 

Of course, Moskovsky's statements are nothing if not ambitious. A

series of successful Bulava tests will be necessary. But the

ultimate success of the Borei class is essential for Russia's

ability to maintain its nuclear deterrent. It is perhaps the top

defense priority, along with the continued fielding of the

land-based Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And

it is something Russia can afford.

 

In recent years, Russia has politically and economically

consolidated and has been fiscally conservative enough to keep a

balanced budget. Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies, and a

hefty windfall from high energy prices, have turned Russia's $160

billion debt in 2000 into $400 billion in currency reserves and

surplus funds. In March, the Kremlin shed its fiscal conservatism

with a new budget for 2007-2010 that dramatically increases

spending in many sectors, including defense. The budget and

economic conditions are reminiscent of the Soviet budgets of the

1970s, during which Moscow launched its last dramatic increase in

defense spending.

 

China

 

For the Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN),

nuclear-powered submarines have been a challenge. At times, the

PLAN was an understudy of a less-than-perfect master: the Russian

navy. Though the PLAN has made incremental improvements, its

nuclear submarines reportedly have yet to attain modern standards

of performance.

 

The PLAN's older Xia-class SSBN, though able to launch missiles,

never made an official deterrence patrol. However, the new

Jin-class SSBN (Type 094) reportedly is undergoing sea trials. It

spent some five years under construction and sources indicate it

was launched in mid-2004. It reportedly is not up to modern SSBN

standards, and there are rumors of nuclear propulsion problems.

However, the shift to sea trials suggests it will ultimately

deploy. The JL-2 SLBM with which it is to be fitted appears to have

had several successful trial launches. If the Jin class is

deployable, the bulk of the continental United States -- now only

vulnerable to a small arsenal of China's longest-range land-based

missiles -- would be within reach of the JL-2 SLBM.

 

Though dozens of funding priorities compete for the money, China's

military spending has continued to rise. China has a small nuclear

deterrent, so it must ensure that the deterrent it has is mobile

and survivable; thus, while Beijing's pocketbook is not bottomless,

the SSBN program should continue receiving the funding it needs.

 

Implications

 

Both the Russian Borei and the Chinese Jin are still at least a

year from operational capability, and their sister boats -- still

under construction -- will need to be completed in the next few

years in order to build to a constantly patrolling rotation. But in

five to 10 years, Russia and China both intend to have such a

rotation in place.

 

While the significance of a new SSBN is greater for China, which

has yet to field a functioning sea-based deterrent, the decay of

Russia's SSBN fleet is such that the Borei marks a new beginning

there.

 

India could be working toward a missile submarine as well, but that

development is 10-20 years away. Countries like Pakistan could one

day follow the Israeli example -- diesel submarines armed with

cruise missiles. Diesel boats lack the endurance of their

nuclear-powered brethren, but can run even quieter for short

periods. The cruise missiles have a shorter range than SLBMs, but

are technically easier to launch and require no major modifications

to a standard hull, since they can be launched horizontally like

torpedoes.

 

While none of these developments fundamentally alters the strategic

balance of a unipolar world, advances in Russia and China's SSBN

programs mark the first time in a decade that nations other than

traditional U.S. allies are building sea-based deterrents.

 

The Increasing Importance of the Sea-based Deterrent

 

Early in the Cold War, ICBMs were almost prohibitively large and

expensive. The submarine was a way to move shorter-range missiles

closer to one's adversary. But as missile accuracy improved (the

dramatically increasing potential yield of strategic warheads did

not hurt, either), the prospect of a successful "first strike"

began to alter the role of the SSBN. It became a valuable "first

strike" platform because it could move close to an adversary's

coast, giving the enemy less time to react to a missile launch.

 

But its greatest value as the most survivable leg of a nuclear

triad is its capacity for a "second," or retaliatory, strike. Much

harder to keep track of than platforms in fixed positions, an SSBN

lurking at sea is the ultimate wild card. Land-mobile missile

systems (as opposed to fixed, silo-based missiles) are another way

of accomplishing this, but technological advances will make them

increasingly vulnerable.

 

A joint U.S. program between the defense and intelligence

communities is working to test space-based radar. Destined to

succeed in one form or another, space-based radar will one day be

able to track objects across the face of the Earth -- objects such

as land-mobile launch vehicles -- and keep close enough tabs on

them that their locations can be effectively targeted by strategic

warheads.

 

In a unipolar world -- in which the United States will have the

best intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and

weapons of increasing speed and accuracy -- the nuclear weapon is

the only true guarantor of national independence. Even a minimal

deterrent allows nations to focus on and confront regional

disputes, as well as protect their interests abroad. An SSBN fleet

is, of course, not absolutely necessary -- whether mounted on a

land-based missile or a submarine, a nuclear weapon is a

substantial bargaining chip -- but it is becoming increasingly

difficult to hide anything from the United States. The U.S.

military has a technological edge beneath the waves as well, but

even a modestly well-built submarine traveling below 5 knots is

hard to track, and it certainly has a better chance than a fixed

concrete silo. Consequently, the sea-based leg of a nation's

nuclear triad is evolving from a prudent choice for survivability

to the most essential element of a meaningful nuclear deterrent.


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