Home / Robert Farley / Nukes!



In my latest Diplomat column I make the case for retaining a (reduced) boomer fleet:

My own view is that the United States can accept a lower threshold for at sea nuclear deterrence, but this leg should still retain a rump deterrence capability.  Survivability concerns may not be what they were, but they are still relevant, and SSBNs have both survivability and flexibility advantages over ICBMs. It isn’t accidental that China, India, and Russia are all choosing to develop or upgrade their SSBN capabilities at the same time. Concerns about shipbuilding costs should be remedied by resource transfers between services; if the Air Force no longer operates an ICBM force, then funding can (at least theoretically) shift towards the Navy.

Replacement of the Ohio boats will still be expensive, but circumstances may allow life extension beyond current expectations. The long term answer may not be an entirely new SSBN design, but rather a modified Virginia class boat that could carry ballistic missiles. The Navy has argued that this design would become more expensive than an Ohio replacement, but issues of number and vulnerability may prove more manageable if the option is no boomers at all.  No other state in the world can match such a capability, and yet the U.S. presumably feels deterred from launching pre-emptive nuclear attacks on China or Russia.  A reduced SSBN force is still the best option for providing a foundational level of nuclear security.

Here’s some more on the aging ICBM force.

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  • Patrick J. Colvario

    Agreed as usual. What numbers were you thinking?

  • rea

    But for nukes, we might well have fought a NATO vs. Warsaw Pact war in Europe some time in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Hell, there were people who wanted to do that anyway, and they weren’t all on the other side.

    • ajay

      But for nukes, we might well have fought a NATO vs. Warsaw Pact war in Europe some time in the 60s, 70s, or 80s.

      Not necessarily. History has plenty of examples of sustained international tension between superpowers not turning into war.

      • Njorl

        I don’t think history has plenty of examples of superpowers.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Your counter-factual is completely unsubstantiated. You have no evidence whatsoever.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • Njorl

        Just what kind of evidence are you looking for? Should he have 200 worlds, half with nukes, and compare the number of East-West conflicts which arise?

        I think the biggest mistake he made is leaving out the 40s and 50s.

  • Arouet

    Aside from McGrath, is there even any serious discussion of not replacing the Ohios in some way, shape, or form? I’d certainly trade 55 nearly-useless LCSs for retention of the sea-based nuclear deterrent in a heartbeat. I think some people have forgotten a) how terrifying nuclear weapons are and b) that not everyone feels as inherently constrained from using them as the United States does.

    If a leg of the triad goes, it’s going to be (and should be) ICBMs or bombers. Besides, in comparison to the utility provided, the nuclear force as a whole costs a pittance. You’re not going to fix the budget crisis by cutting big chunks out of that.

    • Herbal Infusion Bagger

      b) that not everyone feels as inherently constrained from using them as the United States does.

      Errrrmmmmm….so far we’ve been the only nation to use ’em in conflict. So I’m not sure where you’re getting the “we’re inherently constrained from using them” from.

      • Arouet

        Yes. Once. At the very beginning of the nuclear era (by definition, really), before there were any norms regarding non-use of nuclear weapons. Since then we have been in various stages of armed conflict with many, many non-nuclear powers and never once used nuclear weapons. I don’t see how you can treat the United States any differently because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at this point.

        • ajay

          Since then we have been in various stages of armed conflict with many, many non-nuclear powers and never once used nuclear weapons.

          Yes, but you could say the same for every other nuclear power in the world. So where are you getting the idea that the US is “inherently constrained” and the others aren’t?

          • Njorl

            I think he may be considering a world with wide proliferation.

            It might not be what he was getting at, but any prosperous country with industrialized urban areas and a high-tech conventional military has an inherent aversion to nuclear war.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      I would trade all of the above for a reduced military budget. The nuclear force as a whole is incredibly expensive and will ultimately either rust or kill thousands.

      By the way, there is no budget crisis.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • Arouet

        If the nuclear force rusts it is doing its job. And if it’s killing people it’s probably killing millions, at the very least hundreds of thousands.

        Also, there is a budget crisis to the extent that Republicans believe that there is and to the extent that we are going to go through yet more spending cuts. Whether it’s actually as serious as advertised is irrelevant if we’re going to have to find places to cut back in any event.

        • It’s not an all or nothing proposition. We don’t need anything close to the force level we’re currently maintaining.

          We’re not pursuing a “counter force” strategy against the Soviet Union anymore, which is what drove the huge number of warheads in the first place.

    • Bombers are not a purely nuclear system like ICBMs. They have a useful conventional role as well as a naval role.

      • Zackly. I say keep the bombers and the boomers, lose the rest.

        • Speaking in terms of nukes. There are also other air capabilities we should retain, of course.

        • Njorl

          We need to keep the suitcase nukes for movie plot purposes.

      • Arouet

        If the bombers are the leg of the triad that is eventually cut, it will clearly only be their nuclear-delivery role. They will be retained for conventional strike. For that reason, ICBMs may be best balance of cost-savings and capability reduction if we’re getting rid of one.

  • NBarnes

    Is there value in maintaining engineering and institutional expertise in creating and running a deep sea submarine fleet with an emphasis on running deep and silent? Simply canceling USN’s SSBN program and calling it a day is giving that up, along with the deterrent capability. It seems to me that it might be worth it to keep a rump SSBN fleet around just to keep that expertise from fading. Or, at least, fading until we’re 100% sure we don’t need it.

    I feel much the same way about manned fighter/interceptor aircraft; IMHO, we should be moving towards high-performance interceptor drones as quickly as practical, but that doesn’t mean tossing all of our institutional expertise in manned interceptor operation out the window at the same time.

    • We already have “high performance interceptor drones” – they’re called Surface to Air Missiles.

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