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Get Your Woke “Climate Change” Away from My Nuclear Submarines!

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An aerial starboard bow view of a Russian Navy Northern Fleet DELTA IV class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine underway on the surface.

On “ocean transparency:”

Progress in sensor acuity, multi-sensor connectivity, big data, and machine learning could significantly improve anti-submarine capabilities in the future, and, in turn, deprive submarines of their capacity to exploit the ocean to hide — an outcome known as “ocean transparency.”6

If this is true, the implications will be significant. Over the past decade, many countries have invested in submarines, and some have decided to give priority to these platforms over surface ships, a trend that, according to some, will increase in the future with submarines taking over some of the functions of aircraft carriers.7 If ocean transparency is indeed on the horizon, these investments could be a bad bet — especially since new submarine projects take decades to complete.8 Moreover, ocean transparency would have important implications for deterrence and warfighting. It could deprive countries of an effective means of defending their coasts and providing conventional deterrence through diesel-electric submarines. It could also make the most credible delivery system for nuclear weapons, ballistic-missile submarines, obsolete, thus jeopardizing nuclear stability.9 Finally, ocean transparency might strengthen some countries and weaken others, for instance, by depriving the U.S. Navy of its enduring advantage in submarine warfare stemming from its very quiet submarines.10

We argue that existing understandings about ocean transparency rely on an unwarranted assumption — namely, that the environmental conditions of the ocean will remain constant. The ocean, however, is changing as a result of global warming, as evidenced by melting polar ice, rising sea levels, warming surface waters, changing patterns of surface and underwater currents, changes in the patterns of tropical storms and monsoons, and seawater acidification, among others.11 These changes are expected to worsen in the future, for example with the weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a major driver of the Gulf Stream, and the second-order effects that its possible shutdown would trigger.12

I would be inclined to stay away from formulations like “will this make submarines obsolete?” and move towards questions like “how does climate change affect the future of submarine technology and employment?” The former is certainly relevant; 4 of the 6 major nuclear powers rely primarily on submarines to maintain their nuclear deterrents. But the latter question pushes us into a better analytic space, as weapon systems very, very rarely become entirely useless. In any case, this is yet another area in which climate denial will be actively harmful to the practice of US national security.

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