Size Of US Nuclear Missile
Submarine Force Questioned
By Walter Pincus
Washtington Post
WASHINGTON -- On any given day, at least five Trident strategic ballistic missile submarines, each nearly the length of two football fields, are submerged on patrol in the Pacific or Atlantic.
Each submarine is capable of firing 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each of which has up to eight warheads with many times the explosive power of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Backing up these submarines are 13 more Tridents, four or five of them at sea at any give time.
Although the 18-sub Trident force never has drawn the kind of public criticism that the more visible land-based MX and Peacekeeper missiles did, that quiet acceptance of ballistic-missile submarines may soon end.
Questions -- even within the military -- have been raised about why the United States needs to maintain such a massive nuclear deterrent when the world's other major nuclear power, Russia, has trouble keeping just one or two of its strategic nuclear submarines operational.
"Who are we preparing to assault or retaliate against at this level of destructive power?" asked retired Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr., deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank that favors reducing arms.
Noting that the five boats on permanent patrol could "eradicate the world," Carroll criticized as "totally irrational" a congressional amendment that has prohibited cutting the Trident force until Russia ratifies the START II agreement.
Earlier this decade, the Navy acknowledged that it no longer needed 18 Tridents, and prepared to reduce the number to 10 at the end of the Bush administration. The Clinton administration's strategic nuclear review raised the number to 14.
Then Congress put into law a ban on any reductions below the START I level of 18 submarines until the Russian parliament ratified START II, the 1993 treaty that would lower allowable strategic nuclear warheads on land- and sea-based missiles to 3,500. Last month, after Moscow protested the U.S. bombing of Iraq, the Russians again delayed ratification of START II, at least until spring.
As a result, at least $500 million in additional funding is likely to be needed in the Pentagon's fiscal 2000 budget to keep the Trident force at START I levels. If Moscow's failure to ratify goes beyond next year, the Navy's added costs could grow to $1 billion more a year to keep 18 Tridents operational.
According to a 1997 Congressional Budget Office study, at START I levels "the Navy would probably need funding for additional . . . missiles, modifications to four submarines . . . and overhauls, including refueling the nuclear cores," of the four oldest Tridents that otherwise would have been decommissioned.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration and now director of the Center for Security Policy, defended maintaining the Trident force.
Gaffney, whose organization favors a firmer military posture, called the submarines "the last vestige of a robust nuclear deterrent posture. . . . The last thing I would cut is these boats that represent a credible, survivable force against people who may not be deterred."
Before the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States had 34 ballistic-missile submarines in operation, carrying about 5,400 warheads, or 45 percent of America's strategic nuclear warheads. Today, the 18 Trident submarines carry almost 3,400 strategic warheads, or almost half the strategic warheads in operation.
Ten Tridents are based at Kings Bay, Ga., and roam primarily in the Atlantic. The remaining eight are based at Bangor, Wash., and patrol the Pacific.