A UGM-96A TRIDENT I submarine launched ballistic missile lifts off on the
14th test launch of the system. U.S. Navy Photo.
A Brief History
To understand the continuing importance of the SSBN fleet we must go back to the beginning of the nuclear age. The nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II dramatically changed the way war could be waged. Nuclear weapons unleashed the energy of the atom itself, devastating the targeted cities, and significantly increasing the consequences of unrestricted warfare. For a brief time, the United States was the world’s sole nuclear power, a position that gave us enormous military strength and status relative to the rest of the world. However, that situation changed in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon.
In the following decades, both super- powers built large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. As the extraordinary destructive potential of the nuclear arsenals grew, so too did the associated concepts of deterrence. During the Cold War, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) ultimately shaped the deterrence calculations of both the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the United States, our deterrent force was built around a triad of nuclear forces composed of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and their supporting warning, command, and control capabilities. The nuclear triad was designed to complicate enemy targeting and defensive response and to hedge against loss or failure in any leg. Each leg contributed unique attributes, and when used together, they guaranteed the certainty of a devastating response in any contingency. Ultimately, deterrence centered around the nuclear triad set the conditions for the peaceful resolution of the Cold War.
The U.S. Navy became an integral part of the triad in the 1950s with the advent of the submarine-launched Regulus missile, followed by the Polaris, Poseidon and modern TRIDENT missile systems. As the Cold War progressed, the submarine fleet brought important capabilities to the deterrent force, the foremost of which was survivability. The survivability, flexibility, and, later, accuracy of our submarine-launched missiles guaranteed that we would always have a reliable threat of retaliation for any attack another country may have been contemplating. These attributes enhanced the credibility of our deterrence.
Today, our strategic deterrent force still exists to convince adversaries not to take actions that threaten U.S. vital interests. However, we recognize there are adversaries who will not be credibly deterred by our nuclear capability alone. Therefore, today’s deterrence strategy is far more sophisticated and is built on a broader understanding and use of all means of national power.
The Nuclear Posture Review of 2001 established a “New Triad.” This new triad includes nuclear and non-nuclear strike capabilities, active and passive defenses, as well as a responsive infrastructure—all linked by command, control, communication, and intelligence capabilities. The intent of the New Triad is both to reduce our dependence on nuclear weapons and to improve our ability to deter attack across a broader range of contingencies. What was known in the Cold War as the nuclear triad is now included as part of a much broader deterrence concept that looks to tailor specific deterrence capabilities to specific adversaries. Nuclear weapons still serve a vital role within our deterrence strategy, but they are no longer our only tool.
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