Happy Holidays from the Pentagon! In this issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE, our focus is the naval shipyards: Portsmouth, Norfolk, Puget Sound, and Pearl Harbor. The hard-working men and women of these activities play a vital role in our Force’s success, conducting the depot maintenance and repairs that are crucial to keeping our submarines operating safely at sea. They are one important component of the success that has allowed us to extend the service of our current submarines well beyond their planned lives. The Ohio-class SSBNs, for instance, will serve an incredible 41-years each—40% longer than initially envisioned!
That’s one of the points I made in my remarks at the “Sustaining the Triad” conference held in Kings Bay last month. We brought together strategic deterrence stakeholders from the Navy, Air Force, industry, and think tanks to discuss the vital importance of this national mission and how we can effectively communicate that importance to our nation and our communities at the grassroots level. In a way, we’re the victims of our own success. Nuclear deterrence has, for over 68 years, kept our nation safe and essentially eliminated the threat of great power war. As a result, violence has been pushed down to much lower levels: instead of the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed in the Second World War, for example, we now see casualty figures that are lower by orders of magnitude.
Americans have grown used to the effects of this nuclear insurance policy, and now we’re facing the challenge of “over-optimized” strategic forces. The Air Force’s newest nuclear bomber rolled off the assembly line more than half a century ago, and their Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have been in service for over four decades. Assuming we avoid further delays, our first Ohio Replacement SSBN will deliver just in time to relieve the Ohio class, which will inactivate at the end of their extended service lives as the longest-serving nuclear submarines in history. Four Ohios will have already decommissioned when the first Ohio Replacement makes a strategic patrol; we will be walking the razor’s edge of operational risk. We have taken every bit of slack from our strategic forces and stretched them to capacity.
All the while, our defense has consumed a smaller and smaller slice of the nation’s resources. From 1965 to 2010, the gross domestic product of the United States has gone up by a factor of 3.7 in constant-year dollars. This means that, as a country, we produce 3.7 times as much value in goods and services as we did in 1965. In the same 45 years, the sum total of all non-defense federal spending—on things like education, training, employment, social services, health, medical care, income security, disability, Social Security, and veterans benefits—increased by over 11 times. Defense spending increased by a factor of just 1.7. And in the meantime, our population has increased by about 50%. What this means is that, though we’re three times wealthier than we were, per American, we’re spending less on defense than we did in 1965.
So we are looking to invest in the continuation of this national imperative, our strategic deterrent, at a time when there is perhaps less appetite than ever for defense spending. And we’re looking out at a world full of nuclear-armed adversaries that don’t share the commonly held view that the world is growing safer. They are arming themselves to increase their ability to intimidate. What we need to remember is that we are in a never-ending contest to provide our own security. We’re in a chess match with opponents who are strengthening their positions with each move while we give away turns. They are only too happy for us to lose our focus and shift priority away from the things that keep us strong and safe.
What can we do? Keep doing your job faithfully and well, providing the security that Americans depend on every day, often without realizing it. Remember what an important role you play in our national defense and, when you have the opportunity, teach. Remind your family and friends that, while our strategic deterrent helped win the Cold War, its vital importance didn’t end there.
R. P. Breckenridge