On 12 September 1989, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense took a grossly irresponsible step: It savaged President Bush’s request for funds to procure 63 Trident II (D-5) missiles and necessary long-lead items associated with future Trident II buys. In so doing, the Subcommittee joined others in the Congress in what amounts to a full-scale assault on the United States’ strategic deterrent.
Congress Adopts the Nuclear Freeze
In recent weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to sharply reduce the amounts requested for the rail-mobile MX and the road-mobile Midgetman missile, for the B-2 "Stealth" bomber and the advanced cruise missile, and for the Strategic Defense Initiative in the FY1990 Defense authorization bill. If adopted by the conferees and by the full Congress, these actions would virtually stop ongoing modernization in — and do devastating programmatic violence to — every element of U.S. strategic forces except one: the Navy’s sea-launched ballistic missile force.
Unfortunately, a key Senate subcommittee has recommended that Congress not permit even this exception to what amounts to a virtual "nuclear freeze." Seizing on two recent submerged-launch flight test failures, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee refused to appropriate funds needed to buy the Trident II missiles planned for purchase in this fiscal year. Accordingly, it deleted nearly $1.6 billion sought for that purpose. The Subcommittee mark would also affect the Navy’s ability to buy these missiles well beyond next year, insofar as it eliminates $216 million sought for advance procurement.
This Recommendation Will Do Great Harm to the D-5 Program
Were the full Congress to go along with the Defense Subcommittee’s proposal, the Trident II program would suffer extreme disruption and important deterrent requirements would go unfulfilled. Either (or some combination) of the following, deplorable options would have to be adopted:
- The Navy would have to cease production of D-5 missiles in FY1990. This would require a complete break in an established and efficient production line. It would also result in disruption and layoffs at the contractor and subcontractor facilities around the country and necessitate a time-consuming and expensive effort to reestablish the line involving requalification of myriad vendors and the painful resumption of the build-up to full-rate production.
- If it chose not to take this draconian step, the Navy would be obliged to slow the rate of production and delivery of the 153 Trident II missiles currently authorized so as to minimize the adverse effects of shutting down the line entirely. This would probably result in no more than 12 D-5 missiles being deployed per submarine, versus the required 24, from 1990 until roughly 2000.
By continuing with the planned delivery of missiles now in the pipeline, the Navy could fit out the first D-5 capable Trident submarines. It would, however, be obliged to defer the deployment of such missiles aboard the fifth D-5 capable submarine for one to two years. Alternatively, it could choose to equip each of the first five boats with partial loads. It would take approximately until the year 2000 before the presently planned procurement program could be made whole.
If this course of action were taken, there would be a serious and sustained shortfall in the number of highly accurate U.S. warheads deployed in a survivable manner during a potentially quite tumultuous period in East-West relations. This situation will be exacerbated if the United States continues to dismantle Poseidon submarines as Trident subs are introduced; loaded, ready missile tubes will be replaced by empty ones with the potential effect of seriously degrading the credibility of the American deterrent.
Either of these plans would greatly increase Trident II costs, lengthen the time it would take to reach full operational capability and compound the ever-present risks of technical problems due to programmatic dislocations.
This Recommendation Will Harm a Vital Allied Deterrent
The United Kingdom will likely be directly affected by this decision should it be sustained. Britain has built its entire future strategic force around the Trident II missile; a multi-billion dollar investment is tied to and scheduled around its promised availability.
The British Trident program has been extremely controversial in the United Kingdom. Her Majesty’s Government has placed enormous priority on preserving this program in the face of persistent efforts to slow or derail it. As a result, Britain has, thus far been able to maintain the public and parliamentary support needed to ensure that U.K.’s deterrent continues to play in the future the important and synergistic role it has performed in the past in NATO’s deterrent strategy.
Should the United States now disrupt the British program due to its inability to supply D-5 missiles when and in the quantity called for by bilateral agreements, it could have a catastrophic effect on the viability of the U.K. Trident and severely strain relations between two key allied governments.
The Ultimate Irony
What is particularly ironic about the Subcommittee’s decision is that it singles out for congressional micromanagement the program that is virtually universally regarded as the best run in the Defense Department — if not the entire U.S. government. While flight test programs are intended to find and fix problems (and they do), the fact that the D-5 system has moved as quickly as it has through a technically challenging development effort and met or exceeded all of its key goals is a testament to the excellence of the Trident II’s Navy and contractor team.
Fixes have now been identified to the problems that caused the two flight failures. They do not require major redesigns of the D-5; they will be integrated into the missiles now in production as they reach the appropriate stages in the manufacturing process. There is, in short, no programmatic justification for halting production at this time.
What is more, if Congress is serious about procurement reform in the Pentagon, about reducing the unacceptably long lead-times from program inception to deployment, and about minimizing the costs of defense systems, it will find no better model than the approach used to bring on line successive generations of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. If on the other hand, it wishes to ensure that such levels of performance as the Navy has achieved with its strategic deterrent programs are not obtained in the future, it need only pursue the recommendations of the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee on D-5 procurement.
For reasons of strategic stability, sound program management, fiscal responsibility, allied relations and procurement reform, the Congress should reject the proposed suspension of Trident II production in FY1990.