September 12, 2014

Sea-based nuclear-weapons: Military needs and political consequences

By Elbridge Colby

How will the deployment of ballistic missile submarines by China and India affect the Indo-Pacific strategic landscape? What effect will these deployments have on stability in the region? 

Unsurprisingly, the contributions thus far have shown that the picture is, as Rory Medcalf put it, 'murky.' As Bruno Tertrais pointed out, much of the inmpact on stability from these deployments will depend on the quality of the submarines, the range and reliability of their accompanying missiles, and the skill of their crews, as well as on the anti-submarine warfare efforts of their prospective foes. At the same time, as Tom Mahnken noted, a greater sense of second-strike assurance may embolden rather than relax at least China's ambitions. Meanwhile, Rod Lyon hasobserved that, even with all the qualifiers, strategic submarines tend to make adversary decision-makers think twice about attempting a first strike.

Thus far, the debate seems to be clustering around a general view that the deployment of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is neither a panacea nor a catastrophe for stability, and that much will turn on how they are operated and on how much they are relied on for strategic advantage. 

One aspect of their deployment that has not been sufficiently remarked upon, however, is how the deployment of systems as strategically significant as ballistic missile submarines may influence regional naval doctrine and operating patterns, and even national strategic objectives more broadly. Lyon touched on this point when he wrote that 'even vulnerable SSBNs might have value if deployed in protected bastions, behind layered defensive screens, exploiting known seabed topographies, confusing the targeteer with diversionary noisemakers, and keeping the warhead loadings low per boat.'

Read the full op-ed at The Interpreter.

  • Commentary
    • CNN Opinion
    • November 27, 2019
    Trump has three options with North Korea to avoid a dangerous perfect storm in Asia

    In the next few weeks, the Korean Peninsula will face a watershed moment -- one which could upend the United States' alliances in northeast Asia and regional stability as a wh...

    By Duyeon Kim

  • Reports
    • November 20, 2019
    Make Good Choices, DoD

    In a new report, Susanna V. Blume and Molly Parrish offer a deep dive into how the U.S. Department of Defense makes decisions about what the U.S. military needs, what to buy a...

    By Susanna V. Blume & Molly Parrish

  • Commentary
    • The Hill
    • November 20, 2019
    A fresh approach to peace in Afghanistan

    An effective peace process is possible and desirable in Afghanistan. Success, however, will require a careful, step-by-step course to test bona fides, build confidence, reduce...

    By Earl Anthony Wayne & Christopher D. Kolenda

  • Video
    • November 20, 2019
    Results of the second Pentagon audit

    Bob Hale discusses takeaways from the Department of Defense’s latest audit, and the impacts it’s having on the agency’s culture.Watch the full conversation on Government Matte...

    By Robert F. Hale

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia