For the better part of a decade, four nations have maintained a regularly patrolling strategic deterrent at sea: the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Israel (whose use of nuclear warheads mounted on cruise missiles aboard its three Dolphin-class submarines is an open secret). However, that decade also has seen China and Russia complete nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) programs. This is particularly important because diving beneath the ocean's surface is quickly becoming the only way to hide. Russia
At its peak, the Soviet navy operated more than 60 SSBNs. The fleet is now one-quarter that size, and most of the boats are in poor condition. In 2002, the Russian navy did not conduct a single strategic deterrence patrol. The current fleet of aging SSBNs can barely hold the line. Not only is Russia investing in the future of its SSBN program, but it also is essentially starting from scratch. The Yuri Dolgoruky, the lead boat of Russia's newest Borei-class SSBN, has a troubled past. Laid down in 1996, the Yuri Dolgoruky was neglected and construction was held up because of economic troubles after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The parallel development of the SS-NX-28 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) failed, and the design had to be adjusted during construction to accommodate a different missile, the SS-NX-30 Bulava.
Although the Bulava has had several successful launches, three failures in the fourth quarter of 2006 demonstrated the missile was far from ready. Nevertheless, the Yuri Dolgoruky was launched April 15. (It will spend at least a year being fitted out.) Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Alexei Moskovsky has promised seven more by 2017. Of course, Moskovsky's statements are nothing if not ambitious. A series of successful Bulava tests will be necessary. But the ultimate success of the Borei class is essential for Russia's ability to maintain its nuclear deterrent. It is perhaps the top defense priority, along with the continued fielding of the land-based Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And it is something Russia can afford. In recent years, Russia has politically and economically consolidated and has been fiscally conservative enough to keep a balanced budget. Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies, and a hefty windfall from high energy prices, have turned Russia's $160 billion debt in 2000 into $400 billion in currency reserves and surplus funds. In March, the Kremlin shed its fiscal conservatism with a new budget for 2007-2010 that dramatically increases spending in many sectors, including defense. The budget and economic conditions are reminiscent of the Soviet budgets of the 1970s, during which Moscow launched its last dramatic increase in defense spending. China
For the Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN), nuclear-powered submarines have been a challenge. At times, the PLAN was an understudy of a less-than-perfect master: the Russian navy. Though the PLAN has made incremental improvements, its nuclear submarines reportedly have yet to attain modern standards of performance. The PLAN's older Xia-class SSBN, though able to launch missiles, never made an official deterrence patrol. However, the new Jin-class SSBN (Type 094) reportedly is undergoing sea trials. It spent some five years under construction and sources indicate it was launched in mid-2004. It reportedly is not up to modern SSBN standards, and there are rumors of nuclear propulsion problems. However, the shift to sea trials suggests it will ultimately deploy. The JL-2 SLBM with which it is to be fitted appears to have had several successful trial launches. If the Jin class is deployable, the bulk of the continental United States — now only vulnerable to a small arsenal of China's longest-range land-based missiles — would be within reach of the JL-2 SLBM. Though dozens of funding priorities compete for the money, China's military spending has continued to rise. China has a small nuclear deterrent, so it must ensure that the deterrent it has is mobile and survivable; thus, while Beijing's pocketbook is not bottomless, the SSBN program should continue receiving the funding it needs. Implications
Both the Russian Borei and the Chinese Jin are still at least a year from operational capability, and their sister boats — still under construction — will need to be completed in the next few years in order to build to a constantly patrolling rotation. But in five to 10 years, Russia and China both intend to have such a rotation in place. While the significance of a new SSBN is greater for China, which has yet to field a functioning sea-based deterrent, the decay of Russia's SSBN fleet is such that the Borei marks a new beginning there. India could be working toward a missile submarine as well, but that development is 10-20 years away. Countries like Pakistan could one day follow the Israeli example — diesel submarines armed with cruise missiles. Diesel boats lack the endurance of their nuclear-powered brethren, but can run even quieter for short periods. The cruise missiles have a shorter range than SLBMs, but are technically easier to launch and require no major modifications to a standard hull, since they can be launched horizontally like torpedoes. While none of these developments fundamentally alters the strategic balance of a unipolar world, advances in Russia and China's SSBN programs mark the first time in a decade that nations other than traditional U.S. allies are building sea-based deterrents. The Increasing Importance of the Sea-based Deterrent
Early in the Cold War, ICBMs were almost prohibitively large and expensive. The submarine was a way to move shorter-range missiles closer to one's adversary. But as missile accuracy improved (the dramatically increasing potential yield of strategic warheads did not hurt, either), the prospect of a successful "first strike" began to alter the role of the SSBN. It became a valuable "first strike" platform because it could move close to an adversary's coast, giving the enemy less time to react to a missile launch. But its greatest value as the most survivable leg of a nuclear triad is its capacity for a "second," or retaliatory, strike. Much harder to keep track of than platforms in fixed positions, an SSBN lurking at sea is the ultimate wild card. Land-mobile missile systems (as opposed to fixed, silo-based missiles) are another way of accomplishing this, but technological advances will make them increasingly vulnerable. A joint U.S. program between the defense and intelligence communities is working to test space-based radar. Destined to succeed in one form or another, space-based radar will one day be able to track objects across the face of the Earth — objects such as land-mobile launch vehicles — and keep close enough tabs on them that their locations can be effectively targeted by strategic warheads. In a unipolar world — in which the United States will have the best intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and weapons of increasing speed and accuracy — the nuclear weapon is the only true guarantor of national independence. Even a minimal deterrent allows nations to focus on and confront regional disputes, as well as protect their interests abroad. An SSBN fleet is, of course, not absolutely necessary — whether mounted on a land-based missile or a submarine, a nuclear weapon is a substantial bargaining chip — but it is becoming increasingly difficult to hide anything from the United States. The U.S. military has a technological edge beneath the waves as well, but even a modestly well-built submarine traveling below 5 knots is hard to track, and it certainly has a better chance than a fixed concrete silo. Consequently, the sea-based leg of a nation's nuclear triad is evolving from a prudent choice for survivability to the most essential element of a meaningful nuclear deterrent.