TCS Daily

Convert the Quartet of Trident Subs

By Melana Zyla Vickers - July 26, 2001 12:00 AM

In his May speech to graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, President George W. Bush painted a picture of a 21st century U.S. military in which Trident submarines would stealthily ply the world's oceans armed not with their traditional, 24 nuclear missiles, but with 154 conventional cruise missiles capable of striking targets 1,000 miles away.

Bush couldn't have been more explicit about the subs' critical role in his vision of the future. Yet when presented with its first opportunity to take the Tridents - which face imminent decommissioning under the START II treaty -and convert them to this new purpose, the Pentagon failed to deliver the goods.

Or failed to deliver all of them. DoD's proposed 2002 budget, now before Congress, provides $116 million for converting two Tridents slated for decommissioning in 2004. But it ignores two other Tridents, powerful boats with 20 years' hull life left in them, but destined for the scrap heap in 2003.

Ostensibly, abandoning the Florida and the Ohio is a cost-saving measure for DoD planners. Yet DoD will save only about $300 million in '02 - less than half the cost of a single, modern destroyer- with its action. Even the full cost of converting one sub, $1.1 billion, is low. Conversion is among the most cost-effective ideas to come out of the Pentagon in years, and in the context of a $330 billion budget, the sum saved by converting two subs instead of four is tiny.

Meanwhile, the capabilities the United States will forgo are tremendous. Each of the converted subs, moving undetected through the ocean with its small crew:
  • would allow the U.S. to project power globally, unthreatened by the sorts of missile attacks that in the coming decades stand to put cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers and other surface ships at risk.
  • would give the U.S. the ability to conduct surprise attacks, a capability the current, Tomahawk-carrying vessels don't have. This would bolster deterrence and complicate adversaries' planning.
  • would substitute for the naval force currently used to fire the Tomahawks, namely a carrier battle group of seven to nine ships, thousands of sailors, plus two fast-attack sub escorts. Consider that roughly two subs' worth of Tomahawks would have been enough for the whole 1991 Gulf War.
  • would free cruisers and destroyers to concentrate on other missions such as air and missile defense, and free fast-attack subs to gather intelligence and hunt other subs.
  • would remain able to conduct other missions, such as anti-submarine warfare and intelligence collection, and could combine the cruise-missile mission with carrying 66 Naval Special Forces commandos in mini-submarines.
To be sure, converting only two of the subs gives the U.S. part of this enhanced capability. But because the Florida and the Ohio are to be decommissioned in 2003, now's the only chance to preserve them. Doing so will save vessels that are being sacrificed to arms control while they still have half their lifetime ahead of them. In the longer run, converting the four subs at a total cost of $1.1 billion apiece will boost efficiency and cost savings at the Pentagon, an objective whose drumbeat is only getting louder. And it will make more powerful than ever a president's ability to conduct military operations with cruise missiles, so essential in the Kosovo and Persian Gulf wars.

Two boats are better than none. But it's not too late for forward-looking politicians on Capitol Hill to correct the Pentagon's bean counting with boldness, and push for the conversion of all four subs.


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