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by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2012


Photo Courtesy: Walter P. Noonan
[IMAGE] Expansion of a Dinner Talk at the USS SILVERSIDES Reunion Holiday Inn New London North, New London, CT, 27 July 2013

Executive Summary

Much of the public debate on how to halt the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program has focused, even fixated, on whether a pre-emptive attack is appropriate if current international sanctions fail. But this leaves unanswered twin broader questions:

How can the U.S. make the strongest possible case that Iran should not continue on an apparent track toward developing nuclear arms?

What if diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions, and even conventional air strikes fail, and Iran A) does acquire nuclear arms but then B) does not (as some do rightly fear) immediately nuke Tel Aviv or give nukes to terrorists?

In the latter case, academic theory and defense best practices indicate that Iran needs to deploy some nukes survivably, i.e., beyond the reach of military intervention including even a preemptive nuclear strike. As the U.S. and USSR both realized in the 1950s, survivability requires a dispersed network of stealthy submarines on submerged patrol, with reliable counter-strike weapons of adequate range and destructive power, plus assured command and control.

What might be done peacefully to better contain Iran’s presumed (though denied) nuclear weapons ambitions, and reeducate or oust its belligerent governing regime? This article discusses a possible solution: Prosecute a nonviolent but determined undersea warfare campaign to inflict the economic attrition of a strategic deterrence contest on Tehran. The contest can be inspired by and modeled after the Silent Service’s bloodless Cold War victory against the Soviet Union.

Such a contest would be pressed so long as Iran did not take definitive, permanent, and verifiable actions to dismantle its technical potential to obtain nukes. Jawboning about this contest’s perils to Iran would provide a stronger tool to 1) dissuade the regime in Tehran from further pursuing nuclear arms, and/or 2) if that pursuit continues anyway, help change the regime by internal popular demand to one which abandons such arms in favor of a much better economic future and a prestigious leadership position for regional peace. Declaring the contest begun now would add a potent layer to America’s ongoing global strategic deterrence and non-proliferation efforts.

What is Strategic Deterrence?

In this article, strategic means pertaining to nuclear arms. Deterrence is the process of “touting with a purpose” one’s military force-in-being. The purpose is to influence the behavior of an opponent, i.e. their emotions, thoughts, decisions, and actions, in a particular way. The behavior desired is that the opponent does not launch any act of violent aggression. (For a recent and thorough treatment of undersea strategic deterrence see, for instance, Captain Jim Hay’s “Deterrence from the Depths – In the 21st Century” in the June 2011 issue of the U. S. Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS, reproduced in the July 2011 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.)

To be potent, a country’s deterrence power, in its public presentation, must be known by all globally to be more than simply survivable. It must be perceived as 1) militarily and politically credible, and 2) in application decisive if ever required. Said application must also portend timeliness of punitive effect. This ensures the crucial “negative reinforcement in advance” against any contemplated bad opponent conduct. Timeliness also dispels ahead of time any aggressor’s imaginings about post-attack marshaling of further resources (including possible late-coming allies or supporters) to consolidate de facto gains and push forward and/or resist the inevitable American-led counterattack.

At its core, deterrence must promise to do two things at once:

Defeat and repel any military aggression by the opponent, robbing them in advance of any anticipation of reward for their aggression, and Inflict damage against the opponent’s own key assets or other vital interests proportional to the aggression, with such contemplated damage severe enough to dissuade in advance such aggression. Successful deterrence guarantees to both repulse and punish any aggressive attack.

Another essential ingredient of a potent deterrent posture is the fact and perception of strong national will, to carry out the implied threat of proportional retaliation against any first strike, should retaliation be proven necessary by a first strike actually being committed.

Modern times have shown that successful strategic deterrence can and should go well beyond the 1960s-era concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) – a doomsday scenario in which nobody wins (or even survives) if initial strategic nuclear deterrence does fail at all. Flexible response, including a conventional military response, by being scalable provides a dependable and plausible spectrum of tools to both dissuade, and retaliate in proportionate kind, against any opponent attack.

But even this latter approach is in an important sense incomplete. Any rational country, daring to embark on a path toward nuclear arms, as a matter of statecraft must contemplate the prohibitive expense of acquiring, and then manning and maintaining, the full needed infrastructure of its own survivable strategic deterrent force. This expense becomes a dire existential threat from within to that country, in the form of self-inflicted economic warfare – a debilitating further burden beyond any nuclear basic R&D costs and outside economic sanctions alone. This fact broadens further the spectrum of dissuasion/deterrence dialogue available to peace-loving capitalist democracies to convince authoritarian regimes to abandon the path to nukes, or surrender said nukes if already in inventory.

Do Not Chase the Latest Middle East Headlines

American and friendly undersea warfare assets are very finite, and threaten to dwindle over the next twenty years due to program gaps and fiscal austerity. Op tempos are already grueling. The proactive application of peaceful nuclear economic dissuasion – as part of an enhanced American and allied whole of government posture of flexible response strategic deterrence – raises the question of what constitutes a sufficiently hostile regime against which to specifically direct such an expensive posture. Are any countries that refuse to sign, or withdraw from, or violate WMD non-proliferation treaties all proper candidates? Clearly, the posture can be productive and effective when projected generally on a global basis, and this obviates the question of what nations or sub-national groups are current (or future) priority targets for overlapping non-proliferation and deterrence efforts. However, the resource-intensive posture can be more effective still when the necessary public declarations and demonstrations of will and preparedness, as well as the requisite combined undersea warfare operations, can be focused in time and place while the whole world watches. One obvious good candidate is Iran.

The deterrence posture must not (and must not be seen to) waiver, hesitate, or blink in response to short-term political changes either at home or in the opponent’s capital. Effective deterrence requires the broad perception of its ongoing momentum and constancy. It must not flag or falter due to budget constraints, the results of elections, or over-optimism. It is unwise to reduce the force of economic sanctions, diplomatic efforts, cyberspace delaying tactics, and strategic deterrence at the slightest indication as to who is up or down, in or out of power and influence in an unstable country.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, though heir to the proud history of the ancient Persian Empire, has shown considerable political volatility over the years. The success just this summer of a relatively moderate candidate for president of economically weakened Iran – much like the recent regime changes in Egypt, for instance – is subject to considerable uncertainty about the extent and duration of any alterations for the better in Iranian policies and foreign relations. This is particularly so since radical clerics do – so far – continue to hold the ultimate power of decision in Tehran.

Consistency with U.S. Policy and Strategy

The suggested enhanced strategic dissuasion/deterrence posture appears consistent with stated American strategy for a safe and secure world, including a stable Middle East: Do everything possible to prevent the historically anti-democratic, violently repressive, and terror-supporting Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring (add “and successfully retaining”) nuclear weaponry.

Do everything possible to support America’s friend and ally Israel’s national security and prosperity (add “by closer cooperation in the undersea warfare domain, for generally enhanced regional deterrence and peacekeeping.”)

Reiterate America’s firm intent to retaliate against any rogue nation’s (including Iran’s) first-use nuclear aggression (directly or by terrorist proxy) with a proportionate nuclear counter-strike.

Problem Context

Some commentators believe that the government of Iran is shrewdly calculating on its own terms, rather than insane; some pundits admonish America to avoid cultural mirror imaging in attempts to divine Tehran’s true motivations and intentions. Rational restraint in combat use of nukes by national governments has prevailed worldwide since the end of World War II. Terrorists, who might indeed sometimes be insane, have evidently not yet gained access to nuclear arms. But there could always be a first time for anything.

Continuing pressures apply against global nuclear anti-proliferation and disarmament:

The breaking up of the heavily nuclear-armed Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, leaving unsecured nuclear materials,

The rise and spread of Islamic and other extremist violence,

The emerging of more active, including undersea, routes for human trafficking (such as WMD experts), and contraband smuggling (such as WMD components), including potential new routes through the Arctic’s diminishing ice cap,

Economic and standard-of-living disparities, disenfranchisement of poor and minority peoples, resource shortages (from fuel to strategic metals to potable water), and environmental disruptions that increase regional and ethnic unrest and refugee flows,

Middle East turmoil triggered by Arab Spring and Color Revolution events, not always predicted in advance by intelligence services, General nuclear proliferation including the former “nuclear underground” of Dr. A. Q. Khan, and Desire by some countries to intimidate or blackmail others, using nukes.

The ongoing challenge behind responsible nuke possession is weighty and daunting. It requires a comprehensive, enduring commitment to best practices for nuclear weapon safety, security, and surety. The U.S. has played a generous leadership role assisting other countries, of varying political and ideological persuasions, in this intricate and difficult work.

Solution Technical Framework

Risk theory has permeated naval thinking for at least the past century. It informs flexible force structure planning today. Its use is illustrated in the U.S. Navy’s NEW MARITIME STRATEGY: The scenario of a next big war (with China and/or Russia?) is mentioned explicitly as one whose likelihood appears small, but whose human and financial costs would be so high that the scenario must be explicitly anticipated, and vigorously deterred, so as to best prevent it.

Historically, Imperial Germany’s Admiral von Scheer used his “theory of risk” to plan the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrak. Admiral Spruance’s orders at the Battle of Midway told him to use the “principle of calculated risk.” Classically, this approach identifies the scenario perceived as most likely or most (or least) desired to occur, and then prepares all-out for that particular scenario. This deterministic approach failed for Germany in World War I, yet succeeded beyond expectations for the U.S. in World War II. Thus the approach, while valuable, does not necessarily remove all major outcome uncertainties.

A more robust approach can be adapted from modern investment portfolio management and actuarial science, called risk immunization theory. It engineers a hedging strategy against a dynamic and unpredictable world, without trying to forecast the future. The key is to:

Think at the macro level, across a whole range of possible future scenarios including good, bad, indifferent, and best-estimate alike, and then, Derive one posture that would minimize aggregate negative outcomes (and/or maximize positive outcomes) across that entire spectrum of scenarios.

The present requirement is to find a good course of action given that – barring immediate Armageddon – Iran might or might not actually proceed to obtain nuclear weapons, Israel might or might not intervene militarily in order to destroy them (either with or without U.S. help), and said intervention might or might not be immediately successful – which might or might not then require a recurring pattern of more and more intense and costly Israeli (and U.S.?) strikes, which might or might not lead to World War III.

Strategy Recommendations

The U.S. State Department and Defense Department, as part of a stepped up whole-of-government effort supported by Homeland Security and Commerce, should jointly and pointedly educate Iran using the following key talking points about the harsh realities behind possessing nukes:

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms will destabilize or destroy the regime if it does not then very rapidly (or even simultaneously) develop a survivable strategic deterrent against a nuclear-armed rival such as Israel. The Israelis have a long, proud history of successful pre-emptive strikes against existential threats. Any strategic deterrence contest will require by Iran immense additional financial expenditures and sacrifices on advanced undersea forces and sophisticated command and control. Such costs will be prohibitive and punishing, even positing some foreign assistance. The costs will surely bring down from within, via national bankruptcy plus escalating domestic disillusionment and rebellion, the present rule by radical Ayatollahs and many anti-Israel/anti-America politicians.

Any dictatorship faced with sometimes violent domestic political and ethnic minority opposition, even internal terrorism, needs to fathom that its own nuclear weapons present another existential threat from within. Dissidents could grab one or more such nukes, then detonate them in-country. This was a real concern for the USSR, and is also a concern for Pakistan.

By working more now with Israel on combined naval preparedness for a regional undersea strategic deterrence contest in the Middle East, the U.S. Joint Force (USJF) and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) can maintain the hardest dissuasion pressure on Tehran. Perhaps they should publicly announcing a new and exciting cooperative initiative (pilot project) related to Global Maritime Domain Awareness.

Simultaneously, they can maximize readiness to cooperatively prosecute a non-lethal submarine campaign, in case Iran does acquire nukes but any pre-emptive strikes against them either do not occur or do not fully achieve their objectives. Such USJF/IDF combined efforts could also help dissuade Israel from any destabilizing unilateral pre-emptive strike; all significant military operations run the risk of partial or complete failure, and severe international pushback.

Middle East Submarine Fleets are Small but Growing

Both Israel and Iran currently possess some half-dozen diesel-electric or diesel/air-independent submarines. Germany sells Israel customized Type 214 boats of the Dolphin Class. Iran owns some Russian Kilo-class subs. Iran claims to be making advances in domestic repair and upgrade of these subs, and in homegrown design and fabrication for new subs, including nuclear subs. Other Middle East countries are also obtaining more, and more modern naval submarines.

Israel officially maintains a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons and/or installation of some into their subs. But Israel has long been thought to deploy up to four nuclear-armed Tomahawk-like sub-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) on each such vessel; they operate in deterrent patrols within range of Iran. Iran has discussed basing some of its strategic deterrent subs in the land-locked Caspian Sea, as a bastion safe from U.S./Israel ocean-going anti-submarine warfare. But these subs would still be vulnerable to mining, UUVs, SEAL operations, distributed surveillance networks, anti-submarine platforms launched from a Caspian Sea neighbor such as Azerbaijan, and even U.S. air-dropped manned or unmanned combat mini-subs. (Over-flight rights would be needed, for instance from Azerbaijan and either Turkey or Georgia.) Since Iran has also discussed developing more mini-subs, such as a vessel with only two torpedo tubes, Tehran might plan to arm some with at least one nuclear-armed SLCM each, deployed in range of Israel. Thus the Caspian Sea becomes an important arena for Global Maritime Domain Awareness, just like America’s own Great Lakes. This nautical situation can be viewed in one of two ways:

1.As a powder keg of undersea regional rivalries and even impending combat engagements – either during or as a trigger to any Israel/Iran war, or

2. A. As an opportunity for the U.S. to work more with Israel on enhanced undersea warfare capabilities, including possible competition by the U.S. Submarine Industrial Base for design, systems, weapons, and maintenance work, plus

2.B. As an opportunity for the U.S. to work with and reassure Iran on improved regional maritime security and access for all, while discouraging Iran from pressing further with its nuclear program.

It might be wisest to view 1. as both a negative outcome to be avoided, and an incentive to aggressively exploit the twin opportunities of 2. A. and 2. B. – by working constructively with both Israel and Iran. The recent change to a reportedly more moderate and pro-West president of Iran is a good window of opportunity to try out such dialogue.

Iran’s Nuclear Posture Is a Known Unknown

Recent history shows that a nation’s development and possession of nuclear arms can undergo change with internal and external circumstances: Brazil, Libya, South Africa: Each reached some stage of nuclear weapons R&D which they gave up without external armed intervention. South Africa had a small nuke arsenal. India and Pakistan: These two regional rivals both developed nuclear weapons. The result is approaching a regional strategic deterrence contest, through the accelerating acquisition of submarines by both nations.

Democratic Peoples’ Republic of (North) Korea: Despite best efforts of several White House administrations and concurrent work by South Korea, China, the IAEA, et al., North Korea did acquire nuclear weapons. So far, Kim Jong Un shows little interest in giving up his small nuclear arsenal, though concerted disarmament efforts continue. Former Soviet Union, and Peoples’ Republic of China: While reducing strategic weapon-counts in concert with the U.S., partly to save money and modernize deployed warheads, Russia retains a strong nuclear arsenal; Russia has been deploying new nuclear subs with new sub-launched nuclear ballistic missiles (SLBMs). But the now-independent countries of the former Soviet Union willingly gave up the heritage nukes deployed on their soil, after the Berlin Wall fell. China is introducing more-capable submarine classes, while also expanding its inventory of SLBMs.

What can we learn from these real-world examples?

A national government might or might not be sincere during negotiations regarding avoidance or abandonment of nuclear arms, either strategic or tactical or both. It is not always possible to avoid big surprises such as the successful nuclear weapons tests by Pakistan and by North Korea.

A national government might or might not be willing to even consider, at least in the foreseeable near-term, any substantive nuclear arms reduction once nuclear arms have been acquired. Inter-regional analogies only go so far. Iran is neither geopolitically nor culturally and historically comparable to North Korea in obvious regards. Financial sanctions and trade embargoes tend to focus more power in a dictatorship’s hands, while (at least temporarily) increasing the will to resist of that regime’s surprisingly resilient, nationalist subjects.

A government might not know its own mind. Conflict between party sub-factions, unclear outcomes to consensus building or voting controversies, mood swings and coy conduct by supreme leaders, changing perceived circumstances, and the ebb and flow of international negotiations all make a regime’s mindset a shifting target, even for itself.

These and other examples and counter-examples show it is very difficult to make deterministic predictions about either negotiations with or military strikes against Iran. Given the extremely high stakes, the strategy of enhanced strategic deterrence, derived as above from modern risk theory principles, merits thorough examination by disarmament practitioners and undersea warriors.


Iran’s regime might become nuclear armed, any pre-emptive strike(s) to prevent this might not succeed, and Iran might not immediately commit first use of nukes. Tehran already faces a weakened economy, regional and global nuclear competitors, and at times violent internal dissent. Once nuclear armed, if ever, strategic deterrence capabilities for Iran comprise at once an existential requirement (for survivable deterrence) and an existential threat (due to their immense ongoing costs and risk of internal nuclear terrorism). By partnering with Israel more closely in submarine operations in the Middle East, the U.S. gains an immunizing strategy, and talking points are created to further dissuade Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Simultaneous non-violent action can commence to further contain and erode Iran by an enhanced undersea strategic deterrence contest for the 21st century – an economic war of attrition in the Global Maritime Domain, updated from what once worked well against the USSR.

This strategy means greater op tempo for the U.S. Submarine Force. It also calls for greater mission capability and capacity for our current SSNs, SSGNs, and their next-generation replacements. It impacts fleet size for SSBN(X). Given austere defense funding, Congress should take note of this important pathway to better protecting the U.S. Homeland, discouraging nuclear proliferation worldwide, and supporting our friend and ally, the State of Israel.

Such increased defense expenditures are not wasteful to society, as some argue. The jobs and spending and tax revenues they create are very real. Rather than rob funds for schools and hospitals, a strong defense in a dangerous world assures essential security and prosperity for students and patients, teachers and medical staff, and everybody else alike.

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