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by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2014

Published in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW in the fall 2013 issue

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[IMAGE] Introduction

At the Naval Submarine League's 2013 Open Symposium in Falls Church, VA, Silent Service leaders reiterated that the highest priority currently for the U.S. Submarine Force is the timely commissioning of an adequate number of suitably capable SSBN(X) replacements for the aging OHIO-class strategic nuclear deterrence fleet. Planners and designers have determined that 16 nuclear-armed submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carried on each of 12 separate SSBN(X) vessels constitute the minimum, irreducible requirement. If future Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) ratifications reduce the total number of warheads allowed in America's arsenal, then missile tubes can be left empty or reduced in number on each vessel but the number of vessels should never go below twelve. Among the crucial factors behind these calculations is the need for strategic dispersal between the sets of SLBMs deployed on each such separate submarine. One dire consequence of settling for fewer than twelve SSBN(X) vessels would be that -- allowing for scheduled maintenance downtime and crew workups, transits to and from port, unexpected repairs, and so on -- the small number actually in position out on stealthy strategic deterrence patrol at any one time would become too small. As a cohort, these far-flung patrolling submarines would be too vulnerable to attack or mechanical breakdown of any one member. Complete and continuous coverage of all planet-wide potential second-strike (i.e., deterrence) targets would be lost. The SSBN(X) fleet would then fail to be at all times a reliably potent global-reach strategic weapon system helping prevent a surprise, pre-emptive nuclear (or other WMD) attack on America and our worldwide network of friends.

This article will discuss strategic dispersal theory and practice in an intentionally very broad context, to help support the wisest shipbuilding and other defense appropriation decision-making. "Strategic" will sometimes be used in two ways at once here, meaning both 1) pertaining to nuclear weapons, and 2) pertaining to the widest point of view regarding smart national security policy implementation.

Strategic Dispersal is an Age-Old Responsibility

Strategic dispersal is an important military term of art that deserves discussion. Interestingly, unlike "strategic deterrence," strategic dispersal has no entry in A Web search's most relevant recent entry is some news reporting on the 2009 debate whether the U.S. Navy should base any nuclear supercarriers in Mayport, FL. The essence of strategic dispersal is to never put all your eggs in one basket. Yes, the issue does date back (at least) to Aesop's fables from ancient Greece circa 500 BC. Modern strategic dispersal, much like the related imperative of strategic deterrence itself, can be an abstract or even invisible concept. But it is one whose vital importance must not be appreciated only in hindsight via the profoundly negative effects of dispersal's neglect. This article offers a general overview of the all-pervasive, perpetual nature of strategic dispersal, building on three (relatively recent) telling historical case examples.

How to Read the Case Examples

The three case examples have intentionally been chosen to be very familiar to readers, though not perhaps in the specific context of strategic dispersal effects. The first two, Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001, are probably the two most infamous surprise attacks in America's history. These were both terrible shocks, and national calls to arms. They will help illustrate how widespread and never-ending are the need for, and the benefits of, strategic dispersal, even when that dispersal is unintentional, inadvertent, only partial, or even accidental. The third, most recent case study, BRAC 2005 and the New London Naval Submarine Base, will focus on the now officially recognized critical requirement for strategic dispersal in current and future undersea warfare basing dispositions, even when benefits of that dispersal might be invisible or seem contrary to short-term cost cutting.

Case 1: December 7, 1941

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor provides an excellent study in how a bit of strategic dispersal, even if unintentional, can profoundly affect the outcome of a world war. As is well documented in naval history texts, there was no specific policy at Pearl Harbor to disperse the U.S. Pacific Fleet's capital assets (including warplanes) as a precaution against surprise attack. On the contrary, most Army and Navy assets were intentionally concentrated to better protect against sabotage. The two operational aircraft carriers available that fateful Sunday to Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor were both well away from home port simply because they each happened to have business elsewhere. Thus they escaped the first wave of attacking Imperial Japanese Navy carrier aircraft. Japanese task force leadership decided to call off their second wave attack out of concern for a possible counter-ambush by said U.S. Navy carriers. That in turn mostly spared the submarines in port, as well as the torpedo stocks and workshops, plus the base's fuel oil and lubricant tanks, which were as important strategic targets as the battleships. The rest, as they say, is history.

What is Strategic Dispersal?

Intentional strategic dispersal can be defined for present purposes as the collective result of design, material fabrication, operational doctrine, and ongoing deployment steps taken to minimize the simultaneous damage to other friendly military units -- and to one's entire defensive system as a whole -- of an enemy attack on any one or more units. This pragmatic issue does date back to the ancient Greek philosophers, who famously articulated the great truth that "no two objects can be in the same place at the same time." By no means an obsolete concept nowadays, Mother Nature's imperative to dispersal even infuses modern quantum theory via the Pauli Exclusion Principle. It dictates that two electrons cannot simultaneously occupy the same quantum state in orbit around the same atomic nucleus. The question for the Sub Force now is, how far apart should different SLBMs on deterrence patrol be emplaced in submarines under the sea? But going well beyond the realm of philosophy and particle physics, military dispersal -- whether tactical or strategic in scope -- is something that occurs and yields benefits in the readily visible, practical world. Dispersal is always happening within the context of restricted resources, such as finite appropriated funding, limited available materiel quantities, tight allowable timeframes, and small number of trained personnel. As such, the achievement of real-world dispersal is always based on making intelligent compromises. Not enough dispersal can create overconcentration and thus excess vulnerability, while too much dispersal can lead to serious dilution of sufficient control and decisive effect. Either extreme, too much or too little dispersal, can also lead to excessive costs. (These include the loss of economies of scale within each separate small unit or platform, and overexposure to technology risk, mechanical faults, and human or cyberspace contagion within each large one). Either blunder, too much or too little dispersal, represents money thrown away -- on national and coalition defense programs that fail in the face of aggressive adversary pressures and hard use in the field.

Dispersal is achieved by one form or another of spatial separation between similar objects in a nation's arsenal. Examples include spreading out the foxholes of an infantry platoon subject to enemy artillery bombardment, subdividing a surface capital ship into many watertight compartments, building in redundancies of command and control pathways within and between various platforms, and isolating different data centers using disparate locations with powerful digital firewalls and other rigorous cyber-security and backup protocols.

Military practitioners know that a certain amount of dispersal results inevitably from meeting other operational needs, and in that sense some dispersal comes "by accident" or "for free." Troops need to be spread out to assure each soldier a sufficient share of the local battlefield environment's concealment and cover; a too-dense disposition can also overburden local water and firewood supplies, and endanger group hygiene. Similarly, there is a practical limit to the maximum dimensions (displacement) of each ship within a task force, given concerns about such parameters as material strength and metal fatigue, low observability, maximum vessel draft, good steering radius, and the size of existing dry-docks and canals. The same thing applies to the weight of a battle tank or armored car, or the runway length needed for safe takeoff by a heavily loaded big aircraft, or the mass of a very capable, survivable satellite. Too bulky is as problematic to national defense as too flimsy.

A Bit of Inescapable Math

Another factor influencing the maximum practical size of any type (shape and layout) of platform (i.e., spatial container, whether stationary or a conveyance) relates to constraints on how much time is allowable to load and/or unload that platform. Mathematically, for any given unit of measurement such as the foot or the meter, the ratio of the square-unit area of the outside of a platform to the cube-unit volume inside that same platform declines as the linear-unit dimensions of that platform increase. By way of illustration, everything else being equal it is cheapest, when buying the lumber to build the outside of a bunch of cube-shaped cargo crates loaded to the hilt, if one puts the entire cargo load into one huge cube. However, the time it takes to load and unload that one gigantic cargo crate on each occasion it is utilized, let alone the delay and monumental costs required to build it and the unique platforms and terminals required to move it, argue against this monolithic, monomaniac approach. In the military as in the commercial world, time is money, and time is always critical to saving lives. To reiterate, in general, some but not too much dispersal is good. But too little dispersal can be disastrous.

Case 2: September 11, 2001.

Time also becomes an important safety consideration. Very efficiently packed human spaces might require unacceptably long periods of time to evacuate in an emergency. Al Qaeda's attack planning for 9/11/01 has been called a textbook example of the combined (perhaps partly unintentional) harnessing of kinetic (force of impact), chemical (burning jet fuel), and potential (collapse under gravity) energy to inflict maximum damage on selected targets. Were it not for precautions taken intentionally by airplane and building designers, which amounted to achieving some strategic dispersal among conveyance platforms (e.g., airliners) and within structures (e.g., office buildings), the total toll of killed and injured from the hijacked plane crashes (including the one in Pennsylvania) and the damaged or destroyed buildings would probably have been significantly greater.

Practical limits on the size, and passenger and fuel capacity, of commercial airlines -- in essence, strategic dispersal of travelers all bound for the same destinations -- placed limits on the direct death tolls from the four crashes themselves, and also on the additional deaths caused by the kinetic and chemical energy released into the three occupied structures, some of which, weakened badly enough after a time delay, then collapsed under their own weight.

The Pentagon and the World Trade Center designs represented different approaches to efficiently packing people into spaces that could be evacuated in an emergency. The Pentagon space planning spread horizontally; the World Trade Center, on crowded downtown Manhattan Island, had to rise vertically. News reports said that perhaps no one on or above the floors where the airplanes hit the Twin Towers got out alive, because the impacts and fires blocked all evacuation routes downward inside the structures. However, except for first responders, most of the occupants below the impact floors, who were not killed or critically injured by the aircraft impacts themselves, were successfully evacuated before the Twin Towers collapsed some two hours after the planes hit. Had larger aircraft carrying more fuel been involved, the Twin Towers might have collapsed a lot sooner, causing many more deaths. Had the Twin Towers themselves been much taller, and with fewer other skyscrapers nearby to mask their lower floors from attack, the hijacked planes could have struck the towers much lower. The immensely taller towers would have collapsed under their own weight much sooner, and the death toll would have been perhaps an order of magnitude more severe than during the actual tragedy.

Discussions of 9/11/01 also noted that the Pentagon and the Twin Towers used very different design and construction philosophies, beyond their contrasting (and not entirely voluntary) choices of height versus footprint size. The Pentagon used many strong internal beams throughout, and also included airshafts and courtyards between the different rings -- which amounted to a form of spaced armor and internal dispersal. The Twin Towers in contrast utilized a weight-supporting scheme based mostly on an innovative external framework, which lost strength when it was broken through and then exposed to prolonged jet fuel-fed fire heat. As a result of these differences, and given that jetliners travel mostly horizontally, many more people on or above the floor where the plane hit at the Pentagon were able to evacuate safely, compared to at the Twin Towers.

Case 2, like Case 1, illustrates how pervasive, both in need and in effect, strategic military dispersal really is throughout modern society. Choices, even if inadvertent or invisible, have consequences, measured in life and death.

"Too Big to Sail?"

The NEW YORK TIMES for 28 October, 2013, on page B1 ran "Too Big to Sail?" This article profiled how the problem has been raised by some maritime safety experts that the very latest cruise ship designs (with upwards of 3,000 passenger staterooms) are becoming so big they might, in a worst case nautical disaster, present insurmountable obstacles to saving everyone aboard.

This brings us from the wise old words of Aesop to the modern U. S. Navy paradigm of sea basing. The design, procurement, and employment of any SSBN fleet amounts to an application of survivable, covert sea basing, where the mission is undersea warfare strategic deterrence. The challenge for SSBN(X) is, just as with any concerted surface ship sea-basing process, to decide on the ideal number of platforms of the ideal individual payload capacities. As with luxury liner passenger lists -- and with surface warship ordnance magazines -- too many eggs in too few baskets become a potentially life-threating conundrum in SSBN(X) procurement.

This connection might be made clearer and more immediate if we considered a "floating apartment building" cruise ship as a possible target for hostile pirate or terrorist or enemy nation-state submarine attack. As with our nation's precious deployed SLBMs, a single platform-as-target should not be made overly tempting to an adversary, nor allowed to become too crippling a loss to friendly forces if sunk. Modern adversaries, ranging from large countries to loose-knit terrorists, seek to damage entire national systems (such as the luxury cruise industry, the entire shipping industry, or the whole economy) via attacks on individual assets.

As a result, America must never allow one strategic deterrence platform to hold so large a portion of all deployed nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that that platform's loss -- in combat or by freak accident or mechanical failure -- would cripple the entire system of effective, survivable strategic deterrence, and with it, threaten national survival. Since the literature and hard experience make it clear that strategic deterrence, to work, must have a very strong psychological effect on the enemy(s) in advance of any surprise attack, America's strategic dispersal choices must not simply be in fact unassailable, they must be seen and understood by all to be unassailable.

Case 3: BRAC 2005 and SUBASE NLON

The final pertinent and illustrative case example draws on a recent debate and decision process that applied specifically to the "land basing" of undersea warfare assets -- namely, U. S. Navy fast-attack subs from the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, CT. The review was part of the work of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), intended to eliminate (perceived) redundancies and other cost inefficiencies in the U.S. military. After significant controversy, the BRAC members voted overwhelmingly to keep open the New London Sub Base.

One argument in favor of closing the base was that costs would be saved by consolidating Groton subs (the ones not moving to the Pacific) with other East Coast subs already based in Norfolk, VA and Kings Bay, GA. One argument in favor of keeping the base open was that adequate strategic dispersal demanded three, not two, sub bases on the U.S. East Coast. (Of course, other factors such as tremendous economic impact also played major roles.) Sub Force leaders speaking afterward at the Groton Base, commenting on the decision process and the televised final Commission vote, emphasized that minimum adequate strategic dispersal of both fast attack and strategic deterrent sub basing simply could not be sacrificed, even under pressure for current cost savings.


These historical examples, woven together, demonstrate logically that strategic dispersal was and is a necessity, not a luxury. The costs are well justified to maintain a reliable national security system for America and, including our nuclear umbrella, for our friends and allies. Unpredictable surprise attacks and unwise cost-cutting alike can damage that system severely, if strategic dispersal is neglected. Ongoing fundamentals such as strategic dispersal and strategic deterrence matter deeply to American defense, invisible though their priceless benefits might sometimes be compared to their pricey implementation. They simply should not be sacrificed for lower expense numbers on today's national budget and deficit spreadsheets.

The minimum acceptable number of next-generation survivable undersea strategic deterrent platforms, the one dozen in the SSBN(X) fleet as already determined by detailed naval analysis and planning, must be funded on a timely basis, in its entirety. To settle for even one SSBN(X) fewer that twelve will leave our strategic deterrence posture open to serious gaps. These gaps, in a modern world of so few real secrets, could be discovered and exploited by an adversary. Such gaps would make our strategic deterrence system as degraded as is any highway or tunnel, runway or flight deck, railway, or dyke, levy, or aqueduct system that suffers from gaps. The adversary might be a terrorist cell of homicidal lunatics, or a future sociopath-led country bent on intimidation, or worse, in some sort of new cold or even hot war. The point is that we know that we don't know. The danger of unpreparedness lies in the implicit invitation to some unspeakable global catastrophe.

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