The following article by Jon Wolfsthal, an Associate with the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project, was originally printed as an op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor on August 28, 2000.
The Kursk submarine disaster has grabbed world attention, but there's one question no one is asking: Why are these subs at sea at all? The cold war is over - the reason for keeping them at sea is gone, and the risk the next accident will involve a sub carrying nuclear weapons is unacceptably high.
Throughout the cold war, US and Russian subs played continuous game of underwater cat-and-mouse. Ballistic missile submarines, equipped with enough nuclear explosives to destroy entire continents, were shadowed all over the globe by hunter "attack" submarines. Countries accepted the risks because sub-based missiles are harder to find and destroy than land-based systems and are considered secure second-strike weapons. In the age of hair-trigger, nuclear deterrence, this was desirable. The occasional sub accident or incident was tolerated as a cost of keeping the peace, and few argued that the US and Russia shouldn't maintain sub-based missiles.
Over the past decade, US and Russian Navies have gone in different directions. Russia's economic collapse severely affects its ability to maintain its navy. Many subs, including newer models, routinely are tied up dockside, rusting away for lack of maintenance. More than a hundred, with radioactive nuclear reactors and weapons-usable nuclear materials on-board, await dismantlement with little security or environmental monitoring. The few operating Russian subs are poorly maintained and their crews poorly trained. They're then forced to sea to conduct exercises simulating cold war era scenarios.
For its part, the US continues to operate its submarine fleet at near cold war alert levels. It operates 18 strategic ballistic-missile submarines; four of them ready to launch its missiles at all times. Each sub carries 192 warheads, meaning more than 750 weapons are seconds away from launch right now. In 1994, the Pentagon called for reducing the total number to 14, reductions blocked by Congress. Even in 1994, that number was criticized as being too high.
There are significant risks and costs to keeping such large arsenals at sea. The odds increase every day that the next Russian sub accident -- and there will be more -- will involve a ship carrying nuclear missiles. In 1989, the Russian nuclear sub Komsomolets sank at sea, reportedly carrying two nuclear- tipped torpedoes, and eventually leaked plutonium from its reactor into the ocean. It's still not clear if the reactors on the Kursk are safe, and Russian claims that no nuclear weapons are on board are impossible to verify. A future accident could easily involve a reactor leak, put nuclear weapons at risk, and lead to widespread environmental damage.
US and Russian subs are trapped in a Catch-22. Keeping US missile subs on patrol forces Russia to keep its attack subs out there looking for US subs, and encourages Russia to keep as many strategic missile subs at sea as possible. This, in turn forces the US to keep its arsenal of attack subs artificially high, tracking Russian subs. This all signals third parties, such as India and Iran, that they need sea-based systems if they're to become "real" nuclear powers.
The solution is simple: Keep the subs at home. The US should announce, after obtaining a bilateral commitment from Russia to do the same, that ballistic missile subs will no longer go on routine patrol and will be maintained in and around their home ports. The US could help Russia dismantle its excess subs as an incentive for Russia to agree. Each site could operate three missile subs, ensuring at least one would be able to put to sea at any time in a crisis. These ships would still be maintained in port, as could their crews, and would only be shipped to sea occasionally for training or in emergencies. In the US, the remaining 15 ships could be retired, at a savings of almost $1 billion per year. Russia only has 2 missile subs at sea at any given time, so operations would not need to be radically altered.
The benefits to the US and Russian budgets would be significant, as would be the benefits to global security, moving one more step away from the nuclear brinksmanship of the cold war. It may be too late to save the sailors of the Kursk, but it is not too late to learn from their sacrifice and prevent needless deaths, insecurity, and environmental damage.
U.S. AND RUSSIAN SUBMARINES
BALLISTIC MISSILE SUBS: 18
ATTACK SUBS: 66
STRATEGIC NUCLEAR WEAPONS ON SUBS: 3,456
BALLISTIC MISSILE SUBS: 21
ATTACK SUBS: 72
STRATEGIC NUCLEAR WEAPONS ON SUBS: 1,576