I’m a C4 and C3 guy, but the D5 is pretty bad ass…
The submarine-launched Trident II D5 ballistic missile is the backbone of America’s nuclear deterrent.
Last week, the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs office awarded Lockheed Martin a $560 million modification to a pre-existing contract for production and support of the Trident II D5 missile. Almost nobody outside the Navy and Lockheed’s missiles and space unit noticed. Dozens of such agreements have been completed over the years.
Reading the official announcement, you’d never guess that the survival of our civilization depends on the successful execution of the January 30 contract and others like it. But it does. The D5 missile provides the backbone of America’s nuclear deterrent, and thus the main bulwark against the kind of conflict that could permanently extinguish everything we hold dear.
As confirmed by the Trump Administration’s disclosure of a revised missile defense strategy last month, the United States does not attempt to actively defend its homeland against nuclear attack by Russia or China. That is too hard, given the number of warheads in each country’s nuclear arsenal and the destructiveness of each one. Attempting to do so might spark a destabilizing arms race. Instead, the U.S. seeks to dissuade Moscow and Beijing from nuclear aggression by threatening grave consequences.
The D5 is crucial to making deterrence credible, because unlike the land-based missiles and manned bombers in America’s nuclear “triad,” it is deployed on submarines beneath the seas. The 14 submarines and 280 D5 missiles comprising the sea-based deterrent can’t be tracked or targeted when they are operating, and thus there is no way an attacker could escape horrible retribution. It is the certainty of unacceptable retaliation that is America’s main insurance against nuclear war.
The D5 missile and its antecedents in the Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile program are central to this strategic calculus. In fact, they have been more critical to American survival than any other type of weapon in the national arsenal. The reason you probably don’t know this is that the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs office operates so smoothly there is never any bad news to report. It is arguably the most reliable, efficient operation in the Pentagon’s entire acquisition apparatus.
As a result, the D5 is unknown to most people. Even those who follow military affairs closely seldom hear much about D5. So what I’d like to do here is briefly describe five reasons why the D5 missile is the most important weapon you’ve (probably) never heard of. I should note up front that Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the D5, is a contributor to my think tank and a consulting client–as are several of its competitors.
The most critical mission. Sustaining a survivable, flexible nuclear deterrent is the most important mission of America’s military. The Navy routinely describes replacement of its cold war ballistic missile submarines as the service’s top priority. What makes those submarines a superior deterrent, though, is the D5 missile—20 of which are carried on each of 14 Ohio-class submarines. Most of the subs are submerged beneath the seas at any given time, and thus beyond the reach of enemy targeters. With each D5 carrying multiple thermonuclear warheads capable of hitting within 300 feet of intended targets, the Ohio class by itself could wipe out any nation. That is a powerful inducement for potential enemies to avoid aggression.
The most survivable platform. Military experts refer to the combat systems from which weapons are launched as “platforms.” Ohio-class subs are among the stealthiest weapons platforms in history, and an even stealthier Columbia class will begin construction in 2021 at the Electric Boat shipyards in Connecticut and Rhode Island. EB, as parent company General Dynamics often calls it, is the most capable and accomplished builder of submarines in history. Its top goal in engineering the D5’s future host is to make the boat virtually invisible to enemies when it is submerged. That is not something you can do with missile silos and bomber bases, giving D5 the greatest likelihood of surviving a surprise attack and then retaliating in tailored, precise fashion (General Dynamics too is a contributor to my think tank and consulting client).
The most reliable missile. The Navy randomly selects a D5 missile for testing on average four times per year to assure the sea-based deterrent is in a high state of readiness. It has been doing this since 1990, when the initial version of D5 became operational. During the intervening years, the missile has established a track record as the most reliable large missile or space booster ever built. It has been successfully launched 171 times, with fewer than ten launches deemed to be unsuccessful. The consistency of D5’s testing history assures that whatever fate may befall the other parts of the triad in a war, the sea-based deterrent will be ready to launch when so ordered. Potential aggressors know this, know the D5’s power, and know there is little they could do to escape retaliation.
The most potent warheads. Each D5 missile is capable of reaching over 4,000 miles at hypersonic speeds and then delivering multiple warheads with high accuracy against widely separated targets. Targeting information is typically loaded into guidance systems just before launch to assure retaliation matches the aggression that provoked it. About two-thirds of the 1,100 warheads in the D5 inventory are 100-kiloton devices suited to destroying soft targets, while the remaining third are 475-kiloton devices capable of destroying hardened targets (like buried command centers). The latter warheads are more powerful than those carried on land-based missiles, and more likely to reach targets than megaton-range weapons that might be carried on bombers.
The most numerous warheads. Pursuant to arms control agreements concluded in recent years, about 70% of all the nuclear warheads in the U.S. strategic force will eventually be carried on D5 missiles (100% of all the warheads in the United Kingdom deterrent will be too). While land-based ballistic missiles and long-range bombers will continue to provide essential synergies in deterring nuclear wars, the D5 will provide the backbone of America’s strategic force. Nobody knows how a nuclear war might unfold, but the combination of numerous warheads, stealth, mobility, speed, reach and precision makes the sea-based deterrent first among equals in the nuclear triad. In fact, the unique features of the D5/submarine combination might confer a pivotal role in terminating nuclear exchanges before they become apocalyptic.
The U.S. government is understandably secretive about what its plans are for various nuclear contingencies. If aggression is limited or accidental, it presumably would respond in a more restrained fashion that if the attack involved hundreds of warheads. The most important consideration is that potential aggressors understand the U.S. has credible options for every conceivable set of circumstances, so that there is no way an enemy might imagine it can gain an advantage by launching first.
The D5 missile seems ideally suited to these purposes, which is why the Strategic Systems Programs office has systematically upgraded every feature of the missile and its associated systems over the last 20 years (the Y-12 national security complex announced just last month that it had completed life-extension improvements to the 100-kiloton warheads carried on D5). D5 will be active in the deterrent force longer than all five previous generations of sea-launched ballistic missiles combined. As Ohio-class subs are replaced by Columbia-class subs, D5 will remain the weapon of choice carried on board. So the D5 will be an essential part of the nation’s nuclear posture for decades to come.