WASHINGTON — 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 underwater cat-and-mouse. Ballistic missile submarines, equipped with enough nuclear explosives to destroy entire countries, 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 missiles, 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.
Since the cold war, US and Russian Navies have gone in different directions. Russia's economic collapse severely affects its ability to maintain its force. 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, 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 missiles at all times. Each sub can carry 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 by some as being too high.
Moreover, there are significant risks and costs to keeping such large arsenals at sea. The odds increase every day that the next Russian sub accident 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 at sea 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 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. The remaining 15 ships could be retired, at a savings of almost $1 billion per year.
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's not too late to learn from their sacrifice and prevent needless deaths, insecurity, and environmental damage.
*Jon B. Wolfsthal is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society