205. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon1

  • SUBJECT
    • New Ballistic Missile Submarine Program

On January 4, 1972 I wrote to you that after reviewing alternative SSBN programs I concluded that an acceleration of the Underseas Long-range Missile System (ULMS) was the best alternative.2 I have attached a brief summary and comparison of the alternatives considered.3

I believe it is clear that we need an overt step to enhance our strategic posture in response to the continuing Soviet offensive buildup and the long delay in achieving an arms limitation agreement. The step must signal to the Soviets, our Allies and the Congress that we have the will and the resources to maintain our strategic posture in the face of a growing threat. It should appear deliberate rather than suggesting panic. It must receive strong Congressional backing to be effective.

The alternatives we have considered include the stretching of the present Poseidon boats to carry 24 rather than 16 launch tubes, the conversion or diversion of present and programmed nuclear attack [Page 928]submarines to ballistic missile submarines; and the construction of additional submarines using the basic design of the more recent Poseidon boats with a number of improvements. These options offer the possibility of a more rapid increase in the number of missile launchers at sea than the ULMS acceleration and at a lower initial cost per launch tube, although the additional launchers could not be populated with a new missile until about one year before the accelerated ULMS, and the cost per pound of payload deliverable a given distance averaged over the life of the submarine can be lowest for ULMS. Each of these options could carry the new ULMS–I missile when it becomes available, and so be able to operate from CONUS ports and throughout large ocean areas. Only the ULMS, however, can carry the larger ULMS–II missile with its greater range-payload capacity.

I am convinced that any of the alternatives to ULMS would face serious Congressional opposition. In addition there are other strong reasons for rejecting these alternatives:

Stretched Poseidon

  • • Does not provide new submarines, thus weakening the message we want to communicate.
  • • Makes a major new investment in submarines which have already served 1/3 of their useful lives.
  • • Involves major modification to an effective operational force.

Conversion of Attack Submarines

  • • Gives the appearance more of panic than deliberation in our response to continuing Soviet programs.
  • • Temporarily reduces the level of our attack submarine force at a time when increasing that submarine force has one of our highest priorities.

Construction of New Improved Poseidon-class Submarines

  • • Many important aspects of the submarine design would be based upon the technology of the early 1960s, for boats expected to be in operation beyond the year 2000.
  • • This boat could enter the fleet only one year sooner than the accelerated ULMS, but could not carry the larger ULMS–II missile.

I am convinced that acceleration of the ULMS is the correct step for five reasons:4

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1.
It is the only step for which we can confidently get Congressional authorization.
  • • There would be very strong opposition to any new land-based systems. We cannot even get R&D approved for land-mobile ICBMs.
  • • There would be very strong opposition to interference with present programs, such as stretching Poseidon submarines or converting or diverting attack submarines. Such opposition was encountered during the first two years of the Polaris-to-Poseidon conversion program.
  • • There would be considerable opposition to resurrecting a design of the 1960s, even if technological improvements were incorporated, for a boat to be operational from 1978 on past the year 2000.
  • • The ULMS program has already been funded by Congress and initiated. It is intended as the next generation successor to the present fleet.
2.
Accelerating ULMS is the most effective signal to the Soviets, our Allies and the Congress that we intend to counter the continuing Soviet buildup of strategic offensive forces with a buildup of our own.
  • • It is a well planned and deliberate implementation of a major step forward in submarine capability.
  • • It accelerates the submarine which was in any case intended to be the follow-on to the present fleet. It therefore is clearly not just a “bargaining chip,” but is a program we intend to carry to fruition, either to add to or to replace the present fleet, depending in part on the evolution of the Soviet threat and the outcome of SALT.
3.
The ULMS makes the best sense strategically.
  • • A strategic offensive arms limitation agreement is likely to limit the number of SLBM launchers rather than the capacity of the launchers. The ULMS gives substantially larger capacity launchers than any other alternative.
  • • Any new SSBN we build now will be operating in the year 2000 against unknown ASW and ABM threats. Therefore, new SSBNs should be as quiet as possible and should be capable of carrying a large missile. A capability to carry the larger ULMS–II class missiles maximizes the submarine’s flexibility for:
    • —operating in a very large operating area while covering targets in the USSR to hedge against advanced ASW threats in the next 30 years;
    • —carrying advanced penetration payloads (e.g., 16 MIRVs per missile or maneuvering RVs) to hedge against advanced ABM threats in the next 30 years.
  • • All alternatives could carry the 4000 n.m. ULMS–I missile, which would allow operation from CONUS ports with very short transit times to SSBN operating areas. This allows the submarines to operate under CONUS-based ASW and surface protection. It allows us to be independent of overseas basing. The ULMS–II missile allows the largest payload at this range.
4.
The ULMS helps to alleviate the severe problems of retaining qualified SSBN crews we expect in the future.
  • • The capability to carry the larger ULMS–II class missiles means that a given payload can be deployed with fewer boats and crews.
  • • The ULMS class SSBN will be larger than the submarines of the other options, and so permit the most habitable shipboard environment for these crews.
5.
The ULMS offers the lowest cost per pound of deliverable pay-load over the life of this system.

We expect to be presenting these reasons as we testify in support of the FY 72 supplemental request and the FY 73 budget request before Congress.

Melvin R. Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 230, Agency Files, Department of Defense, Vol. XVI. Top Secret.
  2. Laird’s memorandum to Nixon is ibid., Vol. XV. It responded to a January 3 memorandum from Kissinger requesting the preparation of an SLBM option paper for the President, who had included additional funds in the FY 1973 Defense budget for strategic submarines but had yet to determine exactly which program to support. (Ibid.)
  3. Attached but not printed is a 10-page paper, “Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) Deployment Options,” that included the following sections: Current SLBM Programs, Missile Options, Submarine Options, and Major Factors Bearing on the Selection of an SLBM Deployment Option.
  4. Moorer agreed. In a March 20 memorandum to Kissinger, he wrote that accelerated construction of the ULMS offered “the only suitable and viable option” to rapidly add SLBMs to the U.S. inventory. The ULMS, he argued, “provides a weapon system with very significant advantages in performance and operational flexibility over anything available to either side. From a negotiation point of view the ULMS program, which can be further accelerated if desired, provides leverage which can be used to ensure approximate ‘equivalency’ of offensive systems. From the ‘world image’ point of view, the important thing is not delivery rates per se but, rather, the existence of a modern ongoing system.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 245, Agency Files, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vol. II)