Compromise Reached on Trident Subs

The conference report to the fiscal year (FY) 2000 defense authorization bill, which was completed August 5, permits the Navy to remove the four oldest Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) from service before START II enters into force, provided the president can certify that such a step will not jeopardize national security. Senior administration officials testified in April that reducing the Trident force from 18 to 14 SSBNs would save $5-6 billion through FY 2005 without undermining the survivability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The status of the Trident fleet had been in question after the Senate and the House of Representatives completed their versions of the defense authorization bill this spring. (See ACT, April/May 1999.)

The conference report stipulates that no funds may be spent on the retirement or dismantlement of the 18 Trident SSBNs unless START II enters into force or the president certifies that four achievable conditions have been met. Specifically, the president must certify that the Trident force reductions will not threaten the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, will not provide a disincentive for Russian ratification of START II or negotiation of future arms control measures, will not interfere with U.S. abilities to carry out its nuclear war plans (known as the SIOP) and will not prevent the United States from "uploading" its nuclear delivery systems should new threats arise.

Once this certification has been transmitted to Congress, the United States can maintain 16 SSBNs for the first 240 days and 14 SSBNs thereafter. The conference report includes $13 million to preserve the option of converting the four retired boats to a conventional role. Despite the exemption for the Tridents, the United States is still required to stay at START I force levels (6,000 "accountable" warheads) until START II comes into effect.