Michael KreponTrident

In the 1970s, it was insufficient to offer state and local authorities a massive new military base. The Federal Government also needed to provide sweeteners like new schools to handle the influx of military personnel, government workers, and defense contractors. Those were the days when rainmakers truly reigned on Capitol Hill. No Congressional delegation had bigger rainmakers at that time than Washington State, represented in the Senate by Warren Magnuson, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Henry M. Jackson, a powerhouse on the Armed Services Committee. The biggest military construction project then under consideration was a submarine base for the new Trident program. The Chief of Naval Material recommended Charleston, South Carolina in an October, 1972 memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations, Elmo Zumwalt. “Maggie” and “Scoop” thought otherwise, convinced that the best location for the Trident was on Puget Sound. In February, 1973, Zumwalt agreed, citing the need for Pacific basing. The new sub base was situated at Bangor in the Sixth Congressional District. From 1974 through 1977, I was the defense legislative assistant for the 6th District’s Congressman, Floyd Hicks.

Mr. Hicks was the sacrificial lamb chosen by party bigwigs to relinquish his judgeship to oppose a secure Republican incumbent. The year was 1964. When LBJ trounced Barry Goldwater, Judge Hicks unexpectedly found himself sitting on a different bench, using his prosecutorial skills during House Armed Services Committee hearings. He was the only member of the Committee who could work successfully with old southern bulls like F. Edward Hebert and L. Mendel Rivers and young upstarts like Les Aspin. Back then, merely offering a floor amendment against the Chairman’s mark-up could be punishable by being frozen out of Committee business. Passing an amendment against the Committee’s wishes just didn’t happen — until 1974 and 1975, when Mr. Hicks won floor amendments barring the U.S. Army from spending money on a new generation of “binary” nerve gas weapons. I like to think that these amendments were the closing arguments in a long trial that convinced an unenthusiastic Pentagon to get out of the chemical weapon business.

Again, I digress. Everything about the Trident was super-sized. The original price tag of constructing the base at Bangor was $548 million – over two billion dollars in today’s currency. The new sub had twice the displacement as the Poseidon it was to replace. Its forecasted building rate in 1972 was a crazed 1-3-3-3 per year. (The initial Navy plan called for ten subs, but everyone expected more.) By 1974, when the production rate was stretched out to two subs per year after the lead boat – only slightly less crazed — the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Dr. Malcolm Currie, reassured the Congress that “you should have no concern at this time of not meeting any of the performance, cost or schedule objectives of this prime program.”

Some critics raised concerns about putting too many eggs in too few baskets. Admiral Hyman Rickover countered that it would be better to have a larger number of smaller boats, but changing the Trident’s design from 24 to 16 tubes would raise the shipbuilding cost by 50 per cent. End of debate. Over 3,000 contractors in 49 states were involved in the Trident program.


  1. bradley laing (History)

    at the time, did the Soviet have fewer, more, or the same numbers of ballistic missisile submarines? Was the Soviet Navy even thought about as a motivation for the money being spent?

    • John Schilling (History)

      At the time, the Soviet Navy had 34 “Project 667A” aka “Yankee” type ballistic missile submarines in service, 22 “Project 667B” aka “Delta I/II” type SSBNs under construction, and 14 “project 667BDM” aka “Delta III” type SSBNs on order. These are roughly equivalent to the older US Polaris and Poseidon boats, and the Delta III is now the mainstay of the Russian SSBN fleet. So, Gorshkov seems to have agreed with Rickover about more but smaller boats, and had the clout to pull it off.

      It would have been silly for the USN to have tried to match the Soviets boat-for-boat in the SSBN department, albeit the sort of silliness peacetime military commanders are prone to.

      The more serious concern would be (over)matching Soviet blue-water ASW forces. The Soviet navy had a strong emphasis on strategic antisubmarine warfare, and while they never had the means to seriously threaten the US SSBN fleet there is always the threat of e.g. technological breakthrough or espionage coup. As a hedge against this possibility, it would have been useful but expensive for the US to have had more SSBNs than the Russians had long-range ASW task groups, and I believe this is what Rickover was alluding to. Instead, we got a somewhat smaller number of very high-quality boats, and it seems to have worked out for us.

    • Mark Pontin (History)

      ‘Arms race’-type behaviors are often best understood — and with the Cold War this is definitely true — through the lens of evolutionary biology, with the stress on a game theory approach.

      In other words, as human beings do, animals deter, and in some cases bluff.

      Animals do this either via threat displays — which means assuming a posture with appendages held out, rising to full height, teeth bared, etc. — or else via an individual animal having developed thanks to its species’ evolution a morphology — a large stag’s huge antlers would be one instance — which demonstrates it to be a superior specimen that will win in a fight.

      Evolutionary biologists literally refer to these kinds of morphologies, like stags’ antlers and peacocks’ tails, as being the result of evolutionary ‘arms races.’ And in such arms races, the cost to an individual animal of developing a large set of antlers or fancy tail is a particularly significant factor.

      In the 1970s, the Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi developed a hypothesis called the ‘handicap principle.’ Since in some species individual animals had obvious motivations to bluff each other, Zahavi argued, evolution had led to “honest” or reliable signaling via the mechanism of handicapping morphologies.

      For instance, Zahavi said, a large stag’s huge antlers required a substantial investment of limited nutrients for their development and maybe impeded that individual animal’s ability to forage or escape from predators. Large and conspicuous ornaments like that, being costly to produce or bear, would impose a greater cost on a weak animal, which maybe couldn’t afford the increased vulnerability. The payoff for a big stag, though, in growing and bearing such a handicap is that its antlers, by demonstrating its superior physical status, act as a signal that deters aggressive behavior by potential opponents and attracts potential reproductive partners.

      Zahavi’s ‘handicap principle’ is apparent in Cold War superpower nuclear arsenal development.

      Those nuclear arsenals really weren’t for warfighting — a point that commentators like Ward Wilson now like to obscure — but, instead, for deterrence displays. Hence, the U.S. attaining some specific number of weapons that would equal military parity and/or superiority with whatever the Soviets then had was not the real point, however ‘missile gaps’ and such may have been invoked.

      The real point, from an evolutionary biology POV, was developing a military-industrial complex and nuclear arsenal that, like a stag’s antlers or a peacock’s tail, signaled the overall socio-industrial superiority of the superpower.

      Once one starts thinking in these terms, other Cold War superpower behaviors that are non-nuclear also become comprehensible. Take, for instance, those Cold War navies, whose warships had superstructures above the waterline that were entirely comprised of aluminum. Aluminum superstructures burn down to the waterline when hit — as we learned in the later 1980s when countries like Iran, Iraq and the Falklands started having Exocet missiles. This hadn’t mattered before that, though, because it was assumed that, essentially those warships would never really be in a substantial shooting war, since if the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did ever really get into it it would be nuclear. Hence, those aluminum superstructures were entirely about the display.

      None of the above, to be sure, invalidates the obvious socio-economic explanation for arms races, which stresses the profits to the military-industrial complex and the pork that goes to various congressional districts.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      The problem with your evolutionary hypothesis, Mark, is that in the case of stags’ antlers the direction of evolution is selected on the relative reproductive success of millions of individuals over thousands of generations, whereas the US-Soviet Cold War was run exactly once.

      So, I think we need to look to more immediate psychological, sociological, military and economic explanations to explain Cold War nuclear overkill. Each side may indeed have been trying to make aggressive displays at the other, and that may indeed be traceable to social psychology and thus to evolutionary roots.

      But it may also be understood in terms of institutional and economic interests, structures and processes. We should also take account of the failure to appreciate the achieved level of overkill, and the role of action-reaction dynamics as each side responded to the other’s “aggressive displays.”

      Finally, we should consider the cognitive and emotional distortion that may have affected those cloistered minds that were doing the operative thinking about nuclear warfighting, deterrence and targeting requirements. It is often said that a kind of collective insanity took hold among those brinksmen who walked at the edge of Apocalypse. If their judgments seem extreme to us, perhaps this is not an unfair paradigm for understanding what happened in the first nuclear arms race.

    • Mark Pontin (History)

      Mark Gubrud wrote: “The problem with your evolutionary hypothesis, Mark, is that in the case of stags’ antlers the direction of evolution is selected on the relative reproductive success of millions of individuals over thousands of generations, whereas the US-Soviet Cold War was run exactly once.”


      At Los Alamos, after days working on the bomb, the scientists relaxed at dinner parties and one night Enrico Fermi asked his famous question: ‘If there is intelligent life on other planets, why don’t we detect any signs of them?” John von Neumann’s answer to Fermi is recorded in Lewis Strauss’s MEN AND DECISIONS (1962).

      After Hiroshima, Strauss says, Von Neumann suggested “that the appearance in the heavens of super-novae –- those mysterious stars which suddenly are born in great brilliance and, as quickly, become celestial cinders –- could be evidence that sentient beings in other planetary systems had reached the point in their scientific knowledge where we now stand, and, having failed to solve the problem of living together, had at least succeeded in achieving togetherness by cosmic suicide.”

      In other words: obviously, animal deterrent displays and behaviors evolved across animal populations over long periods. Obviously, too, there’s only one technological species with nukes on this planet.

      So, we humans may either be one among a population of many technological civilizations in this galaxy — of which many may not evolve beyond the nuclear stage, as von Neumann suggested — or, alternatively, we may be the one and only intelligent species.

      Either way that’s a problem for the human species — since, though the Cold War is over, our dangerous experiment with nuclear deterrence hasn’t actually ended — not for explanations of human deterrence behaviors based on game-theoretic evolutionary biology.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Stags’ antlers have been subject to repeated trials in which the most reproductively successful genetic determinants of size have been selected against the twin pitfalls of inadequate display vs. excessive burden. You cannot explain the size of nuclear forces in terms of repeated trials vs. the twin pitfalls of failed deterrence and bankrupted economies. At best you can argue that people worked out the appropriate compromises. But that is an application of intelligence rather than a Darwinian process.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > while they never had the means to seriously threaten the US SSBN fleet there is always the threat of e.g. technological breakthrough

      The concern about such a breakthrough led to a small but hearty set of studies in the period post-1965. Project Sackcloth, Project Tsunami, and many others had a look at the prospects for the Soviet Union coming up with a way to find SSBNs better than the somewhat miserable means they had. The JASONs got involved in this (of course) and you can see some of their reports in http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/ , starting with the April 1969 “Generation and Airborne Detection of Internal Waves from an Object Moving Through a Stratified Ocean” and continuing through their SEASAT reports.

  2. sineva (History)

    I imagine that the revelation of the 5000+ mile range of the ssn8 might have come as a bit of a surprise,I`m sure that the threat of this would have given a very helpful boost to the program and its backers

  3. Peter Burt (History)

    The UK followed a similar path when replacing its Polaris system with Trident – much bigger Vanguard class submarines to replace the old Resolution class boats, and a more potent missile system with more warheads.

    Interestingly, the UK government has said that the ‘Successor’ submarine currently under development to replace the Vanguard class submarines will be much smaller than the vessels it is replacing. This decision has been driven largely by costs and affordability. In the light of Strategic Command Chief General Robert Kehler’s recent comments (http://t.co/FubPb0B), will we see the US taking a similar decision?

  4. yousaf (History)

    The intersection of politics, multi-state distributed contractor basing, and Federal systems development (and eventual success or failure of the projects) was examined in this paper by Klein in 2000:


  5. Fred Miller (History)

    Rep. Hicks’ successor in the 6th CD, Rep. Norm Dicks, is still in office, with lots of seniority and a reputation for serving his constituents pork on a large platter.

    Currently he and the Navy are pushing a $782 million Explosives Handling Wharf (EHW)at the Bangor Trident base. It’s sole purpose would be to load and unload ballistic missiles from Trident subs that don’t exist.

    The current EHW has served for thirty years, and is expected to continue in service indefinitely. It was considered sufficient by the Navy when Bangor’s Trident fleet was larger. Now, with the fleet declining, they claim they need 400 “operational days” per year, twice as many as they ever required in 30 years.

    The proliferation implications are plain: building up our capacity to service SSBNs is a powerful argument that we aren’t interested in reducing our SSBN fleet. Why are we building a new EHW in an environmentally sensitive area like Hood Canal in the middle of a budget crisis if we don’t intend to maintain a large fleet of Tridents?

    • krepon (History)

      I worked for Norm his first year as a Congressman after Mr. Hicks retired back to his judgeship. The Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee back then was George Mahon, from Texas. Norm got something he wanted in year one, over Mahon’s opposition. I vaguely recall it was some small naval vessel that Boeing wanted to build that we’ve probably sold for scrap or to a country without a blue water navy. That was an eye opener for me. Norm has legislative corpuscles. The Hill is where he belongs. He was Maggie’s administrative assistant and he learned well from the master: Norm looks after his District and Washington State. Maybe in this period of budget austerity, he’ll have a tougher time bringing home the bacon.

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