Plan for new Navy wharf at Bangor fires up nuke debate
Is the nuclear-sub fleet a "Cold War relic" or a modern deterrent? The Pentagon nears a decision on building a $715 million munitions wharf on Hood Canal.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
The Cold War ended in 1991. But you might not know it to look at Naval Base Kitsap Bangor.
The base's eight nuclear submarines typically sail on patrol three times a year for up to 100 days at a stretch, much as they did before the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Three of those submarines might be on alert at any given time, and the entire fleet carries enough nuclear warheads on its Trident missiles to obliterate every major city in Russia and China.
Now the Navy wants a $715 million second munitions wharf to accommodate upgrade work on the missiles. The Pentagon is scheduled to issue its final environmental-impact statement early this year, one of the last major hurdles before the four-year construction can begin in July.
The Navy says expanding wharf capacity to load and unload weapons at Bangor is critical to defense readiness. But critics are trying to block it, calling it a costly, unneeded project for a bygone era.
The United States and Russia last year began a new round of whittling down their nuclear arsenals. Last week, the Obama administration released a much-awaited strategic shift in defense priorities, calling for, among other things, both fewer nuclear weapons as well as less reliance on them for national security.
And diminished federal budgets have even top Pentagon officials mulling the possibility that the U.S. eventually may drop one leg of its sea-land-air nuclear stance.
For Tom Rogers, of Poulsbo, those are more than enough reasons to scrap plans for the second weapons-handling wharf.
Rogers, a retired Navy captain turned anti-nuclear activist, was one of five dozen people who showed up at a public hearing in April at North Kitsap High School. The meeting was to discuss environmental consequences of building the 152,000-square-foot wharf on Hood Canal. But most of the attendees who spoke instead questioned why one needed to be built at all.
"Why are we doing this? We're spending a whole lot of taxpayer money on a Cold War relic," Rogers said in an interview. "All we are doing is making defense contractors rich."
Rogers, 65, served three decades on attack submarines at Naval Base San Diego. He believes the massive American nuclear stockpile makes little difference to such unstable nuclear states as North Korea or possible would-be player Iran. And it encourages potential enemies such as Russia or China to keep up their own inventory.
"We're not deterring anyone with those weapons right now," Rogers said. "This is ridiculous spending."
Navy: wharf "critical"
The Navy, however, argues the existing 1970s-era munitions wharf is simply inadequate. Over many years, the military will be upgrading the Trident II D5 missiles to extend their service through 2042.
The Navy estimates it would need 400 days of wharf access a year to remove and reinstall electronics components and perform other work. That's twice the number of days the existing wharf is currently available due to maintenance work and pile replacements.
Six other Trident submarines are based in the Atlantic in Kings Bay, Ga. Of the total fleet of 14 submarines, 12 are operational at a time.
In March, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, testified in Congress that a second munitions wharf in the Pacific is "critical to nuclear weapons surety and our national security."
Roughead said the Navy has budgeted $715 million for the wharf. The fiscal 2012 military construction spending bill includes $78 million as the first installment.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Navy made "a very strong case" to justify the project.
Dicks said that compared with their predecessor Trident I C4 missiles, the newer missiles are more complex and handling them takes longer.
"I looked at this [wharf] very carefully. And I'm aware about the concerns about the necessity," he said. "I think this is a worthy project."
Dicks added the project will create sorely needed jobs. Kitsap County officials, who generally favor the project, also cited the new paychecks from the construction and related mitigation work.
According to the Navy's estimates, the wharf is expected to create 4,370 direct jobs and 1,970 indirect jobs. The Navy plans to use workers hired through local union halls.
Dicks contends the second wharf is warranted even though the number of submarines at Bangor likely will shrink in the future. The Navy is looking to replace the current fleet starting in 2029 with a new class of submarines. The Navy wants a dozen, at an estimated total cost of $100 billion. Some defense experts expect only 10 may get built, split between Pacific and Atlantic homeports.
Still, Dicks believes submarine-launched ballistic missiles have the "most secure" role in the nation's nuclear armament. He said it would make sense for the Pentagon to cut nuclear spending by reducing the number of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles first.
Future unclear for subs
Michael Krepon, a security expert who blogs at armscontrolwonk.com, questioned how the second wharf would fit into a downsized nuclear — and fiscal — world.
"In times of great budgetary stringency, this appropriations ought to raise eyebrows," said Krepon, who was an aide to both Dicks and to his predecessor in the 6th Congressional District, Rep. Floyd Hicks.
The Navy has talked about the need for a second and even a third wharf at Bangor for more than 30 years.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Trident missiles are the "crown jewels" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Yet Kristensen said it's possible that in 15 years, Bangor may have only five or six submarines.
"The real driver is, 'How many subs are going to be operating at the base in the future?' " Kristensen said. "This has to be taken into consideration."
According to inspection numbers under the New START Treaty with Russia, the United States as of Sept. 1 had 1,790 nuclear warheads deployed. The Russian Federation had 1,566. The treaty limits deployed warheads to 1,550 by 2018.
Each Trident submarine typically carries 20 missiles, each with four or five warheads. The new-generation subs would have 16 missile launchers.
But the size and purpose of future American nuclear forces is very much under debate. Kristensen believes the results of the strategic review announced by President Obama, who has pledged to end "Cold War thinking," could fundamentally reshape the role of nuclear weapons in the nation's defense.
Meanwhile, the federal budget deficit has given new impetus to re-examine the nation's nuclear spending. The Pentagon is facing a possible budget cut of $1 trillion over the next decade, or roughly 15 percent.
In October, 65 House Democrats, including Rep. Jim McDermott, of Seattle, sent a letter to the now-defunct congressional "supercommittee" on deficit reduction calling for cuts to an "outdated radioactive relic."
"Cut Minuteman missiles. Do not cut Medicare and Medicaid," they wrote. "Cut nuclear-armed B-52 and B-2 bombers. Do not cut Social Security."
Rogers, the retired submarine officer, contends that fears of a dangerous world and ignorance keep many citizens from asking hard questions about the Trident submarines. But if they did, Rogers said, there would be no second wharf.
"The American people could certainly stop it," he said. "Because it's stupid."
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