Strategic Interactions in “Last Resort”
By Taylor Marvin
This morning I watched the pilot episode of ABC’s Last Resort. The show chronicles the adventures of the crew of the fictional USS Colorado, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. After disobeying a potentially unlawful order to fire on Pakistan, the crew goes rogue, docking at a small inhabited island in the Indian Ocean.
While the show’s core concept showed promise — Crimson Tide aside, a rogue submarine crew is an inherently dramatic setting — I had trouble making it through the pilot, mostly due to stock characters and the silliness of the plot. The experience did lead to some entertaining live-messaging to the friend who recommended the show as I watched:
“I’m glad the Navy manages to crew their submarines exclusively with models.”
“OH SHIT THAT GUY’S THE T-1000 TERMINATOR DON’T TRUST HIM HE’S FROM THE FUTURE”
Maybe the show will get better; there are plenty of series that don’t find their feet immediately. But the show does present an interesting take on nuclear bargaining. [MAJOR SPOILERS for the pilot follow]
At the close of the pilot the USS Colorado’s crew is in a precarious position: their vessel is docked at the tropical island of Sainte Marina and is (presumably) too damaged to take out to sea, and the entire US government wants them dead. At the climax, Captain Chaplin desperately attempts to deter a pair of B-1s from bombing his submarine at dock by launching a nuclear missile at Washington, DC, broadcasting the assurance that if the bombers are called off he’ll destroy the missile before it hits its target (yes, this is ridiculous, but bear with me). The Pentagon blinks, calls off the bombers, and Chaplin harmlessly redirects the missile to detonate off the eastern US coastline to prove his threat to meet any threat to his submarine with nuclear force is serious. To reinforce this threat, Chaplin record a message threatening to launch his missiles if anyone comes within 200 miles of “his” island, which is somehow disseminated and broadcast on US domestic news networks:
“I’m Captain Marcus Chaplin of the USS Colorado… We have commandeered the NATO early warning station on the island of Sainte Marina. From this facility we can see the movements of all the world’s militaries. We are in control. I am declaring a 200 mile no-man’s land around this island, effective immediately. As for myself and the men and women of the USS Colorado, we love our country. We would gladly die for what it represents. But we do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own. If the current United States Executive or any nation violates this perimeter, we have 17 more nuclear missiles aboard and we will not hesitate to unleash fiery hell down upon you; I give you my word, test us and we will all burn together.”
Preposterous? Yes. But this is an interesting question: how would this strategic interaction between a rogue US boomer captain and the outside world play out? At the close of the pilot, this positions are fixed. Captain Chaplin controls a NATO station that apparently features long-range radar that his crew can use to detect incoming aircraft, making it difficult for outsiders to approach the island undetected. He also possesses 17 (Ohio-class SSBNs can carry 24) Trident II ballistic missiles, each with four nuclear warheads — an arsenal capable of killing a good portion of the world’s population. But for plot reasons (namely, the producers needed a reason to justify filming off the submarine, and an excuse to cast a bartender that looks like this) the submarine is presumably unable to dive or even move, except in extraordinary circumstances, canceling out its reason for existing: stealth. Presumably elements of the US government responsible for Chaplin’s betrayal want him and his crew dead, and everyone wants the threat of 17 nuclear missiles controlled by a rogue captain removed.
The core problem with this interaction is that Captain Chaplin’s threat isn’t credible: because he and his crew are Americans with families living in the US, their threat of “assured destruction” if they’re challenged is not credible, and the government knows this (hint: don’t say you “love” the country you’re threatening to destroy if you want people to take you seriously). If the Pentagon launches a strike on the USS Colorado, they can reasonably guess that Captain Chaplin and his officers will not launch a mass nuclear strike on the US in retaliation. Unfortunately for Chaplin’s bargaining position, his only available method of retaliation is so devastating that it’s unthinkable — the same limitation sank President Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy of reducing US conventional forces in favor of reliance on nuclear deterrence. If Chaplin wants this threat to be credible, he must employ some type of commitment device that would tie his hands in a crisis, forcing him to launch his missiles even if he didn’t want to; perhaps by constructing an automated system that would automatically launch the missile once the island’s radars detected an aircraft within weapons range. Confounding this problem is Chaplin’s low information. Presumably Chaplin’s captured NATO radar station would have trouble identifying the nationality of an incoming cruise missile strike during a crisis, and a submarine launched torpedo targeting the Colorado would be impossible to identify — if Chaplin has no way of knowing who’s shooting at him, how is his threat to respond credible? A rogue nuclear arsenal is just as threatening to other nations as it is to the United States, and capable military powers like China, Russia, and the UK have a major incentive to remove the threat while facing a much lower risk of being on the receiving end of Chaplin’s nuclear retaliation than American forces. While a nuclear strike on the US is certainly a very bad outcome in the eyes of these countries, the low risk of Chaplin identifying and launching a reprisal on their country in time could be expected to alter their cost/benefit reasoning to make a strike worthwhile.
This makes Chaplin’s position untenable. In the eyes of US policymakers, a strike on the USS Colorado isn’t a particularly bad outcome; a strike by another country whose lower military capabilities make a successful reprisal more likely is worse. If the United States doesn’t destroy the USS Colorado, someone else will at a much greater risk to the US — given this incentive, the US will strike first. Even if Chaplin isn’t bluffing, in the event of a US strike he’s unlikely to get a retaliatory strike off. An attack by a B-2 or stealthy AGM-129 cruise missiles on the docked USS Colorado is unlikely to be detected before the submarine is destroyed. Given the relatively low risk of destroying the Colorado and the much greater risk of someone else attempting to do so, American policymakers will order a strike. If Chaplin can take the Colorado out to sea his chances of surviving improve considerably, but it’s unclear if the show will go there. If it doesn’t, Captain Chaplin and his crew don’t have much of a chance of getting out alive.