Fluid Foundations: Ocean Transparency, Submarine Opacity, and Strategic Nuclear Stability

Elizabeth Ann Mendenhall


The primary value of submarines as a nuclear platform is their ability to hide undetected beneath the sea. The persistence of a ‘secure’ second strike, and therefore nuclear strategic stability, rests on fluid foundations: ocean transparency is a continuous and dynamic variable. Technological advancement in marine sensing – increasingly driven by non-military imperatives like climate change – currently risks the achievement of an unprecedented degree of transparency. After tracing the Cold War competition between hiding and seeking, this paper evaluates progress in ocean sensing, to identify where and how incremental improvements and radical innovations may make SSBNs more detectable and targetable than ever before. Emerging ocean transparency has implications for nuclear policy, force structure, and strategy.

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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.