A Dumb Nuclear Trifecta
By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis -- Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
Nearly 50 years ago just as the Reagan administration sought to upgrade our nuclear deterrent, a group of American arms control and disarmament enthusiasts joined together to support the Soviet Union's call for a freeze on all nuclear modernization.
The Catholic Bishops along with many Hollywood entertainers and most of the dominant media including the New York Times signed up as well.
The Soviets proposed the freeze because their nuclear forces were already modernized while the US nuclear forces were trending toward what one top analyst would eventually come to describe as "rusting to obsolescence".
The Soviets were convinced the international "correlation of forces" were moving rapidly in their favor and they sought to cement in place their nuclear superiority.
Thankfully, the nuclear freeze was defeated.
But similar dumb ideas are still around.
Three in particular imperil our security. They are: (1) the USA nuclear Triad of nuclear weapons is far too expensive to modernize; (2) maintaining nuclear parity with Russia is unnecessary; and (3) our nuclear armed land-based missiles are in danger of being launched accidentally and thus should be eliminated.
The last assertion is based on a strange idea that our official deterrent policy is to launch our land-based missiles on computer warning of an attack --"launch on warning".
The United States does not now have and has never had a launch on warning policy or strategy. Never.
But according to testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 20 years ago, it was Russia, not the United States that supposedly had adopted "a launch on warning" deterrent policy.
Bruce Blair, the late Global Zero founder and prime sponsor of the launch on warning fear, blamed America for this reckless Russian policy, claiming our submarine force alone—not our ICBMS-- could threaten all of Russia’s nuclear forces.
His fear? We could strike Russia first and leave them defenseless. And as a result, his theory went, Russia had no choice but to adopt their own policy of launch on warning.
Blair’s idea of a solution? Get rid of all our 450 Minuteman missiles. Unilaterally. And keep the submarines that are supposedly the cause of the problem in the first place. The end result? Although unintentional, it would make it easier for Russia to disarm the United States.
Let me explain. If the Blair plan had been adopted, it would leave the USA with only 9-11nuclear assets or targets—consisting of 3 bomber and 2 submarine bases, along with roughly 4-6 submarines at sea at any one time.
We would thus go from having today over 500 nuclear targets for the Russians to worry about to about 10, a 98% cut. If the Russians could destroy these small number of assets first they would wipe out America’s nuclear deterrent.
Why then would we deliberately make it easier for Russia to attack and disarm the United States?
That brings us to the next point--can we afford to modernize our nuclear deterrent forces, and can we keep them survivable?
And can we maintain a stable and affordable force by keeping rough parity with our most worrisome adversaries, especially Russia?
Unlike Russia, the US is in the early stages of modernization.
The Russians are over 90% complete.
The annual cost of US strategic nuclear sustainment and modernization just within DOD [not including NNSA] is projected to grow to an average of $25-8 billion a year in FY2022-3 and then $34 billion by 2030 when it peaks and then begins to decline.
This still only requires 4-5% of the entire projected defense budget and one-half of one percent of the overall Federal budget, [not including CV-19 emergency stimulus funding.] Or roughly $3 million per every hour of every month of every year to prevent nuclear Armageddon.
Compared to all US government spending of $502 billion every hour.
This nuclear related funding, and it is substantial, keeps in the force 400 Minuteman missile silos spread out over tens of thousands of square miles, complemented by our bombers that can become air-borne in a crisis, and our submarines that are continuously at sea to provide a sound deterrent. And a perfectly secure, retaliatory, stabilizing force.
The reason we spend $25-8 billion annually on our DOD-related (non-NNSA) nuclear deterrent forces--still less than 4% of the defense budget-- is to ensure we do not have to launch on warning or launch quickly in a crisis.
We have no reason to worry that our nuclear missiles are in a "use 'em or lose 'em" posture because our forces when looked at in its total capability, are as former USAF Chief of Staff General Goldfein explained are highly survivable and responsive.
This deterrent capability was not just created by accident.
We have a required robust retaliatory second-strike capability for at least two reasons.
First, nearly four decades ago, President Ronald Reagan pushed hard to defeat the nuclear freeze and modernize our nuclear forces, upon which we are still dependent.
And second, his policy of "peace through strength" coupled with a creative arms control process--"trust but verify"-- both ended the Soviet Union and subsequently reduced Russian and American deployed strategic nuclear warheads by nearly 90%.
And today, our nuclear deterrent remains safe and secure but will remain so only if we fully modernize the deterrent just as we did under President Reagan.
We should accelerate that modernization plan and accomplish in the 21st century what we did with the Soviet Union in the 20th century. End an existential threat to our country—the USSR—while also dramatically reducing nuclear dangers—which we did.
Unfortunately, having accomplished these twin goals, we went on a procurement and intellectual holiday starting at the end of the Cold War.
We stopped modernizing our deterrent and we stopped thinking how to best to deter. From the end of the Cold War, we delayed modernization of our nuclear deterrent, and we are now consequently faced with making up time for a nearly 30-year nuclear procurement holiday. As a result, the entire nuclear enterprise needs to be modernized sequentially beginning now and extending for at least another 20+ years.
Now we face a heavily armed Russia, with a reckless escalate to win nuclear policy, along with a rising and aggressive nuclear armed China, a nuclear armed North Korea, a nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India, and an Iran still dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons.
We previously have faced the choice of modernizing our nuclear deterrent and keeping parity with our then top adversary, a nuclear armed Soviet Union, or looking for an easy way out.
In 1970, for example, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senators Kennedy, Symington, and Fulbright worried that a huge Soviet warhead buildup threatened the US nuclear arsenal. Their solution? Adopt a "launch on warning" strategy rather than modernize and make more survivable our nuclear deterrent.
The Nixon and subsequent administrations refused to adopt such a reckless policy. Unfortunately, however, it was followed by nearly a decade of unfortunate indecision and delay in keeping our nuclear (and conventional) deterrent up to snuff.
And delay had its consequences. During the ensuing decade, the Soviets conquered a dozen and a half countries including Afghanistan, while Iran was lost to the Islamic Mullahs. And our nuclear deterrent atrophied.
We face similar geostrategic conditions and challenges today.
Russia is resurgent and is planning to fully modernize its entire nuclear deterrent by 2021 before the USA has even built a single new submarine, land-based missile, or bomber.
China is similarly modernizing its nuclear forces. Iran is arming terrorists, propping up its client state Syria, even while it seeks nuclear bombs. And North Korea has built and tested nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, though in a mini moratorium right now.
So here we face a choice. Go with Reagan's "peace through strength" policy and actually accelerate and get back on pace with the nuclear modernization plans now before us.
Or adopt unilateral reductions and what I describe as a "trifecta of stupidity"—and as a consequence lessen deterrence, heighten instability, and jeopardize future stabilizing and verifiable arms control.
One, unilateral cuts to our deterrent make no sense now. Maintaining a force second to none remains a critical task as every NPR (nuclear posture review) since the end of the Cold War has emphasized.
Two, the costs of modernization and sustainment of our nuclear deterrent are well within the margin of affordability. As General Mattis once quipped, you can afford survival!
And third, none of our forces are on hair trigger or in danger of being used accidentally. After all, our Minuteman and D-5 missiles have been on alert some 62+ million minutes, and never once has a President of the United States ordered the missiles to be launched.
Peter R. Huessy – Mr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.