Commentary of the Week by The ICBM EAR: Keeping the Modernization Consensus
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By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
Various elements in the US Congress want US nuclear policy to go in a decidedly different direction. This push may place in jeopardy the hard fought bi-partisan consensus created over the past ten years to fully modernize the aging US deterrent while also jointly implementing arms control with our adversaries.
Critics of the consensus, while a minority, may have supporters within the new administration, and may put at risk critical elements of the US deterrent, markedly change US deterrent policy and use new arms control proposals to cut at least another one-third of US nuclear forces, even doing so unilaterally.
The current consensus position is pretty straightforward. Modernize the three aging elements of the Triad—strategic bombers and related cruise missiles, land-based missiles, and submarines and related sea-launched ballistic missiles.
And build a new nuclear command and control system especially to protect the US from cyber threats, while also refurbishing the nuclear warhead laboratories and facilities.
Critics oppose low-yield nuclear weapons on our submarines and propose the elimination of a Navy cruise missile now only in research.
Also opposed is the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) to be discarded maybe in favor of a temporary service life extension of the already 50-year-old Minuteman missiles.
As for bombers, some members of Congress want to eliminate entirely the bomber cruise missile or long-range strike option (LRSO) and rely only penetrating bombers for our air-breathing deterrent.
Finally, critics oppose rebuilding the warheads currently in our inventory, particularly want to abandon the current policy of having the capability to produce from between 20-80 “nuclear pits” or the core technology for all warheads
On nuclear deterrent policy, the divide between the current consensus and the critics is also stark.
Critics want the US to adopt a No First Use policy. However, even some in the disarmament community now understand our extended deterrent over NATO and our Western Pacific allies has historically included the deterrent threat of responding to a major conventional attack from Russia or North Korea or China , for example, with the first use of nuclear weapons.
As such many of our allies would be naturally worried if that option were specifically “undone” by explicit US policy.
Equally problematic is the notion the US deterrent force is considerably larger than required. The HASC Chair, Adam Smith (D-WA), has complained the US doesn’t need “5000 warheads” to deter. However, the US had deployed in its long-range strategic deterrent force only about 33% of that number, or around 1700 warheads, and such numbers can’t go higher because of New Start treaty limits.
Of those 1700, some less than 1000 are deployed “on- alert” or readily available at any one time on a day- to-day peacetime basis.
Another push is to reduce US nuclear forces by fully one-third based on an unverified assumption that some US military officials responsible for nuclear deterrence were supportive of just such a US unilateral reduction. No such evidence has ever been produced. The Obama administration implied a number of times such a reduction could only be done through an arms control deal with Russia.
Now some differences on nuclear issues may be the result of an outdated assumption of what exactly US nuclear deterrent policy entails. For many years, US nuclear policy was often referred to with the acronym MAD or mutual assured destruction. This referenced a US policy during the Johnson administration where US policy held that deterrence was deemed sufficient if the US could destroy from 50-75% of the Soviet industry and its population.
However, even as far back as during the Kennedy administration, the USA was looking at options known as “flexible response” to get away from what many experts thought of as not very credible unitary policy of “massive retaliation” to any Soviet aggression.
Particularly under the leadership of Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, the adopted US policy changed in the 1970s to hold at risk key Soviet military and defense assets. These assets were primarily the Soviets military weaponry and those missiles, bombers, submarines, and other nuclear forces which a US President would not want to see remain in a sanctuary from which to be free to continue to attack the United States and its allies.
Over some may decades, the US has refined such a “counterforce doctrine” to limit the first strike, preemptive and disarming type of weapons our nuclear armed adversaries possess. And to hold at risk their reserve nuclear arms.
While the total warhead inventories have through arms control been reduced well over 80% for Russia and the United States, the threat of a possible preemptive and disarming attack must be guarded against.
That is why the US at great customer, keeps a multiplicity of forces—a Triad—available with which to retaliate, including ICBMs not targeted in a first strike, some submarines always at sea and strategic bombers capable of being airborne should a crisis materialize that calls for such US action.
However, given the survivability of the current US nuclear forces, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), determined the likelihood of a Russian attack on the US nuclear forces, particularly our 400 Minuteman silos, as “next to zero”, a conclusion also reached by a number of analysts at the Federation of American Scientists and the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.
Given the near zero likelihood of such a threat today, keeping the US nuclear deterrent credible and avoiding any such strikes from our enemies requires the US to quite simply maintain the structure of the current deterrent but in a credible and effective manner which means the force must be fully modernized.
As the current commander of US Strategic Command explained recently, if we choose not to modernize, we are choosing to go out of the nuclear business as the old legacy forces simply cannot be sustained much beyond this decade when the replacements are scheduled to be delivered.
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.