Did The U.S. Forget About Nuclear Deterrence After the Cold War?
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By Peter R. Huessy - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
In Washington, D.C. America’s capitol city, narratives are critical to sustaining our national security policies. For example, to justify significant cuts to our nuclear deterrent funding during the 1970’s, one could point to the American policy of “détente and peaceful coexistence” as the “rationale” for at least some restraint or appeasement.
Similarly, some 20 years later, with the end of the Cold War, paying little attention to our nuclear deterrent was justified on the basis of accepting that a new “end of history” had arrived where serious nuclear threats to US security were considered a thing of the past.
Both détente and the end of history narratives became central to American security policy at the time. And these accepted doctrines were hardly questioned. In March 2009, then President Carter decried America’s “inordinate fear of communism” (ironically just months before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan), but his remarks at the time were applauded by foreign policy elites. His view fit with their acceptance of the assumptions behind the American adoption of detente.
Détente, the End of History and “The Bomb.”
Each of these two narratives are largely false in their core assumptions. Détente led the Soviets to believe in the late 1970’s the correlation of forces had moved so markedly in the direction of the USSR that victory of the United States was in sight. Détente appeased Soviet expansionism, so much so that nearly two dozen countries fell to Soviet aggression and wars of liberation in the decade of the 1970s.
In addition, in just a 2 year window, 1978-80, Iran fell to totalitarian Islam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq and subsequently invaded Iran, the holy Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina were attacked, the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was brutally murdered by order of the Muslim Brotherhood for the crime of making peace with Israel, all the while Soviet deployments of INF range and nuclear armed missiles topped 2000 in Europe and Asia.
The “end of history” post 1991 narrative prompted the United States to fall fast asleep at the switch. A new totalitarian-minded leader arose in Russia and in 2000 adopted a policy of threatening the use of nuclear weapons early in a crisis even while successive administrations sought to “reset” relations or asked for space and flexibility to lessen American defenses.
Islamic terrorists attacked the United States at the World Trade Center in 1993; Khobar Towers in 1996; the African embassies in 1998; and the USS Cole in 2000, even as terrorists sought nuclear weapons to kill ever more people.
In parallel development, the seeds of 9-11 were taking root as in 1996 the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda and Iranian terrorism cooperated and expanded, even as America and her allies remained wedded to the “Oslo peace process.”
This twenty-year period after the end of the Cold War also saw the near collapse of funding for our nuclear deterrent needs. Spending on nuclear sustainment in the United States dropped precipitously as the Cold War came to an end.
But nuclear armed powers rose in Pakistan and India, while North Korea and Iran secretly sought nuclear weapons. In 2000, Russia effectively killed the START II treaty between Russia and the United States banning multiple-warhead land-based missiles, by insisting that the US keep its missile defense work in the laboratory and not deploy a missile defense system in Alaska to defend against North Korea. China continued its pro-nuclear proliferation policies adopted as early as 1982 by Chinese premier Deng, even as China was admitted to the WTO and later largely dismissed as a security threat by US intelligence.
Have We Learned Anything?
It is true that now for nearly a decade, since December 2010, the past two administration’s and the Congress have firmly supported the modernization of our nuclear deterrent. Each leg of the nuclear Triad is scheduled to be fully replaced starting with deployments in the field at the end of the next decade.
But with the Presidential election uncertain, what should be a continued bipartisan consensus could be weakened. A small but influential community is pushing unilateral American reductions in nuclear forces, including forestalling modernization of most of our nuclear deterrent, adopting a no first use nuclear doctrine, and weakening our extended nuclear deterrent or umbrella over our major NATO and Pacific allies.
The global zero alliance—the combined forces within academia, the entertainment and Hollywood complex, journalism and elements of a number of political parties—want the US to unilaterally curtail its nuclear forces. This campaign recently featured a new film, “The Bomb”, shown continuously at the National Academic of Sciences in Washington. It contained an hour of continuous scary nuclear explosions and missile launches, rapidly sequenced together to thunderous music, in a highly depressing depiction of future nuclear deterrence probably failing, echoing the fears of such original bomb makers as Robert Oppenheimer whose notes about the “end of the world” were prominently displayed in the movie.
After the bomb sequences, then came video of thousands of sharply dressed marching soldiers with their weapons, especially nuclear armed missiles, from countries such as Russia, China, the United Kingdom, North Korea and the United States, as if all soldiers everywhere from democracies to totalitarian dictatorships, served the same fearsome objectives.
After the film ended, and at a subsequent reception, a group of young college students were explaining how terribly depressed even near tears they were. To which the head of Ploughshares, Joe Cirincione, a promoter of major unilateral cuts in America’s nuclear deterrent, upon walking by and overhearing the worries, turned to the young college-aged women and exclaimed “You should feel really great. Look at all the people here who hate nuclear weapons!”
As for “The Bomb”, the object of the movie was obvious—sharply reduce American support for nuclear modernization and return to some kind of detente. As the writer of the documentary exclaimed in subsequent remarks “there has to be a better way than deterrence ” of dealing with nuclear weapons. And the only alternative? Get rid of these weapons, unilaterally, she said.
The producer, while firmly embracing zero nuclear weapons, admitted some kind of deterrent was still necessary, but certainly not what was currently being proposed by the administration (although as one pro-deterrent panelist explained, the two most recent USA administrations had nearly identical nuclear deterrent programs.)
Today, while Congress apparently still supports the modernization of our nuclear deterrent, and the lessons learned about past mistakes apparently have now been adopted in our corrected security policy, there remain false narratives that seek like détente and the end of history to replace current US policy.
One is that détente in the 1970’s was not a policy of appeasement that the Soviets took advantage of. The producer of “The Bomb” at the National Academy of Sciences complained that President James Carter was unfairly and unjustly criticized by then candidate Ronald Reagan for not modernizing our nuclear deterrent. Claimed producer Eric Schlosser, Carter “had a most robust and aggressive nuclear modernization effort.”
In fact, during Carter’s one term as President, the B-1 bomber was repeatedly cancelled, the Ohio class submarine was delayed and funding cut, the new land based ICBM “MX” missile was never funded as a mobile basing mode could not be agreed upon, while the promised ground launched cruise and Pershing missiles promised for deployment in Europe were never put in the US defense budget for acquisition. All in all, the Soviets produced and deployed over 17 key nuclear assets during the decade of détente while the USA successfully deployed simply an upgraded land based ICBM, the Minuteman III missile, which ironically remains with us today having been giving a life extension in the post-Cold War era despite attempts to unilaterally cut it out of the nuclear deterrent.
It is not only the push for zero nuclear weapons without any idea of how to get there that makes no sense. And it is not just the naïve opposition to maintaining two of the three legs of the nuclear Triad, contrary to the 60-year history of the nuclear age testifying to their irreplaceable value. Or even the foolish push to deploy only five of the twelve submarines now scheduled for our deterrent force of the future.
It is more than anything else the adoption of four false narratives that are dangerous as they will undermine US security if adopted. These are in sequence:
(1) Don’t use nuclear weapons even if attacked by nuclear weapons because that is nuclear warfighting;
(2) The USA nuclear deterrent is too costly;
(3) The US must take radical and unilateral nuclear reductions to prompt reciprocal action by other nuclear powers; and
(4) The current administration doesn’t care about nuclear arms control, so we have to punish the USA by reigning in the USA nuclear modernization program.
Let us explore what is wrong with each narrative.
First, because the use of nuclear weapons cannot be controlled, critics want the United States to respond to a nuclear attack on the United States only with conventional weapons. No “first use” of nuclear weapons is now “no use”.
But that is a prescription for inviting the bad guys to use nuclear weapons first as they might very well believe the US is serious about fighting only with tanks and artillery while our enemy uses nuclear weapons many tens of thousands of times more powerful as former USAF General and nuclear commander Kevin Chilton has explained.
Second, critics still claim modernizing our deterrent will cost $1.2 trillion over the next three decades, when in fact the modernization of the force will cost less than one-third that number.
The bulk of the future expenditures we will make will be simply to sustain the old legacy systems such as the B-52, the Minuteman land-based missiles and the Ohio-class submarines and their associated warheads, all of which are now approaching 40-70 years in service.
In fact, the new Columbia class submarine, the new GBSD intercontinental ballistic missile and the new B-21 strategic bomber with its LRSO cruise missiles now cost annually $8.5 billion in a defense budget of $740 billion.
Third, the idea is that only an American push for a freeze on nuclear weapons—such as was pursued in 1979-83--or major unilateral cuts by America can set a proper example which would then compel our adversaries to agree to similar cuts on the way to zero.
Has this worked before? Congressman Mike Turner explained during a March 6 HASC hearing, while the United States has cut its deployed or in the field nuclear weapons by 75% since 2001, (and 90% since 1991), China, Pakistan, India, Russia and North Korea have expanded their nuclear forces, apparently oblivious to the good moral example set by the United States.
Unfortunately, while the Soviet Union and now Russia have reduced their long-range deployed nuclear forces under START I, Moscow and New START agreements, their shorter-range nuclear weapons have dramatically expanded as well as certain long-range systems not captured by the terms of the current 2010 New START treaty between Russia and the United States.
And fourth, and finally, a new narrative is being pushed that claims America is against nuclear arms control and wants to end all arms control agreements.
This argument started with the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear “agreement”. Although never dated or signed, the JCPOA, as it is called, allows Iran after a 10 year pause to build as many nuclear weapons as it wishes, while having used the interim decade to build what former DNI head General (Ret) Michael Hayden described as an “industrial strength nuclear capability”.
Being against the bad Iranian deal somehow was transformed into a general dislike of arms agreements, when in fact it was simply being against a terrible deal with Iran. For example, giving the mullahs $150 billion in cash, largely oil escrowed funds, was not a good deal. Especially as the funds could have been used to pay compensation to the American victims of Iranian terrorism, including the 600 American soldiers killed by Iranian roadside bombs. And not seeking any limits to Iran’s ballistic missile capability was not a good deal. Or stopping Iran’s continued terrorism which ranked it as the premier supporter of terrorism in the world today, that was not a good deal. Or throwing into the deal as a gift the end off the UN arms embargo that went away in October 2020.
The next step in arguing the administration did not like arms control was to blame the Trump administration for the end of the INF treaty. But once the Russian violations of the 1987 INF treaty became too serious to ignore, and when the US and our NATO partners called the Russians to account, to the administrations critics, such a declaration of finding Russia in serial violation of the INF treaty was again evidence of the administration’s animus against all arms control treaties! But as a new NATO study has just concluded, “at some point in the mid to late 2000s, the Russian Government decided to develop and later deploy a missile system—the SSC-8—which clearly violated the Treaty.” And despite these major Russian violations concluded NATO, “Successive US administrations over a number of years have sought to bring Russia back into compliance, but each attempt has been met with flat denial and total intransigence.”
The US has indeed announced it can no longer be bound by a treaty the Russians have abandoned, and here NATO “…has now come to a unanimous view in support of the US analysis and its determination to confront the issue. Whilst at every point a diplomatic solution has been and continues to be sought, an essentially bilateral Treaty that has been rendered inoperative by its violation by one party should not be saved at any cost.
As the British explain, “International arms control relies on adherence to reciprocal obligations and nations should not be required to subject themselves to unilateral observance of them. Arms control more generally is undermined by violation going unchallenged.”
It is not as if the United States has been a laggard on arms control. In fact, since 1981, the Reagan revolution in arms control achieved what many critics at the time said was impossible-- a marked and huge decline in strategic nuclear deployed forces by the United States and the then Soviet Union, (now Russia).
The very large cuts in nuclear weapons already achieved by the United States were initiated by President Reagan who at his very first press conference in 1981 reiterated his opposition to the SALT treaties that allowed for the huge buildup in Soviet and American nucellar weapons.
He proposed then—as he had previously as a candidate as far back as 1975--that nuclear weapons be sharply reduced. This goal was reflected in the multitude of NSDD’s or national security defense directives his administration authored, and the strategy adopted to secure such reductions.
In the 1987 INF treaty between the US and the Soviet Union, thousands of nuclear armed missiles were reduced to zero. In the 1991 START I agreement longer range deployed warheads were reduced by fifty percent, followed by a further 75% by the Moscow/SORT treaty of 2002 and then an additional notional 30% in the 2010 New Start agreement. .
But the current framework for arms control has serious problems that need correcting. The New Start treaty leaves the Russians were very large pathways to grow to 4500-5500 long range strategic nuclear warheads, to say nothing of the uncontrolled theater nuclear weapons that number at least 2000.
And the current framework also leaves China out off the picture, free as it is to deploy its own nuclear weapons but also to continue its long-term policy of proliferating nuclear weapons technology to its friends in the poor parts of the world, including Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya through the remnants of the Khan network AKA “Nukes ‘R Us”.
Now the current administration declares the New Start treaty can be extended for a short time, but such action must be based on Russian treaty compliance, and Russian compliance with a nuclear freeze. And at some point, arms negotiations should include bringing China into a treaty arrangement and transparent regime and deal with Russian nuclear systems not now controlled. .
Now US critics have derided these goals, dismissing them as false, disingenuous, and “poison pill” strategies, based in part on the implicit assumption that the current administration sought from the beginning to end the INF treaty and is opposed to arms control in principle.
On that score, a British assessment backs up the Trump administration. As the British just announced, “there are no straightforward options for saving the INF Treaty in its current form and any attempt to replace it must be underpinned by robust and continuing verification requirements. However, a change in Russia’s policy on adherence to such agreements would be a necessary prerequisite.”
Further said our British allies, “While the security situation in Asia is a factor in both Russian and American nuclear policy, we reject the claims that the US is content to see the Treaty collapse or has deliberately engineered this because it wishes to deploy missiles in Asia against a growing threat from China.”
As to whether the INF treaty could be salvaged, the British are crystal clear on that as well: “The US has at every stage shown willingness to continue fulfilling its obligations under the Treaty if Russia returns to compliance. Indeed, even now the US has offered to halt the economic and military steps it has begun taking, if Russia returns to compliance. If the Treaty fails, the sole responsibility for its failure will lie with Russia, and any Russian attempts to manipulate the narrative to suggest otherwise must be strongly resisted.”
Secretary of State Pompeo met with Russian President Putin to “negotiate new arms control accords that reflect current conditions and to bring in other nations, notably China.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow wants to focus on extending the New START treaty, an arms control deal between Moscow and Washington which runs out in 2021. Ryabkov added that Moscow wants to focus on bilateral commitments first before bringing China into treaty negotiations.
When it comes to nuclear arms control, “China is great at playing hard to get” writes Aaron Kliegman. He correctly notes China in 1981 pledged to join arms control once the US reduced its nuclear arsenal by 50%. The US did reduce its deployed strategic systems by 50% but China moved the goal posts claiming the US had to get rid of more weapons. When that happened under the Moscow treaty of 2002, China moved the goal posts one more time, demanding that the US get rid of all its theater nuclear forces, end missile defense work, pledge a no first use policy and make even greater reductions of its strategic nuclear forces.
The Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, states that "the lack of transparency surrounding [Chinese] nuclear programs—their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them—raises questions about China's future strategic intentions." The Trump administration's NPR echoes the same point, arguing that, "while China's declaratory policy and doctrine have not changed, its lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program raises questions regarding its future intent." China has, in effect, built a different kind of great wall around its nuclear arsenal, preventing others from even discussing what is behind it.”
As Mike Pillsbury details in his “The 100-year Marathon”, China seeks to supplant the United States as the world’s premier economic and military power. Russia under Putin seeks to restore the hegemonic power of the former Soviet Union over Eurasia, especially its energy resources., Putin has adopted a policy of the early use of nuclear weapons in a crisis, which China is beginning to echo. Deng Xiaoping in 1981 began a proliferation policy of arming its allies with nuclear weapons. At the same time, he called on China to “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities; bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; never claim leadership."
The Trump administration is moving to challenge that Chinese and Russian strategies, and as Victor Davis Hanson has correctly remarked, restoring deterrence is tough to do when one’s predecessors had recklessly given much of it up through lack of attention. China and Russia and their American disarmament friends seek to cut US nuclear forces without having these two enemies of the US to reciprocate. That policy, so far, has been rejected by Congress and certainly by the Trump administration.
Throughout the past five decades of arms control with the Soviets and now the Russians, the disarmament community has threatened repeatedly to withhold support for nuclear modernization unless the respective administration in office seeks nuclear arms control.
Now, finally, the supporters of “peace through strength” are turning the tables. New legislation in Congress authored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) calls for no money to extend the New Start treaty will be approved by Congress unless and until the “New START or successor agreement includes the People's Republic of China and covers all strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation”.
The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review explains that "While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction." The Review wars: “Russia has expanded and improved its strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces. China's military modernization has resulted in an expanded nuclear force, with little to no transparency into its intentions." In addition, notes the Review, "Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads and launchers. These efforts include multiple upgrades for every leg of the Russian nuclear triad of strategic bombers, sea-based missiles, and land-based missiles. Russia is also developing at least two new inter-continental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo."
While China and Russia press on unfettered said Senator Cotton, “the United States should not be restricting its own nuclear arsenal” especially when “Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping continue to expand and modernize their nuclear arsenals” That requires explained the Senator that “Future arms-control agreements must take into account both the Russian and Chinese threats, while ensuring we don't place one-sided nuclear restrictions on ourselves,”, a point echoed by his colleague Senator Cornyn whose statement noted: “As we negotiate future arms-control agreements, we should take the current threat landscape into account. This legislation would ensure we can protect our country's national security interests as both China and Russia continue to make strategic expansions of their nuclear arsenals."
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.