If the United states chooses to eliminate its land-based missiles, as arms control advocates have proposed, it would dramatically and dangerously simplify an adversary’s targeting calculus. The United States would be reducing more than 500 distinct American based nuclear-related targets—including 450 Minuteman silos and 48 launch control centers spread across five American states—down to only five continental U.S. targets—three USAF bomber bases, and at most two submarines bases—and only roughly 10 targets if U.S. submarines at sea were included.
Modernization of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent will require multiple decades to complete. To sustain such an effort, a bipartisan consensus needs to continue annually, regardless of who controls Congress or the presidency.
To succeed at its best, a nuclear modernization effort should be combined with a measurable, but verifiable arms control agenda; either the continuation of existing arms control treaties, expanded arms control efforts, or both.
Russia’s violations of the INF treaty, including Russia’s deployment of upwards of 100 illegal missiles, led to the INF treaty becoming (unfortunately) defunct. Such violations by Russia obviously make pursuing further or other arms control initiatives extremely difficult.
There are, therefore, growing concerns that with the anticipated demise of the INF treaty, the continuation and extension of the 2010 New Start treaty may be adversely affected as well.
Should the 2010 New Start treaty not be extended, there will cease to be any arms control limits on the deployment of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons after February 5, 2021 when New Start expires.
Since 1972, beginning with the SALT 1 nuclear arms agreement, the United States and Russia have had limits on the deployment of long range or strategic nuclear weapons. These limits have been deemed important, especially by the American military, to gain a measure of confidence in the nature of any future strategic environment.
Instead of collaborating with U.S. allies to counter new Russian missile deployments, and possibly secure better arms limits, however, opponents of full nuclear modernization are putting forward five highly dubious proposals:
- Adopting a statutory requirement on the no first-use of nuclear weapons by the United States.
- De-alerting or unplugging all “vulnerable” American missiles armed with nuclear warheads. This means the missiles will not launch even if a command is sent to their computer systems to do so.
- Eliminating all 400 of America’s Minuteman land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—which are what carry nuclear warheads —and not fielding any replacement system.
- Adopting a nuclear deterrent posture, characterized as “minimal deterrence,” that would have no more than 200 to 300 deployed and alert warheads in the U.S. arsenal to deter.
- Eliminating efforts to field low-yield warheads on the American Ohio class submarine-based D-5 sea launched ballistic missile.
All five of these initiatives would be unilateral, taken by the United States only, and would reverse the bi-partisan consensus secured nearly a decade ago to go forward with the much-needed modernization of America’s nuclear deterrent.
In 2010, for instance, the Obama administration and Congress agreed on a joint effort first to approve the New START nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia, then second, to support on a bi-partisan basis a robust nuclear deterrent modernization program of 1550 deployed strategic warheads.
The modernization effort included all elements of the nuclear triad (land, sea and air), nuclear laboratories, warhead production, sustainment infrastructure, and nuclear command and control systems.
The proposed alternative and unilateral policies, if adopted, would certainly fracture whatever consensus exists today to modernize America’s strategic nuclear deterrent—and at a time when both Russia and China are charging ahead militarily, and Iran and North Korea, are racing toward a deliverable nuclear capability.
Just as problematic, such unilateral reduction policies, if adopted by even one chamber of Congress, might very well undermine the sense that the United States could continue to provide the protection of a credible extended nuclear “umbrella” to its allies. The United States would no longer be considered a serious guarantor against nuclear aggression, a point already made among senior American nuclear professionals a decade ago, at a 2009 conference in Washington, D.C.
What About No First Use?
The United States, for the record, has never pledged to refrain from using nuclear weapons first in response to a major biological, electromagnetic, chemical or cyber-attack on the United States or its allies. U.S. policy has instead reflected a certain ambiguity—a key factor in any adversary’s calculus—but the deterrent to nuclear war has worked perfectly for more than 70 years.
Why fix it if it is not broken?
What is odd is that some advocates of a global no first use policy (pledging not to use nuclear weapons first) point to the Chinese regime’s endorsement of it as a good reason to adopt this idea. China, however, is hardly to be trusted as the country to which the United States looks in forming American nuclear policy.
China’s “declared” policy of no first use policy is, in fact, suspect, considering the country’s deployed weapons and nuclear threats to the United States that involve America’s protection of Taiwan. China, needless to say, is being currently exposed for its massive track record of lying, cheating and stealing everything, from their military land-fill bases in the South China Sea to virtually the theft from the United States of China’s entire telecom industry.
As for Russia, military and political officials there have repeatedly and explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons first against the United States. This threat has become especially irrefutable since then Russian President Putin in April 2000 officially announced just such a policy of using nuclear weapons first against the United States in a crisis or conflict.
Are American Missiles on Hair Trigger?
Now, what about the charge that U.S. land-based Minuteman III missiles are on a “hair trigger alert” and therefore unstable?
As the former Commander of the United States Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton, wrote in the Strategic Studies Quarterly (“Defending the Record on U.S. Nuclear Deterrence”): “People who described our ICBMs as being on ‘hair-trigger’ alert either do not know what they are talking about or are intentionally attempting to frighten the uninformed into calling for the de-alerting of the ICBM leg.”
General Chilton then further explained how best to appreciate the value of the ICBMs: “Here is a more accurate analogy that better captures reality: There is a gun, and it has a really big round in the chamber. But the gun is in a holster and that holster has two locks on it. Now the person wearing the holster does not know the combination to either lock—only the president of the United States has the combinations. If the president tells this person to shoot, he will, but he cannot do it alone. So nuclear forces are not on hair-trigger alert. They certainly are on alert and at the ready, and this is necessary to provide the strategic stability described above.”
In the real world, it is important to remember what President John F. Kennedy said about America’s newly built Minuteman missiles: that they “were my ace in the hole” and prevented the Cuban missile crisis from ending in Armageddon. Since 1962, U.S. Minuteman missiles have been on alert for 32 million minutes, but never ordered launched by an American President.
Should America Keep Our ICBMs or Not?
What if the United States goes along with the idea not to keep these land-based missiles?
Here is what happens. If the United States chooses to eliminate its land-based missiles, as arms control advocates have proposed, it would dramatically and dangerously simplify an adversary’s targeting calculus. The United States would be reducing more than 500 distinct American based nuclear-related targets—including 450 Minuteman silos and 48 launch control centers spread across five American states—down to only five continental U.S. targets—three USAF bomber bases, and two submarines bases—and only roughly 10 targets if U.S. submarines at sea were included.
As the former Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF Larry Spencer told me, “Why would we make it easy for an adversary to attack us?” Especially if at some point in the future the oceans become transparent and U.S. submarines at sea can be found and destroyed by the force of 100 Chinese and Russian attack submarines.
And as the Chief of Staff of the USAF General Goldfein told me recently, the Minuteman missiles are highly survivable as no one would want to commit suicide by attacking any or all of the 400 silos and 48 launch control units spread across five U.S. states.
Any such attack makes no sense, cannot not be carried without provoking a massive U.S. retaliatory strike, and cannot be coordinated to also take out other U.S. nuclear forces. What then would be the point especially in that the only country with sufficient missile warheads—Russia—would have to use most of their most accurate missiles and close to 67 percent of the nuclear forces just to take out less than 25 percent of the U.S. nuclear forces? How does that make any sense?
Should America Take Its Missiles Off Alert?
Now another idea is to take American land-based missiles “off alert” (like unplugging an appliance) to lengthen the time between a crisis occurring, and when the United States commanders can actually launch our ballistic missiles.
The idea is that in a crisis if the American President can’t quickly launch our land-based missiles, because the missiles are “unplugged” or de-alerted, the extra time it takes to put America’s missiles back on alert will be exactly the time needed for the crisis to be defused. (Since it takes only seconds to put a missile back on alert to be ready to fire, such an assumption is ridiculous.)
Now such ideas as de-alerting has been proposed before.
And such ideas have always been determined to be highly risky and dangerous.
First, the “de-alerting” or unplugging of America’s missiles is not verifiable. Even if all nuclear powers de-alerted their missiles, the United States or its adversaries could place their own missiles back on alert in a matter of seconds and no one would be the wiser.
We would not want American leaders to assume that Russian missiles could not be launched because they had been “de-alerted,” because America’s guard might be down, and our inaction assumed to reflect passivity.
Second, the lack of any effective verification for such “de-alerting action” heightens uncertainty in a crisis. For example, in a crisis, Russia might assume the United States would rush to put our missiles back on alert to thus be able to launch them at Russia. But Russia could not verify whether our missiles were or were not on-alert and ready to launch or “turned off.”
That uncertainty might easily pressure the Russian national leadership to decide it would be better to launch Russian missiles at the United States as soon as possible in order to “get the first punch in.”
In short, given there is no way to verify whether a U.S. missile is on-alert or not on-alert, or can or cannot be launched, such uncertainty could easily lead a Russian leader to panic and during a crisis, make a rash decision to launch Russian missiles at America first.
In doing so, the Russians would hope to destroy as many of our fixed, silo-based land based missiles as possible, under the assumption that even if the United States radars and early warning satellites see the Russian missiles coming at our silos, the American missiles will not have time to be put back in launch status because the United States “de-alerted” its own missiles and thus literally the American missiles will remain “sitting ducks.”
So, in a crisis, because America will assume to have de-alerted, the Russians might then to decide to “go first” and launch its nuclear missiles and “hope for the best!” Such a “U.S. race to re-alert” is hardly reassuring.
Should the US Cut Its Nuclear Forces to 300 Warheads?
A group called Global Zero wants the United States to unilaterally reduce its strategic nuclear warheads from the 1550 allowed under the 2010 New Start treaty between Russia and the United States to as low as 150-240 missile warheads at sea—consisting of some portion of a total fleet of only five submarines—with only some small number of bombers in an emergency reserve.
This new American posture would mimic the supposed Chinese minimal deterrent posture of having roughly only 280 warheads. Part of the idea of having a “minimal” number of warheads is if the United States were attacked, we would only retaliate against the other guy’s cities, not their numerous military assets. And if the United States limited the targets to cities, the United States simply does not need many warheads. Why? The assumption is that wiping out a few dozen Chinese (or Russian) cities is sufficient for deterrence.
The apparent logic is if the Chinese leaders believe having only 280 Chinese warheads is sufficient to deter the United States (or anyone else) from attacking China, then doesn’t it make sense that it would only take a similar number of American warheads striking Chinese cities to deter China from attacking the United States?
So, what is wrong with this idea?
If the United States had only five submarines of which at most two were at sea, that would be roughly 10 percent of the current Russian deployed nuclear arsenal. That imbalance might make many of America’s allies in Europe and Asia believe the extended deterrence or umbrella we have provide our allies for 70 years was mere bluff.
Even more dangerous, the 80 total missiles would be loaded with the maximum possible number of warheads, meaning the United States would have no hedge to upload our missile forces should deterrent threats increase or arms limits cease. The D-5 missiles on the Columbia class submarines can only carry a maximum of eight warheads. And that is where we would be stuck.
Would our allies really believe such a U.S. nuclear deterrent was serious if not only described as “minimal” but in reality vastly out-numbered nearly 10 to 1 by the Russian nuclear forces? The imbalance could be worse if we say nothing of future growth in Russian and Chinese forces. In conversations over the many decades of the nuclear age, our European and Pacific allies have reiterated that the United States had to keep a balance with Russia in nuclear capability. A 10 to 1 ratio is not “balance.”
But most importantly, such a small U.S. nuclear arsenal would be totally unable to credibly or effectively hold at risk whole swaths of Russian or Chinese military assets which would remain in a sanctuary, free to be used to attack the United States.
U.S. deterrent policy has for seven decades meant being able to take away the military ability of the other guy to continue the fight. That means America’s long-standing retaliatory policy is to destroy the remaining military weapons and tools an American enemy possesses. Deliberately deciding to leave an adversary’s military capability intact makes no sense and would jettison’s America’s long declared successful deterrent strategy.
What About Low Yield Missile Warheads?
Now what about the idea of not building a relatively low-yield nuclear warhead for the D-5 missiles on American submarines? Without such a weapon, the United States and NATO would be stuck relying upon a low-yield nuclear weapon delivered by American aircraft.
But an aircraft has to take into account Russian air defenses and would take multiple hours to get to the conflict area. It might very well be “too slow.”
On the other hand, such an asset as the American submarine launched D-5 missile can very quickly and more assuredly get to a conflict than a theater aircraft. But not having that credible low-yield warhead capability undermines our ability to counter the new Russian nuclear doctrine that threatens to quickly and initially use or threaten to use low-yield nuclear weapons early in a crisis or conflict.
Given Russian nuclear forces are in close proximity to a possible conflict area such as the Baltics, the United States must be able to counter-threat possible Russian aggression in the region. Since our sea-based missiles need to be launched from greater distances as we have no land-based missiles deployed at this time in the proximate area, striking back at Russian forces has to be done relatively quickly and assuredly.
An American submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead—unlike an American tactical airplane—gives the United States exactly that capability to match Russian low-yield nuclear threats.
There is no reason not to continue implementing the traditional three part nuclear deterrent posture endorsed by the 2018 nuclear posture review (NPR) as well as the past three nuclear posture reviews (1994, 2001 and 2010): a robust Triad of nuclear forces that keeps the land based ICBMs; a built-in nuclear readiness hedge against an uncertain future which requires numbers of warheads that balance the Russian forces; and a forward looking but realistic and tightly verifiable arms control framework, which eschews destabilizing strategies like de-alerting.
The unilateral alternative proposals reviewed here—being pushed by very radical disarmament groups—are based largely on attractive bumper sticker-type slogans. If adopted, two nuclear dangers in particular will be heightened.
First, American allies will no longer feel credibly protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella and they may seek to build their own nuclear weapons to compensate.
And second, our adversaries may seek to disarm us in a crisis, or coerce us to stand down, especially as our nuclear forces will have been so diminished as to invite, rather than deter, aggression.
Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and President of his own defense consulting firm, GeoStrategic Analysis. Previously he was the Senior Defense Consultant at the National Defense University Foundation. He was National Security Fellow at the AFPC, and Senior Defense Consultant at the Air Force Association. He is also a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger-China.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.