Should the U.S. De-Alert Its Nuclear Missiles?
Supporters of doing away with nuclear weapons are pushing for the de-alerting of our nuclear missiles. This could mean, for example, separating the warheads from the missiles and storing them in a remote area.
These critics worry that in a crisis, an American President would feel hurried in making a decision on whether to use our sea- or land-based missiles before the other side shoots first. One recent editorial warned that in a crisis:
Now it is true that our submarines in port and not at sea could be targeted by an enemy's missiles, and some of our land–based missiles could be taken out if an adversary could effectively launch its own missiles at our hardened, dispersed silos on thousands of square miles covering parts of five states. But neither makes any sense.
Such concerns did have some validity during the height of the Cold War, when, by 1980, the Soviets had over 10,000 missile warheads aimed largely at the US. Those concerns were heightened during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations as the Soviets dramatically expanded their deployed nuclear arsenal from the fewer-than-2000 warheads allowed under the SALT I treaty.
The fear then was that Moscow could launch thousands of warheads at America's land-based missile silos, at our submarines in port and our bombers at their bases, and eliminate a large percentage of our strategic nuclear arsenal while still being able to retain many thousands of warheads with which to coerce the US to surrender. In short, our President worried during the Cold War that in a crisis the other side might shoot first and, in a sudden attack, wipe out most of our deterrent in under 30 minutes.
The correlation of forces, as the Soviets termed the geostrategic balance between Washington and Moscow, was deemed to be moving smartly in Moscow's direction at the time of the 1980 election between then President Jimmy Carter and the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. A "window of vulnerability," as Reagan termed it, was opening up between the US and the Soviets. Moscow, having expanded its empire by some 18 nations in the era of "detente," was emboldened.
When Reagan became President, nuclear freeze advocates wanted to halt all US modernization plans, including the Trident submarine and its C-4 and D-5 missiles; the modernized Peacekeeper and Small ICBM and Minuteman sustainment program; the acquisition of the new B-1 and B-2 bombers and sustainment of the B-52s.
But, with his landslide 1984 victory over Walter Mondale and the subsequent unfreezing of Peacekeeper acquisition-funds in the spring of 1985, Regan defeated the freeze. This set the stage for the US to move to a far lower, but modernized nuclear force, under CFE, START and Moscow arms reduction treaties, which dropped US deployed warheads to just over 2000, down from 12,000.
The US thus engaged in two parallel efforts which dealt with the concern about the alert status of our nuclear forces. First, the US kept a fully modernized nuclear Triad -- air, sea and land -- which continued to neutralize any attack against the three legs of the US nuclear Triad—bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. Second, through arms control -- dramatic reductions in warheads -- the number of warheads on each missile was reduced but strategic stability was enhanced. Our land-based missiles, Minuteman, were reduced to one warhead per missile, and widely dispersed across thousands of square miles, making them thoroughly unattractive targets.
These streamlinings not only transformed our land-based missiles from attractive targets during the Cold War to unattractive targets in the post-Cold War era, but also from destabilizing elements to extremely stabilizing ones. Any pre-emptive strike now by Moscow against any one element of the US Triad during a crisis is therefore only the most remote possibility. An adversary could hit some of our land-based missiles, or submarines in port, or bombers not airborne, but hitting all three simultaneously would be so fraught with risk as to be a remote worry. Some elements of each leg would survive, particularly our submarines on patrol at sea, so Moscow could only consider an attack a miserable idea.
The conclusion, therefore, that in a crisis our President would have only 13 minutes in which to decide to launch our missiles is nothing but bunk. To claim that an American President would have no choice in a crisis but recklessly to launch our weapons significantly undermines stability: it might even induce our adversaries to decide that in a crisis it would be better for them if they shot first.
There is, in fact, no requirement now to launch "fast:" The widespread force of Minuteman missiles spread over five US states makes any kind of effective attack against the missiles both impossible and irrational. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Minuteman missiles are totally survivable and thus no US President is under any compulsion to "launch fast."
As leading experts on nuclear matters -- such as former General Larry Welch, Ambassador Linton Brooks, Frank Miller, former General Frank Klotz, former Strategic Command head General Chilton, among many others -- have concluded, taking our missiles off alert actually makes our remaining nuclear forces into even more inviting targets for possible attack. Today's stability would be undermined significantly: it could merely make the "other guy shoot fast."
Worse, the Minuteman and the Trident would not even be useable if de-alerted. If the other side decided surreptitiously to re-alert its forces, there might be a "secret race to re-arm," but it would be one-sided in the other side's favor. Our Triad force elements would be totally vulnerable: What threat would there be in our launching a rocket with no warhead on it?
This problem could especially damaging if the US were to collect all missile warheads and store them elsewhere -- an act that would produce the most attractive target ever: a few storage facilities, each with hundreds of nuclear warheads. We would be inviting -- not deterring -- an attack. Even supporters of de-alerting acknowledge this failing.
In short, attacking any or all of our 420-450 Minuteman silos makes absolutely no sense. Each would require an adversary to use two incoming, or attacking, warheads to ensure the silos were destroyed. But even then, there is a high likelihood that many of our land-based missiles would survive — estimates are as high as 30-40%. So there is no vulnerability problem that is begging for a de-alerting solution. There is no requirement or compulsion to "prompt launch," and thus no need to change the alert status of our missiles.
The fear that an American President would be prompted to launch our missiles in port or in silos before they were attacked completely misses the reality of today's deterrent. No rational adversary could believe they would eliminate our deterrent force with an initial attack. Why? Because the US has a survivable and second-strike capability: submarines at sea, ICBMs that survive, and bombers that could be returned to alert and launched for survivability during a crisis.
The US thus has hundreds of warheads that would survive and are capable of deterring any current or foreseeable adversary---but only if we maintain, sustain and modernize our nuclear deterrent forces. We should preserve the stabilizing Triad and continue to maintain a very high ratio of our missiles and submarines and bombers (now over 500) against the array of adversary warheads.
As noted, supporters of de-alerting admit that its benefits cannot be verified, and that in a crisis there would still be a rush to put forces back on alert. But like a three year-old banging his spoon on his high chair demanding the world feed him what he wants, they demand that, whatever the reality may be, we nevertheless have to figure out a way to do what is foolhardy, unnecessary and dangerous.
Underlying the push for de-alerting, though usually unstated, is the assumption that once de-alerted, these forces can safely be eliminated. After all, some have argued, if the forces are de-alerted and war does not break out, they apparently are not needed.
At the moment, therefore, de-alerting is a senseless posture in search of a problem. It is also a backdoor means of reducing US nuclear forces -- a policy that, regardless of its dubious wisdom, its pacifist supporters, insistent on "first the numbers, then the strategy," apparently think must be pursued despite the risks to US national security in inviting adventurism.
In reality, an adversary would have nothing to gain by attacking Minuteman silos in a crisis. Thus, the panic over the deployed US missiles on three Minutemen bases or at two US submarine bases is both misplaced and irrational -- in itself dangerous.
It is misplaced in that the robust US Triad makes a successful adversarial attack impossible. It is irrational in that such de-alerting would in actuality make the geostrategic situation more unstable. And it is dangerous in that it makes the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis more likely than ever, thus creating the very problem it purports to solve.
The US deterrent Triad has kept the peace for well over half a century. As former USAF Chief of Staff and SAC Commander General Larry Welch said: The US nuclear deterrent has worked perfectly. And for nearly seven decades. It is time to drop such errant proposals as de-alerting, and get on with the important job of preserving and updating a deterrent that, as the Constitution requires, so successfully "provides for the common defense."
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