• Deterrence is not about guaranteeing to one's adversaries that one will only spend what the adversary deems acceptable to enable a "fair fight."

  • If one is to believe the advocates of minimum deterrence, Russia has plans to attack 400 U.S. nuclear missile silos and nearly 50 associated launch control centers, using two warheads for each target to assure success. But a Russia that had at least 900 nuclear warheads would not be "balanced" by the United States that had only 250 warheads.

  • Many nations have not been deterred from aggression, even by the prospect of losing millions of their own people.

  • The U.S. requires a survivable deterrent force; not one subject to being eliminated by an enemy's first strike because the U.S. deterrent was so small that it was no deterrent at all.

In discussing the nuclear deterrent required by the U.S., former commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces General C. Robert Kehler said, "The whole purpose of deterrence is to bind the other guy's behavior," requiring robust military and vigorous statecraft.

The breakdown in international order recently described by retired General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, (DNI), however, calls into question the very effectiveness of America's deterrent capability.[1]

In light of recent geostrategic developments, some former U.S. defense experts are calling for the United States dramatically to curtail its nuclear deterrent.

These experts assume that the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is waning and that since the it spends far more on overall defense than do other nations, the U.S. can afford to cut back in this area.[2]

But are such recommendations unwise? Absolutely.

A former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations produced a chart some years ago showing annual deaths per capita prior to the nuclear age, in an era when only conventional deterrence existed. Surprisingly, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the worldwide per capita death toll from armed conflict during the next half-century dropped 80%, and during the next seventy years, by more than 90%.[3]

In the half-century before 1945, two conventional world wars were fought, which included the use of chemical weapons and the fire-bombing of cities. Add to that devastation the deaths from the Nazi Holocaust and the mass murders committed in the USSR by Stalin and his successors, and it is clear that hostile behavior by states was the norm even before the nuclear age.

Retired General Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to two U.S. Presidents, once remarked that the two world wars were a testament to the fragility of traditional conventional deterrence.[4]

Since 1945, however, large-scale war between nuclear-armed powers has been avoided. That is not to say that there have been no conflicts between states. The fight between totalitarianism and freedom took the form of a cross-border war in Korea, subversion and guerilla warfare in Vietnam, and state-sponsored terrorism in Africa, Central America and the Middle East, to name just a few. The fight continues today, in the post-Cold War era, despite the "end of history" narrative that promised armed conflict would pretty much end.[5]

Potential major conflicts, however, still are prevented by the U.S. nuclear deterrent: on the Korean peninsula; between China and Taiwan; in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.

Conflict continues, of course, in the form of Iranian and North Korean terrorist activity, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, continued Russian subversion in Ukraine and elsewhere, and in various terrorist activities in Africa and the Middle East. Those conflicts have not been prevented even by conventional capabilities, let alone U.S. nuclear deterrent forces. Nevertheless, is the prudent response to jettison a significant portion of U.S. nuclear capability?

The new post-Cold War era still requires the prevention of any number of possible crises from escalating into armed conflict between any of the nine nuclear-armed nations. The era also requires stopping existing conflicts from becoming wholesale nuclear wars.

It is always important to avoid what Israeli missile defense expert Uzi Rubin calls "fortune cookie analysis" -- the claim that the need for nuclear deterrence is over because "it didn't stop 9-11" or today's conflicts.[6]

Terrorist attacks, such as 9-11, were also not prevented by non-nuclear capabilities such as the FBI, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, the military, or intelligence agencies. But the U.S. nuclear deterrent is not there just for today. Any future deterrent needs to be robust and flexible enough to anticipate technological surprise. There can also be sudden changes in regimes and regimes' intentions; these must also be taken into account.

In addition, emerging technological threats such as cyber-attacks, the advanced capabilities of long-range conventional strikes, and the threat of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks are changing the pattern of deterrence among various countries, according to Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).[7] Even so, as he underscores the need for new deterrent capabilities, he does not minimize the need for a continued powerful nuclear deterrent.

It is not enough to claim that a much smaller, even minimalist, nuclear deterrent, will suffice for today. "Less" does not automatically mean "better." Nor is it enough simply to add up what other countries spend on defense, compare it to what the United States spends, and declare that the two sides need only be relatively equal in defense expenditure for deterrence to be effective.

Deterrence is not about guaranteeing to your adversaries that you will only spend what the adversary deems acceptable to enable a "fair fight." It is important to spend whatever is needed to ensure a credible, capable force. It would be reckless to adopt some arbitrary figure based on what others might spend, or unilaterally to accept sentimental notions about what is "fair."

Unfortunately, there have been a number of recent calls for the U.S. to reduce its nuclear arsenal unilaterally by 85% and to keep no more than 250 nuclear warheads. This low number would roughly equal the warheads fielded by Pakistan and India combined.

What is the basis for such a proposal? Apparently such advocates start with the assumption that a U.S. president will be deterred from taking military action if, in a conflict, upward of 250 enemy warheads were targeted in retaliation on American cities. This logic assumes that one's enemies think the same way as oneself, and consequently, that a small American arsenal of 250 nuclear warheads would suffice to deter would-be adversaries.

But do adversaries really think this way? Ironically, even the advocates of such a minimal nuclear deterrent do not appear to believe their own rhetorical assumptions. Most of the advocates of a minimal nuclear deterrent claim that 400 Minuteman silo-based missiles, spread out over tens of thousands of square miles in five U.S. western states, would be vulnerable to attack by the same enemies who are supposedly interested in attacking only cities. Why would Russia or China target U.S. missile silos and other military assets when presumably all they would need to do to maintain deterrence against the U.S. is hold a few dozen American cities for ransom?

If one is to believe the advocates of minimum deterrence, Russia has plans to attack 400 U.S. missile silos and nearly 50 associated launch control centers. This assault would require Russia to maintain at least 900 warheads, attacking each American ICBM with at least two warheads to ensure a high chance of destroying all of those targets.

But a Russia that had at least 900 warheads would not be balanced by the United States that had only 250.

Deterrence simply does not work the way advocates of minimum deterrent assert.

When a U.S. president orders military commanders to provide deterrence against the country's enemies, this strategy must be measured against what it takes to implement deterrence, and not against a nice round number of nuclear warheads that appears "reasonable."

Further, is a U.S. president comfortable with only the option of striking back at an adversary's cities? Would threatening to incinerate millions even be a moral or workable deterrent strategy? With 250 warheads in total, and perhaps just half of them available for retaliation, the only targets a U.S. president could sufficiently threaten would be an adversary's cities, but not an adversary's military assets -- not to mention if other countries were to pile on, such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

The minimalists argue that destroying a nation's cities would certainly deter any sane national leader. Yet, as Keith Payne, president of the National Institute of Public Policy, explains, many nations have not been deterred from aggression, even by the prospect of losing millions of their own citizens.[8] In efforts to achieve their political objectives, the Soviet Union, Iran, Cambodia, China and North Korea, to mention the most obvious, have slaughtered tens of millions of their own people. In communist nations alone, the number exceeds 95 million.[9] Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan killed and maimed millions of their own people by going to war and continuing the conflict even when their defeat was clearly imminent.

Would the U.S. seek to deter ISIS and Hezbollah this way? Or Iran or North Korea, for that matter?

The weapons or military assets of one's adversaries -- the weapons one would need to hold at risk or target -- are precisely the instruments of state power on which these enemies rely for their status as global or regional powers and prestige. Holding such assets at risk gives the U.S. president the ultimate "stick" with which to threaten to take away the adversary's power: his military assets.

Today, non-state terrorist organizations also have such assets, as seen from fighting ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas Hezbollah, the FMLN and FARC.

Thus, holding at risk, or being able to destroy a significant number of, say, Russian submarines, missile silos, bomber bases, and other instruments of military power, thereby leaving Russia unable to act as a major power, is not an attempt to "go first" in a crisis or "get the jump" on one's enemies. Instead, it merely places at risk all the instruments of state power -- consisting of hundreds of militarily critical targets -- upon which, for instance, a Russian or Chinese head of state relies for world power status.

This plan requires a nuclear deterrent capable of striking back at an enemy with sufficient surviving nuclear warheads, even after absorbing an enemy's initial strike against one's own military assets.

A deterrent strategy such as the U.S. has today leaves nuclear-armed adversaries with only one sound choice in a crisis. Either they risk "Armageddon" and use all their nuclear weapons early in a crisis, to avoid seeing any of their military assets destroyed by the U.S. in a subsequent retaliatory strike; or they stand down, not launching their nuclear weaponry, and instead seek to end any crisis through diplomatically. This is the essence of deterrence. It is one that the late American diplomat Paul Nitze described as the "Not Today, Comrade" option.[10] Today it would be, "Not Today, Jihadi."

Such a deterrent strategy, as advocated here and reflected in America's current nuclear modernization plans, stands the test of logic. If an adversary used all its nuclear forces against the U.S. in a first strike, such an attack would invite a massive retaliatory strike from the U.S. that would leave an attacker completely destroyed.

But that, of course, requires a survivable U.S. deterrent force to begin with; not one subject to being eliminated by an enemy's first strike because the U.S. deterrent was so small that it was no deterrent at all.

According to the Obama administration, to guarantee maximum flexibility in a crisis so that a president can be confident he has a survivable deterrent, a robust deployment of 1550 warheads is required, on a mixture of 12 submarines, 400 ICBMs and 40-60 bombers. Fortunately, this is the number the U.S. can field under the 2010 New Start Treaty with Russia.

Having a nuclear deterrent strategically dispersed among over 500 nuclear assets -- submarines, land-based missiles, and bombers -- means that any enemy attempt to destroy the U.S. nuclear arsenal before the U.S. could use it, would require an unambiguous attack. If an adversary, such as Russia, were to deploy its entire arsenal against the United States, the attack would involve over fifteen hundred warheads.

The U.S. would know from where most of the warheads would be coming: ICBMs flying over the North Pole could easily be seen by U.S. early-warning satellites.

U.S. allies also would see preparations, such as weapons platforms moved, for such a strike. Enemy forces would have to be moved from a day-to-day alert status to heightened alert if there were plans to destroy U.S. nuclear forces in their entirety. That is why the U.S. has, and is planning to keep, more than 500 nuclear assets, including submarines, bombers, and silo-based missiles capable of surviving even the most massive strike.

Deploying only 250 warheads, however -- all of them on submarines, as many minimal deterrent advocates have proposed -- would make such a secure retaliatory force impossible to maintain. It would also so minimize the size of the U.S. deterrent forces -- to fewer than 10 targets -- as possibly to invite an attack.

By contrast, a flexible U.S. nuclear deterrent policy, based on keeping a large deployment of day-to-day survivable forces -- numbering over 500 missiles, submarines and bombers -- leaves the president options. There is no need to act rashly. An enemy could then be informed that any attack, no matter how large, would invite such a massive retaliation that no benefit whatsoever would accrue to the attacker. Such a force also would allow the president, during a crisis, to make the U.S. deterrent even more survivable over time, by putting more U.S. submarines to sea and placing U.S. bombers on alert or in the air.

Such a new nuclear force of submarines, bombers and ICBMs, which the U.S. is now beginning to produce (albeit after much delay), would allow the U.S. to threaten the entire range of an adversary's military assets, and not be limited only to striking back at an enemy's cities. These twin capabilities -- having a survivable force day-to-day and an even more highly survivable force over time -- would avoid putting all one's nuclear eggs in one minimalist leaky basket.

The U.S. nuclear "Triad" consists of nuclear warheads mounted on platforms based at sea, in the air and on land.

The strategy is called "crisis stability": giving no nuclear power the incentive to strike first, and providing the world with the stability it needs to avoid Armageddon.

For 70 years, this strategy has kept the nuclear peace. This strategy even allowed the U.S. and the USSR, (subsequently Russia) carefully and logically to reduce the number of strategic, long-range nuclear weapons by nearly 90%, while maintaining strategic stability.

In short, nuclear deterrence still matters. If the U.S. deterrent is even more survivable, flexible, and robust, while maintained at lower levels than during the Cold War, such modernization as the U.S. is now planning provides America's leaders with the leverage in a crisis to keep a major armed conflict from breaking out. And it keeps the United States and its allies safe.

Certainly, other elements of deterrence matter as well, such as a strong conventional deterrent, space-based assets for top-notch situational awareness, prompt conventional precision-strike weaponry, missile defenses -- both national and regional and those deployed with U.S. allies -- and a strong diplomatic will to use such instruments of state power in the defense of liberty.

In particular, missile defense can avoid limited strikes from small nuclear powers, as well as significantly complicating the strike options of larger nuclear powers, thus making such potential attacks less likely. In addition, a surreptitious missile strike from a freighter or submarine in the off-shore maritime regions adjacent to the United States could be intercepted, but a retaliatory strike would be pure guesswork, as the identity of the state or terror group responsible would in all probability remain a mystery.

Unfortunately, what critics miss is that, for nearly a quarter of a century, the U.S. paid little attention to its nuclear deterrent and avoided addressing the topic. Apparently, the U.S. was simply relying on past policy. However, such a lack of original thought and analysis does not mean nuclear deterrent requirements must come to an end or be changed dramatically. Far from it. Congress, the Administration and U.S. citizens have looked at the nuclear deterrent and decided, wisely, that the current nuclear deterrent modernization plan of building 12 new submarines, 400 Minuteman ICBMs and 100 new bombers -- some of which will be nuclear capable -- is the right one, even as the U.S. adopts a new post-Cold War policy and framework for keeping the United States and the free world safe.

Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis, Senior Defense Consultant to the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association, and teaches nuclear deterrent policy at the US Naval Academy.


[1] Remarks as delivered by The Honorable James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, Opening Statement to the Worldwide Threat Assessment Hearing, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Thursday, Feb 9, 2016

[2] "Former Pentagon Chief, Other Experts: Get Rid of ICBMs" by John LaForge, Duluth Reader, January 21, 2016.

[3] Admiral Richard Mies, "The Strategic Deterrent Mission: Ensuring a Strong Foundation for America's Security" in Journal of Undersea Warfare, Summer 2012. See also for a version of the Admiral's chart Max Roser (2015)—"War and Peace after 1945," Published online at OurWorldInData.org.

[4] Retired General Scowcroft is reported to have said this at a dinner event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2009.

[5] Summer, 1989, The National Interest, "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama, who declared the 20th century ended with "An unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism."

[6] Uzi Rubin, personal communication to the author.

[7] The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence, by Ward Wilson in Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, November 2008.

[8] March 19, 2013, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, statement of General (ret) Eugene Habiger, in "The U.S. Nuclear Deterrent: What Are the Requirements for a Strong Deterrent in an Era of Defense Sequester?"

[9] Keith Payne, Georgetown University, "Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age," University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

[10] "The Black Book of Communism," Harvard University Press, October 1999.

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