We may well be facing a possible crisis of too few platforms to deploy a nuclear deterrent, and too few missile defense interceptors to protect us from rogue states. Let me explain.
Although approval of the new START treaty by Senate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16 appeared to be a slam dunk -- the Committee debate was given only cursory attention -- unrealized at the time was that Senate Republicans, despite the lopsided vote of 14-4, were warning the Obama administration that it still had work to do to ensure the treaty's ratification in the Senate, and the security of over 300 million Americans.
Three key amendments considered by the Committee addressed issues critical to the future effectiveness of the US strategic deterrent capability. The Committee adopted an amendment authored by Senator Jim DeMint, while turning down two other amendments offered by Senators James Inhofe and John Barrasso.
The DeMint amendment originally sought to enshrine robust missile defenses as fundamental to US strategic security -- a significant push-back to the Russian claim that US missile defense deployments that were severely circumscribed both qualitatively and quantitatively by the START treaty, as claimed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
While some observers believe the Russians object only to our missile defenses capable of shooting down long range missiles, their objection could also apply to missiles defending against offensive missiles in the 2000-2400 kilometer range, including Iranian Shahab missiles aimed at Europe. If the US could not build strong missile defenses because of Russian objections, or if we restrained ourselves to "accommodate Russian interests," this lack could leave NATO and US forces overseas, as well as the US mainland, inadequately protected.
One proposal, by Bruce Blair, head of Global Zero, and former General Officers of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, recommended, in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs, limiting the number of US defensive interceptors to no more than 100 "that have a strategic capability." If you include in that, however, the 30 interceptors the US now deploys in Alaska and California, such a number would limit our Navy Standard Missile advanced capability, scheduled for deployment in 2018-20, to roughly 20 missiles at sea at any one time (assuming a one-third deployed schedule for all missiles in the Navy inventory) -- a number that would be ridiculously low and nearly useless against the potential threat from Iran.
Although administration spokesman have testified before Congress that they understand the Russian concerns and that no "planned" US deployments should concern Moscow, unfortunately there is still no definitive missile defense architecture for Europe -- or for the United States -- that proposes what number of interceptors the US plans to deploy beyond the 30 now on alert.
Senator DeMint wanted to have the entire United States government clearly on record that any such limits on missile defense would not be acceptable. Unfortunately, the amendment was changed to a "Sense of the Senate" provision, rather than a declaration by the United States as a whole -- meaning that while the US Senate is on record supporting robust missile defense deployments, the administration has not signed up.
This uncertainty is at the heart of the concern of supporters of missile defense. What, in fact, will the administration support in the future?
What Senator DeMint and others fear is that the rhetorical language in the treaty limiting missile defenses, to which the administration is wedded, might limit both the numbers of defenses we deploy and their capability.
This administrations, and future ones, might try in an effort to accommodate Russia, and not violate the "letter and the spirit" of the missile defense restrictions contained in the treaty, thereby dangerously limiting US defense options.
If approved, the Senate -- but not the administration -- would be in support of a move by the United States and Russia away from a "mutual assured destruction" ["MAD"] relationship, sometimes known as the balance of terror.
If, however, the administration fell back on continuing the historical commitment to a "MAD" relationship with Russia, the US, under the terms of the treaty, would not be bound by "sense of the Senate" language, and missile defenses could become even less of a priority, leaving the US vulnerable to missile threats.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that missile defense dealing with short or medium range threats could also have a capability against longer range missile threats. Dividing our deployments into neat categories, therefore, is not that easy.
Senator DeMint called the highest obligation of the United States the protection of its people from nuclear weapons attacks. His amendment described missile defenses against all ranges of missile threats as consistent with strategic stability and efforts to reduce nuclear weapons. To that end, he sought to move the US and Russia toward a relationship where defense and protection were our primary deterrent goals, rather than means of simple retaliation. Missile defenses would, over time, not be limited, and would come to be seen as stabilizing. Recent "war-game" exercises run by the Heritage Foundation, found that combining lower levels of nuclear weapons with robust and large missile defense deployments, were highly beneficial to keeping the peace. On the other hand, maintaining a traditional "MAD" relationship with very limited missile defenses, especially in a proliferating world, as the US now seems to wish, would result in the outbreak of war with the use of nuclear weapons.
To encourage the US to adopt more of the peace-through-strength posture than the peace-through-disarmament one, the DeMint amendment states: "…the United States will welcome steps by the Russian Federation to adopt a fundamentally defensive strategic posture that no longer views robust strategic defensive capabilities as undermining the overall strategic balance."
He also required that "qualitative and quantitative improvements" in US strategic missile defense capabilities, during the period the START treaty is in effect, be consistent with the treaty. This latter provision is very important: offensive missile threats are not static, and it is therefore imperative the US have the ability to "qualitatively" improve our deployed missile defenses over time, and that the treaty not imply that the US has no such right.
Unfortunately, even with the adoption of the DeMint amendment, the treaty's preamble still links offensive deployments with defensive deployments. At issue is: Can we defend ourselves from missile attacks by rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, and still maintain deterrence with the Russians? If defending ourselves from such rogue states means Russia will walk away from the new START treaty and its offensive nuclear limits, we face a nasty choice: Would strengthening our capability against the Russians leave us vulnerable to missiles from Pyongyang and Tehran?
DeMint appears towant the US to have a free hand in defending our people and country from ballistic missile threats from wherever they may emerge. His amendment sought to disengage our offensive nuclear deployments (designed, in part, to deter Russia) from our defensive missiles (designed to protect Americans overseas, our allies, and the US mainland from a much broader range of missile threats).
Let us assume, for example, that the number of interceptors we can deploy is limited to roughly 100, as has been proposed by the Foreign Affairs article, two of whose authors are retired general officers of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. We now have 30 interceptors, deployed in Alaska and California, which can protect us from North Korean missile threats. Now let us assume that we deploy at any one time another 30 interceptors, at sea and on land and aboard Aegis cruisers in the European theater, 20 missile defenders on the ships, and 10 missiles on land. Even though other missile interceptors would be on board Aegis ships, given the normal rotation of ships in our Navy, they are not always deployed.
What, then, about other theaters?
Under this "100" ceiling, we would not be able to defend ourselves from missiles launched from other areas: our inventory of defenders would be limited to what missile defenses we believed were "allowed" under Russian interpretations of the new START treaty.
The DeMint amendment wanted to eliminate any such calculations and allow the US to deploy whatever defenses we deemed necessary for our defense from any threats from any source, not have to "look over our shoulders" anticipating Russian objections to missile defense deployment "x" or deployment "y."
Further, if the Iranian inventory of missiles requires us to deploy, with our NATO allies, 300 interceptors, we could deploy 300; and START would have no bearing on this, one way or the other. Unfortunately, the DeMint amendment was not adopted as a policy supported by the administration but only by the Senate. Future plans by the administration, today and into the future, will obviously determine what missile defenses we deploy. Apparently, the disagreements between Capitol Hill and the White House will continue, and with them, continued uncertainty over the extent to which we the people "will provide for the common defense."
The second amendment to the START treaty, proposed by Senator Inhofe, was on the offensive side of the equation. He sought to make the treaty contingent upon the administration presenting to Congress a detailed plan for the modernization of the US nuclear force structure -- the laboratories and the overall nuclear enterprise – as well as a complementary commitment to implement such plans, consistent with administration's written pledges to Congress that accompanied the new START treaty. Both Chairman John Kerry and ranking member Richard Lugar said that such additional detailed plans could not be available in time for the treaty to be ratified "by the end of the year," and therefore moved to oppose the measure. The amendment was defeated 14-5.
What does this mean? Inhofe sought to require the administration to provide to the US Senate, in a timely manner, with a full roadmap for the future modernization of the US strategic forces, as well as for the nuclear infrastructure of laboratories and institutions that sustain our nuclear weapons. In the distinct lack of trust between the Hill and administration, some members believe the administration is simply not committed to a robust nuclear deterrent. Securing a commitment, if only in writing, or as part of the ratification of the treaty, would have meant that a public benchmark had been established, outlining what our future nuclear enterprise would be. From this, future administration proposals could be measured and judged.
In the larger historical context for this -- as reports from the Government Accounting Office, the Defense Science Board and the Institute for Defense Analysis have all warned since the end of the Cold War -- we as a country have let our nuclear enterprise atrophy through inattention and neglect. After all, the thinking went, as the "Cold War" was over, it was safe to assume that the need for nuclear deterrence had dropped far down the totem pole of defense requirements.
Sadly, this is not true. When we had 12,000 deployed nuclear warheads, a technological failure of some elements of our nuclear force could be dealt with; after all, we had a lot of other stuff in reserve. But as we go to lower and lower levels of deployed weapons, and continue for nearly tow decades without nuclear testing, the margin of error grows smaller. A technological failure in one class of warheads could leave an entire leg of our nuclear Triad -- Trident submarines at sea, land-based Minuteman missiles in silos, and strategic B52 and B2 bombers -- incapable of protecting the US and our allies – and at a time when, with the growing capabilities of China, Russia, South America, Iran and rogue groups are creating significant risks.
With the defeat of the Inhofe amendment, the US Senate remains uncertain about the intentions of the current administration to modernize our nuclear forces. Plans for future bombers and ICBMs are not on the table.
As the retiring Commander of the US Strategic Command said at a Washington luncheon on September 13th, the need to move out smartly on both elements requires beginning the research, development and acquisition process this year in order to have deployed systems ready to replace what will be aging current forces. Inhofe's amendment was meant to spur this process along. The defeat of the amendment relegates such plans to remaining in limbo, subject to the vagaries of the Washington political process.
The third amendment, offered by Senator Barrasso, sought to secure from the administration, as part of the force structure endorsed by the treaty, a larger Minuteman force than apparently will be the case.
In a straightforward measure, he wanted the same 450 missiles that are now deployed, rather than the "up to 420" pledged by the administration. Although this may seem immaterial, the issue is one of flexibility and strategic stability: "up to 420" could also mean 250, 100 or even fewer. Let me explain.
Stability, in a crisis, means you have a lot more targets than your adversary has warheads with which to take them out. If the number of warheads is low -- 1550 as called for by the treaty -- the theory is: Why not make the number of targets as high as possible? Your adversary would then not be tempted to try a knock-out punch early in a crisis to achieve strategic dominance.
Although the number of US targets implied by the treaty is less than 500 -- 420 individual missile silos, two submarine bases with some four deployed submarines at sea, and 60 bombers at two bomber bases -- it is sufficiently robust today. The fear of Senator Barrasso and others is that this may not be the case in the future.
The Russians have roughly 500 deployed missiles and bombers. They need breathing room to give them a chance to keep parity with the US, and eventually re-modernize their nuclear force. Originally, we wanted to keep at least 850 such deployed missiles and bombers, as called for by our Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright; but we compromised to make the Russians feel comfortable and give them a basis for claiming "equality" as a "superpower" on the world stage. So we "compromised" at 700. Note that even keeping all 850 platforms in no way argued that the number of warheads should be increased from the 1550 level, but only that the platforms upon which the warheads are carried would be as large a number as possible.
The issue is far more important than is readily apparent. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in early September, noted that the number of missiles and bombers the U.S. can deploy is limited to 700, harming US flexibility by requiring the US to take submarines out of service, and to take a number of Minuteman missiles regularly out of service.
In a letter to the Journal published soon after, on September 16th, Senator Dianne Feinstein argued that Bolton was wrong. The correct number, she claimed, was actually 800, which would give the US more than enough leeway to sustain deterrence. Feinstein, however, was referring to deployed and non-deployed systems. Bolton was referring only to deployed systems, the ones that count.
Under the terms of the treaty, in order to keep our counted systems at 700, we would have to leave some silos and submarine tubes empty. We could have kept all silos and tubes filled with missiles and still have reached the lower warhead levels, but to give the Russians the appearance of "parity" we did not do so.
Senator Barrasso's amendment illustrates the problem identified by Bolton: Barrasso proposed that we keep all 450 Minuteman missiles, and quoted from senior US military commanders testifying to the extraordinary stability offered by these single-warhead land-based missiles, now deployed on three USAF military reservations in five states.
Why is this important? In a crisis, if the US has no Minuteman missiles on land, an adversary would only have to worry about our submarine deterrent at sea (four boats), and those in port (four at King Bay, Georgia and four at Bangor, Washington). But what if an adversary could find our boats at sea and destroy them surreptitiously over time? They would then end up with all of the weaponry in their hands, or a sufficiently large number of weaponry to dominate any strategic situation coming out of a crisis over the Korean peninsula, the Persian Gulf or the Caspian basin.
In a crisis, whoever has the only nukes will determine how it ends.
Keeping Minuteman 450 missiles spread out over hundreds of thousands of square miles of military bases means an adversary has zero chance of being able to eliminate them -- in either a pre-emptive, bolt-out-of-the-blue strike, or in a crisis -- without the US seeing such an attack coming. We would be able to launch our submarine missiles at sea, and even our land based missiles, in retaliation. No rational adversary, therefore, would contemplate such a strike at any time: deterrence would be maintained.
In opposing Barrasso's amendment, Senator Kerry revealed just how little flexibility the treaty numbers give us. He said that simply keeping the land based missiles we now have, as Barrasso proposed, even if we reduced the warheads they carry would limit our bomber deployments to only 10 airplanes -- a limit comparable to the 60 called for by the administration's plans. Critics might see little difference between maintaining any of these numbers, but that is not the issue.
What is at stake is the future flexibility of the U.S. force: Why should we trade highly stabilizing numbers of land-based missiles for a bomber capability, also highly valuable, simply to arrive at an arbitrary number unrelated to either strategic stability or the warhead levels agreed to by the treaty?
While Kerry was right -- counting all 450 deployed Minuteman missiles in their silos would require a number of submarine missiles or bombers to be taken out of the inventory -- supporters of the treaty could not adequately explain why the trade-off was necessary.
If warheads, which are what the treaty is reducing, are the issue, why shouldn't the US be able to keep the entire current force of Minuteman, bombers and submarines, as we did under the Moscow treaty of 2002, even as we reduced deployed nuclear warheads from 6000 to 2200, a nearly 70% reduction?
The point of keeping the maximum number of our missiles, as Senator Barrasso is proposing is three-fold. First, it guards against the US being caught if any one of the three elements of our nuclear forces -- bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines -- has a major technological failure; these systems are, after all, decades old. If one part does not work, the other two can take up the slack.
Second, any adversary pressured to "go first" to try to disarm us, would face a daunting task. Our submarines at sea, our missiles in silos on land, and our bombers at bases in the middle of the country, have been deployed in such a way as to make simultaneously attacking each of the "legs" impossible. We would be able to see an attack coming in time to launch a devastating retaliatory strike. This is why we speak of "strategic stability" being markedly enhanced by keeping the maximum number of missiles, submarines and bombers as possible. During the Cold War, former defense official Paul Nitze explained it this way: "Whenever Colonel Ruskie sits down at his computer, no matter how they plan an attack, I always want them to come up with the same conclusion: 'Not today comrade.'"
Third, and why Barrasso's amendment was significant: He was indirectly calling into question the whole notion of going to zero nuclear weapons, or "Global Zero." The next logical step from 1550 warheads is 500-1000, according to most analysts who have suggested what the next arms control ceiling should be. But can a low-level Triad of forces, kept by the US for half a century, be any kind of deterrent?
While the US has some flexibility, and while the new 700 treaty limit on missiles and bombers (known as strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, or SNDVs) does push the US to levels below our ability to keep all current missiles deployed, the administration has worked things out so that each leg of the Triad is currently maintained in a relatively robust fashion -- for now.
We are, however, fast approaching the level of warheads below which we face a dilemma: If you agree with your adversary to limit the number of bullets you can have in your arsenal, do you put them all in one gun, or in as many guns as possible? You would probably spread out your forces so they could not be easily attacked.
If we are serious about going to zero, however, and the number of both guns and bullets starts getting very, very small, other adversaries, not now subject to treaty limits, may come to town.
Barrasso's amendment was an implicit "shot across the bow" to remind the Senate that the current limits under new START treaty would require some artful counting rules and deployment options. Further significant cuts would require the US to dismantle parts of the Triad, or keep only very small elements of it. These cuts would make maintenance, sustainment, and modernization either highly unlikely (too costly for the government to support such few systems), impractical (too economically unjustifiable by the industry for maintaining an industrial base for just small numbers of systems), or unviable (political pressure to save money so severe that one or two elements of the Triad are eliminated).
Why should this concern most Americans? Unfortunately, advocates of zero-nuclear weapons are already proposing that the new START level of 1500 warheads is still too high. Brice Blair, for example, proposed in Foreign Affairs, that the US reduce its arsenal as soon as possible to at least 1000, and perhaps 500 total warheads, as the next local step toward zero.
Admittedly, this is routine for the anti-nuke crowd. When we cut warheads under START I from 12,000 to 6000, the cuts were described as insufficient. Under START II, when we cut further to 3500, the numbers were described as still "reflective of Cold War thinking." And under the 2002 Moscow treaty, when we reduced the number even further to 2200 warheads, these same critics described the number as still way too high. According to Blair, even the new START treaty numbers of 1550 warheads are characterized once again as an example of "Cold War thinking" – a term that usually refers to the notion that nuclear weapons, or nuclear deterrence, as quaint.
So, can we go even lower? If we further reduce our warheads, it is likely that there will then be pressure to put whatever warhead numbers we have on fewer and fewer "platforms" or "launchers," especially if we adopt the Blair notion that nuclear deterrence matters less and less. The Russians, for example, will probably put their allocation of 1500 warheads, under the new START, on fewer than 500 missiles and bombers. If there would be further reductions to, say, the Blair number of 500, both the US and Russian arsenals could end up consisting of no more than a few hundred missiles. The Russians historically put a large number of warheads on each missile – a system not only less expensive, but also a hangover from the height of the Cold War, when they had over 10,000 such warheads. If we were to go to such low warhead numbers, Russia might very well insist that the US could keep only those number of platforms that Russia would keep -- in the interests of parity, of course.
If so, what systems would the US keep? We now hold all three elements of the Triad for reasons of stability and as a prudent hedge against future technological problems. We Minuteman missiles now count as up to 400 warheads; submarines, roughly up to 1000, and bombers up to 60. A force of five hundred warheads could logically require the US to eliminate all nuclear bombers, all Minuteman, and half our nuclear submarines. This would leave the entire US nuclear deterrent on six submarines, two of which would be at sea at any one time and survivable – for now. But what if an adversary could find out how to track and destroy them?
As you reduce platforms, you may easily get to the point where your adversaries think they can disarm you if they strike first. During the Cold War, the fear was that with 12,000 warheads -- the rough level of weapons on both sides -- the Russians could use half of their warheads to wipe out all of our land-based missiles, all our submarines in port, and all our bomber bases, and still have thousands of warheads left with which to stare us down or, in a crisis, induce us to capitulate -- a situation which then-candidate Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s referred to as the "window of vulnerability." None of this, of course, can be neatly calculated by a computer, but the relative balance of power does matter – just as it did during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Korean war of 1950.
Senators Inhofe and Barrasso wanted details about what platforms the administration was proposing that we keep as we go to lower warhead numbers. In their view, the number of platforms we are allowed under new START is far less than optimal, especially if there will be continued pressure to further reduce our nuclear warheads in the years ahead.
They want to ensure that we keep an optimal number of platforms even if we go to lower warhead levels, to say nothing of whether lower levels of warheads are sufficient to maintain deterrence.
A robust Triad of submarines, bombers and missiles would provide adequate warning of an attack, and therefore be able to survive to retaliate. A Triad would also guard against technological failure, and give us flexibility, no matter what our adversaries might throw at us. This is why it has been the US strategy for nearly half a century to maintain just such a force. Fewer targets for our adversaries to aim at in a crisis would spell trouble for the US: Someone's finger on the nuclear trigger could get itchy.
Why not go first to eliminate the US ability to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons? Given that the advocates of "global zero" are pushing for even lower levels of nuclear warheads, pressure could be intense for the US to drop one or more of its Triad elements — bombers, missiles or submarines. Then, even if we avoided eliminating any one element, our ability to maintain each Triad element at lower and lower deployed levels would not only become more and more expensive and technologically difficult, but would also heighten instability as the number of our platforms continued to shrink, and possibly even invite a crisis.
An adversary facing a US without any of our 450 Minuteman silos, for example, could try to achieve a breakthrough by tracking and finding our nuclear-armed submarines, routinely deployed at sea. Former Senator John Warner mentioned that his biggest nightmare as Secretary of the Navy would be what to do if one of our submarines "did not come home." The Russians, for instance, might be strongly tempted to risk taking out the US nuclear capability pre-emptively to eliminate our ability to affect a successful outcome for ourselves.
As our Strategic Commander General Chilton said on September 16, if both the US and an adversary have 100 fighter planes, 15 attack submarines, 300 artillery pieces, 50 cruisers and carriers, fine -- but if that adversary also has 20 nuclear weapons and the US has none, who runs the show? "Nuclear weapons," he said, "matter."
Without a backstop of hundreds of Minuteman missiles deployed over five states and thousands of square miles, a relatively small number of submarines, now planned at 10, in port and at sea, might be, for an adversary, a most tempting target. Further, if our submarines at sea were attacked, how would we know whom to hold responsible? Why, in the first place, even give an adversary an incentive to seek such a capability?
Worse, if we end up relying only on submarines or land-based missiles, with ni nuclear bombers, a technological failure of one of the two remaining missile-legs could be catastrophic: The system we end up relying upon might not work. A rocket motor could reach the end of its service life, or a guidance set deteriorate. The need for a strong Triad would therefore seem to trump the benefits of further reducing nuclear warheads, both for our security and for a leap into a very uncertain future.
While we assume that lower levels of nuclear warheads deployed by the US and Russia are automatically considered "better," if a secure Triad is sacrificed, instability is dramatically heightened. The 2002 Moscow treaty, while cutting warheads by nearly 70%, gave the US the flexibility and discretion to deploy sufficient numbers of platforms to advance strategic stability significantly.
Unfortunately, future U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms control beyond the new START treaty may hinge on considerations of what gets us simply to lower numbers, not on what is the best way to maintain deterrence. Ironically, if maintaining a strong deterrent is your top priority, numbers do matter.
Critics of US nuclear deterrent strategy often complain that only a few dozen warheads are needed to "blow away the other guy." Blair argues that a US ability to destroy just a few Russian cities would be sufficient to maintain deterrence.
But a US President would probably not contemplate the use of US nuclear weapons simply to burn an adversary's cities to the ground. A US President would use these awesome weapons only to stop an adversary from achieving his war aims -- a strategy that entails having the ability to take out the adversary's weapons capabilities.
As we now reduce our nuclear weapons to levels not seen since the end of the Eisenhower administration half a century ago, it would help to consider that reductions might lead to a serious break in the US strategic Triad, undoing a half century of sound deterrence.
As our Triad is critical to maintaining strategic stability, eliminating it is not a minor matter. In a crisis, we do not want anyone reaching for the nuclear gun -- we want it left in its holster. This is why our own nuclear weapons should be as secure, and as safe from attack, as possible.
This issue is what Senators DeMint, Barrasso and Inhofe raised on September 16th. The Triad, coupled with robust missile defenses, can preserve this state of affairs.