The current U.S. administration inherited a nuclear deterrent 40-50 years old. Its submarines had first been deployed in 1981, its B-52 bomber cruise missiles in 1982, and its Minuteman land-based missiles in 1970. Pictured: The ballistic missile nuclear submarine USS Rhode Island. (Image source: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Rebecca Rebarich)
Now that 184 countries are grappling with the medical and economic convulsions of China's CCP coronavirus that seems to have originated in a bio-warfare laboratory in Wuhan, what other catastrophes might be headed our way, especially ones we have been forewarned about?
What if America's adversaries might start to believe that because the US has a Covid-19 crisis on its hands, the nation might be distracted and vulnerable, so that now might be a good time to strike? If such adversaries think the US does not have a strong deterrent, does that make it an even more tempting target?
Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said that by the end of 2020, Russia will have modernized 87% of its nuclear arsenal, up from its current 82%.
Many Americans might shrug it off and say that the Russians are simply being their normal selves, just like the Soviets, year after year, building and modernizing their nuclear weapons.
Many Americans might also assume that the United States would be keeping up to make sure that the Russians were not about to get the nuclear drop on the US, right?
The United States, in fact, remains considerably behind the Russians. For nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, a euphoric United States stopped taking nuclear deterrence seriously. The current administration, therefore, inherited a nuclear deterrent 40-50 years old. Its submarines had first been deployed in 1981, its B-52 bomber cruise missiles in 1982, and its Minuteman land-based missiles in 1970.
At present, exactly zero percent of America's nuclear platforms are modernized.
This dangerous "procurement holiday" dates back to the end of the Cold War in 1991, when leaders in the West presumably imagined that modernized systems would no longer be needed.
The problem is, presidents and Congresses have been warned. The US has known for some time that the Russians are fully modernizing their nuclear weapons. The US has also been aware that the Russians were increasing the role of nuclear weapons in their security strategy, and had also adopted a policy of "escalate to win." In this strategy, the Russians would use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons early in a crisis, based on the assumption that in face of such threats, the United States would stand down.
Several years ago, for example, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the senior U.S. military officer responsible for nuclear strategy, General John Hyten, told Congress that by 2020, the Russians would have fully modernized at least 70% of their nuclear arsenal.
Hyten not only warned about the Russia's new "escalate to win" policy; he also took stock of the fact that while the United States had decided -- belatedly -- to modernize its nuclear forces, it was still nearly 15 years away from fielding its first modernized nuclear platform. Regrettably, not everyone in Congress and the nuclear disarmament community listened. For many in politics, after all, it was assumed that the U.S. would "reset" relations with Russia and nuclear threats were happily diminishing toward a "global zero."
Worse, when, in 2017, General Hyten, (now Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff), warned of the Russian threat, a common counter-narrative in the U.S. arms control community -- and shared by some members of Congress -- was that simply by proposing to modernize a then-rusting nuclear deterrent, the United States was "leading an arms race."
Even these critics, however, had to know that it takes years to research, develop, test, and then build highly complex nuclear forces, so that no new U.S. nuclear deployments would even be able to start until 2029.
An ideological attachment to the arms control catechism of the day, particularly among the advocates of "global zero," trumped any common-sense support of the potential necessity, even to use as a deterrent, for U.S. nuclear modernization.
Instead, what many disarmers proposed was the elimination of more than half of U.S. nuclear armed submarines, and 100% of America's land-based nuclear missiles and air-launched nuclear cruise missiles -- all eliminated unilaterally, without the Russians reducing anything
In 2018, nuclear critics in the Democratic party, now in the House majority, called for the unilateral "roll back" of the entire ICBM leg of the US nuclear Triad (land, sea and air) to curtail a supposedly "overly aggressive nuclear strategy" by the Trump administration. The proposal appears intended to prevent a presumed "expansion" of the US nuclear arsenal.
Ironically, the Trump administration's nuclear modernization effort at that time was nearly identical to the Obama administration's effort: keeping America's nuclear forces strictly within the New START Treaty limits. The Trump administration's policy at the time did not seek to expand the U.S. arsenal by even a single nuclear warhead.
Even today, however, despite Russia's confirmation that its nuclear forces are nearly fully modernized, and that the new U.S. modernization effort may not be putting new forces in the field until 2029, the same nuclear critics still do not seem to understand the strategy of deterrence: if you look disarmed and easy to overrun, you are inviting aggression, but if you do not look easy to overrun, people might think twice before attacking you. Former President Ronald Reagan called it, "Peace through strength". It was how, in large part, by building up the US nuclear arsenal and promising subsequently to build robust missile defenses, he induced the Soviet Union, unable to keep up, to collapse.
Even so, one unilateral disarmer inexplicably wondered recently if the current U.S. planned nuclear modernization effort might somehow open "the door to an expensive nuclear arms race".
This critic may be unaware that Russia has already completed 87% of its arms race while the US is just putting on its track shoes. The door to an arms race was opened long ago -- but by Russia, not the United States.
Sputnik News reports:
"Russia's nuclear forces have received or are in the process of receiving a series of new weapons in recent years, including the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, and the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic cruise missile. The maritime leg of the country's nuclear triad has seen the deployment of the new Borei class of strategic missile submarines equipped with R-30 Bulava ballistic missiles. Russia has also upgraded its fleet of Tu-95MS 'Bear' and Tu-160 'White Swan' bombers, increasing their range and capabilities and equipping them with new cruise missiles."
The current U.S. administration is fully aware of the Russian challenge and has robustly funded a U.S. nuclear deterrent. The modernization plan was approved by Congress -- although there is a worrisome emerging decline in the margin of support.
Without nuclear modernization, unfortunately, the United States cannot keep a credible nuclear deterrent against its nuclear armed enemies -- not only Russia but also China, whose nuclear arsenal is scheduled to double in the next decade, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
It is widely anticipated that the scope of U.S. nuclear deterrent modernization might be a debate topic this election year.
Some members of the House and Senate, may again push unilaterally to reduce much of America's nuclear arsenal to a level even as low as 20% of Russia's current deployed nuclear arsenal.
U.S. lawmakers may also again push to require that Congress must first approve any presidential decision to use nuclear weapons, thereby making a timely U.S. response to a surprise enemy nuclear attack virtually impossible.
Still other members of Congress may push to pass a new legal requirement that the United States pledge not to use nuclear weapons, even if the country was attacked and suffered millions of casualties from enemy biological, chemical, or cyber weapons.
Is this, then, the right time for the U.S. to stop nuclear modernization or hamstring its nuclear deterrent strategy? History illustrates how deadly being unprepared to face real threats can be, as in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the terrorist attacks of 9-11 or the coronavirus pandemic.
However serious these events were, most people probably know how much worse the outcome would be if an adversary initiated the use of nuclear weapons against the United States.
By now, the U.S. should know that its nuclear-armed adversaries are serious about using nuclear weapons -- either straightforwardly or for coercive leverage -- if they think they can get away it and avoid painful retaliation. The only sensible plan, therefore, is for the United States to maintain a nuclear deterrent second to none, to deter not only the threat of nuclear weapons but their straightforward employment, should it come to that.
In the election this November, Americans face a choice -- whether to continue with the planned modernization of America's nuclear forces, or yet again to kick nuclear modernization down the road and again pretend that nuclear threats -- that are potentially existential to the United States -- do not in fact exist.
Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.