Given the survivability of the current US nuclear forces, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review determined that, should the US get rid of its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the likelihood of a Russian attack on the US nuclear forces would only be increased. But with the entire Triad of US forces modernized, any chance of an attack on the American ICBM force would be "vanishingly small" Pictured: An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during an operational test on August 2, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Image source: U.S. Air Force)
Various elements in the US Congress are saying that they want US nuclear policy to go in a decidedly new and different direction. This conflict between views on nuclear deterrence may place in jeopardy the hard-fought bi-partisan consensus created over the past ten years, in which the country agreed to fully modernize the aging US deterrent while also implementing arms control with its adversaries.
The current consensus position is pretty straightforward. Modernize the three aging elements of the land, sea, and air Triad -- strategic bombers and related cruise missiles, land-based missiles, and submarines and related sea-launched ballistic missiles -- and build a new nuclear command-and-control system to protect the US from cyber threats, while also refurbishing the nuclear warhead laboratories and facilities.
Some critics, however, want to take down nuclear systems across the board, including: (1) low-yield nuclear weapons on US submarines; (2) the Navy cruise missile, just starting research; (3) the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and (4) the bomber cruise missile or long-range strike option (LRSO). Critics even want to stop the US from being able to build from 20-80 nuclear warheads annually.
On nuclear deterrent policy, the divide between the current consensus and the critics is also stark.
There are those who want the US to adopt a " no first use" policy. The US deterrent, however, extended over NATO and America's Western Pacific allies, has historically included the threat of responding to a major conventional attack from Russia, North Korea or China, for example, with the first use of nuclear weapons. Many US allies might legitimately be worried if that option were "undone" by explicit US policy.
Equally problematic is the notion that the US deterrent force is considerably larger than required. The House Armed Services Committee Chair, Adam Smith (D-WA), has complained that the US does not need "5,000 warheads" to deter foreign aggression. However, in its long-range strategic deterrent force, the US had nowhere near that number. In fact, the 2010 New START arms agreement between the US and Russia limits the US to roughly 2,000 warheads. The official number is 1,550 warheads but under special rules, 60 strategic bombers can carry as many warheads and cruise missiles as possible, but count as only 60 bombs, thus pushing up the potential force for the US as high as 2,150 according to a Congressional Research Service February 2021 report (p. 23, table 2) based on normal bomber force loadings.
On a day-to-day basis, given that the US does not keep its bombers on alert or loaded with nuclear weapons, the country has roughly 1,700 warheads deployed in its strategic nuclear forces -- and fewer than 1,000 are deployed "on-alert," or readily available, including land-based and submarine-based missiles. These numbers are lower than any nuclear force level the US has maintained over the past half-century and at least 78% below the highest Cold War levels.
Even with such reductions, nuclear critics want unilaterally to reduce US nuclear forces by another one-third, based on an unverified assumption that some Pentagon officials at one time were supportive of just such a US reduction -- but without the key caveat that such reductions be done "safely" and in concert with similar Russian reductions.
Some differences on nuclear issues may be the result of an outdated assumption of what exactly US nuclear deterrent policy entails. For many years, US nuclear policy was often referred to with the acronym MAD or mutual assured destruction. This referenced a US policy during the 1960s, when US policy held that deterrence was deemed sufficient if the US could, in a retaliatory strike, destroy from 50-75% of the Soviet industry and its population, presumably making a retaliatory strike too costly for an adversary even to contemplate.
Starting as early as the Kennedy administration, the US began looking at options known as "flexible response" to get away from what many experts thought of as a not very credible unitary policy of "massive retaliation" to Soviet aggression. Later, under the Nixon and Ford administrations, and with the leadership of Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, the US policy changed to hold at risk key Soviet military and defense assets -- particularly missiles, bombers, submarines, and other nuclear forces -- which a US President would not want to see able to be freed to continue attacking the United States and its allies. In short, a US retaliatory strike would destroy the Soviets reserve of remaining nuclear assets, preventing these weapons from being launched at the US.
Over many decades, the US has refined such a "counterforce doctrine" to limit the first strike, preemptive and disarming types of weapons that America's nuclear-armed adversaries possess. The total Russian long-range or strategic warhead deployments have, in part, through arms control, been reduced by more than 80%.
Thus, the threat of Russia using thousands of highly accurate, powerful warheads to try to eliminate the US nuclear forces in a pre-emptive first strike has been markedly reduced. If the US were -- foolishly, in our opinion -- to eliminate its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, Russia would not have to worry about more than 500 US nuclear assets -- bombers, land, and sea-based ballistic long-range missiles -- available for the US to maintain its deterrence. In fact, the Russians could concentrate on eliminating just 12 targets -- two submarine bases and three bomber bases in the United States, and about half of America's submarines at sea.
To avoid simplifying Russian attack plans, the US keeps a multiplicity of forces available with which to retaliate, including ICBMs that would not necessarily be attacked early in a conflict, some submarines always at sea and some number of strategic bombers capable of being airborne should a crisis materialize that called for such US action.
Given then the survivability of the current US nuclear forces, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR, p.67) determined that, should the US get rid of its ICBM force, the likelihood of a Russian attack on the US nuclear forces would only be increased. But with the entire Triad of US forces modernized, any chance of an attack on the American ICBM force would be "vanishingly small" -- a conclusion reached recently by a number of analysts at the Federation of American Scientists.
Keeping the US nuclear deterrent credible and avoiding such strikes therefore requires that the US not only maintain the structure of the current deterrent, but that it is done in a credible and effective manner -- which means that the force must be fully modernized.
As the current commander of US Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard explained, if the US chooses not to modernize, it is choosing to go out of the nuclear business. The old legacy forces simply cannot be sustained much beyond this decade, when the replacements need to be delivered. That is the stark reality of the three-decade long nuclear holiday on which the US embarked at the end of the Cold War. There is no more time to delay.
Peter Huessy, Senior Consulting Analyst at Ravenna Associates, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis.