Although the American public -- according to countless polls including one earlier this year by "Let Freedom Ring" -- overwhelmingly supports a strong US nuclear deterrent, there are pressures from some anti-nuclear elements to eliminate 70% of our deterrent and unilaterally reduce our nuclear forces to a level near that of the Chinese communists.
One such group, "Global Zero," recommends that the US deploy no more than 450 nuclear warheads compared to the 1550 now allowed by the new START treaty, ratified between the US and Russia in late 2010. Global Zero generously says the US can do this unilaterally.
The organization cites five reasons why nuclear deterrence is irrelevant to today's threats facing America and its allies, among which is incomplete view that as nuclear weapons would not have stopped the attacks of 9/11, they now serve little useful purpose.
Global Zero also proposes that US nuclear forces be cut to ten submarines and ten bombers (compared to 14 submarines and 60 bombers allowed under new START). In its most radical proposal, it recommends eliminating entirely our 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that all our remaining forces be put on a non-alert status -- unable to be launched for up to three days. Undoubtedly our adversaries will be moved to cooperate, and, in a crisis, not threaten us for any of that time.
These ideas are worse than dangerous: they would leave the US vulnerable; increase nuclear dangers by assuring any adversary that a strike would have no immediate consequences; provide incentives for further nuclear proliferation, and in a crisis make it more likely that force, including nuclear weapons, would be used by a US adversary.
Russia, for example, is modernizing its entire nuclear arsenal. Its president, Vladimir Putin, is building 400 new nuclear armed ballistic missiles. By contrast, the US is planning to build some too, but is not yet modernizing any of the three legs of our nuclear deterrent.
Moreover, under the new START treaty, Russia can increase its current missiles and bombers up to the 700 level allowed by the treaty, while the US has had to reduce its nuclear arsenal from 1100 platforms. Further unilateral US reductions would seriously upset the strategic balance upon which a deterrence rests.
China, too, is modernizing its arsenal, and building or testing countless new ballistic missiles. While the size of China's nuclear warhead arsenal remains, unsurprisingly, a mystery – the People's Republic has rebuffed all efforts to improve transparency -- China is also building a new submarine force, and a new land-based mobile missile. According to China expert Michael Pillsbury, the PRC military says that China is building all the weapons needed to become a world hegemon.
The most wrong-headed Global Zero recommendation of all, however, is to eliminate all 450 land-based ICBMs in the US arsenal. This would leave the US on a day-to-day basis with submarines at only two bases, in Georgia and Washington, and with 3 submarines at sea. Our force structure would be smaller than that of China, Pakistan, and India, let alone Russia. It would be the smallest of the entire nuclear age, so low that an adversary would have as few as six targets to hit to eliminate all US nuclear weapons available for deterrence.
This means an adversary such as Russia or China, facing the US in a crisis over Syria, Iran or North Korea, could eliminate the entire US strategic nuclear arsenal by using very few weapons of their own, a very attractive, almost irresistible, option. Submarines at sea and in port could even be destroyed slowly, surreptitiously, using conventional torpedoes or missiles launched from attack submarines, without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons, and thus significantly lowering the threshold over which a crisis might become an open conflict.
In a crisis, therefore, or in a run-up to a crisis, the incentives by our adversaries to use force or threaten the first-use of force, including nuclear weapons, would also rise precipitously. Our enemies would no longer need to fear our land-based retaliatory capability from our Minuteman missiles: they would no longer be available. As a result, an adversary would have every incentive to "get our submarines," a probability the report even acknowledges, but only in a footnote. The report then concludes by stating that a technological breakthrough could, in fact, make our entire nuclear submarine fleet vulnerable and thus "dramatically" change the recommendations of the report – a conclusion particularly worrisome in light of the proposals to reduce our submarine fleet to only ten submarines.
The report also makes the astounding argument that as all 450 US deployed warheads would be available to deter Russia, we would thus have nothing to worry about. But this would be true only if the US launched a nuclear strike first. Historically, however, our deterrent needs have always been calculated based on what would be needed for retaliation, or what is known as an "assured second strike". Under the Global Zero force structure, an adversary might well conclude that only a very limited number of US nuclear forces would survive an initial attack or series of surreptitious attacks. The temptation to "go for it" in a crisis might look too good to pass up – creating the most highly unstable deterrent policy one could possibly propose.
Every administration in the nuclear age, over some 60 years, has built, maintained, modernized and supported what is known as a strategic triad of nuclear forces—submarines, bombers and land-based missiles. The idea has been to prevent any enemy from being able to take a cheap, sudden shot at the US and eliminate our nuclear capability. This new report has hung a sign on the US on which is written: "Come Get Me."
Deterrent stability, however, is not the only casualty of the zero-nuclear campaign. Equally foolish is its quaint parallel notion that persuading other nations to cut their nuclear arsenals requires the US to first – dramatically, even unilaterally – to cuts its nuclear arsenals. We are led to believe that the nuclear arsenals of China and North Korea, for instance, have been built and expanded because the US does not have the moral authority to seek non-proliferation as long as we maintain our own nuclear arsenal.
If this is true, the argument goes, then we can only be a paragon of virtue in the eyes of these nuclear powers once we have eliminated all our nuclear forces. But we already have gone the extra arms control mile. Starting with the Reagan and Bush eras' INF, START and Moscow treaties, our nuclear weapons have been cut from 12,000 deployed weapons to the fewer than 2000 deployed today.
What did we get in return? North Korea went nuclear. Pakistan and India both tested more nuclear weapons and built up their arsenals. China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal in dramatic fashion, as is Russia. And both Russia and China have repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons. In short, there is little evidence that nuclear arms control by the United States has engendered similar efforts by other nuclear or aspiring-to-be-nuclear powers.
As our nuclear "umbrella" protects over 30 countries, they have been able to forgo nuclear weapons -- ironically, one of the great non-proliferation success stories.
Have other countries given up their nuclear arsenal or advanced nuclear programs? Yes Iraq in 1991, Libya in 2005 and South Africa in 1988.
Also, when Desert Storm ousted Saddam from Kuwait, that act eventually led to the discovery of an Iraqi nuclear program and its dismantlement.
Operation Iraqi Freedom led to regime-change in Iraq in 2003, the capture of Libyan-bound nuclear centrifuges, and the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussein. The late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi saw the hand-writing on the wall and gave up Libya's nuclear program
And the approaching end of apartheid in South Africa led to that government voluntarily giving up its nuclear weapons. All successes were initiated by and led by the United States, two by the US military.
Unfortunately, this important history is ignored.
The Global Zero report substitutes fairy tales for sound thinking, wishes for realities, and would leave us in a world of heightened nuclear dangers. It is advice heard before but which successive American administrations have rejected for over half a century and which the American people still oppose. Let us keep it that way.