The U.S. administration has announced some new nuclear initiatives. They include further reducing our deployed and stockpiled nuclear forces; improving the survivability of our nuclear weapons, and seeking additional measures to counter the proliferation of such weapons.
Last week, at a forum I've had the privilege of hosting for 32 years, General Larry D. Welch -- current Institute for Defense Analyses Senior Fellow; former USAF Chief of Staff and SAC [Strategic Air Command] Commander, and the nation's premier expert on nuclear matters – shared his thoughts. What follows emerged from that discussion:
First, there is the conviction that nuclear issues are deadly serious and should be addressed as such. Bumper sticker and fortune cookie analyses such as "hair-trigger" and "global zero" are inadequate and unacceptable.
Second, as in a quote attributed to various people, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts."
What, then, are the facts of the nuclear business? Even a complex world, characterized by shades of grey, could be inclined to accept them.
Let's start with six :
Nuclear weapons exist, and the knowledge and capability to produce them exist.
In spite of proliferation, and in spite of great tensions between nuclear powers, so far the only use of nuclear weapons has been to end the most destructive war in history and to help prevent conflicts that could have been even more destructive.
The theory and practice of nuclear deterrence is to ensure that any potential adversary will conclude that the costs and the risks of using a nuclear weapon against the U.S. or our allies far exceeds any possible benefit. It is a concept that will exist as long as there are nuclear weapons in the hands of anyone who is not a reliable and trustworthy friend.
A number of countries are capable of producing their own nuclear weapons, but have elected not to do so. They rely instead on the extended nuclear deterrent of the United States. Some 31 nations of NATO and our Far Eastern allies -- although capable of building nuclear weapons -- live under this nuclear umbrella. Even though this is understood, there are many who ask, "Why do we have nuclear weapons in Europe? Do we really need them there?" The answer is: Europe needs them. Having our nuclear weapons in Europe means that our NATO and European allies do not need to build their own.
Although presumably none of our NATO allies would believe it advantageous to have a proliferation of nuclear weapons, as Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group, testified before Congress, the Russians have threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies more than a dozen times in just the past four years. Recent actions from China, from its ventures in the South China Sea to its hacking, and its refusal to extradite Edward Snowden, should also caution us against becoming complacent.
If deterrence fails and there is an attack with nuclear weapons against the U.S. or its allies, the consequences vary from hundreds of thousands of casualties to the end of these nations as we know them.
Of the 11 weapons types currently in our nuclear weapons inventory, one has completed refurbishment to extend its life, a second one is currently in a life extension program, ad the remainder in the stockpile will all require major life extension if they are to continue providing a nuclear deterrent.
It has now been 64 years since the Soviet Union became the world's second nuclear power. Over time, its arsenal has grown to 40,000 weapons. The U.S. arsenal also peaked at a high level, somewhere around 31,000 weapons.
The issue is not so much what those levels were in the past or what they are now, but what it takes to ensure that we have an effective nuclear deterrence to guard against actions and threats.
There are many who say that the probabilities of a nuclear exchange with one of the great nuclear powers are low. That assessment, however, does not provide much comfort: one simply cannot afford to take such a risk.
In deterrence, what is always "the unknown" is what is in the mind of whomever you are trying to deter. What, then, is required for a deterrence to be effective? As General Welch explained: "We never thought that we were smart enough to attach a nice, careful formula to determine what that is. So our approach has always been to hold at risk sets of targets or assets that we are convinced will be of great value to the leadership of any nation or any power that has the capability of using nuclear weapons against us."
When General Welch was Commander of the Strategic Air Command, the U.S. had confidence that deterrence could be maintained with the 10,000+ weapons; then we negotiated that number down to the 6,500 in START I; then down to the 3,500 in START II, which did not take place; then down to the 2,200 in the Moscow treaty of 2002, and now, in the New Start Treaty, the number is down to 1,550.
Of critical importance, noted General Welch, was that "each of those reductions -- and each of those judgments as to the level of deployed capability it required to have that assurance -- was strongly supported by the experts inside the nuclear enterprise. Each was strongly supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Each was strongly supported by the commanders of the First Strategic Air Command and then the Strategic Command."
As there were – and always are -- major changes in the geopolitics of the world, especially the end of the Soviet Union and its empire, many of the assets we used to target we do not need to target any more. Nonetheless, said Welch, because we have changing leaders and changing adversaries, "there is always uncertainty." This uncertainly is why, although the numbers have been reduced dramatically, "we have the same deterrent strategy, with the same confidence in the effectiveness of the deterrent" – all of the most critical importance.
The idea that a deterrent strategy that worked perfectly for the 45 years of the Cold War should be jettisoned simply because it was in place during the Cold War is baffling. Although Russia is no longer the Cold War Soviet adversary, it is in conflict with the U.S. over Syria and Iran, and, if we want any crisis not to escalate into a conflict, deterrence remains necessary. Intentions can change overnight; when coupled with capability, they can quickly become a threat.
What does it take, then, to continue to provide an effective deterrent? And what kind of deterrent should be considered effective in the situation in which we find ourselves now?
The answer to the first question is that the force has to support the strategy, not the other way around. If we change that force, there also needs to be a change in the strategy to ensure that effective support for it will continue to be viable. Until there is a solid change in strategy, therefore, there should not be a change in the force level. This is not to say that a smaller force level is not possible; just if a strategy is to be supported by a smaller force, one might well have to change that strategy to one less ambitious.
To sustain our capabilities, according to General Welch, there is, happily, widespread, although not complete, agreement on our objectives. We are not seeking any new weapons effects: those we can create now are sufficient for deterrence.
The second issue, according to Welch, is that we would like the total stockpile to be the minimum possible for any level of deployed weapons – a situation that today does not apply. Our stockpile, he said, should have greater performance margins so we can have greater confidence that it will continue to be effective as the nuclear elements age -- we do not understand the consequences of this aging -- and also to minimize any need to return to testing.
The stockpile, he continued, should include an alternative warhead for each deployed warhead -- again, simply to minimize the risk that could accompany a technical failure, as well as to maintain confidence in its effectiveness. Moreover with a smaller stockpile, these requirements are even more important.
Finally, the safety and security of the stockpile should be enhanced.
The core issue, then, is: how do we make this happen?
The good news is that before us now is a widely accepted plan, about to be funded by Congress.
The plan is equally relevant to the current level -- or even some smaller level -- of nuclear weapons deployed, or "put into the field." The plan has nothing to do with whether or not one needs an effective stockpile, and has nothing to do with whether or not the U.S. needs to sustain the Triad of forces: land, sea and air.
The advantage of the Triad of forces is totally independent of the numbers deployed. Ironically, we save no money, but do raise the risks if we go from the Triad to any other approach for these forces.
So what does this plan do? It extends the life of systems that have served for 40 years for another 20 to 30 years. So what Congress is buying with this plan is 60 to 70 years of effectiveness from the deployed in the field weapons. That is a bargain.
Although the U.S. thus has a plan that meets all the required objectives and sustains the deterrent, many nuclear experts remain concerned. The major obstacle is, of course, simply the cost.
But it is difficult to understand why this is such an obstacle. The nuclear deterrent is acknowledged by almost everyone as being: "Job #1." You hear it from the President. You hear it from the Secretary of Defense. You hear it from the Joint Chiefs. You hear it from many people who work in Congress.
The greatest obstacle at this moment to executing this crucial plan to sustain our deterrent is actually that there is no planned budget. The Navy's SSP and the Air Force, their counterparts at NNSA and the laboratories and the production complex that produces these, do not have an established budget for doing this beyond the current year.
Worse, the matter is not so much of budgets but what, within our defense and national budgets, we have stated as our priorities
As Welch put it: "So you have to ask yourself, how can something that should have this priority, how can it not receive the attention required to tell the people who have to execute this program what assets they have to execute the program? So that is the first obstacle. But it turns out that it is a show-stopper. Until the matter is settled, it continues to be a show-stopper. And everybody should be angry about that."
There are also some other obstacles to maintaining nuclear deterrence: there is continued opposition to maintaining the Triad, and there is continued hope and expectation that nuclear weapons are going to disappear.
There are still people who plan on that basis, and say: Why do you need to sustain the ICBM force? Isn't it just going to go away someday? Why build a new ballistic missile submarine? Aren't they just going to go away?
The answer is, no.
There is, also, the continued difficulty of focusing our nation's attention on why the deterrence of nuclear conflict remains our number one job – as well as how nuclear forces represent an enormously effective bargain at the projected cost.
"When we eventually replace the ballistic missile, Ohio-class submarines," General Welch said, "they will have served for twice their original planned life. Our ICBM force is supported by ballistic missiles that were deployed 35 years ago. And when we do the life extension on their warheads, those warheads will have served for four decades."
Our bomber force is now over a half a century in service; by the time we replace the weapons they carry, they will have served for more than four decades.
By any credible measure of the cost-effectiveness, these are "highly cost-effective forces." Investing in the resources to support those forces and to continue their useful life is not a matter of budgets; it is a matter of our priorities.
Despite the age of the force, it remains highly effective in carrying out its intended mission. This military capability has also been, said the General, "100% successful every second of every day since it was created. No other weapons system can claim to have been 100% successful and to have been employed effectively every second of every day for more than half a century. If you don't think that's a bargain, I don't know what to tell you."
So that brings us down to just two enduring facts about the nuclear deterrent force. The first is that the most fundamental mission of the force is to deter the adversary's use of nuclear weapons. The U.S. forces have been tremendously effective in doing that and need to continue to do so. Secondly, the current nuclear forces, both the weapons and the delivery vehicles, require investment of some resources to ensure that they continue to perform their essential mission for another 50 years, or however long it takes.
Funding the "smart approach" meets all the required objectives of deterrence.
As General Welch emphasized, "We get to significantly reduce the nuclear stockpile as a result. We get to maintain a Triad of stable, survivable and flexible forces. For every warhead, we have an alternative available while at the same time reducing the types of warheads in the inventory by half. We extend the lives of those weapons with high performance and increased assurance that they will continue to operate effectively even if there are unexpected surprises as the nuclear components pass the half-century mark. It greatly reduces the probability that there will ever be a need to return to nuclear testing, and it enhances the safety and security of the force."
Welch was asked what he thought of the assumption that the number of warheads in our deployed force -- currently at 1550 -- was based on the assumption that an American president would use these forces on warning of an attack, or even pre-emptively, and that therefore our currently deployed forces were vastly greater than the number we needed.
He explained: "That concern simply illustrates the need for a better understanding of the concept of deterrence. Deterrence is to instill in the mind of whomever we are trying to deter, that the gain can never be worth the cost and risk. Deterrence is not about war fighting. We have to have a war fighting capability in order for deterrence to be effective, but if it ever comes to that we have failed. There is no possibility of winning a nuclear war. So why would anyone imagine that any U.S. president would elect to initiate a nuclear war? None of our forces, none of our concepts are designed for initiating a nuclear war. They are designed for two purposes: to deter; and in order to deter, there has to be assurance on the part of the potential adversary that you will retaliate effectively. To retaliate effectively we do not have to use 1,550 weapons. We need 1,550 weapons to instill in the minds of those we would deter that we can retaliate effectively, and to instill in the minds of our allies that they do not need to develop their own nuclear weapons because they can count on our deterrent."
In other words, whatever the level of weapons in the field -- whether 1550, 1000 or less -- we have to maintain a capability to replace them, sustain them and keep them safe and working. Those necessities require a certain base capability that does not change, regardless of whatever level of weapons you have out in the field. Our last warhead testing was done in 1991. Much of our laboratory and facility infrastructure is a half century old and in need of extensive modernization. So, for an investment of roughly $20 billion a year, we have not only maintained peace, but we have stopped any further nuclear proliferation among our allies. This modest investment, then -- one out of every 285 government dollars spent in America-- allows us to concentrate on the nuclear proliferation among rogue terror-master states and their terror allies, a danger for which there is indeed a broad consensus that America must "provide for the common defense."