• This could be the first time the U.S. ever agreed to a nuclear arms reduction treaty that would actually increase the ratio of Russian nuclear warheads to U.S. nuclear assets. Deterrence must be measured as a function of our available, second-strike, secure retaliatory force. The U.S. was never attacked "because we were too strong."

Both the physicist Lawrence M. Krause, in "Letting Go Of Our Nukes," in the New York Times of July 6, and Barry Blechman, in "Slimmer, Smarter Nuclear Force," in the Washington Post of July 6th, combine to call for ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT], cutting our deployed strategic nuclear weapons down to at least 1,000 -- and potentially even lower -- and taking our weapons off "high alert."

If implemented, however, these policies would dramatically increase strategic instability, make nuclear conflict more likely, undermine U.S. security, and open up a wide avenue on which our nuclear adversaries could aggressively march.

Krause argues that our weapons at sea are sufficiently invulnerable from a first strike so that no weapons on bombers or ICBMs need be on alert. But if that is true, being on alert -- as insurance against a failure of the stealth character of our submarines -- makes all the sense in the world.

De-alerting, or removing warheads from being able to be fired, is both unnecessary and destabilizing. The President is in no danger of being forced to make any kind of hasty decision in a crisis precisely because so much of our force is secure: on-alert systems tell the potential adversary, "Don't try anything stupid."

The three main bombers of the US strategic bombing fleet: The B-52, B1-B, and B2. (Source: U.S. Air Force)

Blechman argues that 1,000 warheads proposed by the administration, down from the 1550 now allowed under the New Start treaty, is sufficient to deter Russia. He thus sees no danger in reducing our force by roughly one-third, and argues there is no unilateral action contemplated by the administration should Congress, especially the U.S. Senate, fail to ratify any such agreement. He further argues -- I think with a satirical wink -- that as Russia has fewer warheads deployed than those now being fielded by America, Moscow must be "terrified."

If, however, 1,000 weapons are needed to deter and strike Russian targets, as Blechman contends, they also have to be available for retaliation; otherwise we have to go first in a crisis -- precisely the opposite of US policy.

Currently, however, of the 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, those on bombers and most of our ICBM fleet could, in theory, be taken out in a first strike, as well as some of our submarines, especially those in port.

Depending upon their deployment pattern, on a day-to-day basis, the U.S. has between six and eight submarines at sea, deep below the surface. There, they are invulnerable, and thus can retaliate effectively should the U.S. be attacked with nuclear weapons.

Each submarine carries 20 missiles armed with nuclear warheads. To fit within the 2010 New Start Treaty limits, each missile probably carries an average of 4 warheads; thus each submarine carries 80 warheads total. Based on six to eight submarines at sea at any one time, the US would now have a force of 480-640 warheads available for retaliation.

But if the required warheads for deterrence is 1000, as Blechman argues, we may have a credible force but certainly not the number he says that we need for deterrence.

Krause makes the same mistake by arguing as if the total deployed number of warheads is how our deterrent force requirements are measured. If the entire deployed force would be what is required to deter an adversary, then logically, in a crisis, it would have to be used first. Why? A significant portion of the force could be destroyed by an adversary in its first strike against us, especially if such a strike were sudden or in a surprise mode. Deterrence must be measured as a function of our available, second strike, secure retaliatory force.

Currently, our ICBMs are at fixed locations, our bombers generally are not on-alert and our submarines in port can be destroyed, as well. The warheads we need are therefore those that are available for retaliation. We can improve these numbers by putting more of our submarines at sea or our bombers on airborne alert, but this takes warning and can be done only over time. Having our forces on-alert makes that possible -- we can make our forces more survivable, which lessens the temptation of an adversary to shoot first.

Further, as the number of warheads allowed by treaties declines, it becomes harder to keep many missile, bomber and submarine platforms: you only have a limited number of warheads to deploy. For example, if we deploy around 1,000 missile warheads, as the administration has now proposed, how, for purposes of stability, would you maximize the number of platforms still operated by the U.S.?

We could keep 300 Minuteman missiles and silos, out of the 450 we now have. We could also keep all 12 Trident submarines, but could lower the number of warheads they carry. With 20 missiles for each submarine, each missile could carry 3-4 warheads for a total of between 600-700 warheads for the entire fleet. [None of these decisions has yet been made, so our numbers here are a best guess. Bombers could also count, as they do now; under that scenario, a total warhead count would be roughly 1000-1050.]

Many commentators and analysts complain that all the US needs to deter an adversary is 20, 50 or 100 warheads, as Krause argues. But he and many of his fellow analysts never ask three key questions:

  • How do you base so few warheads in a survivable mode?
  • Have you figured the number of warheads needed based on using them in a retaliatory mode?
  • Have you been careful to determine what it takes to deter an adversary -- not on the basis of what deters you -- but on what deters him?

You also have to take into account having enough "warhead inventory" and available platforms to be able to build back up if necessary, as well as to replace warheads that you may determine ineffective. And if we cannot test our weapons, effectiveness cannot be measured.

Thus a deployed force of American nuclear forces restricted to 1,000 warheads could be reduced to as few as 360 warheads remaining on our submarines at sea, and available for retaliation.

This is far short of the Blechman's 1,000 he says is needed for deterrence.

That remaining retaliatory force is also not dissimilar to the current arsenal held by China, of roughly 300 strategic warheads. What if China joined a conflict against the US in cooperation with another nuclear superpower? Then, to be ready for a response, our deterrent calculations would certainly require more American warheads. Both Krause and Blechman, however, appear to assume that such an eventuality is not on the horizon.

What impact such a proposed cut to 1,000 warheads would have on strategic stability is, of course, unknown, but this could be the first time the U.S. ever agreed to a nuclear arms reduction treaty that would actually increase the ratio of Russian warheads to U.S. nuclear assets. These and other factors make such proposed cuts worrisome, to say the least.

Krause makes the additional argument that if the U.S. stops sustaining its nuclear arsenal, others will do likewise. However, a recent study by Clark Murdock, the Director of the Program on Nuclear Initiatives (PONI at the Center for Strategic and International Studies) concluded precisely the opposite.

Murdock told a seminar series in April that a group of scholars across the political spectrum had determined that U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions agreements have had, and will have, no discernible impact on the proliferation of nuclear weapons -- or on the modernization of current nuclear programs -- in, for example, countries such as Pakistan, North Korea and China. [One of those concurring scholars was Dr. Blechman.]

Yet Krause, against all historical lessons, says we must demonstrate that our belief in zero nuclear weapons is sincere. He further says that to do this, we should stop our nuclear modernization, thus underlining that we "do not value them" [nuclear weapons]. And, thus like magic, other nations will of course give up their nuclear weapons, as well!

Between World War I and World War II, there were all sorts of treaties calling for reduced armaments. One agreement even proposed to abolish war. Our future adversaries -- Japan, Germany and Italy -- agreed to some of these treaties, but apparently with no intention whatsoever of adhering to their terms. The weight, for example, of naval battleships was restricted under the British-German Naval Agreement, but Herr Hitler decided not to count the weight of the 16-inch guns on them.

From Wikipedia, we learn that in "August 1933, the chief of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), Royal Marine General Sir Maurice Hankey, visited Germany, and wrote down his impressions of the 'New Germany' in October 1933. Hankey's report concluded with the words: 'Are we still dealing with the Hitler of Mein Kampf, lulling his opponents to sleep with fair words to gain time to arm his people, and looking always to the day when he can throw off the mask and attack Poland? Or is it a new Hitler, who discovered the burden of responsible office, and wants to extricate himself, like many an earlier tyrant from the commitments of his irresponsible days? That is the riddle that has to be solved.'"

There are more recent historical warnings. From the end of the Cold War until recently, the U.S. went on an intellectual and procurement holiday, at least as far as thinking about nuclear weapons and sustaining our deterrence were concerned. We apparently thought deterrence would take care of itself, and that the end of the Cold War had taken with it the most serious threats to our security.

On both counts, we were wrong.

Given the rise of the threat of nuclear terrorism, we have had to adopt major new counter-proliferation measures, including protective measures such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and missile defenses. Deterrence obviously did not take care of itself.

According to national security policy statements from the administration, our most serious worry today is that a rogue terror-master state, in affiliation with a terror group, will detonate a nuclear weapon on or above American soil. Dozens of new policies have been adopted to deal with such threats, including a global lockdown of nuclear material, a nuclear forensics capability, sanctions and divestment strategies against Iran and North Korea [to various effects], as well as missile defense and a revised nuclear deterrent capability.

This is all necessary because there are worrisome trends. Russia and China are both undergoing massive nuclear modernization, at a pace vastly exceeding that of the United States. At the same time North Korea and Iran loom on the horizon as growing nuclear dangers.

History is littered with the bodies of the innocent whose leaders failed to protect them because it seemed politically unpopular, or ran against the conventional wisdom. Winston Churchill argued that Britain and the allies needed to arm themselves against the rising power of Nazi Germany. Hitler saw the relative weakness of the allied forces as a green light to commit one aggression after another.

In 1950, President Harry Truman pleaded with Congress for an aid package for the Republic of Korea. Unfortunately, his own administration was also downplaying the military threat from Pyongyang. Together both Truman and a Republican-controlled Congress failed to help our ally and in June 1950 the North Korean communists invaded. After we withdrew from Vietnam, we allowed our military to be hollowed out, and nearly two dozen nations fell to tyranny in the near-decade that followed.

Deterrence in the nuclear age must be rethought, argues Krause, especially now that the Cold War has been over for 20 years.

But we already have rethought deterrence.

We no longer have over 400 nuclear bombers, 1,000 land-based missiles and over 60 nuclear armed submarines in our deterrent fleet. We no longer have 12,000 deployed nuclear weapons. We have reduced our strategic warheads by nearly 90%, and while we have kept as many platforms as possible for reasons of stability and balance, those now are fewer than 500 compared to over 1,500 at the height of the Cold War.

Since early in the Reagan administration, precisely to end the Cold War, we have emphasized stability; added layered and global missile defenses; cut our nuclear forces dramatically; and ended the conventional imbalance in Europe. As we cut down, we also modernized or built better. We kept our powder dry by remembering that while the Cold War was over, adversaries remained. As President Ronald Reagan once remarked, there was never an instance where the United States was attacked "because we were too strong."

The Cold War ended -- on our terms. Liberty and freedom won, but only because we were strong. The threats, however, did not disappear.

In just the past four years, Russia has threatened the use of nuclear weapons against U.S. allies, and implicitly against the United States, over a dozen times.

China, North Korea, and Pakistan are enhancing and modernizing their nuclear forces; Peking is building more kinds of ballistic missiles than anyone around the globe.

On top of which, although regulated by the New Start Treaty, Russia is building new submarines and submarine-launched missiles; also new land-based missiles, both mobile and fixed, and a new cruise missile for its bomber fleet.

During this entire period, our nuclear modernization efforts have largely treaded water, and in some key areas been seriously delayed or reduced. So much for providing a "good example."

Iran seeks nuclear weapons and is being assisted by North Korea, China, and others.

It is a fairy tale to believe the mullahs in Iran calibrate their nuclear weapons program according to indices of U.S. restraint.

In short, as a former SAC commander and USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch recently explained to a Congressional audience, the relatively cheap cost of providing a nuclear deterrent for the United States and nearly three dozen of its allies "is a great bargain" -- and that, in providing for this protection, we keep at bay the very proliferation that our strongest critics say is their biggest concern.

Our nuclear umbrella and our extended deterrent over our NATO and East Asian allies assure them they do not need to build a nuclear weapons deterrent, because, after all, those Americans, old fashioned as they are, still cling to that 1789 document, the birth of which we just celebrated, that calls upon us "to provide for the common defense."

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