• The entire purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter possible threats to the United States, especially the use of nuclear weapons against us by a major nuclear-armed state. They are primarily weapons of "war prevention" rather than "war fighting."

  • Destroying a mere 10 targets would be a far less daunting task than taking on the 567 American nuclear assets an adversary has to fear today. Why would anyone make it easier for our enemies to target U.S. nuclear forces? The Global Zero study even admitted this critical flaw. What assessment has been done by Global Zero to determine that the world is going to be a lot less dangerous then?

In the latest proposed defense budget, a preview of which had been discussed a day earlier by DOD leaders at the Pentagon, on February 26, 2014, Doyle McManus of the LA Times took Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to task for not slashing the funding for the US nuclear deterrent.

McManus concluded that U.S. nuclear deterrent forces can be dramatically curtailed through a series of sleight-of-hand moves mixed in with a mash of disarmament happy talk, including cooking the books on the relevant nuclear numbers based almost entirely on a 2012 report by an organization known as "Global Zero."

McManus began with the claim that, "Almost every expert on nuclear weapons agrees that the United States has a far larger nuclear force than it needs to deter attacks," including more warheads and platforms upon which the warheads are carried. He then reassures his readers that the U.S. has even more nuclear weapons than our main adversary Russia, so there apparently is nothing to worry about.

What are the facts?

It is true that Russia does not publish exact date on its nuclear forces. Two arms control experts, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explain "Russia does not disclose how many nuclear weapons it has....[we] use public statements made by Russian officials, newspaper articles, observations from commercial satellite images, private conversations with government officials, and analysis of Russian nuclear forces over many years to provide the best available unclassified estimate of Russian nuclear forces."[1]

With those caveats in mind, they place Russian nuclear warheads -- deployed on platforms, in reserve and awaiting dismantlement, at 7800 while U.S. warheads are estimated to be 7400.

While the U.S. and Russia both will deploy roughly an equal number of warheads on their long-range strategic systems as required by the New Start Treaty of 2010, Russia has a major advantage in smaller-yield nuclear weapons. These are generally thought to be mated to shorter-range delivery systems, often referred to as "tactical nuclear weapons" for which there are no arms control limits.

Even the current estimates of greater numbers of Russian tactical nuclear weapons assume we are not underestimating Moscow's nuclear stockpile which we did throughout the Cold War.[2]

This Russian advantage was highlighted in an essay by the former Commander of the US Strategic Command and the top military authority over America's nuclear deterrent, retired Admiral Richard Mies. In the Spring 2012 issue of Undersea Warfare Magazine, dedicated to the nuclear strategic deterrent mission[3], the retired admiral explained Russia's warhead advantage -- that could actually be as great as four to one -- by highlighting the US elimination of most of its tactical nuclear warheads and our countries lack of warhead production capacity, which contrasts sharply with Russia's many thousands of theater nuclear weapons it has kept in its stockpile and its robust warhead production capability.

Given current Russian aggression against Ukraine, and its massing of 20,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border,[4] the US-Russian nuclear balance may be a critical aspect of whether hostilities break out between Ukraine and Russia.

McManus however appears to make light of Russian nuclear modernization. He references comments from Brookings Institute arms control expert Steven Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, who explains away Russian nuclear weapons modernization as indicative only that "Putin needs the political support of the small towns in Russia that produce military equipment."

McManus also similarly leads us to believe that it is only members of the U.S. Congress "from missile states" who support the nuclear missiles making up our nuclear Triad for land, sea and air because they provide jobs in their states.

He does bow briefly in the direction of "fairness," with an aside that representatives in Congress "might" be motivated by "honest differences in strategy," but in his essay, that remark is the only indication that there might indeed be reasonable differences in strategy among Americans concerning their nuclear deterrent future.

As explained by leading nuclear expert Dr. Mark Schneider[5], Russia has adopted a nuclear weapons use doctrine that allows for the first use of nuclear weapons in local and regional wars not only in response to WMD attack but also in a conventional war. Schneider underscores that it was Putin who was directly responsible for this doctrine when he was National Security Council Secretary in the 1990s. He signed the policy into law as acting President of Russia in 2000.

This doctrine even goes so far as to view the first use of nuclear weapons in a crisis as a "de-escalation of a conflict." Additionally, Russia employs various types of nuclear attack threats as a means of intimidating its neighbors. Since 2007, there have been about 15 overt Russian nuclear targeting threats from senior officials, including four from Putin.

Then McManus, having assumed Russia has fewer nuclear warheads than America (highly certain a false assumption) and that Russian arms modernization is largely due to retail politics and not a hostile intent against the US or its allies (again a highly dubious assumption), endorses the Global Zero 2012 report.[6]

The report calls for cutting our deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 450-900 from our current deployed inventory of roughly1600 strategic weapons. It also simultaneously eliminates 95% of all our nuclear platforms (bombers, submarines and ICBMs) that carry our warheads, ending up with a nuclear force of eight submarines, zero ICBMs and a token (18-21) number of nuclear capable bombers compared to the current force of 567 ICBMs, submarine, launch control centers and bombers.

Does this study make any sense?

In more detail: at three recent Triad-related conferences in the past 18 months, top nuclear experts gathered in Washington, D.C., Minot, North Dakota and Kings Bay, Georgia to discuss the future of nuclear deterrence. They addressed a key issue of whether the United States should continue to support, modernize and deploy a Triad of nuclear forces -- submarines, land based missiles and strategic bombers.

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

Included in these meetings were the top officials in the USAF and Navy, as well as top civilian and military officials from the current and previous administrations. These included the past Chief of Staff of the USAF and Strategic Air Commander General Larry Welch and the then current commander of US Strategic Command General Robert Kehler.

At these three events, top American nuclear officials -- currently serving and retired -- all fully supported the nuclear Triad of missiles, bombers and submarines and the current plan to modernize and sustain the force into the future.[7]

Many arms control groups support the Triad as well. The Federation of Americans Scientists, the Stimson Center and the Arms Control Association, for example, all support the continued deployment of a strategic nuclear Triad including bombers, submarines and land-based missiles although at lower warhead levels than those allowed by the 2010 New Start Treaty.

Central to the Global Zero report's conclusions and endorsed by McManus is the false assumption that current American nuclear policy assumes our entire stockpile of weapons of nearly 5000 warheads is somehow "needed for deterrence" and is far more than is needed.

But the day-to-day deterrent force of the United States numbers around 2000, including theater or tactical nuclear weapons. Warheads in storage facilities or awaiting dismantlement -- which are included in the 5000 number -- are hardly available for either day-to-day deterrence or a possible future emergency build-up. Should the geostrategic landscape change for the worse, however, there are warheads in reserve for a build-up of U.S. forces. So there is no argument that 5000 warheads are now required for deterrence.

But having said that, the question remains: What number of nuclear warheads should the US maintain in its deterrent? For the past 70 years that has been based largely on a simple axiom: We wish to maintain a secure retaliatory capability so that should the U.S. be attacked first with nuclear weapons, our secure retaliatory capability is sufficient that it would be able completely to destroy any adversary and its military capability.

Not every American president would want to be forced to use nuclear weapons in a crisis; thus every American president has called for a capability to ensure we can retaliate -- go second -- in the use of such awesome weapons even if many of our own nuclear weapons are destroyed by an adversary hitting us first.

Not having to go first is what helps insure crisis stability. Therefore our deployed day-to-day in-the-field warhead numbers need to exceed those that would be available for retaliation, as some percentage of our force -- land based missiles in silos and submarines in port and bombers not on alert -- could be destroyed by an adversary in a first strike.

That secure retaliatory capability, however, is designed never actually to be used -- just to be demonstrated every day as indicative of America's resolve and capability. But even if designed never to be fired in anger, our nuclear arms have to possess a demonstrated capability to make sure that under any scenario, any nuclear-armed adversary will not be able to secure any advantage -- during a crisis or conventional conflict -- by striking us with nuclear weapons.

In support of its push to go to low levels of nuclear weapons, the Global Zero study makes the astounding claim that existing threats to the US such as terrorism "cannot be resolved by using our nuclear arsenal"[8], as if any American leader has ever thought nuclear weapons could solve geostrategic disputes. The entire purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter possible threats to the United States, especially the use of nuclear weapons against us by a major nuclear-armed state.

Nuclear weapons serve not only as a deterrent against major war, but also as a hedge against an uncertain future, a guarantee of our security commitments to our allies and friends, and a disincentive to those who would contemplate developing or otherwise acquiring their own nuclear weapons. They are primarily weapons of "war prevention" as opposed to "war fighting."

At the dawn of the nuclear age Frederick Dunn, Bernard Brodie, Arnold Wolfers, Percy Corbett and William T.R. Fox explained "Thus far [prior to 1945] the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its principal purpose must be to avert them."[9]

Here Global Zero makes the further mistake by asserting "the capacity to deliver 900 warheads would project a threat of draconian dimensions to any aggressor country,"[10] thus who could oppose their conclusion that 900 warheads is sufficient for deterrence purposes?

But remember the entire inventory of deployed warheads supported by Global Zero is 900 weapons. To deliver all these weapons against an enemy implies that the US would be going first in a crisis -- an event that has never been (to my knowledge) American policy, and to suggest it could be is a dramatic and highly destabilizing idea.[11]

While on the surface it appears 900 warheads would be available to use if we were attacked, that number is belied by the further proposal by Global Zero that half of these warheads would not be ready to be deployed but would be in storage.

On top of that, Global Zero then additionally proposes that the remaining 450 submarine missile warheads not in storage be taken off "alert" and not be able to be fired for 24-72 hours from when a threat emerges. This is tantamount to taking our entire nuclear deterrent and locking it away and eliminating it from any role in day to day deterrence.[12]

It is thus unclear from the Global Zero report whether -- because it would take so long to reconstitute the force from a de-alerted posture -- the U.S. would have any warheads in a day-to-day secure retaliatory force. Are we therefore going to trust that our adversaries will wait 24-72 hours prior to attacking us, or between attacks on us, knowing full well that we could not retaliate? Is this a new deterrent policy of "fair fight only"?

Worse, while we may de-alert, we could never be sure our adversaries had de-alerted: other countries' de-alerts are simply not verifiable by technical means such as satellites, which are all that is presently available to verify such activity apart from continuous intrusive on-site inspections which have never been agreed to by Russia for any previous arms agreement.

This leads to the possibility that in a crisis, each adversary would seek to put its missiles surreptitiously back on alert -- or never take them off alert in the first place -- and thereby be able to launch first, along with the great advantage a first launch would provide.

According to the Global Zero proposal, American submarine warheads would also have to be stored in secure areas on land; thus making them useless for day-to-day deterrence. Submarines, according to Global Zero, could be on ocean patrol without any warheads aboard.

Deterrence then would be reduced to one "big bluff," that assumed an adversary would wait days or weeks until the U.S. re-armed its submarines and placed them on patrol, from where they could resume their deterrent role. How is this an improvement in deterrent policy?

Finally, to get to a level of 900 deployed warheads, Global Zero makes the further proposal that all ICBMs, or land-based missiles, be eliminated. This move would lead to the situation where America has fewer than 10 discrete nuclear targets -- submarines at sea (4-6), submarines at our two ports in Washington and Georgia and one bomber base -- which if taken out would leave the U.S. without any nuclear capability.

Also, at some time in the future with all warheads stored on land or de-alerted, our entire submarine capability might be destroyed using non-nuclear cruise missiles against U.S. bases and ports and underwater torpedoes against U.S. submarines at sea.

Destroying a mere 10 targets would be a far less daunting task than taking on the 567 American nuclear assets an adversary has to fear today. These are made up of 12 submarines in port and at sea, some 40-60 B-52 and B2 bombers and 495 land based missiles silos and their launch control centers.

Why would anyone make it easier for our enemies to target U.S. nuclear forces and take America out of the nuclear business? 500 targets is indeed a formidable task to attack successfully. But fewer than 10? Why make attacking America inviting?

The Global Zero study even admitted this critical flaw. It acknowledged that if there were a future anti-submarine warfare [ASW] breakthrough capable of finding U.S. submarines at sea, the conclusions of the study that eliminating ICBMs is safe to do would have to be discarded.[13]

Thus McManus makes the potentially deadly mistake of assuming the nuclear deterrent Global Zero proposed now (no ICBMs) is somehow sufficient for the future when technology could make the U.S. submarine force vulnerable -- and at a time when it is difficult enough to determine what exactly the technological threats we face are, let alone the Chinese or Russian potential threats in 2030, 2040 or 2060, the very periods during which our planned future deterrent must do its job.

What assessment has been done by Global Zero to determine the world is going to be a lot less dangerous then, or that technology will not change our requirements? Or that a future ASW breakthrough is not in the cards? None that is in the report. Asserting the world is going to be safe does not make it so.

Not only U.S. security may be placed in jeopardy; at least 31 allied nations now depend upon America's nuclear umbrella. If they believe the U.S. is adopting rash proposals that would undermine our nuclear deterrent, there may well be enormous potential pressure on our allies to seek their own nuclear deterrent, thus contributing to increased WMD proliferation.[14]

While McManus tries to make it appear there is only one view of the future of nuclear deterrence, there is actually no uniform view among experts regarding the number of warheads, platforms or reserves the U.S. should maintain. There is, however, an overwhelmingly predominant view of American nuclear experts that a Triad of submarines, bombers and land-based missiles should be maintained, and that 1550 deployed warheads -- what we have now -- is a reasonable and sound number.

Finally, McManus attempts to seal his argument with the claim that the cost of modernizing the U.S. Triad nuclear deterrent will somehow "break the bank." He relies on Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, who says the U.S. cannot afford simultaneously to modernize all three legs of its Triad, the nuclear warhead and laboratory enterprise and the necessary command and control facilities.

But is this true?

McManus quotes a Congressional Budget Office [CBO] report that asserts that nuclear modernization efforts over the next decade would cost roughly $350 billion or $35 billion a year. And he concludes that is too much.

Unfortunately, the CBO report is based on seriously flawed assumptions, primarily because it can only reflect information that is fed to it, so if this information is faulty, the projected program cost will be faulty as well, as we have clearly seen with the contrast between the projected and real expenses of Obamacare.

The CBO projects, for example, that a new land based missile would cost $30-$50 billion more than the cost projected by a new February 4, 2014 RAND report. The CBO also includes all the new conventional bomber costs in these estimates, even though, as former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller explained, the cost of the added nuclear capability is only 3% of the bombers' cost.

The new bomber is going to be built for conventional or non-nuclear purposes regardless of whether it eventually becomes capable of carrying and delivering nuclear weapons. Logically then, one would count the cost of the new bomber not as a new cost to nuclear deterrence but part of the ongoing ordinary modernization of our non-nuclear bombers.[15]

The CBO added in both the cost of missile defense and some of the costs to stop proliferation -- and then, apparently arbitrarily, added yet another $60 billion in "inflation" costs over ten years. The projected costs of American missile defense programs are allocated at nearly 95% for defenses against non-nuclear-tipped missiles, and thus can hardly be accurately counted as a cost of nuclear deterrence. In addition, the projected "inflation" estimates of CBO are totally arbitrary and assume that current program estimates will only increase in the future although just recently joint US Navy and USAF missile work has cut new technology additions by 50%. In short both the missile defense costs and the inflation estimates can be reasonably removed from the CBO cost estimates for the future U.S. nuclear deterrent.

What then would a reasonable modernization and sustainment program cost? Over the next 10 years, this author's analysis concludes that the U.S. could reasonably spend somewhere between the current annual outlay ($21 billion) and the high CBO estimate ($35 billion). Simply taking out the excess missile defense, bomber, inflation and ICBM costs estimates from the CBO leaves one with an annual required nuclear deterrent modernization expenditure of roughly $27-30 billion annually, a modest increase from current expenditures.

As some other studies have shown, such an estimate is reasonable.[16] The annual costs for a fully modernized U.S. deterrent would probably peak at around $27-31billion a year for 3-4 years, and then decline. This was the projected cost laid out for future nuclear programs by the Department of Defense CAPE [Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation] in a study done precisely to estimate DOD and DOE nuclear deterrent costs.[17]

Nuclear deterrent costs now come to 3.7% of all defense spending, a sharp drop from nearly 18% at the end of the Cold War. By 2025, for example, a $27 billion annual modernization investment in our nuclear deterrent -- should we decide that is an appropriate investment -- would still be approximately only 4% of the projected defense budget, and less than half of 1% of the federal budget.

By comparison, we now spend $18 billion a year on job training programs which the GAO studied -- and for which it could not find any justification. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, there are fraudulent tax returns claiming at least $4.2 billion annually in child tax credits to illegal aliens each year.

The GAO also found that the U.S. government has 2100 data centers -- compared to 432 ten years ago -- across 24 federal agencies. It concludes that the U.S. could save $200 billion over the next decade just by consolidating them.[18]

Taken together the U.S. could take this money and pay the entire current strategic nuclear modernization plans of the United States twice over.

Summary

Deterrence requires a secure retaliatory capability, which only a Triad of nuclear forces can provide -- as has been true for the past 69 years. Lower levels of weapons, based on too few platforms, could lead to serious instabilities in a crisis where the temptation to use such weapons would increase.

In looking to the future, the threats the U.S. faces are many, extreme and dispersed. Some could erupt in superpower confrontation. To deter the use of nuclear arms, the U.S. should be totally secure in the knowledge that it could retaliate with a secure second strike.

President Reagan said early in his presidency that given the stakes involved, America's defenses needed a "significant margin of safety" to ensure no adversary armed with nuclear weapons attacked. Today, that margin requires a Triad of forces. And at half-a-percent to one percent of the federal budget, such nuclear safety is a bargain.[19]


[1] 2013 Status of World Nuclear Forces, Federation of American Scientists, 1725 DeSale Street, Washington, D.C. 20036.
[2] "Disinformation," Commentary, July 1982, by Edward Jay Epstein.
[3] "The Strategic Deterrence Mission: Ensuring a Strong Foundation for America's Security," by Admiral (ret.) Richard Mies, Undersea Warfare, Spring 2012, p.12.
[4] Fox News, Special Report by Brett Baier, Friday, March 21, 2014.
[5] Dr. Mark B. Schneider, Senior Analyst, National Institute for Public Policy June 20, 2012 Talking Points from Remarks made to an Air Force Association, National Defense Industrial Association and Reserve Officers Association Seminar.
[6] "Global Zero US Nuclear Policy Commission Report, 2012, Global Zero.
[7] See the transcripts of the remarks of the more than 35 experts that presented papers at the events.
[8] Op.cit. p.20.
[9] "The Absolute Weapon", New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1946, pp 21-107
[10] Op Cit, p.9
[11] Remarks by former USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, Kings Bay, Georgia, November 6, 2013.
[12] Global Zero US Nuclear Policy Commission Report, 2012, Global Zero, p. 14-16.
[13] Ibid, p.6.
[14] See for example, the remarks on June 11, 2013 by Senator Jon Kyl to the AFA-NDIA-ROA Congressional Seminar Series on Nuclear Deterrence, "The Enduring Requirements of US Strategic Security".
[15] Remarks by James Miller, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, "Nuclear Deterrence: New Guidance, Constant Commitment", Seminar Presentation to the AFA-NDIA and ROA, July 17, 2013.
[16] The Future of America's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent, by Evan Montgomery, CSBA Briefing at the Center for Strategic International Studies, December 5, 2013
[17] CAPE summary material provided in briefing by USAF General James Kowalski, Commander, US Global Strike Command, Minot, North Dakota, May 4, 2013.
[18] Government Waste by the Numbers, Fox News March 1, 2011.
[19] "A 21st Century & Affordable Nuclear Deterrent", Exchange Monitor Sixth Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, February 11-14, 2014.

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