More Than Numbers: Nuclear Weapons Reductions And The Strategy Of Diversity

In the Washington discussion over the future of our nuclear deterrent the arguments continue to emphasize that it is better to have fewer warheads in our force than what we have today.

But according to the negotiating expert that secured great reductions in Russian nuclear weapons, numbers alone do not tell us whether the U.S. is more secure today than a decade ago, or during the height of the Cold War when we had thousands of more weapons.

In fact, concentrating on the numbers alone harms our security and is looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope says

Ambassador Ron Lehman who spoke June 17 at a Hill seminar sponsored by the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association.

As a former arms control expert who negotiated nuclear arms deals with the Soviet Union, Lehman thinks the criteria for thinking about nuclear weapons and “How many are enough” has to be a balance between the strengths and weaknesses of each element of our nuclear forces and not just looking at whether we have more or less warheads in the “stockpile.”

He emphasized that any deterrent force must include an allowance for strategic surprises — think Sputnik — and counter-strategies — think Russian deployment of thousands of new missiles in Europe beginning in the late 1970’s. That requires a force that can be expanded if need be especially having a hedge capability to be able to add warheads and missiles should current arms control limits go away.

Currently the U.S. deterrent consists primarily of strategic bombers, land-based missiles in silos and submarines both in port and at sea. Each element has real advantages but also weaknesses, emphasizes Lehman.  

Our bombers, for example, are very flexible in that they can be operated at various tempos depending on the seriousness of the geostrategic environment. They can be used to “signal” intent by putting them aloft without having to make an irrevocable decision to use them.

And their relative slow speed compared to ballistic missiles means their sudden or surprise use is not in the cards. And they can go after mobile or relocatable targets which missiles cannot.

On the other hand, bombers currently operate at low alert rates and can be susceptible to advanced air defenses. We also only now have 20 advanced systems, (the B2 bomber), while forward deploying such systems does raise political questions in host countries.

ICBMs or land based missiles are low cost and have a flexible targeting capability. With one warhead the U.S. Minuteman missiles are not an attractive target as the bad guys have to use two of their warheads to destroy one of our ICBMs in their hardened silos.

And being sovereign based in the United States, an adversary striking any of the 400 silos would be attacking the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, an escalation unlikely in a crisis in that all such silos cannot be simultaneously attacked without engendering a massive retaliatory strike. As the missiles are spread out over 5 states and thousands of square miles, the missile silos simply won’t be attacked under any plausible scenario.

However, each silo could be vulnerable to attack. Missiles also are what are known as “fast flyers.” They cannot be recalled — as one USAF Colonel remarked to 60 Minutes, “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.” And if desired, making such systems mobile and more survivable is both expensive and politically difficult because no one wants them in their backward.

As for our submarines, they are highly survivable when at sea. And not being sovereign based, they are not aim points in a conflict. They can be relocated and can be on patrol continuously. And they are a secure, reserve, retaliatory strike weapon and therefore they provide great strategic stability — a U.S. president need not respond rashly in a crisis to an adversary’s threats.

But the submarines in port may invite attack — including with conventional weapons — as they are a lucrative, soft target. The submarine force is also on a relatively low alert rate, and thus the submarine force as deployed is relatively expensive.

Now the U.S. also has additional nuclear weapons carried by dual use aircraft based in Europe. They are valued strongly by our NATO allies for coupling our joint security. Such systems keep the barrier to the use of nuclear weapons by the bad guys higher than it would otherwise because such weapons give the U.S. greater options and flexibility in dealing with aggression. The dual-use of the aircraft reduces the cost of such systems in providing regional deterrence. But such aircraft have limited reach without bases or platforms overseas, they are relatively slow, and also have low alert rates.

When looked at in total, the U.S. deterrent force has many multiple strengths but also weaknesses. No one system can provide all the deterrent capabilities we require.

Together, however, strategic surprise can be overcome and counter-strategies deterred because the flexible multi-faceted deterrent we are modernizing gives us time to respond to such developments and still “provide for the common defense.”