Nuclear Weapons: Trust But Modernize

The United States is planning to modernize its nuclear deterrent over the next 25 years, an effort already two decades late in implementation. That delay, a procurement holiday, resulted in all elements of our nuclear enterprise—the warheads, the communications, the submarines, the land based missiles and the bombers and their associated cruise missiles–reaching the end of their service life nearly simultaneously.

The new modernization effort will thus take many years to complete and it is going to cost $27 billion this year. By the middle of the next decade probably $36 billion a year. In embarking on this effort, the new administration has said let’s have a “Nuclear Posture Review”, a review also done previously in 2010, 2003, and 1994.

Here is some advice for the review consisting of a  Baker’s Dozen of nuclear “facts” we first have to get right.

The nuclear Triad is not a jobs program. It is not an invention of the secret so-called “military industrial complex”. As General Bernard Schriever told me some 35 years ago, we first developed the early versions of both the sea and land based intercontinental ballistic missiles we have today in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Our very national survival was at stake. How did we know in advance both new missile types would work? No missile with a 2000 kilometer or more range had previously been deployed that could be fired from a submarine and no solid-fueled reliable land based missile based in the USA could yet reach the Soviet Union.

But we deployed Polaris submarines in 1959 and Minuteman missiles in 1962. Schriever helped direct both breakthrough technologies in record time. It was no conspiracy. It was actually a miracle.

We now know that nuclear deterrence—based on the Triad—works. It’s value should not be recklessly discarded or minimized. As former USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch explained in a 2015 speech “Nuclear deterrence has worked 100% of the time for 70+ years. It’s been perfect”. There is a reason he could say this. We got nuclear deterrence right.

Our nuclear armed missiles are also not on computer hair trigger alert. Just the opposite. As President Kennedy told the nation, our just deployed Minuteman missiles were his “ace in the hole” in preventing the Cuban missile crisis from ending up in doomsday. So stable have our nuclear missiles been, they have been on alert a collective 67 million minutes and never ordered to be launched by an American President.

So much for being in danger of being launched “accidentally” or on “hair trigger.”

The Non Proliferation Treaty or the NPT does not require us to get rid of our nuclear weapons. It was signed in 1969 when we were facing a huge Soviet advantage in conventional weaponry across all of Central Europe. NATO’s saving grace was America’s nuclear forces which deterred a Soviet attack. Whose idea is it that both Lyndon Johnson who negotiated the treaty and Richard Nixon who saw it enter into force, actually favored giving up the key nuclear deterrent that was then keeping the peace, in the absence of a major change in the conventional balance.

Unilateral restraint doesn’t make the world safer. It invites belief in “geostrategic fairy tales”—the bad guys will reform if we are nice to them. In the nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War, we unilaterally cut nuclear spending by 2/3rds, and dismantled thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. The Russians? They said thanks but no thanks, refusing in 2000 to agree to START II—that treaty would have  reduced nuclear weapons by 60% and banned bad boy Russian multi-warhead land based missiles. When in 2001 we began to modernize our nuclear forces, move forward on missile defenses and jettison the ABM Treaty, remarkably Russia then agreed to the Moscow treaty and a near 70% mutual cut in deployed strategic warheads, a record reduction.

President Reagan’s admonition was right: “Trust but verify”. We and the Soviets, then the Russians, signed the INF, Start I, Moscow and New Start agreements. We mutually, not unilaterally, cut together our deployed strategic nuclear warheads by 23,000 or roughly by 90%, in reciprocal treaties unique in world history.

Some people think we should relax, there is no danger. They claim our modernization just occurs in longer cycles than the Russians. In short, we didn’t really delay our new systems, they just take longer to build. What are the facts? The two American nuclear modernization periods began in earnest in 1958 and 1981, respectively, and the last modernization under Reagan only went forward after a prior decade of neglect. Any additional delay would undermine our security, says Admiral Haley, the just recently retired head of the US Strategic Command.

Our next new ICBM missile, or SLBM carrying submarine or nuclear capable bomber will not go into the force until 2027 at the earliest, 46 years after the last modernization and double the time between the past two modernized periods. While Russia (and China) are marching forward, we have been on an extended nuclear procurement holiday.

Now, does parity matter? Is it alright if the US nuclear deterrent is not as capable as that of our adversaries?

Every American President has said we have to have a capable nuclear deterrent second to none. But when the Trump administration said we should continue to maintain our nuclear deterrent in that same condition—“second to none”, why were critics so harsh in their reaction? Is there something wrong with being “top of the heap” or “second to none”?

What about the cost of such an arsenal? Well, the modernization of our nuclear deterrent is also a bargain. It is not “unaffordable”.

Current costs are $27 billion a year for the entire nuclear enterprise, or 4% of the defense budget. To modernize over the next decade, peak spending would go up to $36 billion a year, perhaps higher. But every American would have to pitch in only an extra $28 a year. That is less than we spend going to the movies.

By comparison, and contrary to popular belief, it may be Russia and China spend more on nukes than we do. We are doing a new study that will give us a final numbers.

We don’t have too many deployed warheads. We have what are needed to deter. At current numbers, we need to, at a minimum, fully modernize our forces. At lower numbers we would have to get Russia to follow along, and bring China’s totally opaque nuclear arsenal under arms control limits as well. Not going to happen soon.

The New Start treaty is both good and bad. Yes it gives us stability over time as Russian nuclear weapons remain constrained. However, the treaty did not preclude massive future pathways for Russian expansion of its nuclear arsenal, and in that respect it was a bad deal. And unfortunately it did not ban multiple warhead land based missiles, which dominate the Russia force.

What does all this mean?

Simple: the nuclear modernization program of record—12 submarines, 400 GBSD missiles, 100+ new bombers, warhead production improved and streamlined, and command and control redone—is the right way forward. So to paraphrase President Reagan, yes we can trust our deterrent will work. But only if we “Trust but modernize”.

We have to remember: between 1914-1945, conventional wars killed 3% of the world’s population each year. After seventy years of the nuclear age, deterrence dropped that number to 0.1% of the world’s population on average each year.

[This essay is a modified version of remarks made at the Exchange Monitor Nuclear Summit, March 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C.]