Why The U.S. Still Needs Its Nuclear Weapons

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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When Churchill warned in 1936 that Germany was planning war against all of Europe the popular response at the time was largely to dismiss such fears as warmongering. From his backbench he warned “Germany is arming, she is rapidly arming.” He further explained the “Peril is not a peril from which one can fly. It is necessary to face it where we stand. We cannot possibly retreat.”

Is this history relevant to today’s fight over the looming Iranian nuclear agreement?

In the current environment, we are being told to approve the agreement reached at the United Nations Security Council on Iran’s nuclear program because the only alternative will be war.

In the first instance, the eventual British Prime Minister was pleading with his countrymen to arm sufficiently to prevent war.

In the second instance the American President is pleading with his countrymen to approve a deal that disarms Iran sufficiently to prevent war.

Britain, the rest of Europe and the United States largely ignored Churchill’s plea while pretending peace could be bought on the cheap.

Today, the world is paying close attention and worried the wrong decision may plunge the Middle East into war. Ironically, both supporters and opponents of the nuclear agreement are warning of potential conflict but from decidedly different perspectives.

For many analysts, terrorists are simply trying to redress grievances.

For Iran, this means paying back the “great arrogance” (what they call the USA).

Iran is seeking payback we are told for the U.S.: (1) supporting a coup in Iran in 1953; (2) supporting the Shah for many decades; (3) not helping Iran in the war with Iraq from 1978-89; (4) shooting down an Iranian commercial passenger plane in 1987; (5) imposing over three decades of sanctions against Iran; (6) failing to bring about a Palestinian state; and (7) having an excessive deference to Israel’s alleged security needs.

As former President Clinton said just a year ago, most terrorism in the world would go away if the U.S. just leaned hard on Israel to create a Palestinian state — precisely one of Iran’s apparent grievances.

For others, Iran’s grievances are not the key. Yes, they fuel Iranian rhetoric and persuade even some Americans who take the grievances rhetoric seriously. But something much bigger and more important is taking place.

Terrorist sponsoring states and their accomplices are seeking to redraw the rules of the post World War II era. This involves much more than reforming the IMF or the World Bank. It involves a fundamental shift in how the world works. And it’s serious. And if successful, it will redraw the political and economic map of the world and turn our future over to a band of dangerous thugs, dictators, jihadis and terrorist murderers.

After the end of the Cold War it was widely assumed the threats to world order, and most notably threats that were totalitarian in nature, were largely a thing of the past. The “end of history” was widely proclaimed and with it the possibility of significantly cutting down free world military forces and cashing in peace dividends.

But other gathering forces were not buying the idea. Late in the decade when the Cold War ended, Russia placed in power a former KGB agent intent upon recreating a new Russian empire. The tools to do this are three: a monopoly over regional gas and oil resources as the hegemonic lever to coerce other states; a heavily modernized nuclear force of both deployed strategic and tactical nuclear weapons that are double the level of the United States; and the use of special operations forces for subversion and terror.

China too has adopted a military buildup, including top generation warships and fighter aircraft as well as nuclear armed missiles, submarines and highly capable  aircraft. It has also illegally seized territory throughout the South China Sea as well as building up artificial islands from which to project military power. It is allied with rogue states everywhere. China wants to redraw the rules in its favor of sea-going commerce, investment and trade. And help arm its proxy friends while subverting American interests.

On top of that the state accomplices of Russia and China such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, and associated terror groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda, are all contributing to the arming of each other and expanding their military capabilities. In the case of three nations building, developing or previously seeking nuclear weapons (Iran, North Korea and Syria).

Russia and China have both announced they will be selling Iran advanced military equipment, including fighter aircraft as soon as the conventional arms embargo is lifted on Iran as required by the new agreement on Tehran’s nuclear activity.

As Peter Singer explores in a new book, Russia and China and their allies are preparing for future conflict across the entire spectrum, including using cyber, space and financial attacks. Similarly, Vox’s Max Fisher has noted, “Putin, warning repeatedly that he would use nuclear weapons in a conflict, began forward-deploying nuclear-capable missiles and bombers,” and warns that World War III is now thinkable.

If the nations of the world are drifting toward conflict, it would seem to be of the utmost importance that we make sure at the very least that any conflict remains at the lowest level possible and not expand to the use of nuclear weapons

In this respect, modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent would appear to be a high priority, even if, as Frank Miller noted in a recent address to the Baltimore Council  of Foreign Affairs, nuclear weapons were never developed nor fielded to stop terrorism, conduct low level counter insurgencies, or wage cyber warfare. But things can escalate.

Nuclear weapons were deployed and remained deployed in such a manner by the United States to make sure nuclear weapons of any kind are never used, especially by the heavily armed countries that are adversaries of the United States, such as Russia and China. As Admiral Connor noted recently since the dawn of the nuclear age the casualties from war have dropped precipitously and great power war has been prevented.

A coincidence?

Whatever one believes, the fight over nuclear modernization must be taken seriously.

PBS recently broadcast a series of television reports on the sea based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.

An Al Jazeera journalist, former Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, was featured in the series complaining that the modernization plans for the submarine leg of the U.S. nuclear Triad, known as the Ohio Replacement Program, were vastly too expensive and not really necessary as well.

McIntyre warmly interviewed one analyst who called for the U.S. to build as few as four submarines to replace the fourteen currently in the fleet while also eliminating  our entire land based ICBM missiles and nuclear bomber capability.

The Ploughshares head who advocated this, Joe Cirincione, said the four submarines could each carry 16 missiles and five warheads per missile for total of 320 warheads.

However, as few as two submarines would remain available for retaliatory deterrence with such a deployment, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic. All of 160 warheads, fewer than those deployed by China and 90 percent less than Russia.

Even worse, from these positions the U.S. would be unable to target a very large percentage of the Russian and Chinese military assets we need to hold at risk to maintain deterrence.

We would also be giving the Russians and the Chinese and their allies a very small target set — four submarines, two in port and two at sea — and ample opportunity to put the USA out of the nuclear business. These four targets if eliminated would erase the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

In short the U.S. would go from a nuclear deterrent force of over 500 nuclear assets today, which are highly survivable, to less than a handful that would be highly vulnerable. From five hundred to less than five. A reduction of 99 percent.

Should we worry?

During the height of the Cold War, it was a top concern of U.S. military planners that with 13,000 Soviet nuclear warheads the Soviets might in a crisis try a “first strike” against the U.S. to eliminate as much of the U.S. nuclear arsenal of submarines, land based missiles and bombers as possible and subsequently blackmail an American President to “stand down”.

That is why for over 60 years the U.S. has maintained a nuclear Triad of all three legs of the nuclear forces. Impossible to take out in a first strike, a U.S. secure second strike retaliatory capability remained available with such devastating capability that it has kept the nuclear peace for over half a century.

That is why the U.S. took this problem seriously throughout the nuclear age. We wanted to avoid the potential dilemma that, in a crisis, an American president, worried about the survivability of our own nuclear forces, would be forced to launch our strike “promptly” shortly after or even before a Soviet or Russian launch. Use ’em or lose ’em was a problem often discussed by American nuclear planners. This potential instability was a huge concern in the 1970’s and 1980’s at the height of the Cold War.

Now the head of Ploughshares admits in the PBS show that we have so many land based missiles the Russians would be crazy to initiate a first strike. But incongruously, he then recommends in the very next sentence that we get rid of the very 450 land based missiles that prevent a Russian first strike. And further recommends instead we rely upon as few as four submarines for our entire nuclear deterrent.

But then comes the real surprise.

While indeed a force of two survivable submarines would be vastly inadequate to keep the deterrent peace, McIntyre and PBS wonder what would be the point of responding to a Russian first strike attack at all. After all they argue, a Russian first strike would blow the world up so what would be the point of an American response? As McIntyre says American nuclear weapons “would only be used if a war were essentially already lost.”

So there you have it. From worries about “prompt launch,” to a multiple decade strategy of having a “secure retaliatory launch,” we are now urged to adopt “no launch.”

There is another term for this.