OPINION: Making It Easy To Disarm The United States

Peter Huessy | Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies, Mitchell Institute on Aerospace Studies

Bruce Blair of Global Zero proposes in a new study released last Tuesday that the United States unilaterally eliminate all our land-based missiles and build only five new submarines, as opposed to the 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines we have now deployed in the U.S. Navy nuclear missile fleet.

And only two submarines would be operational at sea at any one time compared to the five-to-seven submarines we have today. Such a small force would make up the entire deterrent inventory of nuclear-armed platforms and missiles for the United States (although Blair suggests that some bombers be kept in reserve but not active and available every day to deter).

This would put all our day-to-day nuclear deterrent eggs in two small baskets: two submarines day-to-day at sea and with a retaliatory deterrent force of 10 percent of the current strategic Russian nuclear forces and some 40 percent of the current Chinese nuclear force.

The nuclear force, as Blair proposes, would yield only at most four distinct American nuclear assets — one submarine base, two submarines at sea, and one bomber base. Take out these four assets, and the United States could soon be out of the nuclear business!

Here is why. Now today, we have 509 nuclear assets, including 14 submarines, of which 5–7 are at sea at any one time; 400 land-based missiles plus 50 silos in reserve spread over five states, along with 45 missile launch control facilities plus three strategic bomber bases.

Blair’s strange idea of improving our security is to make it by a factor of 127 easier to disarm the United States in the future compared to today.

How do we get that number? Well, reducing our nuclear assets from 509 to 4 is a 99-percent cut and smaller by a factor of 127.

Now the planned replacement forces would begin to be deployed in 2027 with the first new B-21 number. Then the GBSD/ or new land-based missiles would be deployed starting in 2029. Finally, the new Columbia-class submarines would come into the fleet in 2031.

But without these replacements and more capable deterrent weapons, our current aging forces obviously would rust to obsolescence and put the United States out of the nuclear business.

As noted, all United States nuclear forces, except two submarines at sea, would be soft targets able to be destroyed by a very limited number of weapons detonated on our bomber and submarine bases.

For this catastrophe to take hold requires only that sometime over the lifetime of our submarine forces — 70 years — the oceans become transparent and the current force of 100 Chinese and Russian attack submarines find our two submarines at sea.

Blair gets to his preferred force structure through a massive flaw in logic, long the hallmark of critics of U.S. nuclear deterrent policy. His major error is the totally false dichotomy he asserts between a policy of “deterrence” which he favors and a policy of “warfighting,” which he opposes.

The former he thinks requires roughly 160 deployed missile warheads available for retaliation while the latter requires upwards of 1550 warheads, the current deployed United States inventory under the 2010 New Start nuclear treaty with Russia.

The startling ignorance in such an assertion is remarkable. Retaliating against Russia, for example, with 160 warheads — Blair’s preferred retaliatory deterrent force structure — is hardly going to considered by Moscow as anything less than war-fighting even if what we primarily attack are Russian cities.

Hit any county with a nuclear warhead, and they aren’t going to turn the other cheek!

But, on the other hand, limiting our entire retaliatory capability to less than 200 warheads means we cannot simultaneously deter Russia, China and North Korea, among our most serious adversaries, which results certainly in a major deterioration of the credibility of our extended nuclear deterrent with our Asian and European allies.

Blair echoes a particular blindness that is common among liberal critics of current U.S. deterrent policy that goes beyond just numbers of deployed warheads. In Blair’s view, a deterrent policy that contemplates striking back —  retaliating — by destroying Russian nuclear forces is really a ruse.

In this view, U.S. nuclear policy is actually a secret plan that should conventional war break out, we would with our nuclear weapons strike first against all Russian nuclear targets-including their submarine and bomber bases and land-based missile silos and depots.

This is why he and nuclear disarmers, for many decades, repeatedly call for the United States to abandon any policy to use nuclear weapons first, even if in retaliation to a major cyber, EMP, chemical or biological attack on the United States.

Blair also argues, absurdly, that if you are going to go second-launch only after an attack, you need only launch at the adversary’s cities because all their nuclear assets will have been launched at us in the first place. City busting in this view requires (relatively) few warheads and thus we don’t need very many to do the job in the first place.

To come to this conclusion, Blair also must mistakenly assume that the only kind of nuclear attack Russia or other adversaries might launch at the United States is an all-out attack using all their nuclear assets.

A common assumption is that Russia would first attack all of our 450 Minuteman missile assets because they all sit in silos with known or fixed locations.

In this way, Blair can assert that our Minuteman missiles in order to be used against the Russian missile silos would have to be launched first to have any Russian fixed targets to hit. Otherwise, the Russian silos and garrisons would be empty, so he assumes.

The fallacy is that Russia has multiple other options if they decide to use nuclear weapons against us. Putin himself announced in April 2000 that Russian strategy was to use a very limited number of nuclear weapons against key regional United States or allied military assets.

In this scenario, Minuteman land-based missiles would be 100-percent available for retaliation. In fact, any scenario other than an all-out Russian attack on U.S. land-based missiles would leave American missiles available for retaliatory use.

So, there is no “use ’em or lose ’em” danger, no hair-trigger nature of our land-based forces in the face of potential Russians attacks.

In fact, it makes zero sense for the Russians even to contemplate attacking our land-based missiles, because any such attack would engender a massive U.S. response from our five–seven submarines at sea with 700+ warheads and/or additional bomber weapons launched from those aircraft still aloft, and those land-based missile that survive a Russian first strike.

Much of Blair’s antipathy to the American land-based missiles and nuclear weapons in general stems from Blair’s repeated assertion that, as an Air Force launch control officer, he could launch all 1054 land-based missiles in the U.S. arsenal all by himself.

This he wrote gave him nightmares and led him to believe we had to get rid of such missiles to avoid any such launch possibilities.

In reality, our land- and sea-based missiles have been cumulatively on alert since 1958/1962, some 70 million minutes of effective deterrence, but consequently never having been ordered to be launched by the President.

There is a reason for this.

In fact, without a direct presidential authenticated order, no land or sea-based missiles can be launched. If two launch officers initiate launch actions without authorization, other launch control officers in other launch control centers can override any unauthorized launch actions. No launch control officers on their own authority can launch these missiles.

Even worse, Blair and others, including Governor Brown of California, wrote in a public letter a few months ago that the United States should not respond to a limited nuclear attack with a similarly limited retaliatory attack of our own because no one could control such an escalation.

The letter asserted the most plausible outcome of even a small-scale initial use of nuclear weapons was a subsequent all-out Armageddon exchange where both nations lay in ruins.

So, if the United States is not meant to retaliate with our own nuclear arsenal to a nuclear first strike against us, what use then is our nuclear deterrent in the first place? Is not such a policy an open invitation to an adversary to use nuclear weapons against us as we would not respond effectively?

Blair and the children of the Soviet nuclear freeze ideas tried this year to eliminate low yield nuclear weapons from the defense budget request. These are precisely the kind of deterrent weapons we need to deter in a timely manner Russian nuclear threats.

The opponents of such deterrent forces failed for all of 2018 to receive an up and down vote on the merits of the idea on the floor of either the House or the Senate. Obviously, few members of the Congress thought such ideas had any merit.

Blair and his colleagues also tried to kill the land-based ICBMs and the Long-Range Stroke Option, or cruise missile for the bombers.

They didn’t come close. Congress found both programs were ahead of schedule and under budget and thus awarded the USAF programs with additional funds for a modest program acceleration.

Now with elections on the horizon, Blair puts forward a dangerous policy prescription for the United States which would accelerate instabilities, open the United States to attack, and fundamentally weaken our deterrent umbrella over our allies.

Congress rejected such ideas already this year. Let us hope this new sleight of hand and strategic fairy tale gets rejected as well by the American voters.

Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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