OPINION: Is The United States’ Nuclear Capability Safe From Other Nuclear Powers?

(Air Force/Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/Handout via Reuters)

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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It is widely assumed that U.S. nuclear capability cannot be destroyed except by another nuclear power with enough ballistic missile warheads to take out all our land-based missiles, our submarine and bomber bases, as well as finding our submarines at sea — simultaneously.

For the entirety of the 70 years of the Cold War, and especially since 1962 when we first deployed a Triad of bombers, submarines and solid-fueled land-based missiles, that task has been impossible for any adversary to accomplish. Thus, deterrence had held perfectly.

The U.S. nuclear forces consist of submarines (known as “boomers”) in two ports and those continuously at sea. Of our 14 submarines, roughly four-to-six are at sea at any one time and are highly survivable. In addition, we have 400 Minuteman missiles in hardened silos in five western states including Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, disbursed over thousands of square miles.

The reason these missiles have historically been deployed in this manner is simple: no American president would not retaliate if hundreds of enemy warheads struck these missile silos in the heartland of America. We deployed these silos in exactly this way for exactly that reason. Any enemy attack would be met with a devastating response.

But it is still important to also knock down the dizzy argument that the very presence of such silos is dangerous to our security as a number of often amateur analysts have claimed.

True, the silos could be destroyed by a direct hit by an incoming nuclear warhead, but the accuracy required in such a strike means to accomplish the task with any reasonable chance of success an adversary needs to use two warheads against every missile silo and launch control center, just for insurance.

The number of missiles warheads to (hypothetically) accomplish the task would number close to 1000, which exceeds the number of missile warheads the Russians, (or the Chinese if we assume they have such a large arsenal which most observers believe they do not), have on alert, ready to go at any one time.

This is very important: If the Russians wanted to attack the United States missile fields with that number of warheads, they would have to put their missiles on higher alert than they do today. This means putting their submarines to sea from port, moving their mobile missiles out of garrison and placing more of their bombers airborne.

Our early warning satellites would see this action. We could then take compensating action by putting more of our submarines at sea or putting our bombers in the air to protect them as well.

Due to their vast umber — 400 — our Minuteman land-based missiles thus act as the canary in the coal mine. They require an adversary contemplating an attack on our nuclear forces to let us know beforehand by putting their own forces on higher alert.

One advantage, therefore, of reducing nuclear forces through arms control — what Reagan pursued in contrast to the previous efforts that simply rubber-stamped planned buildups by Moscow and Washington — has been to eliminate the vast arsenal of the Soviet Union which at one time consisted of over 13000 deployed nuclear warheads, most of which were probably aimed at the United States.

With 1550 countable warheads now allowed under the 2010 New Start Treaty, using roughly 1000 of these warheads in a first strike against the United States has to come with a warning.

The final part of our nuclear forces consists of three bomber bases where B-52 and B2 bombers are deployed.

During most of the Cold War, these bombers were “on alert,” ready to get airborne as soon as the president so ordered, where they could await further orders but also signal our adversaries that we meant business. This helped ensure the bomber bases would not be destroyed in a sudden or bolt out of the blue attack by a nuclear-armed adversary.

Today however since the end of the Cold War, these bombers are not on alert, their nuclear weapons are stored elsewhere, and it would take a considerable period of time to make them ready to be launched from their air bases toward any adversary targets.

As the former Commander of United States Strategic Forces Robert Kehler as explained, the bombers today are not now ready to go, leaving the United States nuclear forces on a day to day basis limited to our land and submarine-based ballistic missiles.

But still, this American strategic nuclear force structure presents an insurmountable challenge to any adversary, especially 400 Minuteman missiles, because it is simply impossible to credibly threaten simultaneously to destroy all the force with the aim of disarming the United States.

Thus, throughout the history of the Cold War and the nuclear age, the United States has sought to deploy our forces in a survivable mode, as well as securing arms control agreements designed to lessen the threat to the United States and our allies by reducing warheads and channeling deployments into more stable areas.

Although the United States and Russia have reduced the strategic nuclear warheads in their respective nuclear forces from over 13,000 at the height of the cold war to 1550 accountable weapons today, a number of critics of our nuclear forces and advocates of disarmament have recently called for the unilateral elimination of all our 400 Minuteman missiles and their associated launch control centers, thus cutting another 400 warheads out of our nuclear arsenal.

Now, this at first blush sounds like a very strange idea but put enough lipstick on a pig and there may be people that will ask the animal out on a date.

This type of analysis commonly asserts that if the United States simply eliminates all its Minuteman silos, Russian would not in a crisis attack us with nuclear weapons, even though nearly a thousand remaining nuclear warheads would be sitting ducks at our two submarine and three bomber bases even after our Minuteman missiles were gone.

Under this very fuzzy deterrent idea, if the United States simply gets rid of our ICBM targets” (400-450 silos spread around 5 states), then, of course, we won’t be attacked by the Russians.

I guess if we had never built a Navy and placed many of the ships at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese would not have attacked. How this differs from unilateral disarmament leading to surrender is not clear, but nonetheless, such ideas need to be knocked down.

One could reasonably ask why if our deployed Minuteman missiles would be attacked by the Russians, why would not our submarines and bombers “parked” on five unprotected bases in the United States also be destroyed? Should we get rid of those “targets” as well in the hopes that would make the Russians behave themselves and stand-down in a crisis?

A possible reply would be to assert — credibly — that our submarines at sea, of course, are still survivable and thus no attack on our submarine and bomber bases would be likely for fear such an attack would engender a devastating retaliatory strike by our submarines at sea.

But if that is true, which it is, the same can be said for keeping our ICBMs as they would be perfectly survivable because even in a crisis no likely attack would be forthcoming from our nuclear-armed adversaries.

But advocates of killing the ICBM leg of our Triad have not just failed elementary deterrent theory. In fact, the elimination of our Minuteman bases would actually be far worse in consequence than most assume.

Any military expert would understand that our bomber and submarine bases in the United States, (in North Dakota, Missouri, Louisiana, Washington and Georgia) could all be destroyed using conventionally armed cruise missiles launched, for example, from surreptitious submarines at sea.

But even if this is true, what about our submarines at sea? Certainly, they cannot be all destroyed and therefore enough of the submarines would survive any attack, be available for retaliation, thus leaving our deterrent credible.

But what if former senior defense department official Dr. Brad Roberts is right. In his book on nuclear deterrence he writes (p.269):

A decision to retire the land-based ICBMs … would also be placing a bet on the long-term survivability of the sea-based deterrent—a bet that the revolution in sensors and computing that have made fully transparent the surface of the earth and the air and space above it will not, over the multidecade life of the submarine force, have some similar impact there as well.

And as former Air Force Chief of Staff and Commander of the Strategic Air Command General Larry Welch has emphasized, should the seas become transparent, an adversary could certainly seek out and destroy our submarines at sea over time, to “attrite” the force to where the current survivability of our deterrent was placed in serious jeopardy.

The Chinese and Russians now have nearly 100 conventional attack submarines with which to hunt for our nuclear-armed boomers.

Now it is true that currently, our nuclear-armed submarines are secure when on patrol in the vast expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But what the opponents of our land-based missiles are now proposing is to enlarge dramatically our potential adversaries.

Instead of being challenged by Russia — the only country currently capable of the kind of attack, however foolish and irrational, that could disarm the United States nuclear capability — we would be opening the door to numerous conventionally armed adversaries tempted to strike the United States. Or vastly more nuclear peer powers ascending the world stage from which America could be coerced or blackmailed.

As former Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner told me many years ago, his biggest fear as Navy Secretary was getting a phone call from the Chief of Naval Operations informing the secretary that one of our boomers — our nuclear-armed submarines — did not come home as scheduled.

What advocates of unilaterally disarming the United States of its Minuteman ICBM force propose to do is to make John Warner’s fear a reality.

But instead of being attacked, as Senator Warner feared, by our prime nuclear adversary the Soviet Union, the unilateral disarmers would increase the odds dramatically that a conventional armed enemy could take out our nuclear deterrent.

Why would we dramatically expand the number of adversaries that, without ever using nuclear weapons and attacking us surreptitiously, could disarm the United States? Even as we dramatically reduce our nuclear assets from over 500 to less than ten.

Can anyone think of a dumber idea?

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.