Huessy: Deterring Conflict Requires A Modernized American Nuclear Force

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Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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A recurring idea among opponents of America’s nuclear plans is that a robust force is unnecessary to deter our enemies.

The incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee recently echoed this claim, arguing for the United States to adopt the current nuclear strategy and force structure of the People’s Republic of China, one of our key nuclear adversaries.

As the congressman explained, the resultant American nuclear force structure may end up with only 300 warheads, some 80-percent less than we are allowed under the 2010 New Start treaty (although China’s secrecy and nuclear buildup make it hard to know the real Chinese numbers).

The disarmament community here in the United States is also pushing such a minimum deterrent. What would it do to the U.S. nuclear force structure? It would eliminate the entirety of our 400 land-based missiles, kill our nuclear-capable bombers, and leave us 6 or fewer submarines vs the 12 planned. In short, we would be left with only two submarines at sea, and with the remaining subs at our two submarine bases.

Adding two key leadership targets in Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; and the entire nuclear deterrent force of the United States would only consist of six assets, facing roughly at a minimum 3000 Russian and Chinese nuclear warheads and close to 100 attack submarines.

Talk about inviting an attack!

For some reason, 50 years of U.S. negotiating strategy on nuclear weapons emphasizing the need to maintain a U.S. nuclear force “second to none,” or at least at parity with our nuclear enemies is being thrown overboard.

We would also be massively and unilaterally reducing while at the same time the Russians are widely seen as violating the 1987 INF treaty on intermediate nuclear forces, one of only two current treaties between the United States and Russia that constrain nuclear weapons.

So, where did this idea for minimal deterrence come from? The disarmament community has long argued that U.S. nuclear forces — bombers, then submarines and then land-based missiles — were built so the Navy could compete with the Airforce and also to make more money for the defense industry.

A connected argument has been that the military bureaucracy and industry invented a new nuclear strategy to require more weapons for precisely these two reasons.

Let me explain.

During the early part of the nuclear era, for example, our strategy was to retaliate against the Soviets if they attacked the United States with either conventional forces (through the Fulda Gap in Germany) or nuclear weapons (missiles landing in New York) by destroying many of the Soviets’ most important cities and industry. We called in massive retaliation.

This would not require accurate weapons, but still, our nuclear bomber arsenal reached many thousands of gravity bombs as that was the only force we had available.

And although we had hundreds of such B52 airplanes, our nuclear bombs were stored in as few as 14 bunkers or depots, which worried U.S. government officials whether the Soviets might attack just those 14 bunkers to try and disarm the United States.

With the advent of the 1957 Soviet Sputnik satellite launch, the fear of U.S. vulnerability and the threat of Soviet satellites dropping nuclear warheads on the United States pushed the Eisenhower administration to develop — against most professional assurances it was not possible — both submarine-launched and land-based ballistic missiles as deterrent insurance.

The Polaris submarines were first deployed in January 1960 with 16 single warhead missiles and American land-based Minuteman missiles were first deployed in October 1962 at the very beginning of the Cuban missile crisis.

Here, the history gets interesting. The Kennedy administration thought the sole retaliatory threat of massive “city busting” was simply not credible.

Kennedy began a policy of flexible response, meaning the United States (instead of blowing away Soviet cities) would actually seek to target in retaliation a more limited target base including Soviet nuclear assets such as bomber bases, submarine pens and land-based silos.

To the disarmament community, this strategy was just a clever way to add Soviet targets to the planned U.S. retaliation. This, in turn, would justify adding more warheads and the two sides — described by one official as “apes on a treadmill” — would build and build into a nuclear arms race.

But President Reagan changed all that. America reduced our land-based missiles, our bomber bases and submarines dramatically, as did the Soviets and then the Russians, even as America adopted a deterrent modernization strategy of holding Soviet and then Russian military assets at risk and not cities. Reagan built a better deterrent but proposed to cut its size dramatically.

After over 30 years of cuts, over 10,000 strategic long-range systems alone have been cut to 1,550 allowed under the 2010 New Start treaty. Land-based missiles are now 400, not 1,050; our submarines are planned at 12, not 60; and our bombers will be 60 nuclear-capable aircraft at three bases, not multiple hundreds of such planes at dozens of military bases.

By contrast, the disarmament folks wanted to freeze nuclear forces in 1981 at over 10,000 warheads and opposed President Reagan’s plan to zero out all INF Soviet SS-20 missiles. They ridiculed proposals to drastically cut strategic nuclear weapons down to the low thousands, roughly 6000 under START I and 3500 under the START II treaty.

In fact, the disarmament folks described START II as “unfair to the Russians” and described the Bush 43 Moscow Treaty of 2002 that reduced nuclear weapons to 2200 as “Not real arms control.”

Now, with the 2010 New Start treaty, we are down to 1,550 countable warheads — a huge 90-percent reduction from what would have been the nuclear freeze levels. Not only that; the cost of our nuclear enterprise was over $75 billion at the height of the Cold War and now is roughly $30 billion annually.

Both the lower warhead and spending are perfectly consistent with a modernized nuclear deterrent, exactly what we need to keep the peace and deter conflict.

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.