If Nuclear Deterrence Fails, What's The Plan?
Military history is full of instances where leaders failed to grasp information vital to their survival. U.S. nuclear strategy may be this generation's most glaring example of failing to see the obvious.
The obvious problem is that some of the ways in which nuclear war might begin can't be deterred. An irrational adversary. An accident. A breakdown in the nuclear chain of command. A miscalculation in the midst of some regional crisis that leads to uncontrolled escalation.
You'd think that after 70 years of dealing with nuclear weapons, the U.S. government would have come up with some way of coping with such scenarios. It hasn't. U.S. strategy is focused mainly on discouraging rational actors in full control of their arsenals from contemplating nuclear use. Because the other eventualities that might lead to a nuclear exchange have not yet materialized, policymakers and the public are lulled into believing the problem is covered.
We know that's the case, because nobody talks seriously anymore about defending the American homeland against a nuclear attack. Not even Republicans, the traditional friends of missile defense. We know it's the case for another reason too -- if our strategy depends solely on the threat of retaliation to avert armageddon, then the only options we will have when deterrence breaks down might make the situation worse than it needs to be.
Imagine, for example, that Russia seizes the Baltic states, NATO decides it must forcibly take them back, and at some point Moscow concludes that local use of nuclear weapons is necessary to bolster its tactical position. That decision would be encouraged by Russian military doctrine, Moscow's sizable arsenal of non-strategic weapons, and awareness of how the West would likely respond to nuclear use. But with tensions running high and only one Russian missile-warning satellite currently functional, big mistakes could be made.
So the situation escalates. Current U.S. nuclear strategy, being offensively based, would offer a host of options for destroying various Russian assets. What it would not provide is some means of mitigating the destructive potential of Russian weapons in a East-West exchange. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense currently deployed on the U.S. West Coast could intercept a handful of intercontinental warheads, but after its 44 interceptors are exhausted -- or disabled -- the U.S. would have only offensive options left.
In other words, its only options would involve escalating further. By the time the war ended, maybe only a few hours later, much of America might be gone. This is what can happen when a nation neglects vast expanses of the strategic landscape in order to focus on the challenges that are manageable. In fact, we are so absorbed in deterring cold, calculated nuclear attacks that we have convinced ourselves trying to defend against other, equally plausible, threats would be dangerous.
Things would look a lot different if we constructed our nuclear strategy on the assumption that one day deterrence will fail, rather than relying on the current, ahistorical belief that it can last forever. Nothing lasts forever. One day a new Hitler arises, and this time he has nuclear weapons. Or internal revolt puts parts of the Russian arsenal in the hands of elements intent on East-West conflict. Or a regional crisis like the Baltic example escalates to levels neither side expected.
In those circumstances, our possession of a secure retaliatory force would be cold comfort. What we would want would be active defenses of the American homeland. There is currently nothing in U.S. strategic plans that would provide defenses remotely adequate to the challenge.
None of this is an argument against modernizing the existing strategic arsenal. That is long overdue, and needs to proceed expeditiously -- including upgrades to the aging communications links that permit positive control of nuclear forces in a crisis. President Trump directed a nuclear posture review in January aimed at assuring the U.S. maintains a "modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready" nuclear deterrent that is "appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies." Of course we must have that.
But the very next sentence in the president's national security memorandum directing the nuclear posture review called for a ballistic missile defense review that would lead to greater emphasis on protection of the homeland, and we aren't hearing anywhere near as much about that review as we are about of the review of offensive forces. If we are to have a strategic posture capable of coping with all eventualities, missile defense needs to receive as much attention as sustaining a secure retaliatory force, because like I said -- you can't deter some threats.
The logical place to start would be by expanding the current Ground-based Midcourse Defense system to a third site on the East Coast. Although the current West Coast locations could intercept a handful of incoming warheads from Russia, having an East Coast site would give the system a "shoot-look-shoot" capability analogous to a layered defense. A follow-on addition could equip warships off U.S. coasts with similar interceptors, thereby fielding a more survivable second perimeter to compliment the existing system.
The San Antonio-class amphibious warship currently being built for use in Marine amphibious ready groups could easily be adapted to this mission, equipped with enough interceptors to counter hundreds of incoming warheads. Although we can't know in advance what scale of attack defenders might need to cope with, the logic of layered defenses is inescapable: if each part of a system with two layers is 90% effective, then only one in a hundred warheads actually reaches America.
Over the longer term, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency can develop more exotic solutions such as lasers aimed at giving defenders a cost advantage over attackers. Once it becomes cheaper to add defensive forces than offensive forces, potential aggressors will have little motivation to engage in an arms race. But first we will need to abandon our current, ridiculous set of military spending priorities in which the U.S. spends dozens of times more money each year defending Afghanistan or Iraq than it does defending its own homeland.
Critics will say missile defenses of the American homeland can't work, that they are destabilizing, and that they cost too much. None of this needs to be true, but the obvious response to opponents of national missile defense is a simple question: "So on the day deterrence fails, what is your plan?" They don't have one.