The U.S. Nuclear Gambit

The U.S. Nuclear Gambit
U.S. DoD, SSGT Phil Schmitten
The U.S. Nuclear Gambit
U.S. DoD, SSGT Phil Schmitten
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If you don’t think nuclear weapons will ever be used against the United States, the Ploughshares Fund has some new ideas that could make a nuclear attack on the United States more likely.  

Ploughshares says the USA should get rid of all our 450 land-based Minuteman missile silos and missiles, cut the number of Ohio Replacement submarines to 10, eliminate the long-range cruise missile the B-22 bombers would carry and eliminate the only modern aircraft-based theater nuclear weapon we have in the arsenal—the B-61. They think this will make us safer.

 But as the new Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force has warned, such a plan is very unstable, as it would reduce our nuclear “platforms” to ten targets or less. This, he says, would give a country like North Korea the capability to wipe out most of the U.S. nuclear arsenal even with their minimal arsenal of a dozen nuclear weapons.

Why would we do anything so reckless?

Fortunately, the United States is now wisely planning to keep over 650 land and sea-based missiles and bombers armed with nuclear weapons for the next 50 years. This is the planned life-cycle of the modernization program currently underway and is completely consistent with the 2010 New Start arms control deal. Our deterrent would consist of 40-60 bombers, 12 submarines with 198 missiles, and 400 land based missiles and 48 launch control centers. This force is one-third of the platforms we maintained during the Cold War and supports some 90% less warheads. But it still would be a highly robust, very survivable, and a credible force.

But what happens if we alternatively follow the suggested Ploughshare cuts?

Well, our bombers are deployed on three bases and are no longer kept on alert ready to be airborne. They are thus soft targets and able to be destroyed. But without cruise missiles, even if on alert, our bombers would face formidable air defenses and lack time to target capability. Their nuclear deterrent value would be seriously curtailed.

With only 10 new submarines, given the refit “bathtub” necessary from 2030-2040 of bringing some of the older submarines into port for maintenance, the U.S. would actually have only 8 submarines available to deploy in that time period.

Of this number, only about one-third or 2-3 would be on patrol. The remainder would be in port or in transit. There is also some serious question whether we could maintain both a Pacific and an Atlantic home port for the nuclear submarine fleet if we built less than 12 submarines. That would dramatically lessen the ability of the U.S. to deter both Russia and China.

And of course, with the Minuteman land-based missiles eliminated, any adversary would no longer have to worry about nearly 500 ICBM assets now available for American use in a retaliatory strike.  

So the resulting Ploughshares force structure would be 128 missiles and 40-60 bombers at 3 bombers bases and 2 sub bases. Anywhere from 2-5 submarines would be at sea either on patrol or in transit. Or seven to ten targets compared to over 500 which we have today, or equal to a 98-99% cut.

And the only missiles we would have for day to day deterrence under this scheme would be aboard at most 2-3 submarines in their patrol box at sea, each with only 16 missiles, and each of those missiles with at most 8 warheads.

That leaves the entire U.S. nuclear deterrent that could promptly respond to a Russian or Chinese attack with 250-350 warheads. This compares to a current Russian deployed “ready to go” arsenal of 1850 strategic nuclear weapons and a Chinese arsenal now approaching 800 weapons. And a current U.S. retaliatory capability above 1000 warheads—depending upon the specific scenario being considered.

But the Ploughshare scheme gets worse. Russia has at least an additional 2000 theater or tactical nuclear weapons threatening Europe. Given Ploughshares proposal to eliminate the B-61, which is the only theater or tactical nuclear weapons in our arsenal, the U.S. would effectively be out of the extended deterrent business in Europe.

Would a submarine only deterrent be adequate? In 1957, the Soviets launched a satellite into space in a technological surprise for which America was unprepared. As Brad Roberts and other nuclear experts have warned, at some point in the future our enemies may be able to detect our submarines when they are submerged deep in the ocean or in transit to port. If that should occur, over time the submarines could be attrited or destroyed surreptitiously.

The late Senator John Warner told me when he was Navy Secretary, his number one fear was just such a technological surprise. Can you imagine he said to hear from our Chief of Naval Operations that “one of our boomers” [Navy nuclear armed submarines] did not come home?

Thus relying solely on submarines is setting us up to be blind-sided by just such a technological breakthrough. If that happens, the U.S. will be facing not only one nuclear armed enemy in Russia, like the Soviet Union at the time of Sputnik but also other nuclear powers such as Pakistan, China, North Korea and possibly Iran.

But relying solely on the subs represents another problem. To meet our deterrent requirements, each sub missile would have to carry a maximum loading of warheads. We still would have 800-1000 less than the number we are allowed—including special bomber counting rules—under the New Start treaty. We would also have only half the allowed number for the Russians and probably less than one-third of the number deployed by China and Russia combined.

We would also have a zero upload or “hedging” capability if the Russians broke out of the New Start treaty or simply waited for the treaty to expire. We would be stuck at 1000 warheads while the Russians currently have an upload or growth pathway to 4000-5000 strategic warheads.

In addition, each sub missile would carry more warheads than needed to cover a target footprint thus carrying redundant warheads. The weight of the missile would also be heavier than optimum and this would reduce the target coverage of the missile as well as its range, requiring our submarines to operate in less geographic ocean area than is optimum, leaving them more vulnerable to detection. The navy has emphasized over and over again that the critical key to its deterrent value is the number of submarines available to the Commander in Chief not so much the total number of warheads. Too few submarines—which the Ploughshares plan would give us—wouldn’t work.

What about the cruise missile on our bombers? Without it, the ability of the air-breathing bomber deterrent to cover targets that are time-urgent—meaning they have to be destroyed quickly—is eliminated, and the remaining gravity bombs from aircraft have to be delivered over heavily defended areas which as the head of Global Strike Command said a few weeks ago is “no pleasant task”.

On the other hand, despite its many flaws and drawbacks, and its lack of any strategic sense, the Ploughshares plan may seem attractive to some because it appears to save billions of dollars. Unfortunately, in the near term that is not true. The plan relies heavily on some miscalculated and fuzzy nuclear math, saving in reality little money at all in the next decade.  

First, the new conventional bombers will carry conventional cruise missiles. Even if they are not nuclear armed, the cost is reduced only marginally, perhaps by 3%.

Second, on ICBMs, the next ten years average costs are $2.8 billion a year. $1.2 billion of that is for the Air Force personnel and base maintenance. Given one of the Minuteman ICBM bases is also used for bombers, at least one-third of the savings from closing the ICBM bases disappears. And given the average cost of base closures is usually 40% or more of the base operating costs, the savings are even less. So in the first decade of the Ploughshares scheme, around $1.2 billion a year might be saved in the ICBM force.

Third, as for the submarines, keeping older submarines in the force longer is more costly than the current plan. Stopping construction of the submarines at 10 rather than 12 also doesn’t save any money until the mid-2030 when the submarine construction would be completed. So for the next decade, this option costs us money, further reducing the small savings from eliminating the ICBMs and cruise missiles.

Fourth, as for the B-61, the warhead work is under budget and ahead of schedule. The warhead remains critical to the defense of our allies in NATO and Europe. Killing it now might very well invite Russian aggression against even more NATO or European allies of the United States, and at what unknown cost to our security. Without the B-61 we have no regional or theater nuclear deterrent in all of Europe.

At best such a disarmament plan might save $15 billion over the next decade, but undermine our security and deterrent capability at the same time. It might invite aggression and an attack against America’s interests.

Looking at a bigger picture, in ten years says OMB the Federal budget will grow from $4.1 trillion today to $6.6 billion then. The entire nuclear modernization effort then at its peak--$36 billion-- would be about 5/10ths of 1% of all Federal spending and a reasonable 5% of the projected 2025 defense budget of $647 billion. That compares to $24 billion today or 4% of the $603 billion defense budget and 6/10ths of 1% of our Federal budget.

The increase in the nuclear budget to modernize the force is approximately $12 billion a year over the next decade, less than what Americans annually spend to go to the movies.

Even though in reality Minuteman is affordable, Ploughshares says the missile system is unstable. This is based on the strange idea that the land-based ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal are only good for a first strike. They have to be used, so goes the logic, before Russia strikes first and takes them out. But using our nuclear weapons first risks all out nuclear war, says Ploughshares, so ICBMs should be abandoned before they trigger a rush to strike first. 

But wait. If going first risks Armageddon, why would anybody—by definition—including the Russians, use their nuclear weapons “first”? Wouldn’t such an attack on our “supposedly vulnerable” 500 land-based missile silos and launch control centers be suicidal?

Of course, it would be as there is no doubt such an attack would invite massive retaliation by the U.S. But Ploughshares is claiming that our adversaries are so irrational they will use nuclear weapons first to attack 500 of our nuclear ICBM assets, knowing they will be demolished in return.

Even stranger is the “logic” that says the Russians would be less likely to attack us even if we make things dramatically easier for them and reduce our nuclear targets or platforms from over 500 to less than 10, a reduction of 98-99%.

As former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former DCI James Woolsey wrote in the New York Times many years ago when advocating a survivable Triad deterrent force, why would we hang a sign on our nuclear deterrent inviting our adversaries to “Come Get Us”!  

Ironically, another disarmament group, Global Zero, in a report of May 2012, agrees. The report notes the most serious technological threat on the horizon is that sophisticated computing and sensors could strip away the oceans shield from our at-sea submarines. The report concludes, (ironically in a footnote on page seven), that if the oceans became transparent, eliminating the ICBM leg of our nuclear Triad would “dramatically alter this prognosis” of safety in a submarine only missile deterrent. Exactly.  

To sum up, I agree with the current President of the United States. The administration has correctly sought a modernized Triad, seeing it as critical to the future security of the country. In numerous votes, and in passing the last seven defense bills, a wide bipartisan coalition in Congress has concurred—a modernized, robust Triad of bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles, along with safer, more secure and modern warheads and communication systems, is the way to go.

There is a name for such a strategy. Peace through strength. It won the Cold War. And for the 36 million minutes our land and sea-based missiles have been on alert since they were deployed, they have never been fired. But they have kept the nuclear peace—perfectly.

In short, if the American nuclear deterrent strategy isn’t broken, and has kept the nuclear peace for seventy years, why should we pay attention to the nuclear termites, trying as hard as they are, to eat away at our extraordinarily strong nuclear foundation, under the false idea that making the world more unstable is a better way to protect America?  

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