The Real Nuclear News

The Real Nuclear News
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Is the world getting closer to war between the nuclear-armed superpowers? And should the United States exercise restraint, and radically change its foreign policy to lessen the dangers?

First, let us look at a common narrative that is fueling this concern.  

The Union of Concerned Scientists moved its nuclear clock 30 seconds closer to doomsday fearing reduced arms controls. Former Secretary of Defense Perry thinks our nuclear missiles are ready to be launched by computer if we receive even a false warning of an attack. Lee Hamilton, a leading foreign policy former Democratic House member, thinks the new administration might be prone to launch nuclear weapons in a crisis recklessly. Moreover, the Ploughshares Fund says it is unfair for the United States to have five ICBM based states that could be targeted by the Russians-- although they are silent about the other bomber and submarine basing states with far larger populations that are in the target mix as well, to say nothing of Washington, D.C.

The common theme for all these developments?

If American deterrent policy just changes, the nuclear dangers will recede.

Is this true?

No, it is not. While there are indeed many nuclear dangers we should worry about, their origin does not lie with the United States, although it is perfectly reasonable to criticize past American policy as inadequate to meet these challenges.  

However, whether we are concerned with the Russians moving nuclear capable Iskandar missiles to Kaliningrad or the Chinese threatening war if anyone challenges their illegitimate and dangerous deployment of missiles on artificial islands in the South China Sea, these actions are part of a strategy by our adversaries to rewrite the rules of international relations to use military coercion to get their way.

While the Russians and Chinese are deploying their nuclear-capable missiles, the North Korean regime is also building more nuclear weapons and testing more capable ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, given the strong cooperative military work between the two countries, Iran’s terrorist activity should also be of growing concern. Already its Houthi terror allies are launching missile attacks on U.S. and allied ships in the Gulf, as well as Saudi Gulf oil facilities, even as its patron supplier of weapons, Iran, boasts that “No-one can challenge us,” while testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. 

These threats are nothing new, and are not America’s “fault.” Moreover, they are not a challenge to any particular American President or administration. They are threats to the sound order the U.S. and its allies have tried to build since the end of World War II, and at the end of the Cold War, to bring more peace and prosperity to the U.S., allies and the rest of the world.

In short, these threats affect all of us. 

Thus when the Russian military and diplomatic leadership explicitly threaten to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies, more than two dozen times since 2009, that is a threat to our national security, not just one party or administration.

The Russian deployment of nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad was first threatened in 2013.

The Chinese have been expanding their territorial reach in the South China Sea with illicit island building for over a decade.

The North Korean’s first sought to build nuclear weapons and companion missile delivery systems in the 1990’s during the Clinton Administration. 

Moreover, the Iranians have been attacking Americans since 1979 when they seized our embassy in Tehran, attacking our embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Khobar Towers in 1996, the African embassies in 1998, and culminating in their support for the 9-11 attacks. Followed by the killing hundreds of American soldiers with IED’s in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Altogether, Iran and its terror allies have indeed killed more Americans than any other entity since the end of the Cold War.

In short, these nuclear dangers are not the fault of the current administration, and cannot be changed through rhetorical sleight of hand or American “restraint” or “soft power,” and they are not in response to American bad actions.

However, the disarmament community continues to push “unilateral” restraint by the United States as the key to reducing nuclear dangers. In the nuclear field alone, they repeatedly argue to eliminate the long-range strike option (cruise missile) for our bombers, the 400 new land-based ICBM missiles, one third of our new submarine force, a number of our warhead types and to top things off, enact a unilateral reduction of our deployed nuclear warheads by one-third.

The apparent prevalent idea is that a series of American gestures of “good behavior” or “restraint”—such as unilaterally stopping key elements of our nuclear modernization effort—will somehow set the table for a decline in nuclear dangers. Restraint advocates seek an end to our military exercises with the Republic of Korea, describe China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea as nothing but a “peaceful rise” of a regional power, and accept a certain level of state-sponsored terrorism from Iran as pay-back (“chickens coming home to roost”) for our aggression against Iran decades ago.

This gesture of “good behavior,” is based on the flimsy idea that our good “moral standing” in the world will turn the hearts and minds of totalitarian rulers away from threatened aggression or would-be nuclear proliferators from their hegemonic goals.

Unfortunately, the recommendations made by many in the disarmament community for US “restraint” would make the world even more dangerous. For example, killing our land-based missiles would cut our nuclear assets by 97%, making it far easier to attack and disarm us.

Unilaterally withdrawing all our small number of nuclear weapons from Europe (a long-standing Russian demand) would uncouple the United States from NATO, hardly in our security interests.

Moreover, continuing the mantra that our nuclear missiles are ready to be launched by computer warning (and thus should be taken down to avoid such a catastrophe) is no more accurate description of reality than are the chances of fitting six giraffes into a Manhattan phone booth.

Although claimed otherwise, the new administration did not call for a new nuclear arms race. In fact, they said any new arms race would not work out for our opponents because it is a race they would lose. And ironically it was President Putin of Russia who declared he wanted no part of a nuclear arms race, no doubt mindful of the failure of the Soviet Union to match the Reagan administration defense build-up.  

As for North Korea, it poses a serious threat to the Republic of Korea and the continental United States and seeks to reunify the Korean peninsula by force. But a strong US alliance with the ROK—which the Trump administration has just said is rock solid-- is the deterrent we need. Both regional allies—Japan and ROK—have recently increased their defense budgets just as the US has cemented its commitment to deploy the THAAD missile defense in Korea and Aegis missile defenses with Japan, exactly the reciprocal actions envisioned by then-candidate Trump.

As the new administration has noted in the call for a missile defense review, a robust, layered missile defense is the technology required to stop a North Korean nuclear warhead from being launched successfully and detonated on US soil, a point the new President also recently made when he said “North Korea will not be allowed to do that”. [This nuanced point may have passed over the heads of some political commentators as some thought the administration was threatening to pre-empt any missile launch as opposed to shooting down any incoming North Korean warhead with an American deployed missile defense.]

So how can one argue that American restraint can end these nuclear dangers?

In reality, what are the facts?

We have hardly got our nuclear running shoes on, let alone gotten out of the starting blocks. Russia, on the other hand, is sprinting down the track, now having successfully modernized nearly two-thirds of its nuclear forces despite falling government revenue and western economic sanctions.

In fact, early in the next decade, around 2021-1, Russia will have modernized close to 100% of its bombers, land-based missiles and submarines. And China will by the end of the next decade have a fully modernized and expanded nuclear deterrent as well with mobile ICBMs, a new missile-armed submarine, and long-range cruise missiles. New data now indicate China can build 1000 new nuclear warheads quite rapidly.

If the US stays its current projected course, we will at best, fully modernize our nuclear deterrent by the mid-2030’s, some two decades hence. Although we are going in the right direction, any further delay or cuts in our modernization plans will be more expensive than sustaining the old systems we have. On top of which we would be paying more money for less security.

Even if we keep to the current modernization plan, Russia will have completed its nuclear modernization effort before the United States has deployed a single new nuclear bomber, land-based missile or nuclear-armed submarine.

Not only is the US not in any arms race, but we also are not “expanding” our nuclear weapons as is now being claimed by the disarmament community.

In fact, we are ninety percent below our peak deployed level in 1989 of over 13,000 strategic nuclear warheads.

While the Russians have also significantly cut their strategic or long-range missiles and warheads under the START I and Moscow treaties, they have built up their weapons since the 2010 New Start Treaty. And Russia has upwards of 2000-4000 additional theater nuclear weapons not counted under New Start while the US has around 500 such theater weapons.

In short, the only nuclear arms race is being run by the Russians, not the Americans. New Start facilitates, in part, that arms race, it doesn’t prevent it.  

Extending such a bad bargain hardly makes strategic sense, something the new Trump administration understands.

As for deployed strategic weapons today, the US does not have the 7000 number often referenced. We actually have a combined 1590 nuclear warheads on our submarines, bombers, land based missiles and theater airplanes in Europe, while the Russians may have as many as 2600 deployed strategic nuclear weapons alone. These numbers are not strictly comparable to the START treaty accountable numbers because for both counties are 1367 and 1800, respectively, bombers count as one weapon irrespective of how many cruise missiles or gravity bombs are on board.

The START treaty’s accountable numbers for both counties are 1367 and 1800, respectively, because bombers count as one weapon irrespective of how many cruise missiles or gravity bombs are on board.

Another way to look at it is that Russia deploys at least 1000 more strategic weapons than America’s strategic and tactical nuclear weapons combined, a balance that does not include 2000-4000 Russian theater or tactical nuclear weapons.

What then should the US and its allies do to push-back on Russian nuclear threats, Chinese military expansion, heightened North Korean nuclear capabilities, and Iranian missile terrorism?

First and foremost, we should modernize our nuclear deterrent as Congress has approved. The prospective Nuclear Posture Review will hopefully underscore the need for our nuclear modernization effort now underway but call for any required acceleration of the nuclear modernization effort as well.

We should understand our adversaries are increasing their nuclear capability. They wish not only to check-mate our nuclear forces but primarily to counter what they perceive as our greater conventional force strength. Unilaterally cutting our nuclear forces, as disarmament advocates now want, will only make us weaker as our adversaries will see this as an invitation to change the balance of power in their favor.

Some disarmament advocates seek to pit one element of our nuclear Triad against the other. For example, one disarmament group now claims it is unfair that missiles in some states if destroyed would kill a lot of nearby Americans but submarines at sea if destroyed would spare Americans here at home. So they advocate getting rid of all the land based missiles that could be targeted by our adversaries.

We also must embrace the nuclear and conventional build-up as proposed by Senator McCain’s white paper, as well as the reportedly forthcoming FY17-18-19 readiness and force modernization being sought by the new administration. Particularly important is to sustain and improve the extended conventional and nuclear deterrent in Europe and the Pacific.

Keith Payne, the President of NIPP, in a January 30 an essay titled “New Threat Realities and Deterrence Requirements,” succinctly and eloquently lays out the case for both. It is a good policy guide for going forward.

Our conventional force over the past decade has suffered serious deterioration in their readiness when the proper metrics are used. The USAF is the oldest and smallest in its history, and the Navy is the smallest it has been in 99 years, or just after WWI.

It is true that airplane and ship technology has vastly improved and can with fewer platforms carry out missions that old technology could not.

However, a Navy ship or USAF fighter plane cannot be two places on the globe simultaneously. Nearly half or more of our conventional Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft cannot fly due to a lack of spare parts and needed maintenance according to February 7 testimony of the two services before the House Armed Services Committee.

A strong and superior conventional American and allied military means that to successfully use military force against the United States, our adversaries have to seriously consider fighting us by breaking through the nuclear barrier, a prospect that a strong US nuclear deterrent further prevents.   

As former OSD official Brad Roberts has argued, this is precisely the current Russian and Chinese strategy—to threaten in a crisis the early use of nuclear weapons to overcome American and NATO conventional superiority and get the United States to stand down in the face of aggression.

In summary, China’s assertion of hegemonic control over the South China Sea and other areas of the Pacific cannot be allowed to stand. Russia has to remove its military “green men” from eastern Ukraine and restore the independence of the Crimea. North Korea cannot be allowed to attack the ROK or successfully strike the US or our allies with a nuclear-armed missile. And we have to remove the terror masters from the regime in Iran.

However, to achieve these goals, strong deterrence backed up by smart diplomacy is called for.

A serial policy of “carrots and more carrots” won’t work.

We have tried that.

As Dr. Henry Kissinger once said, “A free standing diplomacy is an ancient American illusion. History offers few examples of it. The attempt to separate diplomacy and power results in power lacking direction and diplomacy being deprived of incentives.”

George Washington said if you want to establish peace, prepare for war. Ronald Reagan called such a strategy “peace through strength.” That combination of military capability and diplomatic smarts won the Cold War. It can win the peace again.

The Russian, Chinese and North Korean threats are real indeed and need to be taken seriously. We cannot just stand still or go backward. As the new administration says, it is about making America great again. A strong military—both conventional and nuclear-- is part of that effort.

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