Nuclear Obsolescence?

Nuclear Obsolescence?
U.S. Air Force
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The United States is reducing some of its strategic long-range nuclear warheads on its nuclear Triad of submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles to comply with the 2010 New START treaty agreement with the Russians,  allowing each side only 700 missiles and bombers and a total of 1550 warheads.

As part of this process, the U.S. Air Force is completing the removal of some warheads from its 400 Minuteman missiles reducing them all to one warhead. This process of what is known as downloading started years earlier as part of a warhead reduction process required by the previous START II and Moscow arms control agreements with Russia. This “downloading” is now new and is perfectly consistent with our building a more capable force.

As we reduce, our nuclear force will become more capable through modernization. Without modernization, the ICBM force will “rust to obsolescence” as stated by Clark Murdock, the founder of the Program on Nuclear Initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Additionally, in testimony before the HASC March 14, every senior U.S. military nuclear commander echoed this view, noting that absent modernization the U.S. nuclear capability is in danger of slipping backward.

For some reason, this compliance with the reductions required by the New START treaty, even as we simultaneously modernize all our nuclear systems, including ICBMs, is being described by critics as inconsistent with a more capable, second to none, deterrent.

They are incorrect.  

As we reduce our warheads to comply with the New Start Treaty, we are also improving the capability of the remaining platforms of submarines, missiles, and bombers, as well as the warheads and command and control systems.

There is nothing inconsistent with having a deterrent “second to none” or “at the top of the heap” and simultaneously working arms control agreements with our adversaries. President Reagan did precisely that. He both modernized our entire nuclear deterrent while putting into place the framework for reductions in deployed strategic warhead levels that now approach ninety percent. In a new book, “Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan,” former White House nuclear expert Sven Kraemer explains in great detail how this twin strategy was put together.  

Somehow, critics of the administration now believe that if the US nuclear deterrent must remain second to none, “top of the heap,” we cannot agree to an arms control deal with the Russians which would require us to reduce our current warhead levels. Otherwise, the critics are saying the administration’s push for a strong deterrent is just “bluff” and not serious.

Is this criticism valid?

No, the notion that there is a simple choice between arms control and top notch modernization is false and serves as a diversion.

The administration has signaled its support for a much stronger defense, including major increases in defense spending and within the upcoming nuclear posture review, as a pledge to improve our nuclear deterrent capability.

In short, we can comply with the New Start treaty numbers and keep our “powder dry,” while watching the Russian compliance record as well, even as we modernize.

Furthermore, whether or not Russia complies with the New Start treaty “numbers,” shouldn’t we, in any case, stay on “top of the heap” in “nuclear capability” as the administration has pledged to do?  

Ironically, while criticizing the administration’s call for the US to maintain a nuclear deterrent of the highest capability, (“top of the heap”), these same angry critics claim our deterrent today exceeds that of the Russians. They assert we would not trade our forces for the Russian forces so why the worry? However, if that is the case, that our nuclear deterrent capability does now, in fact, exceed that of the Russians, what is wrong with the new administration pledging to continue just such efforts in our favor?

As the new administration and Congress grapples with the question of whether to reduce, modernize, or accomplish both and as the nuclear posture review goes forward, here are ten guidelines to help frame the debate.   

First, as most nuclear deterrent commanders have repeatedly underscored, if the US does not proceed with nuclear modernization efforts we will fall behind our adversary’s capabilities. The new administration has simply echoed the concerns of our nuclear civilian and military commanders that the US is in danger of falling behind the Russians regarding our nuclear deterrent capability if we do not fully and quickly modernize.  

Russia’s rapidly expanding nuclear force, both in capacity and capability is set to be fully modernized by at least 2022. Should the Russians choose to disregard New START treaty limits, and increase its arsenal to as many as 4000-5000 offensive strategic nuclear warheads, the United States will then have to assess the situation soberly. There is no need to jump the gun.

Second, the 2010 New Start treaty does benefit the US, as it bounds Russian strategic offensive capabilities. But the treaty does also have weaknesses. Like most other arms control deals with Moscow, it does not restrict Moscow’s regional or theater systems, where they have a major advantage. And it does not restrict the pathways of future expansive growth for Russia’s nuclear arsenal, particularly because multi-warhead land-based missiles were not banned. 

Third, it is ridiculous to assume that within less than 60 days in office, the administration could execute a thorough nuclear posture review, to devise alternatives or changes to U.S. policy. That does not mean, however, that the new administration does not have significant concerns.

Fourth, the entire Congressionally approved modernization plan will improve the capability of our nuclear forces—better missile accuracy, better stealth for our submarines, greater lethality for our bombers, better communications, safer and more secure warheads and cost reductions for operating all three legs of the Triad. That is all more capability, exactly what the new administration has pledged to support.

Fifth, while such critics are complacent about future modernization, given their view that our deterrent today exceeds in capability the Russian systems, why do they fear the new administration seeks to maintain exactly that advantage? Are they asserting we make our submarines easier to find? Alternatively, our new ICBM’s less accurate? Our new bombers less capable? 

Sixth, we have reduced (de-mirved) the number of warheads on our Minuteman missiles from three to one, making our ICBMs a less valuable target—as opposed to Russian land-based missiles, many of which have 10 or more warheads. De-mirving our land-based Minuteman missiles underwrites stability.

Seventh, single warhead land-based missiles retain the capability for the US to upload, if necessary, back to three warheads. Having such a force does not dictate whether the US will stick with the current New Start treaty numbers or not.

Eighth, the whole purpose of the forthcoming nuclear posture review is to, in fact, review our options. Within the next year, we will know whether the Russians are in compliance with the New START treaty effective February 2018. We know Moscow has already violated the INF nuclear treaty, has along with numerous other agreements, including according to some analysts the 2010 New START treaty itself.

Ninth, during the ratification of the 2010 New START treaty, the then Secretary of State asserted the treaty allowed the US to maintain an effective and modern nuclear deterrent force that was second to none, exactly what the new administration has vowed to continue.

Tenth, rushing to judgment is not the path toward a sober review of U.S. nuclear capabilities. Warning about complacency, facing the dangerous deterioration in our nuclear capability, and assessing the serious nuclear threats we face is the prudent thing to do.

The nuclear posture review is designed to provide a methodical, measured, prudent assessment of required nuclear capabilities. Let us get on with that job.

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