One of Washington’s best-known experts on nuclear deterrence pushed back during a recent Capitol Hill forum on what he called widespread misinformation about the role of strategic weapons.
Speaking June 6 at a Mitchell Institute breakfast, Frank Miller, president of the Scowcroft Group, expressed deep frustration about the tone of the debate surrounding the U.S. nuclear posture and upcoming modernization of the nuclear triad.
This should not be a partisan issue, Miller insisted. He noted that he had served both Democratic and Republican administrations.
One of Miller’s top concerns is the “return of the false and discredited prophets,” or groups he characterized as “self-appointed saviors of world peace.” He criticized watchdog organizations that claim U.S. modernization efforts fuel the risk of nuclear confrontation with Russia or China. They continue to push a denuclearization goal which “has been clearly shown to be unachievable and unverifiable,” Miller said. “As with others in this city, the urge to roll back the clock to simpler times, which never existed, is overwhelming.”
The lack of knowledge of facts is astounding, Miller complained. “During the last eight years, Russia and China have dramatically modernized their nuclear forces. … Russia stands in violation of the INF Treaty.” These are real threats to which the United States has to respond.
This is where the lessons of World War II come into play, Miller said. “It’s the idea that Czar Vladimir and President Xi and the nuclear-armed man-child Kim Jong-un, are all reasonable people with whom we can mutually have a set of beneficial discussions and negotiations. I point out the same was once said of Stalin and Hitler,” he said. “These are not reasonable men. They are cold-hearted dictators with no interest in preserving the post-World War II international order.”
Miller also sought to clarify misconceptions about pre-emptive first strike. He criticized reports by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that allege that the Trident II SLBM has been equipped with a “super fuse” which allows it to destroy Russian silos. These are missiles intended to increase the U.S. capability to retaliate, Miller stressed. “That is respond, not strike first.”
The idea is to have options available for the president if a crisis erupted, Miller said. Critics choose to ignore that need. Left-leaning groups fear monger about a nuclear Armageddon, he said. “The notion that any president of the United States would indulge in such a cosmic throw of the dice is completely and utterly unbelievable.”
Miller blasted Ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee Representative Adam Smith, who has criticized the nuclear modernization program set forth in the president’s budget, “which is essentially the Obama administration’s program,” he noted. Smith said the plan is “unnecessary and impractical,” and suggested funds should be spent on “more essential defense programs rather than fueling a dangerous nuclear arms race.”
So here we go again, Miller said.
“Let’s talk about the facts, not the alternative facts,” he insisted. Obama’s Secretary of Defense Ash Carter described nuclear war as an existential threat to the United States. To prevent that threat the United States today spends about 4 percent of its defense budget on maintaining and operating its current nuclear deterrent force. And we spend an additional 1 percent of the defense budget today on “preliminary efforts to modernize that force,” Miller noted. “By the middle of the next decade, when the strategic modernization program is in full swing, we will be spending a total of 3 percent on force modernization.”
The real question: “Is 7 percent of the defense budget too much to deter an existential threat which would destroy the United States? The answer is clearly no.”
On Smith’s point about “taking money away from other higher priority defense programs, it’s really interesting to see what the service chiefs have said about nuclear deterrence.”
Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley: “I don’t have a part of the triad, in a sense, but I can tell you that in my professional military view, the nuclear triad has kept the peace since nuclear weapons were introduced and have sustained the test of time.”
Miller brought up what he called a “ridiculous notion that our modernization program will fuel an arms race.” Declarations like this ignore the fact that Russia and China are deploying a vast, modernized array of ICMS and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, whereas the United States has not built or designed new systems. “This was best summarized by former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown many, many years ago. ‘When we build, the Russians build. When we stop, the Russians build,’” Miller recalled. “To the degree, there’s a new nuclear arms race, we are not in it, and it’s between Russia and China.”
There should be “absolutely no doubt that America’s nuclear triad is aging,” Miller added. “In our bomber force, the 50 B-52s, the newest B-52 was built in 1962.” The cruise missiles they carry were first deployed in 1980 and had a design service life of 10 years. The 18 B-2 bombers in the current U.S. fleet were produced in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Minuteman III ICBMs were first deployed in the 1970s, and their electronics and propulsion have been upgraded several times. The newest Ohio-class boat was built in 1997. It was originally designed to serve for 30 years, but the Ohio class will average 42 years of age when retired. No U.S. nuclear-powered submarine has served longer.
Peter Huessy, Ph.D. is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, and was the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation for more than 20 years.