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America's current nuclear deterrent is based on the 1960s Cold-War relic known as MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), which assumed the U.S. could absorb a surprise first strike against our nuclear forces and still have such an overwhelming “assured” retaliatory capability that no rational enemy would dare to attack. During those early years, America was the world’s preeminent nuclear power.

Alarmingly, the current modernization of nuclear-missile arsenals by both Russia and China exposes a simple mathematical flaw in the assumptions underlying continued reliance on MAD. Despite our having ~1,400 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, they are postured such that a surprise attack by approximately 70 – 100 Russian or Chinese missiles—a fraction of their total nuclear forces—could soon undermine our "assured" retaliatory capability. How can that be?

Both Russia and China are expanding their nuclear capabilities to surpass the U.S. Russia is ahead right now as it builds toward several 1,000 nuclear warheads, and China is moving rapidly toward a similar end. Most worrisome are the new heavy Russian and Chinese missiles estimated to be armed with 15 and 10 nuclear warheads, each of which can be aimed at individual targets once their launchers boost them into space. [Note 1]

Those deadly loads on 70 – 100 missiles would produce ~1,000 incoming warheads in a first strike, most of which would be directed to destroy the 400 single-warhead Minuteman missiles in silos near a mid-west stretch of our border with Canada. The remainders would be directed to destroy our few bomber and submarine bases along with our tiny missile- and air-defense force.  

MAD proponents would argue that, surely, we would have some advanced warning of a pending attack and could reposition our bombers and some defenses for increased survival. Well, America has been surprised before, at Pearl Harbor and 911, for instance. And it is virtually certain that a high-ranking Russian or Chinese military officer would NOT call to warn our military leaders before a surprise attack.

It is also very unlikely that any U.S. President would launch our missiles based purely on "warning" that our global sensors detected hostile launches.

But MAD proponents would argue that, even with a surprise attack, the ballistic-missile submarines at sea would survive the initial assault—assuming that emerging Russian or Chinese technologies have not enabled knowledge of the submarine positions and a way to attack them [Note 2]. Those submarines would retaliate with 100s of nuclear warheads, confirming the efficacy of MAD.

Whoa! If MAD worked as advertised, there would have been no disarming first strike!           

Look at the math. Adversaries who could destroy two-thirds of America’s nuclear Triad (land-based missiles and bombers plus sea-based missiles) with only a portion of their nuclear arsenal and still have 1,000s more nuclear warheads to threaten America with its surviving 100s might very well conclude a disarming attack to be completely rational.

For one thing, significant Russian, and possibly soon Chinese, missile defenses could blunt the effectiveness of such retaliation (~10,000 Russian air- and missile-defense interceptors and demonstrated Chinese “space operations” capabilities). [Ibid, Note 1] Second, except for collateral damage, U.S. cities, key industrial capabilities, many important military and government facilities, major elements of national infrastructure, and most of America’s population would have survived the disarming attack. Those survivors would be the next-threatened targets of 1,000s of remaining Russian or Chinese nuclear warheads.

Faced with the large numerical imbalance, their 1,000s versus our 100s of remaining nuclear warheads, the U.S. President would have to decide what to do.

Unfortunately, communications with submarines are not instantaneous, and communication links to them could have been degraded or severed as part of the disarming attack. If changes to pre-planned retaliations become necessary, communications and their execution could take more than a little time, which would give Russia or China opportunities to optimize their next steps—offensive and defensive.

It is also possible that Russia or China would not have targeted Washington, D.C. specifically so their leaders could contact the President to discuss the situation, maybe while their missiles were in flight. It’s intriguing to imagine how such discussions might proceed, but two outcomes are predictable: (1) they would complicate and delay the President’s decisions about a retaliatory response from our submarines, and (2) America would be in a weak position to secure any favorable outcomes.

Another worrisome scenario exists. If not used initially, potential follow-up attacks from Russia or China against defenseless America's unhardened electrical grid could include HEMP (High-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse) nuclear weapons. HEMP attacks—also possible from North Korea and perhaps Iran—could produce extended electrical blackouts resulting eventually in tens of millions of U.S. deaths.

So what should America do?

  1. We could expeditiously return to the Cold-War posture of dispersing our bombers and tankers to numerous bases and placing them on continuous alert, armed, and ready to take off quickly based on warnings of hostile missile launches. Unlike missiles, aircraft can be recalled while in the air. We could also increase the number of nuclear warheads continually at sea and improve defense-force readiness.
  2. Our national electrical grid should be hardened immediately, per recommendations from the Congressional EMP Commission. There is no valid reason to let this severe vulnerability persist.
  3. Even if it might not be used, the U.S. could publicly declare a “launch on warning” policy to assure the ability to launch our fixed land-based missiles before the attacking warheads arrive.
  4. If America proceeds with a very costly modernization of U.S. nuclear forces (many hundreds of billions of dollars), it would greatly complicate enemy targeting to mimic Russia and China by deploying mobile rather than only fixed land-based missiles. Instead of only single warheads, atop these new land-based missiles should be many maneuvering warheads.
  5. A different approach would be to increase deterrence by strengthening our current missile defenses, so they protect our nuclear forces, as was considered during the Cold War, in addition to defending our homeland. Nevertheless, MAD proponents are obsessed with declaring that U.S. missile defenses would cause "instability," even as Russia and China expand their offensive nuclear forces along with missile-defense deployments and demonstrations.
  6. Another valuable deterrent and defensive option would be to revisit the late-1980s concept of deploying space-based missile defenses to destroy enemy missiles during launch before they release their numerous nuclear warheads. Sadly, this approach would be assailed by MAD proponents as causing instability as well as weaponizing space.
  7. Some would favor resuming negotiations and, once again, trying to establish limitations on adversary nuclear armaments. That course is doomed to fail because America would be negotiating from a posture of weakness. Also, there are immense complications with actually verifying the compliance of participants like Russia and China, and there is a lack of consequences when—not if—cheating occurs.

All options except #7 have merit.

Immediate public moves toward #1 would buy time and demonstrate America's resolve to respect the math and not passively watch our nuclear deterrent be undermined by Russian and Chinese deployments of modernized nuclear missiles. Also, #2 should proceed without delay to reduce America’s vulnerability to a devastating EMP attack.

The need to use #3 would be greatly diminished by rebuilding our land-based missile force along the lines of #4.

With respect to #5 and #6, the U.S. Joint Staff is focusing on Integrated Air and Missile Defense. According to Joint Chiefs Vice Chair General John Hyten, “When you think about integrated deterrence, the last thing I’ll say is that when it comes to missile defense, it’s about deterring all missile threats.” [Note 3] In reality, comprehensive defenses against missiles, especially including space-based defenses, would recognize a deterrent policy known as SANE (Strategic Assured National Existence).

U.S. negotiating power is minimized by a numerical inferiority in offensive nuclear weapons. Instead of offering to bargain away U.S. missile defenses as part of #7, arms-control enthusiasts should embrace defenses as a way to enhance deterrence and undercut Russian-Chinese nuclear expansion.

Finally, U.S. decision-makers should tune out minimalists who ignore the math and advocate replacing the Triad with either a Diad (bombers and submarines only) or, even worse, a Monad (submarines only). Tuned out as well should be MAD proponents who are inattentive to the math and insist that an undefended America is a positive asset.


Norman Haller has led and assisted analyses, planning, and preparing reports for DoD and Congress on nuclear and non-nuclear forces for deterrence and defense against missile attacks. Now a consultant, he served in the Air Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the Chairman’s Executive Assistant. Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, and on the staffs of the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.


Note 1: Detailed discussions of the growth of Russian and Chinese nuclear warheads and missile-defense capabilities are at (a) The National Interest: Russia and China Are Already Winning the Nuclear Arms Race  (b)  Center for Security Policy: Degeneration of the American Strategic Mind; and (c) China Aerospace Studies Institute: China’s Recent Ballistic Missile Defense Test May Have Actually Been an Anti-Satellite Test

Note 2: It is ominous that Russia is in the process deploying submarines equipped with six autonomous, high-speed, long-range, deep-underwater-capable, nuclear-powered torpedos, each containing a large nuclear warhead. See, for example: USNI News: New Satellite Images Hint How Russian Navy Could Use Massive Nuclear Torpedoes

Note 3: Breaking Defense: JROC’s Next Target: ‘Integrated Air & Missile Defense’ 



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