Nuclear Deterrence: The Search for Nuclear Stability or Nuclear Primacy?

by PETER HUESSY February 13, 2013

Reports are that the US government will soon announce a cut of fifty percent in the country's nuclear arsenal. The reductions may be done in concert with Russia or done unilaterally say news reports. Though the full details remain unknown, it appears that a significant number of the platforms upon which our nuclear weapons rest will be scrapped along with about half of the warheads we have, including those in reserve.

Mark Schneider of the National Institute of Public Policy and a former top Pentagon nuclear expert explains there are some serious difficulties now with reducing our arsenal because they way we have it configured differs markedly from Russia, making uniform cuts a problem. In addition, Russia has thousands more theater and short range weapons, and if they cut that arsenal, they will want significant concessions from the United States. And the major area where we have an advantage over Russia is the number of our strategic platforms upon which our nuclear weapons are fitted (generally called SNDVs or Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles) where we have 700 and the Russians closer to 500. But these are the bedrock of deterrence and stability, where any marked change would be unadvisable.

For example, the US has 14 submarines, in two ports, with some number around 6 at sea at any one time. Right now, anti-submarine warfare has not advanced to the degree where these submarines can be found by the Russians according to our Navy Chief of Naval Operations. And the Atlantic and Pacific, where they patrol, are big oceans.

The US nuclear deterrent trump card is our land based missiles, called ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles sit in 450 silos, spread over 5 western states. They each sit under a 40 ton concrete cap, in reinforced silos, where only a direct hit from a Russian nuclear weapon could disable them. That is such a formidable task that no future technology will change that situation.

Thus in a crisis, the ICBMs remain ready to retaliate if need be, and combined with the submarines at sea, are such a formidable deterrent that for almost three quarters of a century, as former USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch has noted, "they have performed perfectly". And they cannot fire unless ordered to by the President. And given their relative survivability and the complimentary survivability of the submarines, even in a crisis no US President would feel compelled to use these weapons quickly.

This point is very important in that Jeff Smith in the article mentioned above claims they are on a hair trigger status. They are not. And Smith knows that having written on nuclear matters previously for the Washington Post during the height of the Cold War. But it is a rhetorical trick to make it appear that our ICBMs could be mistakenly fired. They cannot. And there is, as I have noted, absolutely no pressure in a crisis or at any other time to use these weapons in any but the most deliberate manner.

On top of which the US has roughly 50 strategic B2 and B52 bombers, which can be placed on alert--meaning ready to take off-- and then gotten airborne in a situation where our leadership wants them ready if need be. But because they are manned, they can be carefully controlled. Now, it does take many hours to get to their targets and yes they can encounter air defenses, but they add to our deterrent mix again making it totally unnecessary to quickly use nuclear weapons in a crisis. In fact, the combination of the three Triad legs makes it an inherently and highly stable deterrent. As General Brent Scowcroft and  Henry Kissinger explained last year, strategic stability is the key to an effective and credible deterrent.

Thus in pursuing further arms control, the US has some choices. But only if such reductions contribute to greater stability and deterrence should they be pursued. We can reduce the warheads and bombs that our Triad carries, and leave our platforms in a steady state, or we can reduce sharply both the number of platforms and warheads together. In my view, the former is far more preferable than the latter. Why is that?

Years ago, an American President suggested that we could save a great deal of money and put our entire nuclear deterrent on just two submarines. Each submarine could carry upwards of 200 warheads so the argument was we would have "enough" for deterrence. We could then get rid of the remainder of what was then a deployed arsenal of over ten thousand nuclear weapons and have a simple, but cheap deterrent.

The President was quickly talked out of such an approach. Just as then it was not a good idea, it remains illogical. We cannot literally put all your nuclear deterrent eggs in a very few baskets. It makes no sense when it comes to strategic deterrence. Here's why.

If only two submarines carried the totality of the US nuclear deterrent, with 24 missiles on each Trident submarine, with each missile carrying its maximum load of 8 warheads, we could save lots of money, and reduce the cost of our entire strategic nuclear deterrent by many tens of billions of dollars. But in so doing, we would be inviting an adversary to "come get us". An adversary need only find these two submarines under water and eliminate the entire US nuclear deterrent with a few torpedoes from their own attack submarines in a stealth and surprise attack.

Imagine the President of the United States  being told by the head of the Navy that one of our nuclear armed submarines had not returned to base. And not being able to determine the origin of the attack.  When would the second and last submarine not come home as well?

Similarly if under new proposals from the administration, we are required to match the Russian low number of platforms/missiles, we would be making it markedly easier to take out our forces in a crisis where now they are spread out in a manner making an all out attack irrational and ineffective.

Now some proponents of such low numbers argue the Russians will never negotiate another agreement where the US has more platforms or missiles, (SNDVs) even if warhead totals are the same for both countries.

Well, in fact, the Russians just agreed to New Start in 2010 where the US has 700 operational platforms and missiles and the Russians will have under 500. Ironically, the 2010 treaty would allow the Russians to build up while requiring the US to build down. 

Critics also contend the Russians have fewer "targets" and thus the US would be able to destroy a higher percentage of the Russian nuclear forces than Russian would of US forces if the United States could keep all its current missiles and platforms.

In 2006, Kier Lieber, a professor at Notre Dame and Daryl Press of the University of Pennsylvania, argued in Foreign Affairs that the US was building a first strike capability against the Russians where we could take out most of their nuclear capability before they could strike back.

In response, Peter Flory, a senior Department of Defense official explained, "Publicly available facts contradict Lieber and Press' thesis that the United States is pursuing a first-strike strategy." He further noted President George W. Bush set the nation on a path to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons in a May 2001 speech at the National Defense University, stating, "I am committed to achieving a credible deterrent with the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs, including our obligations to our allies. My goal is to move quickly to reduce nuclear forces."

To some degree this same argument is now coming back. It is now claimed that the US has to reduce its nuclear targets or SNDVs to match in number those of Russia, even though we will have the same number of warheads. This again assumes Russia will leave its submarines in port and its mobile missiles in garrison, making it easy for the United States to strike such targets in a crisis. In fact, Russian mobile land based missiles when deployed could not be taken out even with a very large barrage attack from the US even should the US exhaust all its deployed warheads.

If we can reduce nuclear warheads--which after all we are repeatedly told that is the goal of those seeking an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons--but at the same time increase strategic stability, why not go in that direction? Yes it is true as critics claim that with more SNDVs than the Russians we would be able to "build back-up" to a greater extent if we determined the strategic environment or balance changed for the worse.

But is not having such an insurance policy simply good common sense?

And given the actual reality that Russian forces are indeed survivable in a crisis, why should the US build down its SNDVs to such an extent where our forces then become vulnerable to a Russian "first strike", exactly the fear proponents of further reductions warned about nearly a decade ago when the shoe was on the other foot? In short, how to we improve strategic stability if we combined current Russian vulnerability (exaggerated though it was) with future US vulnerability?*

And as experts have explained, the US forces can be modified in such a way that a rapid break-out to higher numbers would not be readily possible but could only emerge over time, eliminating the possibility of "strategic surprise". Already one wing of the Minuteman missiles has a bulkhead upon which one warhead rests which would take many months to exchange for a capability to carry the three warheads formerly carried by Minuteman compared to the one warhead today.

In short, there is a right way and a wrong way to continue strategic deterrence and arms control, in combination. Eliminating all or part of the Minuteman force, the submarines or bombers without enhancing strategic stability seems to me to be counter-productive. If warhead levels can be safely reduced but with crisis stability improved, why not seek that avenue?

For the entirety of the Cold War and for the 22 years of the post-Cold War, the US has maintained a nuclear deterrent second to none, stable and sufficiently credible that our allies and friends took seriously our commitment to their security.

There is some question whether the reductions now being contemplated will maintain that same deterrent. As we have noted, eliminating a significant portion of our land based missiles would markedly reduce the number of targets an adversary had to worry about, and would also, for the first time, under an arms control reduction agreement, markedly increase the ratio of Russian nuclear warheads per each US nuclear forces target.

If arms control is going to work, it makes sense to reduce warheads and increase platforms, and thus disperse ones forces, so that in a crisis no one is tempted to "go first" and strike your nuclear capability and destroy it before you get a chance to use it. That is the very essence of crisis stability.

Knowing we cannot eliminate the chances of conventional conflict, it makes great sense to ensure that whatever global conventional forces exist, any conventional conflict not escalate to the nuclear level.

This could include a dispute between Pakistan and India, with China over Taiwan, with North Korea attempting aggression toward South Korea, with Syria potentially striking Turkey or Israel, or Iran and its proxy terrorist groups seeking to dominate the Saudi peninsula.

No one can predict which one of these possible flash points might erupt into a crisis and then involve nuclear armed adversaries not part of the original conflict. How much is enough to deter Russia or China then becomes a very different question of how one deters Pakistan or Iran or a terror group.

With no ICBMs, our platforms and targets would number 2 submarine bases, 6 submarines at sea and bombers at 2 bases as well. The totality of the US nuclear fleet would be 10 targets facing 1100 Russian nuclear weapons (and perhaps 300 or so Chinese weapons though the latter number is not known with any great confidence). Today, by contrast, we have over 460 targets, a very significant number which cannot be destroyed in any kind of pre-emptive strike.

So why trade what we have which works for the other that may not? The warheads on ICBM silos can all be reduced to one, as we are doing. Submarine missiles can be downloaded to low numbers as well. With a planned 192 sub based missile fleet in  a future force,  (12 submarines each with 16 missiles), along with 400+ Minuteman missiles in silos, 800+ warheads could be placed on our missile systems sufficiently spread out to create greater stability than what we have today. Why trade this for a strategic imbalance where our nuclear armed adversaries could see great benefit in seeking to eliminate--perhaps over time--by stealth in particular--the bulk of our strategic deterrent?

As today, bombers can count as one warhead per airplane, say up to a certain limited number such as 25-50, and the total warhead count for US deployed strategic weapons can easily fit within a cap of 1000-1100 warheads, without putting in jeopardy the stability of the force and confidence in a crisis that nuclear weapons will never be used. Our deterrent would remain second to none, credible and stable. 

There is a grave danger in trying to support deterrence "on the cheap" or "casually". The 67 years of the nuclear age included one key trend--the number of US nuclear SNDVs went up as a percentage of our adversaries warheads as we moved toward lower levels of weapons starting with the INF (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces)  treaty and the START I treaty under Presidents Reagan and Bush.

This was continued under the Moscow Treaty, and under New Start that trend was held steady. If the new proposals now being discussed materialize, especially where a significant number of Minuteman missiles are eliminated, we will have begun to abandon the thirty plus year search for greater strategic stability. Under one proposed scenario, we will have cut in half the ratio of US platforms to Russian warheads. Put differently, for every US submarine, ICBM and bomber, the Russians would have seven strategic deployed warheads, compared to three today. Other proposals such as that put forward by Global Zero, are even worse, with 10 US targets compared to 950 Russian warheads, a 95 to 1 ratio.

In conclusion, in our pursuit of lower levels of nuclear weapons, we should not heighten instability to such an extent that we make the use of nuclear weapons more likely in a crisis, or because the strategic environment has become imbalanced, heighten the chances that reckless behavior on the part of a nuclear armed power becomes more rather than less likely. 


*One reason Russia's SNDVs are fewer in number than the US is that they have chosen to put many more warheads on their land based missiles than we have. With many more warheads per missile, they end up with fewer missiles (SNDVs) than we do. But all during the arms control negotiations of the Cold War, a top goal of the United States was to actually ban all land based missiles with more than one warhead each, known as mirv-ed missiles, which stands for multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicles. The ban was contained in the START II treaty which was never ratified by the Russian Duma with the same text as by the US Senate. The Russians insisted on stopping US ballistic missile defenses as the price of ratifying START II. The US Senate said no. Apparently, some proponents of Global Zero are now suggesting we counter Russian mirved land based systems with deploying our forces in a more vulnerable manner to make Russian warheads more effective against the forces we will have in the future, as opposed to moving in the opposite direction, and that is of making our forces more survivable. That, of course, could readily be accomplished by keeping all 420-450 Minuteman silos and missiles.

Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland , a defense and national security consulting firm.

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