Video Above: A Conversation with Peter Huessy, Senior Warrior Maven Nuclear Weapons Analyst
The oft repeated maxim that a nuclear war should never be fought and can’t be won, most recently reiterated by Russian President Putin, raises the issue of whether any nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence. If you cannot fight a war with any nuclear weapon, what’s the point of keeping any of them around even if only for a retaliatory strike? It cannot be that just ICBMs, for example, are not useable to “fight” a war, as some critics have claimed, because submarine or bomber carried nuclear weapons are just as powerful and destructive.
Perhaps the concern is that ICBMs can only be used if they are used to start a war, as otherwise an attacker like Russia, for example, could shoot first and try and destroy all of our 450 land-based missiles in their silos prior to their retaliatory launch. This is in contrast to our stealthy submarines at sea that can survive an attack and still be available for a retaliatory strike, what is known as having an “assured retaliatory deterrent.”
Ironically, Professor von Hippel of Princeton, a key advocate for killing the ICBM leg of our nuclear TRIAD because of a feared Russian pre-emptive first strike on our ICBM silos, wrote confidently in 1977 and then again in 1986 that there would be no rationale behind such a feared Soviet first strike as identified in 1974-5 by Defense Secretary James Schlesinger as a “window of vulnerability.” Particularly important is that this “window” was a key part of Ronald Reagan’s national security platform in his campaigns in 1976 and 1980 for the Presidency.
Von Hippel dismissed the idea that the US faced any nuclear window of vulnerability. His logic was as follows: given between 23-45 million Americans would perish after even a limited Soviet counter-force strike against US nuclear forces such as on our more than 1000 ICBM silos, no sane Soviet leader would order such an attack as such huge casualties would guarantee an angry US President would be compelled to order a massive US retaliatory strike. This assumption of a guaranteed and massive US counter strike, argued von Hippel, would dissuade the Soviets from doing anything so reckless.
Today, however, with Ukraine conflict, a much more limited Russian nuclear first strike is feared, as President Putin has explicitly threatened NATO with a nuclear attack some thirty five times.
US analysts have taken these threats seriously, but instead of strengthening nuclear deterrence to forestall any such Russian attack, many are arguing that US strategy should be to respond solely with conventional forces even if Moscow uses nuclear weapons. Some in the disarmament community apparently describe such a strategy as a “deterrence only” plan, and if deterrence breaks down, to subsequently avoid “nuclear war fighting.” And also avoid the use of nuclear weapons so as not to break the international norm against the use of nuclear weapons, and thus place the moral onus on Moscow for breaking what is considered a nuclear taboo.
But if that is the case, what is the deterrent value of nuclear weapons to begin with? Would not US nuclear deterrence now be exposed as “only a bluff” if we confirmed we would never use such weapons, even in a retaliatory mode? If such weapons are not to be used, why is an enemy or adversary going to fear them?
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Throughout the nuclear age, particularly during the era when the Soviet empire threatened to invade Western Europe, the US strategy assumed the US would not spend the billions to match larger Soviet conventional forces, and thus NATO would almost certainly have to respond with the use of nuclear weapons to stop an invasion by the USSR and the Warsaw Pact.
Now the threat from Moscow today is still a possible attack on one of our NATO members along the Russia-Europe border, such as the Baltics. Although the initial attack, like Ukraine, may be limited to Russian conventional forces, a failed conventional campaign might very well compel Putin to “escalate to win,” which as retired JCS Vice Chairman General Hyten described, is where Russia threatens to use a limited number of nuclear weapons to change a losing hand and achieve victory.
Dr. Brad Roberts of LLNL describes this new Russian strategy, developed by Putin in the late 1990s, as a “red theory of victory” in which the use of nuclear weapons quite clearly is a blackmail and coercive tool of statecraft, where nuclear weapons are viewed as “very useful” in actual military conflict, the precise opposite of the strange American idea that nuclear weapons are for “deterrence only.”
A number of top American nuclear experts such as Eric Slosser, Rose Gottemoeller and the late Bruce Blair, have for example, supported the idea that in response to a nuclear attack on the United States, the US should use only conventional forces, apparently to avoid a potential escalation to all-out nuclear Armageddon.
However, folding up and retiring America’s nuclear umbrella is not a wise idea. As the Ambassador from one NATO country reminded President Putin over his designs on Ukraine, NATO was founded and remains a “nuclear alliance,” and although Ukraine was not member of NATO, almost all of Ukraine neighbors are.
For some reason, many “experts” were shocked after Putin’s Ukraine invasion to find out the US policy for the entire Cold War and beyond was to hold a nuclear “extended” umbrella over our NATO and Western Pacific allies to defend them against an attack by a nuclear armed enemy such as the Soviets and now Russia or China.
The idea therefore of the US only using conventional weapons to defend against a nuclear attack is an open invitation for an armed nuclear power such as Russia and China to attack. Especially in that all US winning conventional war strategies, as military experts have so testified before Congress, assume that the US can prevail but only if no nuclear weapons are introduced into the fight.
As the US cannot now prevail with conventional forces alone against an enemy that employs nuclear weapons in a fight, taking our nuclear “deterrent off the table” guarantees defeat.
The new ICBM, “Sentinel” each carry one warhead with extraordinary accuracy. Against an enemy that uses only a handful of nuclear weapons against the US in hope that the US “stands-down,” our ICBM force would be wholly survivable and available for a retaliatory strike especially against discrete targets the loss of which would deny the Russians or Chinese the capability and force necessary to achieve their hegemonic objectives.
And in the circumstances of a limited Russian strike today, if in 1977 and 1985 a massive Russian strike against our ICBM force was not to be feared when the Soviets had over 10,000 strategic weapons, why when Moscow has 80% less warheads is a possible disarming (not limited) strike against our ICBMs suddenly to be feared?
The answer may lie in the words of President Kennedy who said after the Cuban missile crisis, the Minuteman (ICBM) was his “ace in the hole,” a new modernized American deterrent capability that went on alert October 14, 1962, the exact day on which the US discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Peter Huessy, President, Geo-Strategic Analysis; these views are his own.