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UPDATE Nuclear Issues of the Day: Hedge Strategies, Low Yield Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence as Bluff
By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
The new administration will reportedly do a mini-nuclear posture review or NPR, in order to jump start arms talks with the Russians and move the US and other nuclear armed powers toward the twin goals of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterrent policy and reaching what is known as global zero.
Three areas this essay reviews are: (1) examine how a US hedge strategy might be affected by possible unilateral reductions in US nuclear forces such as eliminating the ICBM leg of the Triad; (2) determine whether low-yield D-5 deployments should be reversed; and (3) assess impacts on US deterrent policy if US retaliatory policy becomes ambiguous.
It is assumed by many within the disarmament community that a sea-based force of submarines is adequate for the US to maintain deterrence. It is often assumed that since the D5 sea launched ballistic missile or SLBM has been tested at upwards of 14 warheads, the warheads potentially available for that force would be 14 warheads times the 20 missiles now on the Ohio class submarine, and for all 14 submarines in service. Implying a force capable of deploying 3920 warheads or 250% of the New Start limits on fast flying missile warheads more than sufficient as an insurance hedge against warhead limits breaking down.
However, such nuclear fuzzy math is way off. First, the D5/2 or D5 missile that is undergoing a service life extension program cannot carry more than eight warheads. Second, the Columbia class replacement submarine will carry 16 missiles, not 20 or 24, the current Ohio capability. Third, the Columbia class acquisition will be for 12, not 14 submarines.
This has major implications for strategic stability and deterrence. If all 1490 New Start treaty missile warheads (1550 minus the 60 allowed bombers) go on submarines because we have eliminated all ICBMs, as many in the disarmament community propose, the maximum loading for submarines is 1524 warheads—12 submarines each with 16 missiles and each carrying a maximum of eight warheads. That is but a fraction above the New Start allowed warhead level and a negligible hedge capability.
But a particularly important caveat is also in order. A submarine only nuclear force would deploy roughly only a third of such submarines in the patrol area from which the submarine missiles would be launched. And without the nearly 400 ICBM warheads also now available and on alert on a day-to-day basis.
This means the United States would have significantly less warheads available to deter our adversaries than our deterrent strategy requires, AND have no hedge or breakout capability. While the Russians, even under the same rules, could easily and quickly climb to over 4400 warheads deployed on their strategic systems now deployed.
Now it may be that people believe warhead numbers do not matter but in fact if they do not matter why are we signing arms agreements that require each side to have only a certain number of warheads?
As Ambassador Ron Lehman recently detailed in remarks at the December 10thnuclear symposium held in cooperation with Global Strike Command and the CIC/LTRI community along with the Mitchell Institute, the US decided decades ago to primarily seek limits on warheads in arms control discussions with the Russians, while also limiting the SNDVs or platforms that launch the warheads.
To be clear, SNDVs have indeed been reduced from around 2400 starting with the SALT treaty of 1972, and now are held at 700-800---even though we cannot assume all SNDVs limited by New Start are the totality of such Russian platforms.
My arguments do not imply all arms control limits are bad. Indeed, I have long argued that the US should seek to constrain multiple warhead “fast flyer” missiles with high alert rates (which the US did in the START II treaty but which never came into force.) And just as we have special counting rules for bombers, (more bomber weapons can be deployed than count under the New Start treaty limits), why not for stabilizing single RV land-based missiles?
Low Yield Nuclear Warheads: An Incentive to War?
The argument against the placing of lower yield warheads on the D-5 missiles is that since the Russians would not necessarily know the yield of an incoming warhead or missile, they would assume it is a large warhead and a precursor to a much larger strike. Their response, goes the argument, would most likely be an all-out retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States, what Paul Nitze used to tell me was the Armageddon option.
Is such a threat or strategy credible? No, as why else would Russian President Putin adopt an “escalate to win” or escalate to de-escalate policy using low-yield and limited nuclear strikes? Obviously, Putin thinks he can use a small number of and low yield nuclear strikes to get what he wants and that threats in this context of all out nuclear war are not credible.
As noted above, American critics of the D-5 deployments—now complete—argue Russia’s leaders would immediately reach for the Armageddon option if even faced with a small number of missiles headed toward Russia.
If this is the case—that Russia will assume any missile launched at Russia contains a large yield--then of course it does not matter what kind of warhead the United States places on its missiles. If Russia will always assume the worst, then getting rid of such low yield deployed warheads in the US arsenal makes no sense. In short, Russia will not care.
In short, changing the warhead size and yield on our missiles by removing low-yield warheads from our arsenal of D-5 missiles neither makes nuclear war more likely or less likely according to the theory that Russia will assume the worst. But implicit in that argument is if the Russians were persuaded the yield was small, their response would be considerably different than an all-out retaliatory strike.
This then blows up the entire philosophy which is that low yield weapons are worse than big yield weapons. How is that possible if the Russians assume all incoming warheads have big yields? Given the US has deployed such weapons in its nuclear arsenal for decades, the US must believe they serve a valid deterrent purpose.
Nuclear Deterrence Strategy: A bluff?
But if we change our strategy now it will matter for deterrence. Such US assumptions if adopted as policy means we are telling the Russians that any US retaliatory response to Russian nuclear aggression will not be limited but will be an all-out total nuclear response. Is this credible?
The Russians might not think so, with the result that any barrier to the use of nuclear weapons may have been lowered considerably.
Now to some considerable degree the disarmament community argues against any possible limited use of nuclear weapons because they view any use as “nuclear war fighting” where they can be no winners. The assumption being any useof such weapons will quickly escalate to an all-out exchange.
But that does not explain why Russia has thousands of low yield regional nuclear weapons which they regularly exercise with and threaten to use against American allies in NATO and in the western Pacific.
In short if these low yield weapons are not useful why don’t the Russians agree to get rid of them? The reason is quite obvious—they think they are valuable.
The low yield D5 warhead is thus not for “war fighting” as disarmament advocates believe. The capability simply gives the United States more timely options which the Russians, for example, have to consider if engaging in either conventional or nuclear conflict with the United States or our allies.
The whole idea is to lay out in the adversaries mind a whole series of possible USA options any one of which the US can credibly choose to follow which will lead to unbelievably bad results for the bad guys. And also, that the United States does not have to threaten Armageddon (which lacks credibility) as the sole available response to the Russian threat or actual use of a limited number of nuclear warheads.
And further, given the US nuclear arsenal has always contained low yield warheads in its strategic deployments, the idea that the deployment of an additional small number of such warheads, as the Trump administration did, will somehow completely upset the nuclear balance is simply and plainly absurd.
However, the low yield on a D-5 missile gets to the theater of conflict quickly and credibly. Such a missile capability avoids the necessity of penetrating air defenses a challenge an air breathing airplane deterrent would face. At one time the Navy-based nuclear armed cruise missile allowed the United States to do this exact mission but the nuclear armed cruise missile was eliminated by the previous administration.
However, there is another common thread to the opposition to the D-5 deployments. This thread reflects a strange emerging belief about the very nature of deterrence. If you assume a nuclear war must never be fought, (a hope all Americans certainly believe), but also believe as a consequence that nuclear warheads are only good for deterrence, you then are likely to assume that if deterrence breaks down, there is no useful role for nuclear weapons.**
Indeed, if any retaliatory strike is assumed to characterize “war-fighting” and to be therefore removed from the options a President has available, then deterrence is a dead letter and largely a bluff.
Think this is an exaggerated fear? Well, the founder of Global Zero the late Bruce Blair testified in 2019 before the House Armed Services Committee that the US should NOT retaliate with nuclear weapons even if repeatedly attacked with nuclear weapons by for example Russia. He argued that he wanted to keep the “moral high ground” and avoid “the US breaking the taboo against any use of nuclear weapons.”
How comforting to know that the UJS will have successfully seized the high ground, though at a cost of multiple thousands, maybe millions, of lives and the loss of our freedom and liberty. And having given the green light to further adversary aggression.
**In 1979-83, nuclear freeze advocates in the United States argued even a limited use of nuclear weapons would inject so much carbon into the atmosphere from the fires created by the detonated nuclear warheads, that a “nuclear winter” would be created, stopping all life for literally billions of the earth’s inhabitants. So even a small number of detonated nuclear warheads would indirectly kill billions. The nuclear winter thesis was later piggybacked on the “ice age” theory of climate change in the 1970’s that then morphed into global warming in the 1980’s, and now has morphed again into simply global climate change.
Peter R. Huessy – Mr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.