Skip to main content

Video: Networked Army Radar Destroys 2 Maneuvering Cruise Missiles

By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist

December 10, 2020, Nuclear Triad Symposium, Sponsored by the Air Force Association Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Cyber Innovation Center, and Louisiana Tech Research Institute Symposium, remarks of Peter Huessy, director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

MR. PETER HUESSY: Hi, I’m Peter Huessy. I am director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, as part of the Air Force Association, and I’m here to talk to you about deterrence, arms control, nuclear modernization, and in particular the role of the ICBMs in our nuclear deterrent. As part of this discussion, I will review some of the common misconceptions and mythologies surrounding the nuclear deterrent business especially efforts to eliminate the ICBM leg of the Triad.

Let us start with the question of “What is deterrence?” People particularly the disarmament community, often assume that deterrence is having enough retaliatory capabilities to blow up the other guy’s cities. First, we don’t blow the other guy’s cities up. Our deterrent is based on taking out their military capability so they no longer can fight seriously and achieve their hegemonic aims. The idea of MAD, or mutual assured destruction, was a strategy developed in the 1960’s but has long ago been jettisoned.

When one looks at history and looks at totalitarian powers like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, both countries fought on even though they knew they were defeated, even though they were losing hundreds of thousands of people in their cities from bombing. They continued to fight and did not surrender. Therefore, it is very instructive to know that totalitarian countries highly value their military capabilities that enable them to achieve their aggressive and hegemonic aims. So, deterrence is having sufficient capabilities to go back at them and take out their military capabilities, which in the case of nuclear deterrence, is their remaining ICBMs, their submarines, their bombers, and critical conventional forces.

The second issue is, what’s the threat? We can make a point that since the New START Treaty was signed between the United States and Russia, Russia has built over 20 new types of nuclear weapons systems, including cruise missiles, bombers, land-based ICBMs, sea-launched ballistic missiles, and submarines. And, in fact, since the end of the Cold War, roughly in 1992, the Russians have built not 21, but 31 new types of nuclear weapons systems, basically, 80 percent of the pace that they had during the Cold War.

This is very important. Although the Russians nominally are meant to have only 1,550 warheads under the New START Treaty, actually the counting rules allow bombers to have whatever number of missiles and gravity bombs you can fit on a bomber. Even though they only count as 60, you can have, in the case of the Russians, probably somewhere between 600-900 warheads. Their total number of warheads that they have is basically 2,200, which is almost exactly the number under the Moscow Treaty of 2002 and 2003. Therefore, basically, arms control has been at somewhat of a standstill for the last 20 years.

Even more worrisome, the Russians can easily build up with just the missiles and bombers that they have today, under the New START Treaty that they’re allowed. They’re allowed 700 and they have a little less than 600 deployed. They can easily build up to 4,000 plus warheads, probably around 4,200 with their current missiles and bombers allowed under New Start. And they have 2000-5000 theater weapons that are not controlled by the New Start Treaty. And they have what are called exotic strategic weapons, ballistic missiles, underwater torpedoes, which when you look at them, by the middle of this coming decade they will be able to deploy another 500 warheads that are not controlled by the New START Treaty.

Even more worrisome is the Russians have adopted a new policy which General Hyten, our Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described as “escalate to win.” My colleague, Professor Steve Blank, has dubbed it as winning the escalation ladder, meaning that anywhere along the spectrum of conflict the Russians believe they can coerce us into surrendering. That means early on in a crisis or early on in a conventional conflict, the Russians would threaten to use a minimal number of nuclear weapons in order to get the United States to stand down. That is the threat.

On top of which, if you look at China, China ostensibly has, according to many estimates, around 300 warheads. But as the Federation of American Scientists has said, the only people that know how many warheads the Chinese have is probably the Chinese Politburo and the dictator head of China. A number of people, including our Defense Intelligence Agency, are convinced the Chinese are going to double their nuclear weapons by the end of the decade we’re now in. That would give them between 600 and 800 warheads.

Some top former officials in the Russian government, in the military, believe that the Chinese may have anywhere between 800 and 1,600 warheads deployed today in their arsenal, as well as in their stockpile. The question is, they have no transparency. They’re not party to any nuclear arms control agreement beyond the NPT. They are under no obligations to tell us what they have, and therefore the Chinese have basically gotten a free ride. That’s the second threat.

The question comes up, the United States, by building its nuclear modernization, we’re going to start an arms race. Let’s go through the numbers. Between 1996 when we stopped the construction of any more B-2 bombers, and around 2029-32 when the new bomber or the new ICBM or the new submarine, at the earliest would be deployed, the United States will have deployed zero new types of nuclear platforms. Let me say it again, zero new types of nuclear weapons. No new submarines, no new land-based ICBMs, no sea-launched ballistic missiles, no new cruise missiles, no new bombers. In fact, over a period of almost 35 years, three and a half decades, the United States will deploy zero new nuclear weapons roughly since 1991-2.

But during that same period of time, between 1992 for example, and 2026, the Russians will have deployed 31 new types of nuclear platforms. I don’t mean warheads, I mean modernized platforms: submarines, bombers, land-based ICBMS, cruise missiles and sea-launched ballistic missiles.

What about warhead production? The United States basically can produce probably less than a dozen warheads per year. We’re trying to get to the point where we can produce 30 and then 80 what are called “pits’. The Russians, on the other hand, can easily produce between 1,000 and 4,000. That’s 1000 to 4,000 warheads every year.

As Mr. Putin and Russian officials have pointed out, the Russians have already completely modernized 90 percent of their nuclear force. The United States’ modernization of its nuclear forces is still zero although we are moving toward the beginning of deploying a new modernized Triad.

Now let’s turn to cost. Many people say that the 30-year cost of our nuclear modernization is going to exceed $1 trillion, and some critics have pushed that number upward to $1.7 trillion. That 30 years, however, includes – two-thirds of it is the maintenance and sustainment of our old legacy systems, which if we built no new nuclear weapons whatsoever, these systems would be soon going out of the inventory. Someone called it “rusting to obsolescence.” We would have no nuclear weapons power, no nuclear deterrent, if we stopped all nuclear modernization. Even if we did that, we would still be spending two out of every three dollars on just the sustainment and the maintenance of our old systems until they went out of the force.

In fact, if you look at the current budget for 2021 and take the submarines, the new land-based ICBMs or GBSD, and the new B-21 bomber, the total expenditures in the entire defense budget is $7.5 billion. That’s $7.5 billion, a little more than one percent of the current defense budget of $738 billion. Of that amount, the B-21 bomber, if you remember, were going to build that bomber whether it had any nuclear capability whatsoever. We need at least 100 of the B-21 bombers as conventional, and the hope is that at some point we will build upwards of 200. But right now, the schedule is only for 100. Of those, a certain number will be nuclear-capable.

If that’s the case, if you look at it, only about three percent of the cost of the bomber is the cost of the nuclear aspects of the bomber. Therefore, the estimate of a trillion-plus dollars for our nuclear deterrent is overstated by at least $100 billion. The other thing is, the various estimates done by the Congressional Budget Office assume that the cost of maintaining our legacy systems, our Minuteman III deployed in 1970, our Ohio-class submarines deployed first in 1982, and our B-52 and B-2 bombers deployed 50 years ago in the case of the B-52 and 20-some years ago in the case of the B-2 – but the cost of maintaining the new systems is going to be not only equal to what we’ve been spending on our own current sustainment, but actually go up by about three percent a year. In 30 years, that is a doubling of the cost. Talk about cooking the books!!

So, over 30 years you basically have doubled the cost not only of buying these systems, but your estimate is you’ve doubled the cost of maintaining them. In fact, as we have heard in the conference today from General Ray, the operations and maintenance costs of the new systems is probably going to be significantly less than what we are now spending.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Now it is true also the National Nuclear Security Administration, with our laboratories and our warhead production, does spend today every year nearly $19.7 billion. And NC3, the command, control and communication aspect of our nuclear deterrent is another close to $4.5 to $5 billion a year in some estimates. Again, those numbers are basically classified. But I’m just basically guessing.

When you look at that, yes, the total nuclear deterrent costs about $40 billion today to sustain, maintain and modernize, but it will peak somewhere between 2027 and 2030 and begin to decline. Therefore, at any one time it is not going to be more than 6.4 percent of the defense budget. The modernization element will basically be about three percent. So, as General Mattis said, we can spend three percent to guarantee our security and our survival.

To give you an example, even if it was $1.2 trillion over 30 years, that’s $40 billion a year. That’s 3.6 percent of the total Department of Defense budget. Believe it or not, it is eight-tenths of one percent of the federal budget projected between 2025 and 2027, and I’m not including any COVID-19 expenses.

If you took all of government, not just the federal government but state and local government – I took out any double counting – it’s now eight-tenths of one percent. We’re talking about less than five-tenths of one percent of all government spending in 2025 and 2027 when we peak at our modernization costs. Let me say that again: Modernization will be less than five-tenths of one percent of the entire spending of all government spending in the USA.

In short, the cost of modernizing our nuclear deterrent is well within the ability of the United States. But what about ICBMs? Believe it or not, they’re highly stabilizing.

As General Goldfein, the recently retired chief of staff of the United States Air Force said, having 400 Minuteman missiles spread out over five states is an impossible, formidable obstacle/challenge to any adversary who decided to try to take them all out simultaneously to prevent them from being launched, even after the detonation of enemy warheads on American soil. Not only the 400 missiles, but you have 45 launch control centers. And if you include the extra 50 silos (but which do not have missiles in them but could,) the Russians would basically have to expend close to 1,000 warheads, targeting two warheads on each silo at each site on each target.

They’d have to launch 1,000 warheads at the United States. That’s not a sneaky attack. That’s not a limited attack. That’s not an act that would be surreptitious. We would know where these warheads are coming from, from Russia. It could be described as a suicide mission.

And then the question is, think of the earnest young colonel in the Soviet military rushing to his general officer boss who is head of the Strategic Rocket Forces, and saying, general, I have a great idea today. What is that comrade? The guy says, I have a great idea. Let’s launch 1,000 nuclear warheads at the United States, take out 400 of their warheads, but leave all their 1,000-plus warheads available on their bombers and sea-launched ballistic missiles at sea able to come back and retaliate against us and obliterate our ability to fight and obliterate our military and basically end Russia as we know it. Isn’t that a great idea, general?

They would send the young colonel to a psychiatric hospital, which they have been known to do in the past with their dissidents. But on the other hand, they would probably fire the guy because nothing could be crazier. In fact, the Department of Defense in the Nuclear Posture Review has said very clearly, the idea of Russia launching an all-out attack on America’s ICBM elements is the lowest, least likely scenario one could think of. In fact, they said it is near zero. And in fact, believe it or not, the arms control community, which talks about the dangers of such a Russian strike, have admitted in one article after another that today it is probably the least likely of any scenario to be implemented by the Russians. In fact, such a threat is near zero.

Therefore, if it’s near zero, why is it that some people are claiming that because the Russians are just about to attack our ICBMS with 1,000 warheads, we can solve that problem by getting rid of land-based ICBMs unilaterally, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and a number of arms control groups have suggested? The question is, what will the Russians have accomplished if they attack us? And two, more importantly, what will we accomplish if we get rid of our missiles?

Let me share with you what would happen. We would have some number of the 12 submarines we’re building at sea. We would have three bomber bases and two subbases, that’s all: five targets, plus let’s say an estimated five submarines at sea.

That means if the bad guys could find those 10 targets, and they could find our submarines at sea underwater and by a process of attrition over time if they got a breakthrough in ASW or anti-submarine warfare, they could take those submarines out under water. They could take out our bomber bases and submarine bases as they are very soft targets. Everybody knows where they are. They could denuclearize the United States over a period of months by attriting our submarines at sea.

What would you, as president of the United States do if your secretary of defense came to you and said, Mr. President, one of our boomers didn’t come home today? And then two months later, he came back to you and said, a second of our boomers has not come home today. At some point the United States will be out of the nuclear business. The question is, what will we have accomplished by getting rid of ICBMs under such a scenario?

Now some have argued that we could take all the ICBM warheads and put them on our submarines, so we have the same number of warheads in a Dyad force vs a Triad force. Therefore, we have an equal number of warheads as we have today, and we don’t have the supposed vulnerable ICBM leg of the triad. So, we’re not worried about having to use them or lose them and the supposed vulnerability of being in fixed silos where the Russians know where they are.

Let me tell you why this is such a crazy idea. If you put all 400 Minuteman warheads on your submarines, you would max out the Columbia-class submarine and its 16 missiles, all D5 missiles, all of which can only carry eight warheads per missile. Therefore, you would actually be over the New START limit of 1,490 missile/bomb warheads. You’d be around 1,534.

That means you can’t build up even if the Russians broke out of the treaty. In short, you would have no hedge, no breakout capability. Plus, it gets worse. The missiles would be very, very heavy with eight warheads rather than the estimated three to five that they might carry today. Therefore, their range is going to be diminished.

Not only that, because their range is diminished they have to operate closer to our adversaries, China, and Russia. The patrol area in which the submarines now operate would also be diminished, making it easier to find them should there be an ASW breakthrough. So, in all respects, the idea of getting rid of the ICBM leg of the triad makes absolutely no sense at all because there is no prompt launch threat, there is no threat of the Russians attacking them, as General Goldfein our former chief of staff of the Air Force has said, and they serve an enormously stabilizing point of view because if we had a technological problem with the submarines or the submarine-launched ballistic missiles, we have a backup called the ICBMs.

Similarly, if we had a problem with the bombers, we have a backup with the ICBMs. And, with 400 missiles and 45 launch control centers spread out over five states in the center of the United States of America, we know any attack against us cannot be cheap, cannot be surreptitious, and cannot be sudden. It’s going to be something that we’re going to see coming. And the Russians know the USA will know who launched the attack on the USA.

We’re going to probably see the Russians go on alert to try to do such an attack. We’ll be able to put more of our bombers in the air and, if we’re lucky, put more of our submarines at sea, and some portion of the ICBM leg of the triad is going to survive. With that, let me summarize.

Deterrence works. The ICBMs contribute to that. It is affordable and consistent with any arms control we might do with the Russians.

Thank you very much. This is Peter Huessy. On behalf of the Mitchell Institute, the Cyber Innovation Center, and the Louisiana Tech Research Institute, I want to thank you for being part of our 20th anniversary triad symposium.

Peter R. HuessyMr. 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.