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By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
ICBM critics continue their attack on America’s nuclear deterrent while pushing forward a series of false narratives. Specifically, on April 21 former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Tom Collina of Ploughshares write in *Defense One*the US must eliminate the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Their alternative is to have US to rely solely on Ohio and Columbia class submarines and to generate bombers back to alert if required by a failure within the submarine leg of the Triad, a sharply diminished sized deterrent the US has not relied upon previously by any US administration for the entirety of the nuclear age.
They first assume since our 450 ICBM silos are in known locations, in a crisis the Russians will be tempted to pre-emptively launch enough missile warheads to destroy the US silos and their associated launch control centers. They then next assume that since during any crisis a Russian launch to be imminent, this compels a US President to order our ICBMs to “launch first”, even before the US is certain that an attack is underway, and thus creating grave international instability.
Third, the temptation to launch first is too grave to be reflective of US policy. Thus, in a surprising twist, former Secretary Perry now argues the US ICBM force provides no useful deterrent role since they would only be fired after an attack on the US was confirmed and all Russian missile silos would be empty. Therefore, our ICBMs would never destroy any targets of substance since US ICBMs are targeted against the Russian ICBMs which will have already been launched toward the United States. In keeping with a “no first use” policy, which is the only moral policy to have, by definition our ICBMs aren’t useful to deter because to destroy Russian missiles in their silos the US would have to attack Russia first.
Fourth, if ICBMs cannot be used against Russian military targets, what is their purpose? Perry and Collina invent a totally new role for ICBMs that lets them argue that it safe for the US to unilaterally kill GBSD, and eventually phase out all ICBMs. Perry and Collina now claim our ICBMS are nothing but a big “sponge”, deployed to do nothing more than to absorb upwards of 1,000 incoming Russian warheads. Consequently, the US can keep the 50-year-old “cheap” MMIII ICBM “sponge” force rather than replacing it with the more capable but they claim a more expensive GBSD “sponge.”.
Apparently the intellectual gas has run out of their previous anti-ICBM arguments and they finally acknowledged what nearly every professional assessment, including Nuclear Posture Reviews published by the past four administrations, had already concluded. Any attack on America’s ICBM force would require over 900 warheads, [using two warheads for every US ICBM related target], and the US response from our deployed submarines, alert bombers, and surviving ICBMs, would be overwhelming, and as such would make any initial Russian attack suicidal.
This admission that any massive attack against the ICBM force is suicidal, eliminates any logical assertion underpinning their previous anti-ICBM arguments. A massive Russian attack is not going to happen, crisis or no crisis.
Having admitted their decades long argument to eliminate ICBMs has no logical basis, you would think these ICBM critics would admit intellectual defeat. But that’s not the case.
They invent another false idea. They admit as we noted the Russians would never logically launch such an all-out attack against our ICBMs.
However, a false warning alarm might make the US conclude we are under such an attack, and the US President could still prematurely mistakenly launch our own ICBMs, and thus inadvertently trigger Armageddon.
It is true that in 1979 and 1980 a malfunctioning computer chip in US warning messaging system made it appear that first a small Soviet SLBM and then second a Soviet ICBM attack, respectively, were underway. But that type of problem was fixed, permanently. A 1980 SASC report written in mid-October by Senator Gary Hart and Barry Goldwater concluded that the threat was determined to be false within one minute of being discovered, that no radar or satellite phenomenology indicated any attack was underway, and that no threat conference was convened.
Analysts familiar with the report concluded the entire warning system worked exactly as it was designed in that the error was quickly discovered, eventually fixed, and no such problem has occurred in the subsequent four decades. In short, the narrative of a false computer warning scare possibly leading to the breakdown in nuclear deterrence is itself bogus. Completely. The narrative that the President at the time contemplated responding never happened.
In any case, US policy has generally been to confirm the detonation of an enemy nuclear warhead on US or allied soil before we would respond. Or ride out an attack. Our entire nuclear Triad is structured to allow a patient response, not one which is hurried. Matt Costlow of the NIPP argues in a new study that ICBMs actually give the US President more time in which to make a launch decision compared to those submarines in port or bombers at our bases in CONUS, as the latter can be struck with adversary cruise missiles in a relatively short period of time compared to the 30 minutes required for a Russian attack on our ICBM silos.
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Most importantly, contrary to what Perry has previously alleged, the United States does not now have a policy of launch on warning and as former NSC top nuclear specialist Robert Bell explained in some detail in 1997, the US has never had such a policy.
This is why since the early 1960s the US has maintained a robust nuclear Triad ensuring a credible number of our forces would survive even the most massive attacks, with the capabilities to retaliate with overwhelming force. That makes any such adversary attack suicidal, a point Perry and Collina now accept.
However, they remain obsessed with eliminating the US land-based ICBM force. And while apparently still fearful US ICBMs might be launched prematurely in a crisis, the real purpose of the MM III write Perry and Collina is actually never to be launched!
Their new essay discovers the only purpose of the United States ICBM force is to attract nearly 1,000 Russian warheads and act as a nuclear “sponge, where America’s sparsely populated rural states get nailed but not America’s urban areas.
This “sponge invention” by ICBM and nuclear critics is just that—a complete invention.
Previous Soviet missile threats during the height of the Cold War opened up what President Ronald Reagan described as a serious “window of vulnerability”. Through effective modernization yielding peace through strength, that Soviet threat was ended and that window of vulnerability was closed.
The mere presence of a capable, credible ICBM force so severely complicates any enemy attack strategy that it essentially eliminates an all-out Russian launch against the ICBM force. Coupled with the complementary capabilities from credible and capable bomber and submarine forces the totality of the Triad holds key Russian reserve ICBM and other nuclear forces at risk. It is called deterrence.
In fact, the current ICBM force and the future GBSD force still will be the US’s most cost-effective, most responsive, and most accurate deterrent. The annual investment required is roughly $1.2 billion more on average for the lifetime of the vastly improved ICBM capability provided by GBSD over what the US currently spends to sustain and invest in the current ICBM force.
And the GBSD provides credible capability, with built in agile adaptability for new technology to counter future threats for less investment than what it would cost to retain the current Minuteman force.
President Kennedy explained the 1962 Cuban missile crisis ended peacefully because the newly installed Minuteman I ICBM force “was my ace in the hole” that enabled the President to make Khrushchev stand down and avoid Armageddon.
Since Minuteman I went on alert in October 1962, our ICBM force has been on alert nearly 40 million minutes, without any US President ordering them to be launched. Why? A credible ICBM capability is stabilizing in a crisis.
The deployment and sustainment of the Minuteman and Peacekeeper ICBM systems though 12 administrations, has kept numerous crises from becoming open conflict, ensured victory in the Cold War, ended the Soviet empire, and continued to keep nuclear armed superpowers from armed conflict in the Pacific, the Middle East and in NATO.
In short, ICBMs and the nuclear Triad are key stabilizing factors in US deterrent policy. They deter adversaries and assure our allies.
In the words of the former Strategic Air Command Motto: “Peace is our Profession.”
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.