Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.
Since 1972 when the United States signed its first arms agreement with the former Soviet Union, there was always a caution that if our adversary in Moscow failed to live up to the terms of the agreement, the United States had to preserve the capability to expand our nuclear deterrent.
SALT & START
With the SALT I 1972 treaty allowing a five-fold increase in Soviet and US nuclear warheads—even with limits placed on overall strategic nuclear delivery vehicles knowns as SNDVs---breakout was less of an issue than today. And despite the huge increase in allowed Soviet multi-warhead land-based missiles, we called the SALT deal “arms control” to be consistent with the new era we described as détente and peaceful coexistence.
The 1979 SALT II treaty continued this build-up, but modestly limited SNDVs to 2250 but still allowed the growth in strategic or long-range nuclear systems to near 12,000 warheads. At the same time the companion arsenals of theater or short range and lower yield or battlefield nuclear weapons were not placed under any limits given serious difficulties in locating and accurately counting such arsenals.
Thus, at that height of the Cold War, US defense secretary Caspar Weinberger estimated all Soviet nuclear weapons at somewhere around 35,000—with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the archives in Moscow and more open Russian officials told us the real number was closer to 45,000.
With the START I and II process markedly reducing strategic nuclear warheads in 1991 and 1993 agreements, the issue of “breakout” became more real. The Reagan administration as early as 1981 laid out in numerous NSDD’s or National Security Defense Directives the framework for the START reduction process and the companion rationale for the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal.
Critical to signing agreements with Moscow—whether the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation—was to hedge against a collapse of the treaties supporting reductions.
However, after the end of the Soviet Empire, the US went on a very extended procurement holiday during which our nuclear elements were not replaced or modernized. The ability to hedge was a problem. The Trident submarine production ended in 1992; the B2 bomber was terminated at only 20 airplanes in 1997 by Congress; and the new Peacekeeper 10 warhead land-based missile was stopped at 50 missiles, and the small mobile ICBM, dubbed “Midgetman” was terminated.
After all, Russian President Yeltsin and President H.W. Bush had agreed to big reductions in the START II treaty of January 1993. Yeltsin spoke at the United Nations in favor of both steep reductions in US and Russian nuclear weapons and the deployment of global missile defenses in cooperation with the United States.
But the Russian Duma turned away the START II treaty, and the US lost an opportunity to implement the treaty’s ban on multiple warhead “heavy” land-based missiles. The Duma cleverly added a requirement to the agreement that all future US missile defense work be kept in the laboratory, a ploy tried throughout the history of the Cold War first by the Soviets and then the Russians. Gorbachev tried the ruse at various summits with President Reagan, and subsequent Russian leadership tried again and again to stop US missile defenses, both those missile defense systems protecting the continental United States and its allies in Europe and Asia and the Middle East.
In fact, it was Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev who called President-elect Nixon in 1968 and urgently proposed that the two countries must ban missile defenses. The reason? The Soviet leader was convinced the previously announced “thin” missile defense proposed by the then Johnson administration to deal with China’s growing but still small nuclear arsenal was really aimed at blunting the Soviets nuclear deterrent and thus had to be eliminated.
1972 ABM treaty
Of course, those discussions continued, culminating in the 1972 ABM treaty that effectively banned missile defenses from being deployed by the United States. Yes, the treaty allowed each part to deploy 100 interceptors to protect the Capitol city (Washington, D.C., and Moscow) or a nuclear missile base. But for the US both were politically untenable. Protecting only Washington but not America’s heartland was a political non-starter. And protecting US missiles (but not people) could easily be defeated by the Soviets simply launching an extra 100 warheads at the US base to deplete the deployed interceptors.
Moscow Treaty of 2002 & New START Agreement of 2010
With the Moscow treaty of 2002 and the New START agreement of 2010, US and Russian deployed nuclear warheads were further reduced from 6000 (the START I level) to 2200 and then 1550, respectively, and SNDVS to no more than 700, a nearly 90% reduction from the peak levels of both nation’s nuclear warhead arsenals reached in the late 1980’s.
Ironically, in 2002, the US also jettisoned the ABM treaty, especially in light of rogue state missile threats such as from North Korea and Iran.
But nonetheless, Moscow continued with these two agreements with the US to cut strategic nuclear forces by nearly 75%, establishing there was nothing incompatible with deploying robust missile defenses as well as also simultaneously establishing a strong, credible, modern nuclear deterrent, albeit at very much lower levels.
Which brings us back to our opening point which in the face of much lower levels of nuclear warheads—levels not seen since the 1950’s—the breakout by the Russians could markedly change the strategic balance as the Russians still have large, heavy land-based missiles capable of deploying thousands of additional warheads. In the case of overall Russian systems, although they have just above 500 SNDVs now deployed, that number could climb to 700 under the New START treaty and give the Russians even an additional capability well in excess of the current breakout capability of building to 4000-5000 strategic, long-range nuclear warheads.
Now what is the US hedge? Each President since the end of the Soviet empire has emphasized in four consecutive nuclear posture reviews or NPRs that the US must have a credible and sufficient hedge capability, including a responsive infrastructure, to be able to balance any possible future treaty breakout by Moscow.
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The future US force of 400 ICBM missiles, 12 future Columbia class submarines each with 16 missiles, and 60 nuclear capable bombers, could deploy another 1280 fast flying missile warheads—800 additional ICBM warheads, and an estimated 40 more warheads for each of our 12 deployed submarines and 16 D-5 missiles per submarine. That gets us to 2770 total warheads, and if bomber weapons are included that number reaches a maximum of just below 4000.
There are however two caveats with that number: in the nuclear business, however, fast-flying intercontinental ballistic missiles are the “coin of the realm” and in the hands of our adversaries more worrisome than recallable and relatively slower delivery vehicles such as strategic bombers.
Thus, ICBMs an SLBMs would number under 3000 but would take some 4 years to reach that number given the logistical challenge the US faces in building the “hedge” we have in our force.
But now we are facing two additional challenges. One of our own making and one from China. Both are deadly serious.
China Nuclear Superiority
First lets us deal with China. As my colleague Patty Jane-Geller of the Heritage Foundation highlighted this week, “On Aug. 12, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told us that we are witnessing a strategic breakout by China.” As the Admiral further warned China can now bring force to bear “to any level of violence, in any domain, in any geographic location, and at any time.”
US satellites have discovered some 350-400 new Chinese missile silos, each laid out in a grid pattern some 3 kilometers apart. These new ICBM “launchers” are designed to hold the DF-41 missile as Rick Fisher of the International Strategy and Assessment Center has detailed in recent remarks to a Mitchell Institute seminar. The DF-41 is a 10-warhead missile. Added up the Chinese potential sprint to nuclear superiority may indeed be materializing, a possible 4000 warhead build that would be 266% of the total deployed warheads currently in the US nuclear arsenal.
And more worrisome, China’s future nuclear force could be 400% of today’s US alert nuclear forces.
Modernizing US Cold War-Era Nuclear Forces
The second challenge the US faces is one of our own making. Again, as Patty Jane-Geller explained, “the Biden administration was reported to be considering delaying the Pentagon’s plan to modernize the United States’ Cold War-era nuclear forces. Worse, just a few days prior, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) sent a letter asking Biden to consider reducing U.S. nuclear forces.”
The HASC Chairman wants the administration to jettison all of the US land-based missiles particularly the new ground based strategic deterrent or GBSD. Previous proposals in his committee to do just that failed 13-42, and on the floor of the House 166-266.
But despite these votes—in a Democratically controlled House—the administration yielded to pressure from Senators Warren (D-MA) and Merkley (D-OR) to once again study whether the GBSD is needed and whether there can be a cheaper and strategically viable alternative of either extending the life of the 50-year-old Minuteman III or perhaps jettisoning ICBMs altogether. [Life-extending an eventual obsolete asset such as the current MM III would accomplish that objective.]
In either case, the cost of extending Minuteman is reported as some $38 billion more expensive than the GBSD alternative, particularly given the lack of vendors for the Minuteman late 1960’s technology.
In any case, USAF Chief of Staff General Brown pushed back and called for going forward with the GBSD without delay.
At least a dozen previous studies have all concluded that the right way to go is with the new GBSD—it is cheaper; it is vastly more technically viable as it meets Strategic Command deterrent requirements which the MM will not; and will be significantly less expensive to sustain.
But there is an additional big strategic challenge. Remember the hedge we spoke about? HASC Chairman Smith has admitted GBSD is $38 billion cheaper. But he also said why then necessarily go forward with the GBSD ICBM program of record? As many disarmament groups have proposed, the US could just keep submarines and bombers.
The assumption is that if we did that, the Minuteman’s 400 warheads could if necessary be added to the submarines, assuming sufficient D-5 warheads are available in our stockpile. The SLBM force now has 1090 warheads and could indeed build up and deploy all the 1490 missile warheads allowed by the New START treaty, if the US continues to deploy 60 countable strategic bombers.
But the hedge ability of the US disappears if we eliminate ICBMs. The D-5/2 missile is being redone but holds a maximum of 8 warheads per missile. That means our total submarine force could deploy 1536 warheads as we are building the new Columbia class submarine that holds 16 missiles not 20. That 1536 total is just fraction above the 1490 we now have deployed under the New START treaty.
But some multiple thousands less than what the Russian can now deploy if they broke out of the New START treaty. Combined with the Chinese, America’s two nuclear armed enemies would have combined strategic nuclear warheads some 600% greater than the United States. If examined from the point of nuclear weapons on alert on a day-to-day basis, the imbalance reaches on the order of 1000%.
Alternatively, we could trust the Russians to remain in the New START treaty and the Chinse to suddenly abandon their sprint to nuclear superiority. That is now one choice, and critical one, the country now faces.
Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.