Video Above: A Conversation with Peter Huessy, Senior Warrior Maven Nuclear Weapons Analyst
The administration has sent to Congress the sixth nuclear posture review since the 1991 end of the “first” Cold War. While still classified, recent disclosures and the FY2023 budget submission give us a relatively clear idea of where the US nuclear deterrent policy and strategy is headed.
The news is both good and not so good.
US Nuclear Deterrent Policy
Most importantly to the administration is the requirement to get the United States back into the lead with respect to nuclear arms control deals (which may or may not be compatible with deterrent requirements.)
There are at least four aspects of this. First is to bring back the 1987 INF treaty; second is to secure a new Iran nuclear agreement known originally as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action; third, extend and expand the New START treaty of 2010; and fourth, unilaterally cut US nuclear forces to 1000 or fewer warheads.
The Russians have serially violated the INF treaty and as such it became untenable to continue adhering to a treaty with only one participant—Washington. This fact is not readily apparent from the news coverage of the INF agreement because while the US did withdraw from the treaty, it was only because Moscow was violating the agreement with the illegal deployment of at least 100 INF range missiles.
The nuclear agreement with Iran follows the same pattern. ISIS’s analyses explains Iran never fully adhered to the terms of the original 2015 agreement, especially the required disclosure of previous nuclear weapons technology activities, a point ignored by the United Nations IAEA, although the JCPOA required IAEA to verify any previous Iran nuclear work.
It was the subsequent Israel raid on a warehouse filled with Iranian nuclear documents and their subsequent disclosure that revealed a significant effort by Iran to gather nuclear weapons technology, what former national intelligence chief General Michael Hayden described as an industrial strength nuclear capability which he explained the JPOA was going to facilitate, not prevent.
So, while the United States did withdraw from the JCPOA, it did so not as a result of any animus toward arms control deals in principle, but particularly because this nuclear deal did little to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapons capability,
As for the New START agreement, the previous administration adhered to the agreement, and it has now been extended for an additional five years by the Biden administration. It is unclear therefore what aspect of the New START treaty needs to be enhanced as the US has been and remains in strict adherence to its terms, although between 3-5 Russian strategic (long range) nuclear systems under both development and production may not be limited, as today some 55% of Russia’s nuclear strategic and regional nuclear forces now deployed are not limited by the New START agreement.
Thus, while Washington seeks to “lead” an arms control future, it is unclear how to resurrect the INF treaty without Russian compliance. Or how Congress would approve a new or amended JCPOA (required by law) that takes off the terrorist list a series of Iran entities that are the primary terrorist threats to the Middle East region and beyond.
What primarily remains is a future, beyond New START, nuclear arms deal. However, any such agreement has to deal with some Congressional concerns with what would be required in a new deal.
First, all nuclear weapons including the multiple thousands theater, or regional or short-range nuclear systems held by Russia have to be curtailed in any such new agreement.
Second, there is also the further complication of the current “breathtaking” Chinese buildup of nuclear weapons, variously projected to reach 1000-2500 warheads by 2030-2040 or two-thirds of or twenty-five percent greater than the current entirety of US deployed strategic nuclear warheads.
And third, is the question of whether the US would unilaterally adopt various arms control measures, irrespective of what Russia and China are undertaking.
For example, in the new proposed FY23 budget, the administration eliminates the proposed Navy-based short range nuclear armed cruise missile and the megaton class gravity bomb B-83 carried by the B-2.
Looking down the road, the disarmament community continues to push unilaterally both an end to the new Sentinel land-based ICBM force and unilaterally reducing the US strategic deterrent forces to 1000 or fewer nuclear weapons, a fifty five percent cut in the US strategic deterrent.
However, while the US is seeking to “do arms control,” the US is also simultaneously putting forward a FY23 budget that apart from the cuts mentioned above, actually keeps in place most of the nuclear deterrent modernization of the previous two administrations which since 2010 Congress has fully supported—in fact, Congress has modestly added funds to past nuclear deterrent force budgets.
Many in the disarmament community don’t support such work, variously describing the current modernization effort as initiating an unnecessary and dangerous arms race or just part of a bloated defense budget.
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However, other analysts don’t worry. They dismiss US and Russian modernization as just part of a serial plan undertaken as part of a normal cycle of replacing old and obsolescent nuclear systems.
But as OSD published, the Reagan-era initiated US modernization effort ended in 1993-97, while the current effort won’t be completed until 2042, a gap of nearly half a century. Comparable Russian efforts never ended nor paused.
Now, simultaneously pushing arms control and also modernizing the nuclear deterrent is not necessarily contradictory. The Reagan and Bush administrations used the phrase “build-down” to describe both the reductions in nuclear weapons sought under the START I and START II agreements (1991 and 1993), but also the robust nuclear modernization build program detailed by President Reagan’s late fall 1981 budget and arms control proposals.
At the time, the SALT arms framework was in place inherited from the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, which allowed for both the Soviet Union and the United States to build up to between ten and twelve thousand deployed strategic nuclear warheads.
The build-down idea was laid out in some detail by dozens of NSDD’s published by the US National Security Council and detailed in Sven Kraemer’s book “Inside the Cold War From Marx to Reagan.” Kraemer shows how the “peace through strength strategy” flummoxed the disarmament folks who were in 1981 pushing a nuclear freeze. The freeze was originally a Soviet idea, as at the time the Soviets had fully modernized its own strategic nuclear forces while the United States still had not deployed the Peacekeeper ICBM, the Ohio class submarine and C-4/D-5 modern missiles, or the B1 and B2 strategic bombers and cruise missiles. A freeze coincidentally would have ended all US modernization efforts even in the face of a full-up Soviet completed nuclear modernization program.
The proposals outlined above being proposed today by some in the disarmament community are when compared to the freeze are worse. They would end many US modernization efforts unilaterally as well as cut our strategic deterrent forces in half, but not in the face of a freeze of our adversary’s nuclear forces but in the face of a massive, “breathtaking” build-up.
Now while adopting some of the disarmament communities’ ideas while simultaneously proceeding with nuclear modernization, the administration may be giving contradictory signals to our allies and enemies. The Russians and Chinese could accept the proposed unilateral concessions and provide the US with nothing in return. But our allies especially in NATO and in the Western Pacific, could be concerned if these unilateral measures were undertaken as they strongly did with respect to the prospect of the administration adopting a “no first use” (NFU) nuclear doctrine, which the administration wisely rejected in its just completed nuclear posture review.
Video Above: Could a Strong Deterrence Posture Keep Putin From Launching a Nuclear Attack?
With its emphasis on reinvigorating “arms control” the administration could wisely move to corral both non-compliant Russian theater systems and the entirely of the growing Chinese arsenal, and if successful could significantly improve US security. But with the Chinese rejection of such negotiations until such time as the US and Russia on their own reduce their nuclear stockpiles to the current Chinese level, China’s security leadership has no interest in nuclear arms control.
On the modernization front, as previously noted, the administration has proposed killing a Navy based nuclear armed cruise missile and the B-83 gravity bomb. The cruise missile would not need to be sovereign based in Europe for example, and thus quickly deployed at sea. And the gravity bomb is the only US weapon that can currently hold at risk deeply buried leadership bunkers in Russia and China. Each system would give the US a heightened deterrent capability says both Franklin Miller, a former top nuclear expert in the defense department and White House and the US Commander of Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard.
Why does it remain controversial to combine a robust nuclear deterrent with genuine and verifiable arms deals? The reason is the disarmament community is still wedded to largely outdated assumptions about the nuclear deterrent environment that get in the way of sound analytical thinking.
The disarmament community or global zero campaign as it is described has centered “arms control” objectives around US unilateral restraint including: (1) the US adoption of a “no first use” nuclear strategy; (2) unilateral US reduction of US deployed nuclear forces to between 400-1000 warheads; (3) eliminating the new Sentinel ICBM program as well as all existing land based missiles; and (4) re-establishing the Iran nuclear deal of 2010.
With the administration rejecting NFU although adopting instead new language that declared nuclear weapons should only be used for deterrence and principally only to deter nuclear attack on the United States, the “arms control” will probably focus on these other disarmament desires and the possible impact on US and allied security.
Reducing US deployed warheads to as low as 1000 or even 400 as the late Dr. Bruce Blair proposed in 2019 Congressional testimony, would reduce our retaliatory capability to an estimated 240-288 at sea fast flying missiles, able to hold at risk no more than 150 hardened military targets in Russia and China combined, or markedly less than their nuclear deterrent capability of some nearly 1000 nuclear armed land and sea based missiles and strategic bombers and the target base that even Dr. Blair declared to be nearly five hundred.
A further complication is that keeping the US deterrent at between 5-12 Columbia class submarines limits US missile availability to between 80-196 D-5/2 missiles, with between one third and two-thirds on patrol area or in transit at any one time.
Such a force is capped at no more than 1572 total warheads, roughly equal to the non-strategic bomber weapons the US and Russia are allowed under the New START treaty, to say nothing of the current and projected Chinese nuclear forces. Under such circumstances, any arms racing that would be done would be solely by Russia and China. While also keeping the nuclear and other military forces deployed by Beijing and Moscow in a sanctuary that the United States could not fully hold at risk.
As for the argument that the ICBM Sentinel system is deployed in silos and thus is a “sitting duck” for the Russians or Chinese to attack, careful analysis reveals how the assertion makes no sense.
First, the ICBM silos are deployed in known locations, but so are our submarines in Bangor, Washington and Kings Bay, Georgia, and our strategic bombers at Minot, North Dakota, Cheyenne, Wyoming and Great Falls, Montana.
Second, the Russians could attack any of these forces, but irrespective of how many of these systems are attacked, the US will be able to massively retaliate with all the submarines we have at sea, the bombers already airborne, and the ICBMs we can launch after confirming an attack.
No sane Russian commander would recommend an attack using nearly 1000 warheads against the 400 US ICBMs knowing this reality, and no American President need worry about such an attack if our deterrent TRIAD remains robust and therefore credible.
Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis. These views are his own. A small portion of this essay was published by The National Interest on April 10, 2022