NUCLEAR DETERRENCE: PEACE is Our Profession
By Peter R. Huessy - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
(Washington D.C.) This column begins for the first time a weekly nuclear “blog” here at Warrior Maven and will be solely dedicated to America’s nuclear business and a careful explaining of some of the nuclear challenges the United States now faces.
********* PEACE is Our Profession *************
(Washington D.C.) Each weekly essay will begin with correcting some recent examples of nuclear deterrence misinformation. To be required regularly to do so is both worrisome and depressing. Worrisome in that the public and their elected officials are getting bad information. And depressing in that our top adversaries—China and Russia—are collectively adding to their nuclear capability at a pace and magnitude unmatched since the height of the Cold War while the US is being misdirected.
Two examples come to mind. First, in the absence of New START there has been some speculation that the US will have to devote extra billions to matching a Russian nuclear breakout and thus not have the necessary capability to deter a rising China.
Well, matching the Russians should Moscow breakout of the New Start treaty can be partially done by adding warheads to the MM III and Ohio class D-5 missiles at a cost of tens of millions, not hundreds of billions.
However, as Mark Schneider of NIPP and James Howe have both written, the Russian breakout capability from New START does exceed that of the US by a considerable number of strategic warheads—to say nothing of the estimated four to one or higher advantage the Russians have in what are described as theater or short-range nuclear forces.
That is precisely why the administration seeks to redo the New START treaty because it does not constrain the Russian surge, upload, or breakout capability. Recent news reports that the US and Russia might agree on a preliminary freeze on warhead deployments as part of a New START extension is welcome news, although verifying such a deal remains the tough part of any nuclear agreement. Cementing the Russian breakout advantage which extending new START would do without any compensatory conditions, doesn’t help US deterrent requirements.
As for deterring China in the nuclear arena, the US will deter China with the same nuclear force with which we deter Russia.
The second news story that continues to get a lot of play is whether the US silos-based ICBMs are so vulnerable to a Russian first strike that they should be dismantled. My colleague Rebeccah Heinrichs addressed this in an especially good new column.
How realistic is it that a Russian leader is going to wake up one morning and decide to initiate a civilization ending nuclear war by launching a massive 1000 warhead strike on our nearly 500 ICBM silos and the associated ICBM launch facilities? The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review concluded the likelihood of such an attack is near zero. A FAS essay by Mat Korda concluded the NPR was right.
Heinrichs explains it this way:
“The beauty in our ICBMs’ alert status is that they offer the United States a powerful prompt response option that can hit any target on the other side of the planet. But one should not conclude that an on-alert status means that we are a hair’s breadth away from launching ICBMs at an unsuspecting country accidentally or due to the wrong belief that we are under nuclear attack.”
Unfortunately, this scare story keeps hanging around, and is a huge and unnecessary distraction. pushed by those who want to kill some element of the US nuclear force to demonstrate their commitment to what is known as “global zero.”. But as some disarmament advocates have admitted, there is a near zero chance that the Russians in a crisis will go after our ICBM assets and try and strike the 400 ICBM silos and their associated warheads now deployed. Such a strike would leave intact both the US bomber fleet at three bases and submarines at sea and at our two ports. And any kind of crisis conditions prior to such a strike could very well give the US ample time to put more of our forces on alert.
After all, both the surviving ICBMs and non-ICBM force collectively have the potential in a retaliatory strike to hit Russia with upwards of 1700 warheads. On the other hand, if Russia is contemplating trying to disarm the United States by striking all US nuclear assets in an all-out massive Armageddon-type first strike, what’s the point of eliminating 98% of the targets by getting rid of our ICBMs? Why make it simpler for Russia to try and disarm the United States? In short, put in language anyone can understand, if you are worried about your house being vandalized, is it a good idea to open the windows and leave the door unlocked?
The bulk of this week’s essay addresses the often-heard charge that the US by modernizing its nuclear forces is creating an arms race with Russia, and that unilateral restraint on our part would be an effective remedy.
Below is posted a preliminary graphic on the USSR and Russian strategic nuclear missile, submarine and bomber IOCs, or initial operating capability, from 1955-2035. A companion graphic was printed in the DOD Nuclear Handbook this summer on comparable United States nuclear deployments over the same period.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, there was great hope within the Western democracies that the economic and human costs of the Cold War would be a thing of the past, including high defense budgets required to deter Soviet aggression. The Bush administration’s signing of two major strategic nuclear arms control agreements—START I in 1991 and START II in 1993—promised Russia and US deployed strategic nuclear warheads were destined to fall 75% from near 12,000 to 6000 and then subsequently to 3,500.
Even more hopeful was the Russian leader Yeltsin’s proposal at the United Nations for a US-Russia global missile defense regime, coupled with nuclear weapons reductions, designed to stop accidental, rogue, or pre-emptive missile strikes. The Bush administration sought out the Russians to discuss this joint effort, understanding, or at least recognizing, future nuclear and missile threats might be serious enough to still require the US and Russia to “keep their powder dry.”
One popular historian, Francis Fukoyama, went much further, concluding “it was the end of history” and that liberal democracy no longer had competition from terrorism or communism and their totalitarian ideologies. And with the election of William Clinton to the Presidency in 1993, apparently a lot of people decided “it was the economy stupid.” Under Clinton, the peace dividend was cashed in, defense budgets across the West initially slid downward, and Clinton’s new Secretary of Defense—"took the [missile defense] stars out of Star Wars” to cheers from the nuclear disarmament community.
Later in the decade, the National Academy of Sciences and the new Secretary of Defense William Perry declared Cold War nuclear threats from China and Russia were no longer so serious. Some top US generals concluded nuclear weapons were simply not credible military tools, and consequently the US delayed any thought of refurbishing an aging nuclear deterrent. Indeed, it was assumed it was the end of history.
But things were not as rosy as many US national leaders assumed.
Storm clouds were gathering in Russia, China, the Korean peninsula, and the Middle East. Terrorist attacks at Khobar Towers, the World Trade Center ’93, our embassies in Africa and in Yemen against the USS Cole, were harbingers of more terrorism to come, including 9-11.
In 1999, the Russian Duma unexpectantly killed the START II treaty, by again resurrecting the old Soviet ploy of trying to include in the arms deal a requirement to end US missile defense work which would be have to be kept solely in the laboratory. The US Senate would never accept such terms and thus not only did the START II warhead reductions not occur, the treaty provision to ban all multiple warheads on land-based missiles was deep sixed, even though there has been hope the treaty would go into force after having secured near unanimous support in the US Senate.
On the Korean peninsula, North Korea in 1998 surprisingly launched an ICBM test rocket, revealing an emerging capability to possibly range the continental United States with a ballistic missile. A most troubling development given the DPRK previously discovered and not adequately fettered nuclear weapons program.
As for China, the communist leaders were beginning a long-term major modernization of their conventional and nuclear forces, including building military fortresses on strategic southwest Pacific islands, reminiscent of Imperial Japan.
Most worrisome was the Russia push to modernize its nuclear forces.
During the Cold War, the Soviets deployed on average 1.8 new types of strategic nuclear bombers, submarines, or ballistic missiles every year.
In the immediate post-Soviet era, Russian nuclear modernization did slow significantly to 1.0 type each year, due in part to Russia being nearly bankrupt—a factor the US took advantage of with the process of dramatically cutting Russian deployed strategic weapons first to 6000 under START I and then to 3500 under START II.
But with the accession of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in Russia, that changed dramatically. Putin announced in 2000 that nuclear weapons were indeed a diplomatic and military tool to be used, particularly early in a crisis or conflict. At the same time, with the Russian Duma having rejected START II, further expected Russian strategic nuclear reductions—especially the elimination of land based multiwarhead missiles-- did not materialize.
However, Russia did agree to further nuclear reductions in the 2002 Moscow treaty to 2200 warheads, although the treaty requirements to do so were largely notional. At the same time, Putin surprisingly acquiesced in the Bush administration push in 2003 to end the ABM treaty, long thought by disarmament advocates to be what they described as the “cornerstone of strategic stability” without which any arms control would not be possible.
Despite these positive developments, Putin was planning a very extensive nuclear modernization effort.
The 2002 Moscow or SORT treaty may have bought Russia time to get back on its nuclear feet.
In 2004 Putin outlined a planned massive modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
In 2011, Putin announced the nuclear modernization efforts would be completed by 2020.
In 2019 Putin announced the modernization campaign would reach just short of that goal --90% of its target by 2020.
In 2020, Russia’s defense minister said the target was 87% achieved, confirming Putin’s earlier promise.
While Russian nuclear weapons deployments were accelerating, the US was by contrast, amid a prolonged “nuclear nap” says the head of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard.
In a new study, preliminary results indicate in the post-Soviet era, projected to 2027, the Russians will deploy 27 new types of strategic nuclear armed strategic nuclear bombers, land based and sea-based missiles, cruise missiles, and submarines, reaching the exact annual IOC pace of the 1972-1987 Cold War.
Our study also has examined Cold War nuclear arms control deals—the 1972 SALT I and INF treaties of 1972 and 1987 respectively—and concluded they had no appreciable impact on Moscow’s push to build strategic nuclear platforms. Apparently, the START I, Moscow Treaty, and New START agreements of 1991, 2002, and 2010 while dramatically reducing strategically deployed Russian warheads, did not presage a new more benign era in the US-Russian nuclear competition.
Although the Russians slowed new nuclear production for a short period after the end of the Cold War, that was soon reversed. Between the Moscow treaty of 2002, through the New START implementation to early 2021, and projected through 2027, Russia will deploy four new types of bombers and four associated cruise missiles; six new classes or types of land based missiles; five new or upgraded types of submarines and three accompanying new types of sea-launched ballistic missiles.
And with these new platforms, Russia will be able to easily deploy over time some 4500+ warheads, and may have nearly 2200-3200 deployed today, despite the “official” New Start warhead ceilings of 1550.
Why is this? Russia has multiple platforms on which to add ballistic missiles, in addition to mobile land-based missiles which are extremely difficult to verify under current New Start rules. On top of which, most Russian missiles each have large numbers of warheads, while two-thirds of US missiles have single warheads.
By contrast, as it comes to modernization, new US strategic nuclear deployments during 1996-2028 will be zero. The US won’t deploy a new nuclear armed strategic bomber or new land-based strategic missile until 2029, and in 2032 the first Columbia class submarine goes in the water. To be fair, during this period the US will have extended the service life of the aging MMIII ICBM and sustained both submarine and bomber legacy systems as well.
Most worrisome however is that the US upload or “hedge” capability might not be able to reach much beyond 3000 strategic range missile warheads, compared to a significantly greater Russian capability. On top of which, a US upload effort could take 3-4 years to implement and not be able to balance in a timely manner a Russian treaty breakout, (an example of one of the key flaws in the New Start treaty that the US administration is seeking to rectify). A purported freeze on such deployments in return for a treaty extension could temporarily resolve such a threat.
Thus, assertions by disarmament groups, echoed credulously by major media outlets, that US deployment of modernized nuclear capabilities, beginning in 2029, are now igniting an arms race are without foundation. The facts we have put together illustrate quite clearly that Russia will have already deployed by 2027 nearly thirty new types or classes of nuclear bombers, submarines, and missiles, before the US deploys a single upgraded nuclear delivery platform.
A simple extension of the New Start treaty as many analysts support would simply perpetuate these Russian advantages while also leaving unchecked Russian and Chinese nuclear systems not restricted by the treaty.
Unilateral US restraint has been suggested as an anecdote to aggressive Russian nuclear expansion. But as former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown wisely explained years ago, when it comes to nuclear arms, when the US builds, so do the Russians. And when the US stops building, as we did at the end of the Cold War, Russia continues to build.
I must thank Kris Osborn, the founder of Warrior Maven and the defense editor at The National Interest, who has made this column possible.
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.