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ASP’s Nuclear Fairy Tales and Misconceptions

Nuclear Disarmamentby Peter Huessy

Despite the fact that our Triad of forces has been a nuclear umbrella that has kept the nuclear powers from going to war against each other for 69 years, the anti-nuclear left continues to receive $300 in support for every $1 contributed to those who support our current nuclear deterrent efforts.

It is also becoming apparent that much of this effort on the left is designed to radically change our current nuclear deterrent strategy. This involves a push to break apart the nuclear Triad of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles deployed by the United States since the early 1960’s. And to significantly cut back on the number of deployed B2 and B52 bombers and Trident submarines we keep in the arsenal as well as a push to eliminate most or even all of our land based Minuteman missiles.

In its place would be instead a minimal deterrent strategy that is unfortunately too often far short on logic, long on untested assumptions and based in large part on inaccuracies that get repeated over and over again perhaps in the hope that if done over a long enough period they will be a accepted as certified facts.

Such a “minimalist” deterrent strategy would heighten instability, unravel our extended deterrent with our allies and consequentially quicken nuclear weapons proliferation.

An example of such work is the American Security Project’s (ASP) just published “The 21st Century Nuclear Arsenal; Rethinking and Reshaping the American Nuclear Deterrent and its Forces for the 21st Century”.

As with most such assessments on the left, it contains numerous “nuclear fairy tales and misconceptions”.

First the fairy tales.

1. For example, the cost of the nuclear deterrent enterprise is claimed by ASP to be $50 billion a year. This exceeds by over 100% the current nuclear enterprise expenditures estimated at $23 billion by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

And it is nearly 50% higher than the annual average estimate of a recent CBO study of what future US expenditures would be for a full-up nuclear modernization effort.

ASP’s source for this estimate even claimed 2012 annual US nuclear modernization costs were $70 billion a year.

2. The “study” says a fresh assessment of our nuclear deterrent requirements is needed–fair enough. But then it assures us our nuclear deterrent requirements can be met with 1000 or fewer deployed nuclear warheads compared to the over 2000 now deployed. Apparently, the ASP “study” adopted a conclusion before their recommended “fresh” assessment could even get off the ground.

3. The study concludes that North Korea has nuclear weapons but only to stop an American and Republic of Korea (ROK) led invasion of North Korea. We are similarly assured North Korea has no interest in invading the ROK, only that the regime in Pyongyang is deemed interested in “regime survival”.

This view is consistent with that held by Pyongyang itself. Apparently it is North Korea that is deterring us! This is a fairy tale of the first order.

4. The report discusses ways to defend America against hypothetical attacks by rogue states with nukes or terrorists using loose nuclear materials or an actual warhead. But the study mentions no specific rogue state. North Korea is inexplicably described as not a threat.

5. The idea that a rogue state such as Iran is in itself a terrorist entity–what Mike Ledeen calls a “Terror Master”— seems to have escaped the authors attention.

Cooperative agreements such as the Nunn-Lugar legislation are all well and good but cannot apply virtually by definition to the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are not a cooperative country. And in the absence of counter-veiling forces, Iran will in all likelihood secure nuclear weapons.

6. The study proposes that we de-alert our nuclear forces to reassure our enemies that we have no aggressive designs on them. But the author seems perfectly oblivious to the fact that such actions as “de-alerting” cannot be verified and would serve no useful purpose.

Furthermore when examined, the hypothetical implementation of de-alerting has never been demonstrated to help deterrence, crisis stability or counter or non-proliferation or prevent potential nuclear terrorism. In fact an analysis done at the beginning of the past two administrations demonstrated that de-alerting could be highly destabilizing and was a key factor in the idea being abandoned.

7. The report says the US has “thousands” of strategic nuclear weapons available for use when we actually have fewer than 2000 unless of course the ASP report believes US policy is to use all our available deployed nuclear weapons first.

When factored into our accepted policy and doctrine of only using such weapons in retaliation, our secure retaliatory force comprises some number of surviving ICBMs and bombers on alert that get airborne and our submarines at sea, or a useable arsenal far less than “thousands” of warheads as described by ASP.

In short, depending upon the assumptions of what an initial attack on US nuclear assets would entail, our retaliatory arsenal of nuclear weapons numbers is now in the medium to high hundreds of weapons.

But a July 2002 CSIS report by two highly regarded analysts–Clark Murdock and Michelle Flournoy–“Revitalizing the US Nuclear Deterrent”, clearly concludes that a retaliatory capability of some 1000-1500 warheads may very well be needed in the 2020 timeframe to adequately deter adversaries from threatening US interests, to hold at risk the assets China, Russia and rogue states value, to handle a range of contingencies and to promote global strategic stability. A retaliatory capability in the low hundreds of warheads does not meet that standard but which implicitly is what would be available if total US deployed forces numbered 1000 or less.

Second, the misconceptions.

1. The study complains the US nuclear arsenal has not been adjusted to the current world geostrategic realities. However, this is not close to being true. Starting with the adjustment in deployed warheads initiated by the Reagan administration in 1981, the US nuclear deterrent force of deployed strategic nuclear weapons has dropped from over 13,000 to 1550.

We have also moved from an Eisenhower policy of massive retaliation and mutually assured destruction (MAD) to the Kennedy’s flexible response policy and then to a Nixon-Ford-Carter era of a damage limitation or counterforce strategy to the Reagan and subsequent administration’s adoption of a more flexible and assured second strike retaliatory capability with particular emphasis on crisis stability, which is where we are today.

Our deployed weapons have not been this low since the Eisenhower administration. What has not changed has been the need for deterrence and the requirement that the US have a secure retaliatory capability. This means that in a crisis, the first use of nuclear weapons is not contemplated by our adversaries. This also reassures our allies, extends deterrence and preserves crisis stability.

2. The report seems unaware that reductions in the US- Russian arsenal through traditional arms control have not appeared to have had any impact on rogue or other state deployments of nuclear weapons one way or the other.

Thus as a potential trigger for less proliferation, further cuts as advocated by ASP in our strategic deterrent appear unlikely to achieve what the study assumes will be the case. While the US and Russia (as well as France and Great Britain) have built their weapons arsenals down, other states have built their arsenals up.

3. Nunn-Lugar, DTRA, the four-year lock down of nuclear material, and the PSI and other frameworks of dealing with nuclear issues are all programs with beneficial impacts.

But ASP misses a key issue. These programs require for their implementation a cooperative effort of like-minded states. Nuclear armed rogue states or terror groups are decidedly not that!

4. The report says the US has to calibrate (read cut back or eliminate) its deployment of such capabilities as long range prompt conventional strength so as not to upset the Chinese or Russians. But in the report the reverse is not even discussed.

5. Missile defense as an effective tool of counter proliferation, deterrence and protection against nuclear attack is also not discussed in the report.

6. Its conclusion that Congress does not scrutinize nuclear programs adequately is both partially correct and partially false. Formal hearings and policy making speeches are indeed few compared to the height of the Cold War. But professional staff scrutiny of nuclear programs is very detailed and extensive in both the House and Senate.

7. Every nuclear power except the US and Great Britain have very extensive nuclear weapons modernization programs underway, and to a very large degree, the combined modernization efforts in China and Russia exceed any period during the Cold War.

Taken together these multiple errors and misconceptions cannot be a logical basis for determining what a sound nuclear deterrent strategy should be for the United States and its allies. If not corrected such views if adopted would seriously undermine America’s search for a credible nuclear deterrent strategy and a continued sound roadmap forward.

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Peter Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis located in Potomac, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.