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Blowing Holes in the Nuclear Deterrent

by Peter Huessy

Nuclear DisarmamentThe President’s budget will be submitted to Congress this week and the annual Department of Defense (DOD) budget at $585 billion is sure to get a lot of attention. For example, Tom Collina of the Ploughshares Fund (1) recommended, even before the budget was released, that the USA cut $75 billion over the next ten years from projected DOD nuclear weapons modernization requirements.(2)

Included in the proposed cuts would be four out of the twelve planned submarines we are building to replace our current Ohio class Trident fleet of 14 nuclear armed submarines. These bulwarks of our deterrent were first put into the water some 30 years ago and will soon reach the end of their hull life.

Also recommended by Ploughshares was to stop all work on a new dual capable strategic aircraft–to replace our aging B1and B52 bombers which are now approaching 25 and 55 years respectively and have only limited capability to penetrate air defenses and also do the associated required reconnaissance and target assessment.

In addition an air launched cruise missile that can be launched hundreds of miles from enemy air defenses by these new bombers would also be eliminated.

Finally, Collina recommends keeping the Minuteman land based missiles –a surprising but apparent reversal of Ploughshares long standing effort to kill the entire American ICBM land based missile deterrent.

It is true as Collina notes that absent full modernization, Minuteman can be sustained in its existing technological state beyond 2030 as required by law. But planned modernization would for the long term be a far better investment because it would significantly reduce future operational costs as well as provide more flexibility and future nuclear deterrent value.

Are these Ploughshares recommendations consistent with our deterrent requirements?

Let’s examine this issue.

Collina’s submarine numbers are not workable.

Reducing the fleet to 8 submarines means over the next few decades as few as 6 submarines would be available at any one time to provide the US with nuclear deterrent capabilities and of these as few as 2 would be on

patrol at any one time, dramatically reducing the ability of the US to hold at risk the necessary adversary targets to fulfill our deterrent requirements.

Some have suggested as Collina also does of putting all currently planned 1000 warheads for the 12 submarines on just 8 submarines to make up for the loss of 4 submarines not being acquired.

This doesn’t work either in that 2 submarines at sea on a day-to-day basis cannot operate and cover the same targets as 4-5 submarines on patrol which we have today under most reasonable operational assumptions.

Again, this means that significant adversary targets can’t be held at risk thus undermining our nuclear deterrent requirements.

Collina further claims the requirement for the currently planned 12 submarines is based on a strategy of launching our submarines quickly in a crisis–what he refers to as “prompt launch”.

Nothing could be more wrong.

Collina is confusing a capability–all our nuclear forces can be launched quickly in a crisis–but submarines on patrol are deployed precisely so they DO NOT have to be launched promptly as there is no current danger that they could be found and destroyed prior to launch even should their retaliatory launch be ordered by the President considerably after an adversaries first strike against the US.

The entire US nuclear deterrent strategy for many decades has been to have a secure second-strike retaliatory capability in the submarine fleet that eliminates any need to launch any of our nuclear weapons quickly in a crisis.

The synergy between all three legs of the Triad thus makes it impossible for any adversary to strike all three legs simultaneously and thus the compulsion of an enemy to strike first in a crisis is virtually eliminated.

In fact, given the security of the submarines on patrol, they cannot now be targeted and as such are available whenever the President needs them.

By not having to use such weapons early in a crisis, strategic stability is maintained and the chances that nuclear weapons would be used against the United States are significantly lessened.

No adversary can thus strike the US with nuclear weapons without being assured of being on the receiving end of a potentially massive retaliatory strike that would eliminate that nation’s ability to fight.

In short, our strategic nuclear submarines are at sea for precisely the opposite reason as Collina claims.

They do not have to be launched promptly as there is no current or near term prospect that they can be targeted while at sea.

But to place all submarines in port as Collina proposes as an alternative is the height of irrationality. There they can easily be targeted with conventional cruise missiles. Why not paint a bulls eye on each submarine in port and invite an enemy to take out our deterrent?

Collina’s call for delaying a new strategic bomber also makes no sense. He claims we should strengthen our conventional deterrent rather than spend defense dollars on our nuclear forces. But the new bomber is also needed for conventional purposes even if never used for nuclear purposes. In fact current law requires the new bomber to be nuclear capable 3 years after its initial deployment as a conventional platform.

And the nuclear related costs are a small1.5% of the total cost or under $1 billion for the new bomber force, hardly cause for alarm.

Collina also wants to eliminate the new nuclear cruise missile capability of the new plane. But adding a cruise missile capability is needed to deal with enemy air defenses of increasing capability for both conventional and nuclear requirements.

Vietnam’s air defenses shot down over 1700 US tactical airplanes and 17 B-52s and that was over 40 years ago. We only have 20 B2 bombers that have both a needed penetrating capability today and an ISR capability.

Given these limits, carrying out a conventional campaign such as Desert Storm that required hitting over 30000 aim-points, cannot be done in the future with the airplane fleet of today or an upgrade only of the current force.

Thus the bomber proposals of Collina would undermine the very conventional military capability he claims to support.

His ICBM recommendations are equally strange.

Despite his organization’s repeated efforts to eliminate the land based nuclear deterrent from our nuclear triad, Collina’s says we can indefinitely sustain the ICBM force and thus do not need to modernize the force.

It’s welcome news that Ploughshares finally sees the deterrent value of the 450 Minuteman missiles in our force but Collina’s Minuteman analysis is still woefully incorrect on at least four points.

First, the Rand study to which he referred actually did recommend a modernized force and supported an option that turned out to be exactly what the recent USAF analysis of alternatives (AOA) also concluded was the path forward for ICBMS.

Second, while it is true that Minutemen can be sustained for the immediate future the technology needs to be upgraded and the ground based support equipment is approaching a lifetime of 50 years.

Third, the future force will not be mobile as the recommended modernized force will remain in fixed ICBM silos as they are today.

And fourth, the costs of a modernized Minuteman force as recommended by the USAF AOA is roughly $42 billion over 20 years or about $2.2 billion a year compared to $1.6 billion we are spending today and is consistent with the Rand study as well as a 2010 Air Force Association/Mitchell Institute assessment.

Thus, the notion that a future ICBM force will cost $200 billion as Collina claims is without foundation. It is another nuclear fairy tale.

Collina attempts to clinch his case by further claiming our military commanders have endorsed a reduction to only deployed 1000 warheads from the 1550 we maintain today.

No such agreement has been reached with the Russians and without such further joint arms control no U.S. reduction in our nuclear arsenal makes any sense, nor would a unilateral U.S. reduction be approved or supported by Congress or by the US military responsible for our nuclear deterrent.

Furthermore given China’s growing nuclear arsenal and its plans for global hegemony [backed up by nuclear weapons and other asymmetric military capabilities] as just revealed in a new book by Mike Pillsbury, (“The Hundred Year Marathon”) the idea that the U.S. should reduce its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to 1000 warheads and thus be outnumbered by the Russian and Chinese strategic weapons combined by up to 3 to 1 makes no strategic sense at all.

Finally Collina takes completely out of context the warning of a recent Congressionally mandated commission report that advised future military modernization is at risk because of current defense spending budget caps. The Commission did warn that some projected spending if carried out will cause other military priorities to be left unaddressed if the caps are not changed.

But the Commission warned that the remedy was to eliminate the budget caps and not, as Collina proposes to do, meet arbitrary defense spending budget ceilings by undermining our nuclear deterrent and cutting critically important nuclear and conventional modernization programs.

After all the very nuclear deterrent the USA is seeking to modernize and thus keep effective has prevented nuclear weapons from ever having been used especially by the two largest nuclear armed adversaries for some 70 years.

This deterrent record which has kept the peace between nuclear powers for those 70 years has been perfect 100% of the time. That is an extraordinary record of achievement.

Why is that?

Because that deterrent even at a small current cost of 4% of the defense budget and .6% of the current federal budget has indeed kept our allies and us free because it has been effective, credible and stabilizing.

How? Well, the deterrent is a Triad of complimentary forces, each with unique characteristics that provide a stability and credibility that cannot be matched by any one leg of the Triad by itself.

Over time, and significantly during both the Kennedy and Reagan administration, we modernized that deterrent to keep the deterrent viable, a task that again is at hand.

As such that deterrent helped win the Cold War and defeat communist totalitarianism.

And keep free and liberate a combined many billions of people.

Thousands of brave men and women operate, maintain and modernize our nuclear deterrent 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year and every year for the past 7 decades.

It is time we also had their backs.

Cutting the very backbone of our security is not the way forward to a safer world or safer America.

Support the troops and support the nuclear deterrent mission.

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

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(1) Ploughshares supports US unilateral cuts in America’s nuclear deterrent while pushing for zero nuclear weapons in the future.

(2) Mr. Collina apparently bases his estimates of what could be saved if his recommendations are followed in large part on a new CBO or Congressional Budget Office report that notes all nuclear modernization and sustainment funding required over the next decade would cost between $330-$380 billion depending on certain assumptions.

The CBO cost estimates may be too high by nearly $100 billion and perhaps more.

For example, CBO’s estimates erroneously include a considerable portion of the new conventional bomber, (even though the nuclear component is less than $2 billion of the $50+ billion bomber program and it would be built solely for conventional requirements even if there was no nuclear requirement; $50 billion in added but arbitrary inflation costs; nearly $60 billion in conventional, theater missile defense spending that should not qualify in any way as “nuclear” related; ICBM costs which are seriously inflated by upwards of $5 billion; as well as counter proliferation funding estimates which include the continued cost of eliminating Soviet era nuclear material in Russia, (over $20 billion) all of which should not be “counted” as nuclear spending for modernization of our current deterrent.

In addition key Minuteman modernization elements now being funded have both come in at billions less in projected costs than originally estimated in part due to ongoing cooperative efforts between the Navy and USAF on strategic systems. This further modifies the CBO budget estimates of the cost of nuclear deterrence.