by Peter Huessy
Conventional wisdom in our nation’s Capital mistakenly holds that nuclear weapons are not useful in deterring our adversaries, not relevant to meeting new terrorist threats, and not valuable tools of overall American and allied statecraft.
The threats from Ukraine, Ebola and the ISIS are mistakenly used to make the case that nuclear weapons cannot deter most threats to the United States. We are assured the only role our nuclear weapons should play is to stop another country from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons.
From this mistaken idea flows the further conclusion the US needs only a very small deterrent of nuclear warheads for deterrence, some seventy to eighty percent less than what we have deployed today.*
Would such a “minimal deterrent” strategy work?
There may be three key flaws in such a policy.
First, a “minimal deterrent” strategy misperceives how important it is that the US nuclear deterrent “umbrella” remains extended over our allies. Second, it seriously misunderstands the very nature of nuclear deterrence itself. And third, it ignores the critical requirement for “strategic stability” especially during a crisis between nuclear armed adversaries. In short, when it comes to strategic nuclear deterrence, size matters and numbers count.
Let’s examine these points.
Most importantly, traditionally the United States has extended the protection of its nuclear umbrella to over 30 allied nations that do not have nuclear weapons. This especially includes NATO member nations and helps guarantee our allies are not threatened by other adversary nuclear armed powers. Critical to the success of such a policy has been that our allies take seriously our commitment to their security. That requires our deterrent remain credible, capable and effective.
This long held American policy helped insure that for much of the nuclear age, no nuclear armed power threatened the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear armed country. This principle was enshrined in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), now signed by 190 nations, including Russia and the United States. The NPT prohibits such threats, an often forgotten point about which former Defense Science Board chairman and nuclear expert Dr. William Schneider reminded a Capitol Hill audience at an American Foreign Policy Council missile defense seminar on February 26, 2015.
Russia, over the past few years, Dr. Schneider explained, has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons against those nations defined by Moscow as in its “near abroad”, all of them non-nuclear. Moscow is thus in massive serial violation of the spirit and terms of the NPT.
And worse, while the US seeks with its “nuclear umbrella” to protect nations with no nuclear weapons from being bullied and threatened by nuclear armed states, Russia seeks to bully and threaten states with no nuclear weapons which threaten no one militarily. Thus Russia has turned upside down the accepted notions of deterrence strategy.
Consequently, policy pronouncements that the United States should limit its nuclear deterrent to just stopping a nuclear attack on our own soil, and not also to protect our allies, may very well heighten President Putin’s willingness to recklessly threaten our allies and friends in Eastern Europe with Russian
nuclear weapons. And it may heighten even conventional missile threats to Japan from China given the latter’s growing arsenal.
Thus, far from reducing the role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s security policy—which the administration repeatedly said they hoped would be the result of its own adopted policy in which nuclear weapons played a diminished role over time— Russia has moved in the opposite direction and expanded the role of nuclear weapons in its security and foreign policy.
This new environment may be worsened by other possible changes to long standing US policy advocated by those pushing “minimal deterrence”.
Those seeking a minimal deterrent also believe the US should eliminate any policy that would possibly consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to the use of devastating conventional weapons against the United States or its allies. The option to use nuclear force was a long standing position of the US during the Cold War. It was put in place to provide an extra layer of deterrent pressure against such devastating conventional and nuclear weapons threats, especially those from the Warsaw Pact.
However, minimal deterrent advocates envision our nuclear weapons no longer playing that deterrent role and in so doing, have worried our NATO allies as well as Japan and the Republic of Korea. The latter two have even publicly questioned the credibility of the US extended deterrent or nuclear umbrella.
But the evidence to date is that “minimal deterrent” proposals, both with respect to how many nuclear weapons we deploy and why we deploy such weapons, may miss the mark and actually heighten the possibility that nuclear or conventional weapons might be used in a crisis against us or our allies.
Well, a minimal deterrent posture divorces the United States’ nuclear deterrent from having any role in stopping or placing limits on ongoing major conventional conflicts. This may give a green light—however inadvertently—to those seeking to continue the use of armed conventional force against America’s friends and allies. In short, our adversaries may come to believe they do not need to fear the awesome power of the US nuclear deterrent.
Though not clear one way or the other or to what degree, the great worry today is that NATO and the American umbrella—both conventional and nuclear—has been tested by Russia and Mr. Putin over Ukraine. Although Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine may have been linked to a perception by Moscow that the United States and its European allies were unwilling to come to Kiev’s defense, such lack of help to Kiev may be at least in part due to the Ukraine not being a member of NATO and therefore the US and its allies did not even consider coming to Kiev’s aid militarily.
But does that mean Moscow would be reticent to attack a NATO member country? And would an explicit US nuclear policy significantly limiting the role of nuclear weapons effect Moscow’s calculations?
Certainly should Moscow threaten the Baltic nations, all of whom are members of NATO, our nuclear deterrent policy and its credibility in the eyes of Russia may get tested for real. It is certainly one thing to see the principle that borders must not be changed through force be thrown into the geostrategic dustbin by Mr. Putin for a non-NATO nation we have not pledged to defend. But it may be a far more serious matter if a number of NATO member nations come under attack by Russia. This may directly challenge NATO and its policy of coming to the defense of a NATO treaty member, threatened especially by a nuclear armed aggressor such as Russia.
It is admitted by most advocates of a minimal deterrent approach that indeed Russia has been reckless in attacking Ukraine. But the advocates follow this up with the assertion that U.S. and NATO conventional military capabilities can providently deal with future Russian aggression and that our nuclear weapons need not play any role whatsoever.
Is this true for those NATO nations that may later become the objective of Moscow’s expansionist goals? Should they feel protected? Will a minimal deterrent strategy work?
There may be at least four factors we should consider to determine whether a minimal US nuclear deterrent posture will or will not work in dealing with respect to whether a US nuclear umbrella over our NATO allies is still needed to compliment our current conventional capability.
First, whatever conventional force capability NATO and the US has in Eastern Europe, such forces have not to date stopped the serial Russian aggression not only against Ukraine, but previously against Georgia and Moldova as well. Furthermore, the Norwegian and Estonian Ministers of Defense have recently noted that Russia maintain conventional superiority in the Baltic theater.
This at least raises the question of whether taking our nuclear deterrent off the table re: Ukraine and subsequently NATO members, is the right thing to do. This is especially important is that the two deterrent factors together—our conventional and nuclear military capability—are certainly more formidable than our conventional or nuclear capability alone. And our nuclear capability is certainly important in light of the current Russian conventional military advantage in the region.
While the often “surreptitious” Russian aggression against Ukraine has been designed at least in part by Moscow to mask or hide for political purposes any massive or overt sign of Russian complicity in such attacks, (so Moscow can argue publicly it is not guilty of illegal aggression), there is little doubt of the source of the aggression and terrorism in that region. Moscow’s brazen aggression is obvious to all who wish to see it. But even in that light, the US and its NATO allies have not seen fit to supply Ukraine with military weapons of any kind with which to defend itself. This certainly if anything further encourages Russian aggression.
What wolf would turn down a free lunch?
But the question of critical importance to NATO is “what comes next?” If Moscow thinks it has mostly had a green light to dismember Ukraine, why won’t it similarly believe it can do the same with the Baltic States? Especially if as a result of successful aggression against the Baltic States, for example, NATO then becomes largely a dead letter. In the eyes of Moscow, a top “military threat”, as NATO is now identified by Russian security policy, goes away.
If this is the next challenge, whether during the next year or the next few decades, the nature of current and future US nuclear doctrine and posture, especially as seen by Moscow, may be very significant indeed. Especially worrying is whether we—the US and NATO– have time to change any dangerous perceptions Moscow might have about America’s security policy and our unwillingness to protect our allies or friends, however defined.
Second, while it is true theoretically that further Russian overt aggression might indeed trigger a NATO or US military response, both existing US and NATO deterrents have obviously not up to this point done the job of deterring Moscow because Russian military operations not only continue but have accelerated.
It may simply be the case that Moscow does not believe America is serious about stopping Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, irrespective of our nuclear or conventional capability. This may be due to a number of factors, not the least of which is, as we noted earlier, Ukraine is not a member of NATO. However, the United States and NATO members have rhetorically called for the Russian aggression to stop but the question remains, “Are we serious?” about stopping Russian aggression. Or put a bit more informally, “Where’s the beef?”
Third, if nuclear weapons are irrelevant to stopping Moscow’s recklessness, as minimal deterrent advocates believe, it is also apparent using the same logic that our conventional capabilities—whatever their power theoretically to stop Russian aggression if eventually used– obviously have not, up to now, deterred Mr. Putin either. Thus, should we conclude our conventional military capability is as useless or irrelevant as our nuclear deterrent is supposed to be in dealing with Russian aggression? And if we so conclude, wouldn’t we be fulfilling a self-defeating policy that leaves the table wide open for further serial Moscow aggression?
Moscow may have indeed concluded just that but we will not know for sure until the next country in the “near abroad” becomes the next object of the Russian territorial “Pac man”.
And fourth, while our nuclear and conventional deterrent did not and has not stopped the initial and current Russian serial aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, do we have any confidence that in the future our deterrent forces will be taken seriously by Mr. Putin, especially if Moscow contemplates military action against the Baltic States, for example, all of which are indeed members of NATO?
Unfortunately we will not know either way until Russia broadens its aggression to a campaign against the Baltic’s and we do or don’t respond. Or when Russia illustrates by its actions it has no such designs on NATO or at some point in the future Moscow takes seriously American and allied threats to stop Russia’s aggression and “stands down”.
Getting a nuclear armed adversary to “stand down” has always been the essence of American deterrent policy. A minimal deterrent strategy, on the other hand, would make it impossible for the US to maintain its current deterrent strategy of limiting the damage a nuclear armed country can inflict on the US by eliminating, in our retaliatory strike, the “bad guys” remaining military forces.
There is an irony to such a strategy. No one is under any illusion that a major nuclear exchange—what I have termed the Armageddon option—or any use of nuclear weapons is to be avoided as the nation’s number one priority.
As the former Commander of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Richard Mies, noted, our nuclear weapons are never to be used, unlike all other weapons ever produced by mankind. He explained that while deterrence is not an exact science, “The concept of deterrence is to create uncertainty in a potential adversary’s mind, such that he can’t be fully confident that he can achieve his objectives without being on the receiving end of a strong retaliation from the US with unacceptable consequences to him. If you can create enough uncertainty in his mind, then deterrence is likely to be successful”.
In short, our deterrent must guarantee that the “bad guys” cannot under any assumption they make have forces remaining after they strike us first, with which to blackmail or coerce the US and its allies. That requires a significant number of survivable warheads, measured in the many hundreds that can strike back at any adversary and destroy their capability to survive and fight further.
Unfortunately, a minimal deterrent strategy yields a US nuclear deterrent force so limited that all we could do is retaliate against an adversary’s cities. That is because striking an adversary’s military capability, including among other elements their remaining nuclear silos, bomber bases, submarines, command and control facilities, and other military assets, requires a significantly greater force than allowed under minimal deterrent strategies. Otherwise, in the absence of such a capability, an enemy’s nuclear forces remain largely in a sanctuary from which they can be used to further attack the US and its allies. This reduces enemy uncertainty that we might indeed stop such aggression.
Minimal strategy enthusiasts also point out that targeting the other guy’s cities does not require a policy of “going first”. Cities don’t move, so we could wait to strike back. On the other hand, an adversaries
weapons might be moved or relocated and thus to destroy most of them we would, in a crisis, have to “go first”, putting our nuclear forces on what some have described as a “hair trigger”.
These same critics also complain that even striking an adversary’s conventional and nuclear weaponry would kill a lot of civilians. They assume, contrary to fact, that the US has such a strategy because somehow we have come to believe striking the bad guy’s military forces causes no associated killing of civilians. In the case of Russia, these estimates of civilian deaths approach 12 million people.
Minimal deterrent strategists admit that a “city busting” deterrent plan would kill upwards of 50 million Russians. But in the same breath they miraculously conclude that holding at risk an enemies weaponry is a “war-fighting strategy”, (a bad idea) in contrast to a “city busting” strategy that while killing upwards of 50 million Russians, is not a “war fighting strategy”.
In short the two strategies come down to being able to destroy cities only, or the ability to eliminate an enemies war fighting capability so as to make it impossible for his war aims to be achieved. For such war aims to be achieved, an adversary needs to be able to use its weaponry, both conventional and nuclear. Taking out such a capability means whatever war aims an adversary has, they cannot be achieved.
Whether in the process of taking out such weapons the US also seeks to burn to the ground numerous cities in an enemy’s country is beside the point, apart from being horribly immoral. Eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its massive conventional army should be our deterrent goal, not destroying every major city in the DPRK and with it the people held hostage by this totalitarian regime.
Admiral Richard Mies, the former Commander of the US Strategic Command, which was the top nuclear strategic command in the country, explained things this way. “This is the great paradox of nuclear weapons: you need weapons with credible capabilities not so you increase the likelihood of their use, but rather, so you have a more credible deterrent and thereby never have to use them. Of what deterrent value are weapons that lack credible capability?”
He further explained that “credibility” requires deliberately holding at risk the things our adversaries value most—their military assets. Destroying such assets takes away the very tools an enemy needs to fight or win any war, much less a nuclear war.
Fixing that firmly in an adversaries mind is what deterrence is all about.
Under a “city busting” strategy, we would be leaving an adversaries hugely destructive nuclear weapons in a sanctuary, for example, able then to launch at the US and its allies at will. This undermines the very deterrent we are trying to strengthen. The idea is to give the “bad guys” two choices. One choice is to launch everything at the US. But doing so guarantees the US will retaliate with our survivable forces and do so with devastating power, thus eliminating all an adversary values especially their remaining military capability. Not being able to achieve their objectives through a massive military strike, they have a second choice. And that is to launch nothing and keep the peace. That is the only thing that makes sense.
A former top nuclear American official, Paul Nitze, and adviser to former President Reagan, described this policy to me during the height of the Cold War by explaining: “I want every Soviet General officer after looking at all his options to strike the United States to conclude every time, “Not Today Comrade”.
Thus it has been throughout the nuclear age, including today, that in a crisis America must have a sufficiently flexible, credible, redundant and, most importantly, survivable nuclear forces that ensures that no enemy in a crisis looks to first use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against us in the hopes of achieving their geostrategic objectives. That has been a key objective of nuclear “stability”.
However, a minimal deterrent strategy requires the maintenance of a too small warhead arsenal compared to what you need to allow for what is necessary to ensure a sufficiently survivable force with which to retaliate and hold at risk an adversaries military assets.
For example, in Desert Storm, when we successfully drove Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait, we struck with conventional weapons over 30,000 Iraqi military targets, hardly what could be destroyed with a minimal deterrent of just a few hundred weapons. A sound nuclear deterrent strategy requires a similar, though not identical, capability where we can hold at risk hundreds, but not thousands of military targets. In Desert Storm, we did not blow up Iraq cities to force Saddam to withdraw. We took away his ability to fight and remain in Kuwait.
In conclusion, the point of the American nuclear three legged triad and robust deterrent of bombers, submarines and land based missiles is that we can never know, under every circumstance, what could lead the Russians, or others, to conclude that a first strike won’t serve their interests. That’s why we cover multiple kinds of targets with multiple kinds of weapons from multiple delivery platforms of strategic bombers, submarines in rotation between port and at sea, and land based missiles spread over five large western states and some strategic bombers that if necessary we could place on alert and make airborne. That way we ensure that we will always have a significant and credible retaliatory capability.
We did that in the Cold War with over thirteen thousand deployed nuclear weapons. We do that today with a much smaller number—under 1800– because although the Soviet Union is gone—we still keep a prudent triad of nuclear platforms (bombers, submarines and land based missiles). We have also deliberately sought a more stable force structure which has over time reduced the number of Russian warheads to our nuclear assets from 6.5 to 1 at the end of the Cold War to 3 to 1 today, a marked improvement.
Although not an exact measurement of the stability of the international environment, it does indicate our forces are less likely to be attacked especially if we keep our forces continuously at sea or spread out over five large states and tens of thousands of square miles or on airborne alert. Minimal deterrence would switch that ratio to as high as one hundred sixty Russian warheads to every American nuclear asset. Why should we make it easier for the Russians to threaten our nuclear deterrent particularly if they achieved a technological breakthrough that enabled them to make the oceans transparent?
Critics might claim the risks today do not match the severity of the Cold War and we can take more “risks”. Are the risks we face today considerably less than during the Cold War? Yes in some respects. But for how long will this be the case? The future is anything but predictable and thus how will we know when the geostrategic environment ratchets up to a danger level near that of the Cuban or Berlin crises of half a century ago?
Admittedly, deterrence is not an exact science. But we have the Director of National Intelligence telling us that the threats to the US are graver than anything he has seen in the 45 years the intelligence community has been collecting threat data.
And we have Mr. Putin and other senior Russian leaders stating that they are contemplating the first use of nuclear weapons against nations in Eastern Europe. True, these comments are usually artfully couched in terms of Moscow only “responding to aggression”. As one colleague pointed out, even Hitler said that the German invasion of Poland was in response to a Polish attack on Germany, however false such statements were.
Again, as a former top White House nuclear policy official wrote to me this week: “The triad and our targeting policy need to continue to give us confidence that we are not approaching the edge of disaster from miscalculation. For virtually every armed conflict involving U.S. military forces since WWI, a
major cause was allowing a potential adversary to miscalculate our response and our ability to respond and particularly our mistake in not being well prepared.”
He continued: “Minimal deterrent strategies would so reduce US nuclear deterrent forces as to dramatically heighten the incentive of the world’s bad actors to pre-emptive attack the United States and take us out of the nuclear deterrent business.”
In the end the question is whether the US should deliberately lessen the credibility of our nuclear deterrent?
As Winston Churchill warned years ago as the gathering storm of World War II loomed, “Building slow destroyers! You might as well breed slow race horses”.
*A “minimal deterrent” posture could include under many proposals made by its advocates no more than 1000 US warheads divided among (1) long range strategic systems in the field; (2) short range or tactical platforms such as those we have in Europe; (3) a reserve or hedge in case we later face a build-up of weapons by our adversaries we have to match; and (4) an insurance stockpile in case the technology inherent in some of the nuclear devices we have is flawed and needs to be replaced. Implicit in such a proposal is under reasonable assumptions the US would have a notional deployed strategic force of in the neighborhood of 400-500 total warheads. How many of these would be a secure, second strike retaliatory force depends upon how such a force was deployed. A Triad of forces would be difficult to keep, and a European/NATO tactical nuclear deterrent might disappear as well. A minimal deterrent posture also makes the current counter-force deterrent policy of the US impossible to maintain. A deployed force of 400-500 strategic warheads compared to the current 1800 warheads under the New Start treaty is a 73-78% reduction.