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Nuclear Freeze: Wrong Again!

icbm_nuclear missileby Peter Huessy

In their preview of their April 27, 2014 show CBS 60 Minutes worried that our ICBMs could not be recalled if launched and since they were deployed in known locations might better be eliminated. In so doing, they joined a long parade of efforts to diminish our nuclear deterrent, but they did so ironically just at a time when world geostrategic events, if anything, require a stronger and more effective American deterrent.

At the height of the Cold War, the “nuclear freeze” was enthusiastically praised at the time by then White House correspondent Leslie Stahl, now a senior correspondent with 60 Minutes that hosted this new piece on ICBMs.

The “Freeze” activists at that time included “Fate of the Earth” author Jonathan Schell, “Day After” director Nicholas Meyer, and “nuclear winter” scientific-spokesperson Carl Sagan. All wrote about an apocalyptic future if the US continued to modernize its nuclear deterrent forces and relied on the Reagan policy of “peace through strength”.

They were wrong. Reagan won the Cold War and ended the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately the nuclear freeze-type advocates are back.

It is not well known but the 1979 initiated nuclear “Freeze” was a Soviet initiative. Moscow fully understood its nearly fully modernized nuclear forces would give the Soviets more leverage than a United States deterrent not yet modernized–and in fact aging– if both forces were frozen in place. The correlation of forces, believed the Soviets, favored Moscow. The freeze would lock that advantage in place.

President Reagan defeated the nuclear freeze when he successfully deployed a modernized nuclear deterrent while at the same time beginning an arms control process that would ultimately reduce US and Soviet deployed strategic nuclear weapons by close to 90%, ridding the world of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads a nuclear freeze would have left in place.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a group of former political and military leaders, led by the newly retired commander of the US Strategic Command, General Lee Butler, endorsed in a December 1996 statement going to zero nuclear weapons. They remained silent about whether any modernization of the nuclear force was necessary to maintain deterrence in the interim period prior to when universal peace was going to break-out that would allow for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

General Lee Butler said with the “democratization of Russia…building a positive security relationship with Russia is arguably the United States’ most important foreign policy interest”.

He further argued the Clinton administration’s first nuclear posture review or NPR “adopted force levels and postures completely out of keeping” with our security needs. He called for “removing nuclear weapons from alert status and placing the warheads in controlled storage” and reducing US and Russian nuclear warheads to no more than fifteen hundred.

At that time in the mid 1990’s, it was widely assumed it was the “end of history” as author Francis Fukayama’s book of the same title postulated. Threats were seen as minor; the Soviet empire was no more; and a peace dividend was happily being cashed.

But as former commander of the US Strategic Command USAF General Larry Welch (Ret) warned, these years saw the beginning of a long twenty years in the post-Cold War environment of a neglect of our nuclear forces. The consequences are now a growing need to simultaneously modernize and sustain our entire nuclear force as policy decisions to kick the proverbial “can down the road” have come home to roost. Without such investments, the US would go out of the nuclear deterrent business.

A decade after General Butler’s plea for abolition, and because of the growing concern over Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation, a group of very high level retired national security experts once again pushed for global zero nuclear weapons.

Former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, former SASC Chairman Senator Sam Nunn, and former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote on January 30, 2007 and again on March 7, 2011 that the US should adopt an explicit goal of zero nuclear weapons, but with a twist.

They were convinced that genuine and serious moves by the US and Russia in that direction, although probably not to zero within our lifetimes, would encourage other major countries such as Brazil, Japan, Turkey and Germany to join with Washington to put great pressure on Tehran and Pyongyang. The hope was such pressure would be sufficient to compel Iran and North Korea to subsequently eliminate their nuclear weapons and/or their nuclear weapons programs so as to bring nuclear proliferation under control and preserve the basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT.

Ironically, during the period during which the nuclear abolitionists have been most opposed to US nuclear policy, (1981-2011) the US and Russia have collectively reduced their strategic or long range nuclear weapons by some 85% from their Cold War levels because of the START I, Moscow and New Start treaties, as well as also eliminating thousands of medium range nuclear weapons in the 1987 INF Treaty which zeroed out Soviet era deployments of SS-20 nuclear tipped missiles in Europe and Asia.

While the US has unilaterally eliminated thousands of its tactical or short range nuclear weapons, the Russians continue to maintain an arsenal of possibly up to 5000 such weapons, although some estimates also exceed that number.

Ironically, the US now has a nuclear deterrent force of just over 1550 strategic deployed nuclear weapons on 450 Minuteman missiles, 12 Trident submarines and some 60 B-2 and B52 strategic bombers.(The actual number is higher but bombers only count as one warhead per airplane rather than the number of cruise missiles or gravity bombs they can carry). This is almost exactly the number that General Butler said would be sufficient not only for our deterrent requirements but of such a low level that it would compel other nations to follow suit.

Despite US and Russian joint agreements to reduce their strategic arsenals to levels not seen since the early 1950’s, the nuclear abolitionists remain opposed to current US nuclear policy, oppose many modernization efforts and continue to insist the US further reduce its forces.

Unfortunately, 60 Minutes April 27 broadcast repeats numerous fallacies of the nuclear abolition enthusiasts but ignores the nuclear deterrent lessons of the past decades.

Ms. Stahl while flying over American missile silos outside of Wyoming’s F.E. Warren’s Minuteman missile head quarters, asks Colonel Jones of the USAF sitting next to her in the helicopter whether the missiles in hardened silos could “accidentally blowup”, to which the professional missileer Colonel Jones lets her know they are perfectly safe.

Undeterred, she then asks whether the missiles if launched by accident or by deliberate act, can be “brought back”? Colonel Jones patiently explains that only a President can authorize the launch of such missiles but yes “once they are gone, they are gone”.

And this is the hook upon which Stahl and 60 Minutes want the viewer to conclude that the Minuteman missiles maybe should be eliminated from the US strategic nuclear Triad force. Unfortunately Ms. Stahl seems oblivious to another “fact”: our sea-launched ballistic missiles aboard submarines cannot be recalled either, nor can our bomber weapons whether cruise missiles or gravity bombs once they have been released.

Even if the viewer isn’t totally convinced that Minuteman missiles must be retired, 60 Minutes then turns to the threadbare argument that our deterrent costs too much, citing a Congressional Budget Office report that over the next ten years we would need $355 billion to sustain and modernize our nuclear deterrent.

The CBO report acknowledges the US is now spending around $21-22 billion a year on our entire nuclear deterrent. This includes the Triad of platforms, our warheads and their associated facilities and laboratories and our command and control capabilities. That is somewhat less than 4% of our defense budget.

Where did the $355 billion come from? CBO included the costs–$25 billion– of a significant portion of our new non-nuclear conventional bomber, which will be built whether or not its nuclear capable. They added in an arbitrary $50 billion estimates cost growth in the nuclear programs.

They included an ICBM modernization program estimated to cost more than $5 billion a year when the real costs of such a program are close to $2 billion, some $30 billion less over a decade. And they added in $10 billion a year in missile defense costs although the vast majority of missile defense programs are aimed at defeating conventionally armed missiles and have little to do with our nuclear deterrent.

Ironically, while citing supposed experts about the need for no more ICBMs, CBS fails to tell the viewer that land based missile costs over the next decade will be around 8-10% of the total annual costs ($20-$22 billion) needed for strategic nuclear modernization. And this latter cost estimate compares to US government spending of nearly $50 trillion over that same period bringing Minuteman modernization costs on average to $1 out of every $2500 spent annually by Uncle Sam.

A full nuclear modernization effort would cost in the neighborhood of $27-30 billion a year at its peak, which is 4.7% of the projected defense budgets over that period or roughly $1 out of every $180 which is projected to be spent by the US government annually in 2025, a decade hence.

The most egregious claim by 60 Minutes is the assumption that since the Russians “know where our missiles silos are”, they will be tempted during a crisis to take them out in a nuclear strike of their own. Taking out nearly 500 Minuteman missile silos and their associated launch control centers (LCC) would require Moscow to use upwards of 1000 of their missile warheads, or some 80-90 percent of their current missile arsenal.

But for what purpose, 60 Minutes does not say. Left untouched would be our submarines at sea, (at least 8 with some 160 missiles armed with over 600 warheads), even assuming the Russians also strike at those US Trident submarines in port and our strategic B2 and B52 bombers not airborne but remaining at their two military bases.

This assured second strike capability is the very essence of our current deterrent which is made viable by the combination of three elements of our Triad. Our land based missiles require Russia to strike them simultaneously in order to prevent their responsive use or also try and strike our submarines, but currently those at sea remain invulnerable to attack. And bombers on warning could be made airborne which further inhibits any Russia or adversary strike as the US over time and with warning has an even more formidable assured second strike capability.

Eliminating ICBMs would allow our adversary’s to concentrate on technological improvements in their anti-submarine warfare capability and thus seek to find our submarines at sea and through a combination stealth attrite over time our submarine force until the US was out of the nuclear business.

There are many reasons why the 60 Minutes hit piece on America’s strategic nuclear deterrent and especially our ICBM force should be ignored. But it will get attention and thus needs to be thoroughly debunked. This essay starts the process.

But in an essay written almost exactly two years ago, (April 22, 2012), two of America’s top strategic thinkers, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and General Brent Scowcoft, the former National Security Adviser to two American Presidents, laid out eight reasons why the US should ignore siren songs for greater reductions in our nuclear deterrent divorced from sound analysis–which the 60 Minutes piece certainly is.

Here is the relevant portion of their essay, word for word:

“Almost exactly two years ago we feel obliged to stress our conviction that the goal of future negotiations should be strategic stability and that lower numbers of weapons should be a consequence of strategic analysis, not an abstract preconceived determination.

“Regardless of one’s vision of the ultimate future of nuclear weapons, the overarching goal of contemporary U.S. nuclear policy must be to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used. Strategic stability is not inherent with low numbers of weapons; indeed, excessively low numbers could lead to a situation in which surprise attacks are conceivable. (Emphasis added)

“First, strategic stability requires maintaining strategic forces of sufficient size and composition that a first strike cannot reduce retaliation to a level acceptable to the aggressor. (Emphasis added)

“Second, in assessing the level of unacceptable damage, the United States cannot assume that a potential enemy will adhere to values or calculations identical to our own. We need a sufficient number of weapons to pose a threat to what potential aggressors value under every conceivable circumstance. We should avoid strategic analysis by mirror-imaging.

“Third, the composition of our strategic forces cannot be defined by numbers alone. It also depends on the type of delivery vehicles and their mix. If the composition of the U.S. deterrent force is modified as a result of reduction, agreement or for other reasons, a sufficient variety must be retained, together with a robust supporting command and control system, so as to guarantee that a preemptive attack cannot succeed.

“Fourth, in deciding on force levels and lower numbers, verification is crucial. Particularly important is a determination of what level of uncertainty threatens the calculation of stability. At present, that level is well within the capabilities of the existing verification systems. We must be certain that projected levels maintain — and when possible, reinforce — that confidence.

“Fifth, the global nonproliferation regime has been weakened to a point where some of the proliferating countries are reported to have arsenals of more than 100 weapons. And these arsenals are growing. At what lower U.S. levels could these arsenals constitute a strategic threat? What will be their strategic impact if deterrence breaks down in the overall strategic relationship? Does this prospect open up the risk of hostile alliances between countries whose forces individually are not adequate to challenge strategic stability but that combined might overthrow the nuclear equation?

“Sixth, this suggests that, below a level yet to be established, nuclear reductions cannot be confined to Russia and the United States. As the countries with the two largest nuclear arsenals, Russia and the United States have a special responsibility. But other countries need to be brought into the discussion when substantial reductions from existing START levels are on the international agenda.

“Seventh, strategic stability will be affected by other factors, such as missile defenses and the roles and numbers of tactical nuclear weapons, which are not now subject to agreed limitations… the interrelationship among these elements must be taken into account in future negotiations.

“Eighth, we must see to it that countries that have relied on American nuclear protection maintain their confidence in the U.S. capability for deterrence. If that confidence falters, they may be tempted by accommodation to their adversaries or independent nuclear capabilities.

And to these eight I would add two to get to our “Ten reasons not to listen to 60 Minutes”.

Ninth, care must be taken not to see nuclear forces as war fighting weapons when they are absolutely only war prevention forces. In that light, de-alerting these missiles would be the height of folly because such action cannot be verified and as such in a crisis might encourage an adversary to strike with their alert missiles because they assumed our missiles were in fact “de-alerted” or taken off line. A race might ensue during every crisis to see how fast one could add warheads back to alert status, especially if it could be done surreptitiously. Crisis instability would become the rule of the day.

And tenth, what is the purpose of reducing America’s entire nuclear arsenal from over 500 elements or platforms—almost all of which must be destroyed to avoid a major US retaliatory second strike against a nuclear aggressor–to a number of 10 or less discrete targets, making it entirely plausible an aggressor could be tempted to strike the US first in a crisis? That is the number left after eliminating the US land based missile force from our Triad.

The purpose of maintaining a secure, effective, and credible second strike retaliatory capability is to assure an American President never has to launch our missiles under the mistaken assumption we have to launch first to preserve our security. Stability means not having to launch and thus preserving the peace. That stability requires a robust Triad.

These critical issues came up at a joint seminar I hosted two weeks ago on April 16-17 in Crane, Indiana with the USAF and US Navy in conjunction with the Indiana Office of Defense Development and the Nav Sea Warfare Center/Crane. Both explored means of reducing their ballistic missile costs through joint and complimentary work, an effort that has already reduced one major missile component by $3 billion.

I asked Senator Donnelly (D-Indiana), one of our speakers, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, whether in light of the events in Ukraine the United States should invest less in our nuclear deterrent as some in the arms control community had recommended.

He seemed surprised anyone would advocate such a policy telling me “No one supports that”. He further stated later during his remarks that “We should strengthen our nuclear deterrent” telling the audience of nearly 200 nuclear deterrent experts from government, industry and the military of his strong support for the Triad, as well as missile defenses for central and eastern Europe.

The push for global zero or abolition is not shared by India, France, Israel or Pakistan, by Russia or China, nor certainly by North Korea and I suspect Iran. It has been given lip service by Great Britain.

Such efforts simply make it more difficult to actually secure the necessary modernization laid out by this administration in a December 2010 roadmap often known as report 1215 after its adoption in section 1215 of the Defense Authorization bill that year as part of the agreement to approve the New Start treaty. The funding proposed then will indeed have to be increased modestly.

The ant-nuclear folks gave us the nuclear freeze, the abolition and now global zero, all of which are numbers in search of a strategy. The proposals to eliminate elements of the Triad, such as the land based missiles, would ensure only that in the future the only armed nuclear powers might indeed be our enemies.

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