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The ABC’s of Nuclear Deterrence: Lessons for the Second Nuclear Age

by Peter Huessy and Franklin Miller

For the past 25 years, arms control has been a key driving force behind how many Americans view our relationship with Russia. In that period the two countries have agreed to the START I, Moscow, and New Start nuclear weapons agreements that has successfully reduced the strategic warhead arsenals on both sides by over 90%.

But relations between Moscow and Washington are not good and since the 2010 New Start agreement, the Russians have flatly rejected discussions of further reductions in nuclear weapons. The Russians have also stopped cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar agreement, named after two US Senators that put together a program to safeguard and eliminate nuclear material and warheads in the former Soviet Union subsequent to the end of the Cold War. Other agreements between the two countries have also been put on ice by Russian President Putin’s government.

At a seminar on Capitol Hill on April 20, 2016, two distinguished experts—Steve Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council and Mark Schneider of the National Institute of Public Policy—spoke about the need to refocus our relationship with Russia away from arms control and more towards managing an increasingly troublesome and dangerous relationship. A key part of that strategy must be the full modernization of our nuclear deterrent, they both emphasized.

Most worrisome said the two experts was Russia’s massive build-up of new nuclear weapons, including three new classes of land based missiles, a new submarine launched ballistic missile, and a new stealthy strategic bomber and accompanying air launched cruise missile including a hypersonic variant. This build-up will be almost completely completed by 2021-2 prior to the United States fielding a single modern element of its own strategic nuclear deterrent which is the oldest ever.

For example, our current land based missiles were became operational in 1970; our current mainstay bomber, the B52H, was delivered in 1961, and the current Trident submarine was first deployed in 1981. The current plan is to replace these systems within the limits of the New Start treaty starting in the late-2020’s when the first nuclear armed replacement bomber will be completed, followed by the deployment of the first submarine in 2031 and then followed by a new land based missile system in the decade after.

Opponents of this plan have pushed variously to unilaterally stop production of all new land based missiles and the bomber and its air launched cruise missile, (replacing a 1961 variant), while pushing to cut in half the number of new submarines from 12 to 6. The argument used to justify such appeasement is that the United States is leading a nuclear arms race, what the New York Times calls “one-upmanship”, in an effort not to maintain deterrence but to “speed ahead” and build the latest nuclear technology that will “unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century”.

The fallacy of this analysis is that it is simply dead wrong.

And dangerous.

The United States, at least since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, went on an extended “holiday” in which we serially delayed the needed modernization and replacement of our aging nuclear deterrent while also failing to continue the analysis and research required to amend, adjust and solidify our own deterrent strategy. In 1992, in a series of prescient remarks, former chairman of the House Armed Service Committee Les Aspin warned that the development of nuclear arms by rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea could upset the deterrent balance by making US cities vulnerable to a missile strike—especially one that would be launched surreptitiously– by national leaders unpersuaded that a retaliatory strike by the United States would be forthcoming. That the Wisconsin Congressman got right.

But missed by this analysis was the continued problem of how to deter Russia and an emerging China while at the same time acknowledging the end of the Cold War offered opportunities to lessen tensions and pursue additional arms control. We did get more arms control with the implementation of START I and then with the 2002 Moscow and 2010 New Start treaties. Interestingly, Russian forces have increased under New START while those of the United States have declined.

But the United States mistook the relatively benign era following the end of the Soviet empire for an “end to history” where totalitarian threats to the post World War II liberal order would be a thing of the past. We now face a Russia that is increasingly hostile to the United States and its allies, and which advertises even on YouTube—in English—Putin himself directing a simulated nuclear attack on the United States.

What the New York Times and others are pushing the United States to pursue is a policy of restraint and appeasement, hoping by our example of not modernizing our nuclear arsenal others will follow suit.

Here, history can be a useful guide.

In February 1981, the Commander of the United States Strategic Command, General James Ellis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the then current strategic balance between the United States and then Soviet Union and how it needed to be redressed.

He made four points: (1) the United States had delayed modernization of its entire nuclear deterrent including submarines, land-based missiles and bombers to where the strategic balance had shifted markedly in the direction of the Soviet Union; (2) while that shift in the balance could be redressed, it could only be done so with the full modernization of the US nuclear deterrent as proposed by the incoming Reagan administration; (3) the failure to modernize would mean the Soviet Union would continue to use intimidation, blackmail and coercion to prevent a US and allied response to Moscow’s military expansion and aggression as represented by its 1998 invasion of Afghanistan and major military support for wars in Africa and Latin America; and (4) any future arms control, especially the reductions sought by the Reagan administration, would be a non-starter with the Soviets given their complete modernization of their own nuclear arsenal compared to a US arsenal “rusting toward obsolescence”.

In early 1981, just as General Ellis was urging the US Senate to support the full modernization of the US nuclear deterrent, many in the national media declared Reagan’s security strategy a reflection of a “right wing nut”, or “cold warrior” that would risk war with the Soviet Union.

But just as President Ronald Reagan in 1977 had told Richard Allen, his future national security adviser, “my strategy is to win the Cold War”, the President turned out to be right, as explained in extraordinary detail in a new book by Sven Kramer, (“Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan”, 2015, American Foreign Policy Council). These history lessons from three decades ago need to be brought forward today and put to good use.

Indeed, the statement by General Ellis, with a few minor word changes, could apply to Putin’s Russia:

(1) the United States had delayed modernization of its entire nuclear deterrent including submarines, land-based missiles and bombers to where the strategic balance had shifted markedly in the direction of the Russian Federation ; (2) while that shift in the balance could be redressed, it could only be done so with the full modernization of the US nuclear deterrent ; (3) the failure to modernize would mean the Russia  would continue to use intimidation, blackmail and coercion to prevent a US and allied response to Moscow’s military expansion and aggression as represented by its 2014  invasion of Ukraine and pressure against NATO states and some neutrals (4) any future arms control, especially the reductions sought by the Obama administration, would be a non-starter with the Russians given their complete modernization of their own nuclear arsenal compared to a US arsenal “rusting toward obsolescence”.

General Ellis turned out to be right. The Reagan administration, along with a supporting Congress, over turned the “nuclear freeze” advocates, trumped Soviet deployments of SS-20 nuclear armed missiles in Europe, secured major reductions in nuclear weapons and to the amazement of many, an end to the Soviet empire on December 26, 1991.