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The Lessons of Hiroshima: Reducing Nuclear Dangers

by Peter Huessy

Following the President’s visit to Hiroshima, nuclear weapons and their enduring usefulness in protecting America and its allies has become an increasingly important focus of debate especially the degree with which United States security policy should embrace the goal of zero nuclear weapons.

The debate centers on three major themes. They are: (1) whether the value of these weapons includes deterring not just nuclear threats but conventional and other threats to the United States and its allies; (2) the degree to which the United States is leading an “arms race” while modernizing its remaining but much reduced nuclear deterrent; and (3) how the twin goals of further nuclear reductions and greater strategic stability interact, particularly with respect to the early use of nuclear weapons in a crisis, maintaining a hedge capability should geostrategic conditions deteriorate and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new nuclear powers.

On one side, Professor Sagan and Valentino of Stanford University are puzzled that a poll they conducted still shows strong American support for an American President using nuclear weapons if necessary to protect the country. Part of the push to abolish nuclear weapons starts with diminishing their role in US security policy which abolitionists support.

Thus they write that the poll results show more support for using nuclear weapons to defend the country than they had hoped would be the case. They assumed that given it has been some 70 years since the end of World War II, the American public would somehow have forgotten that it was the first use of nuclear weapons that secured the surrender of Imperial Japan. (FN: 1)

In the same vein, the New York Times has repeatedly chastised the United States and the administration for “dangerously pursuing a nuclear arms race” and unnecessarily modernizing the US nuclear deterrent, (despite the fact that the US is following the modernizing lead of both Russia and China, not the other way around). (FN: 2)

Supporters of abolition also are pushing to eliminate key elements of our deterrent.

For example, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California), a senior member of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, has proposed to eliminate the bomber carried cruise missile along with its nuclear warhead because the United States in her view “already has too many nuclear weapons”. (FN: 3)

Similarly, the editor of the Nation magazine writes in the Washington Post that modernization of the 450 Minuteman missiles is unnecessary and redundant and can be safely terminated, (even though as a result the US nuclear assets would fall to 10 from the current level above 500). (FN: 4)

On the other side three key counter-arguments are emerging.

The first is whether nuclear deterrence still matters. On May 26th, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) by a unanimous vote reported the new defense bill to the United States Senate. The report language reflects a remarkable consensus that has emerged within Congress in support of a very robust strategic nuclear deterrent to defend the United States and our allies and deter our adversaries. In part the Committee wrote:

“In support of a strong and credible nuclear deterrent, the United States must (A) maintain a nuclear force with a diverse, flexible range of nuclear yield and delivery modes that are ready, capable, and credible; (B) afford the highest priority to the modernization of the nuclear triad, dual-capable aircraft, and related command and control elements.” (FN: 5)

Reflecting this consensus, fragile as it may be, all relevant defense committees in Congress—up to this point– fully funded elements of the strategic nuclear triad including Minuteman missiles and the ground based strategic deterrent, the Ohio replacement submarines and the strategic bomber and its associated long range cruise missile.

A second key counter was explained by Franklin Miller, a former senior nuclear policy official in the department of defense and White House in a recent address on Capitol Hill. He was “incredulous” that anyone with a minimal knowledge of math—“especially the New York Times”– would know the United States is not leading a “nuclear arms race”. Russia, for example, explains Miller, will complete the entirety of its nuclear modernization program by 2021-2, before the US has put into the field a single modernized missile, submarine or bomber. Put another way, as Miller explained in testimony before the Senate earlier this year, today fully 56% of Russia’s deployed nuclear forces are modern while 0% of America’s forces have such status. (FN: 6)

The third issue involves stability. Here, Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson, the deputy commander of the United States Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, also in a Hill address, warned about reducing our nuclear weapons too much. He explained that eliminating our land based missiles would make a country like North Korea with as few as 10 nuclear warheads able to hold at risk—target—a very high percentage of all remaining American nuclear capability. (FN: 7)

Which side will prevail?

So far, the consensus appears to be with those seeking to modernize our nuclear deterrent. Although the nuclear abolitionists may be losing the fight now, whether we do or do not modernize our deterrent still remains a close race.

Should the current consensus unravel, we could easily slip back into an era where modernization lags, uncertainty then is reflected in American nuclear policy and nuclear dangers accelerate. Brad Roberts of the Livermore National Laboratory testified earlier this year before the Senate Armed Services Committee that there was real value in the current “fragile” consensus in Congress to move forward with the administration’s nuclear modernization plans. But he also noted it was imperative for the next administration to deepen the current consensus.

Given the divisions in the country on so many political issues, achieving such a consensus on nuclear modernization indicates America is united in its determination to maintain its nuclear security. That is a critical national asset that should not be lightly thrown away. With it, our allies will be reassured and our adversaries better deterred. Without it, nuclear dangers will accelerate.

Unfortunately, nuclear abolitionists, citing former President Reagan in his second inaugural address and President Obama in his 2009 address from Prague, in the Czech Republic, will continue to push for a marked slowdown, even elimination, of critical elements of the administration’s nuclear deterrent modernization plans as the best means to get to “zero” nuclear weapons.

Now it is true both President’s did call for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

But the current administration gave equal emphasis in the 2009 Prague speech that prior to abolition, while nuclear weapons remained in the arsenals of some eight other countries, the United States had an obligation to make sure our own remaining nuclear deterrent was “credible and effective.”

As for the Reagan administration, it is not well understood that while President Reagan at times called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, he did not propose—as is commonly believed— a ban on all nuclear weapons at his famous 1986 nuclear summit with Russian President Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.

And furthermore, Reagan’s success in dramatically reducing nuclear weapons—unlike any of the previous President’s during the nuclear age– was based on a five part strategy. And that strategy—importantly–was markedly successful in “reducing nuclear dangers” but did not rely on the idea of nuclear abolition.

Reagan’s five part strategy needs to be understood to better assess today’s strategic nuclear requirements. The Reagan strategy called for: (1) modernizing and reducing our nuclear weapons simultaneously, (“build-down”); (2) preserving major strategic bomber advantages the US possessed; (3) eliminating or reducing multiple warhead land based missiles that were deemed destabilizing; (4) deploying robust national missile defenses; and (5) extending our deterrent to our allies to forestall the independent development or proliferation of more nuclear weapons.

Simple “reductions” the Reagan strategy was not.

It’s obvious the strategy has been successful. Upwards of 90% of the strategic nuclear weapons held by the USA and Russia at the height of the Cold War have now, over a period of roughly 25 years, been or are being eliminated. The vehicle to achieve this has primarily been the adoption of four successive arms control agreements between the US and the Soviet Union and now Russia.

The question naturally arises, shouldn’t we preserve such a winning formula? Shouldn’t we determine why the strategy was so successful and apply that to the future?

First, the strategy preserved each element of our Triad which gave us flexibility and did not put all our nuclear eggs in one basket. Today, however, there are numerous proposals from the abolitionists to eliminate bomber cruise missiles or land based ICBMs or reduce our submarines—all understandable as part of an effort to simply “cut numbers” of nuclear weapons. But each would markedly put our nuclear eggs in very few baskets and significantly degrade a President’s options in a nuclear crisis.

What’s the issue? It is simply that if we end up with too few nuclear weapons launch platforms, these “limited nuclear assets” become attractive “targets”. You have to preserve stability in a crisis and that requires spreading out your own capability so it can withstand any attempt by your adversary to strike you first and try and disarm you.

In short, while numbers matter, how those numbers are deployed is equally important. You not only have to survive an attack, you have to credibly hold at risk the bad guy’s targets when you retaliate. Having a bomber able to launch high-speed cruise missiles from great distances at key targets rather than having to rely solely on penetrating enemy air space with a bomber aircraft with gravity bombs enhances deterrence by significantly adding to the chances a target will be destroyed. Eliminating the cruise missile as many nuclear abolitionists propose would largely vitiate the effectiveness of the bomber leg of the triad.

Our nuclear force should promote stability. And strategic stability means making sure that in a crisis or a conventional conflict there is no compulsion or pressure to use nuclear weapons. The trick is to ensure both sides are convinced there is no plausible advantage from doing so. If our nuclear deterrent can survive any kind of attack and retaliate with devastatingly effectiveness, no rational enemy will attack us first.

Second, President Reagan pushed for a fully modernized nuclear deterrent even while initiating the very first reductions in US nuclear weapons. But he did so within a framework of stability and extended deterrence for our allies that is often missed by opponents of a strong nuclear deterrent. Reagan’s strategy eliminated the tension among advocates of a strong nuclear deterrent by combining modernization—strength—with reducing the right numbers—stability.

Third, Reagan make sure that the START treaty proposal would preserve the important US advantage in bombers with gravity bombs and short range cruise missiles. They were proposed to count only as “one” warhead under arms control limits, no matter the actual number of weapons carried by the aircraft. This helped skew our nuclear deterrent more toward an emphasis on slower-flying aircraft than fast-flying missiles. In that aircraft are recallable and missiles are not, stability is enhanced.

Fourth, similarly, with a significant percent of our nuclear deterrent at sea, fewer overall warheads would be “on alert” and ready to go in a crisis, lessening temptations to “go first” in a crisis. Why is that? The nuclear warhead numbers required to do so simply would not be available on a normal day-to-day basis.

Now Reagan’s nuclear deterrent strategy was not accepted by his opponents. The proponents of a nuclear freeze derided Reagan’s strategy as “inimical to arms control”. But his combined strategy of reductions and modernization eventually trumped the nuclear freeze and helped break the back of the Soviet Union. (FN: 8)

Under Reagan’s direction, the country’s defense team carefully crafted “national security decision directives” or NSDD’s, laying out the country’s strategic vision. These NSDD’s are linked to the internet and referenced in a new book by Sven Kraemer, Reagan’s former national Security Council staff expert on arms control who also served five other President’s in the same role, including Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Kraemer’s book—“Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan”, published in 2015 by the American Foreign Policy Council—reveals in great detail that President Reagan had a well thought out and detailed strategy to both reduce nuclear dangers while simultaneously arming the country with more stabilizing nuclear forces. (FN: 9) It is a unique portrait of US security policy under the Reagan administration.

Interestingly, Kraemer confirms in his book that critical to the success of Reagan’s nuclear policy were indeed the Reagan policy pillars identified here.

First, while reducing nuclear warheads the forces remaining would be modernized. That eliminated the tension among those seeking a stronger nuclear force who assumed reductions required an end to modernization.

Second, it was very important to keep within our reduced nuclear forces a very robust bomber element of our nuclear triad. This required some clever negotiating but it was a stance that was echoed in earlier build-up agreements such as the SALT I treaty of 1972 negotiated by President Nixon between the US and the USSR. We did not even restrict bombers in the 1972 agreement. In the 1981 START proposal the US proposed that all bombers, no matter how many warheads or short range nuclear armed missiles they would carry, would only count as “one” launcher or warhead. This guaranteed the US a major advantage in the number of strategic bomber aircraft we could deploy.

And third, and this was critically important, the START I treaty proposal set the stage for the follow-on US-USSR treaty, START II. That treaty proposed that land based missiles with multiple warheads be banned. This was very important for reasons of “stability”.

Multiple warhead and based missiles are on alert at a rate approaching 100%. The Soviets and now the Russians, have devoted a very significant part of their nuclear forces to land based missiles with huge numbers of warheads per missile—upwards of 10 deployed. This means on a day to day basis the Soviets and now the Russians could launch a very large number of warheads at the United States in a sudden, surprise attack (FN: 10) or easily and quickly expand their arsenal by many thousands of additional warheads.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets had upwards of 13,000 warheads of which a very high percent were “ready to go” at any one time from the large, heavy, land based missile arsenal kept by Moscow. President Reagan had described this worrisome situation as a growing “window of vulnerability” in his 1980 campaign for the Presidency and as far back as his own testimony to the 1975 Committee on the Present Danger. (FN: 11)

Why have we not been able to ban such heavily armed warheads?

Well, the START II treaty as ratified by the US Senate did ban such multiple warhead land based missiles. But while the US Senate gave its consent to the treaty, the Russian Duma in 2000 ultimately failed to ratify the treaty in its original form, amending the agreement to also ban the deployment of all missile defenses. (FN: 12)

The US Senate refused to adopt the amended treaty and its important ban on unstable multiple warhead land based missiles. But the US kept its powder dry and made sure—with or without the ban—it would emphasize a modernized nuclear deterrent force spread out among over 500 individual nuclear assets—bombers, submarines and silo based missiles- that ensured the survivability of our deterrent from any potential Russian first strike even while the US downloaded its entire Minuteman land based missile force to one warhead.

This required putting more of our warheads at sea than on land which is an expensive proposition but necessary to ensure stability. Submarines at sea make up a significant subset of our overall force and thus because they are survivable, our nuclear deterrent need not be postured to look as if it is poised to strike first or suddenly.

The final part of Reagan’s strategy was the adoption of missile defenses.

The idea was not to substitute missile defense for nuclear deterrence but to significantly add to deterrence with defenses. (FN: 13)The added advantages of missile defense were that an adversary—whether a state or terrorist entity– could not get in a cheap, limited missile strike with impunity especially if early in a crisis or conflict. (FN: 14) This would allow the US to protect lives—shoot down the bad guys missiles– but also stop a crisis from escalating to an open conflict because a retaliatory strike using nuclear weapons might not be necessary.

The nuclear abolitionists also make much of the cost savings in sharply reducing our nuclear deterrent. Now it is true the United States could if it wanted to save tens of billions of dollars we could put more of our nuclear eggs in a far smaller number of nuclear baskets than we are planning to do.

For example, each new Ohio Replacement submarine in the US nuclear armed Navy could carry as many as 128 warheads. And a minimal deterrent of 250-500 warheads as abolitionists have supported could easily be accommodated by keeping all warheads on just a few—two to four–submarines. And the currently planned submarine program could deploy roughly as many as 1200-1300 warheads on just 6-8 submarines, or roughly half the planned fleet.

There are huge problems with such ideas but two are critical. Putting all the New Start treaty allowed missile warheads on just a small number of submarines places future US security at great risk. For example, if Russia breaks out of the New Start limits (or when the treaty expires), Moscow could add thousands of new warheads to its existing missiles and approach a total between 4000-5000. However with Minuteman eliminated and our submarines limited to 6-8, the US would have a zero upload capability as all our missiles would be carrying the maximum number of warheads that could fit on the top of each missile.

The second big problem was explained by both Franklin Miller and General Wilson in their remarks referenced above. Reducing our nuclear forces to 6-10 targets—as Global Zero, Ploughshares and the Center for American Progress have advocated with their call for eliminating all 450 US land based missiles and cutting our submarine fleet by half—is very dangerous from stability reasons. It would allow rogue and dangerous nuclear powers such as North Korea to strike at the US first and largely take us out of the nuclear business. (FN: 15)

The better idea is to stick to the current plan and modernize our nuclear forces. Even this plan brings into the force the first new strategic bomber, submarine or land based missiles no earlier than at least some half-decade after the Russians have completed the full modernization of their nuclear arsenal. As such, our modernization plan hardly then constitutes an arms race being led by the United States.

Part of the US plan is to place considerable emphasis—as we have for the past 35 years– on deploying a significant number of submarines at sea. At any one time, a third or more subs are at sea ensuring the survivability of the force from a sudden or surprise attack. That indeed does make nuclear modernization expensive but the force survivability preserves deterrence.

We are indeed in a race, but it’s one in which we started from many miles behind. The full modernization of our force, costly as it is, unless pursued with both great determination and effort, will mean this race for our survival is one we may end up losing. And nuclear imbalances can lead to conflict. As President Kennedy explained, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved peacefully because as he said, the newly deployed “Minuteman missiles were my ace in the hole”.

Absent such modernization, the use of nuclear weapons against America might become a terrible reality.

Is not then that the lesson of Hiroshima?


FN1: Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino, “Would the U.S. Drop the Bomb Again?” Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2016.

FN2: “As US Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy”, January 11, 2016; www.nytimes.com/2016/…/as-us-modernizes-nucle; and “Race for Latest Class of Nuclear Arms Threatens to Revive Cold War”, April 17, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/…/atom-bomb-nuclear-weap.


FN3: “Feinstein Takes Aim at Nuclear Cruise Missile Funding” April 14, 2016, Defense News; www.defensenews.com/…/feinstein-lrso…/83003490/Defense News.

FN4: Katrina vanden Heuval, May 17, Washington Post, “Obama’s Hiroshima visit cannot undo the past. But it can change the future”. With Minuteman eliminated, the US would be left with 3 bomber bases, 2 submarine bases and 5 submarines at sea or ten discrete nuclear assets compared to over 500 today.

FN 5: The Senate defense bill is S.2943 (the National Defense Authorization of Appropriations) and this language is contained in Sec. 1654 of the bill titled “S F

FN 6: Franklin Miller, a principal with the Scowcroft Group, spoke at a May 13th Capitol Hill seminar hosted by the author of this essay and AFA-ROA-NDIA.

FN 7: Lt Gen Stephen Wilson spoke May 6th in Washington, D.C. before a Capitol Hill seminar hosted by the author of this essay and AFA-ROA-NDIA. Wilson went on to explain eliminating all Minuteman missiles from the US nuclear deterrent would leave the United States with fewer than 10 distinct (and targetable) nuclear assets compared to the more than 500 we have to day.

FN8: Randall Kehler, national coordinator of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in St. Louis, said Mr. Reagan’s proposal ”Will not stop the nuclear arms race but will permit both sides to go ahead with a new round of dangerous nuclear weapons.” See “DEMOCRATS SAY REAGAN PLAN ON ARMS MOVES TOO SLOWLY, the New York Times, May 10, 1982.

FN9: “Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan”, by Sven Kraemer, published in 2015 by the American Foreign Policy Council.

FN10: This concern was the basis of then candidate Ronald Reagan’s charge that during the decade of the 1970’s a dangerous “nuclear window of vulnerability” had been created by the Soviet imbalance in heavy, multiple warhead land based missiles.

Although former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin at one points revealed he though the SS-18 “Satan” Soviet missile could carry as many as 24 warheads per missile

Didn’t the USA have 1000 land based missiles at the time? Yes. But with the case of the American Minuteman missiles, over half of our ICBMs, the old Minuteman II missiles, had only one warhead and they have now been eliminated. And the remaining 450 Minuteman III missiles all have one warhead only today and are in no danger of being used for a prompt, surprise attack on an adversary. There are not MM Missile warheads to take out anything but a fraction of Russian forces.

To successfully attack a hardened American Minuteman silo would require the Russians to probably use two warheads to destroy one silo based missile armed with one warhead. To get all 450 American based silos would require nearly 1000 warheads, over two-thirds of the Russian land based missile warheads. Such an attack would be nothing short of an “all-out Armageddon type attack” on the US what General Wilson described as “An all-in” unambiguous type attack. What would be the point when the other elements of the US nuclear deterrent—subs at sea and bombers in the air—would survive such a Russian strike and be able to retaliate devastatingly?

FN11: Reagan’s work with the Committee on the Present Danger is explained in some detail by Kraemer in his book (pp.155-6) in Chapter 7, “The Reagan Revolution Begins”.

FN12: See Charles Pena, “Arms Control and Missile Defense”, CATO Institute, July 26, 2000.

FN13: Sven Kraemer, “Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan”, by Sven Kraemer, published in 2015 by the American Foreign Policy Council, Chapter 13, pp.295-319…

FN14: Senator Malcolm Wallop, then a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and considered one of the Senate’s top nuclear strategists, spoke on the Senate floor (reported in the September 29, 1989 edition of the Washington Post) about the critical nature of missile defense in the Reagan nuclear strategy.

The Senator said:

“I am surprised in this regard that he [Senator Nunn] did not fall upon the one solution to this problem that both minimizes the risk in and value of Soviet covert deployments (thus making many more START verification regimes acceptable) and, in the event of such deployments, neutralizes them as a strategic asset: ballistic missile defense.

“Ballistic missile defenses would also provide protection of other critical U.S. assets, including fixed-based ICBMs, as a dividend. Finally, I am deeply disturbed, not so much at the concept of creating a new tier of arms control discussion, as Sen. Nunn has suggested, as at the agenda he has slated for it. Bans or limitations on sea-launched cruise missiles, further limitation on U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe (SNF), restrictions on anti-satellite systems and further limitation on nuclear testing together constitute practically the entire agenda of the American Left and, incidentally, of the Soviet Union”.

FN: 15 The transcript of their remarks is available on the AFA/Mitchell Institute website linked here Strategic Deterrence Breakfast Series. General Wilson said: “In late 1999 the world kind of talked and said, North Korea will never be able to build a nuclear bomb. Last year the New York Times published a piece that was debating really how many weapons they thought they had. When I was in Beijing a few years ago the Chinese thought that they had 10. Now we’re just debating the number. And so for that same number of weapons that I just talked [if we don’t have Minuteman deployed out there] about that North Korea possessed, and have the ability to destroy our [nuclear] intellectual capability, our [nuclear] production capability, and our [nuclear] delivery capability for about 20 years. And that’s what the Chinese told me a couple of years ago.”