Nearly 50 years ago as the Reagan administration sought to modernize our aging nuclear deterrent, a group of American arms control enthusiasts joined together to support the Soviet Union’s call for a freeze on all nuclear modernization.
The Catholic Bishops along with many Hollywood entertainers and most of the dominant media including the New York Times and CBS television enthusiastically signed up as well.
The Soviets proposed the freeze because their nuclear forces were already modernized while the US nuclear forces were trending toward what one top analyst described as “rusting to obsolescence”.
The Soviets were convinced the international “correlation of forces” were moving rapidly in their favor and they sought to cement in place their nuclear superiority.
Luckily, the nuclear freeze was defeated.
But similar dumb ideas are still around animated by the same wrong-headed notions about nuclear deterrent policy.
Three in particular imperil our security. They are: (1) our Triad of nuclear weapons is far too expensive to modernize; (2) maintaining nuclear parity with Russia is unnecessary; and (3) our nuclear armed land based missiles are in danger of being launched accidentally.
The last assertion is based on a strange idea that our official deterrent policy is to launch our land-based missiles on computer warning of an attack –“launch on warning”.
The United States does not now have nor have we ever had a launch on warning policy or strategy.
That is not to say worries about the launch of nuclear weapons in a crisis has not been an important theme in the history of nuclear deterrent policy from the very dawn of the nuclear age.
Senator Sam Nunn, the former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee often referred to his worries over “prompt launch” during a crisis, particularly if nuclear armed adversaries thought their forces were vulnerable to a pre-emptive first strike that would significantly degrade their ability to deter.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 20 years ago that covered this problem, it was Russia, not the United States that supposedly had adopted “a launch on warning” deterrent policy.
Bruce Blair, the Global Zero founder and prime sponsor of current launch on warning fears, blamed America for this reckless Russian policy claiming our submarine force alone—not our ICBMS– could threaten all of Russia’s nuclear forces.
His fear? We could strike Russia first and leave them defenseless. And as a result, his theory went, Russia had no choice but to adopt their own policy of launch on warning during a crisis.
Blair’s solution? To get rid of all our 450 Minuteman missiles. Unilaterally. And keep the submarines that are supposedly the cause of the problem in the first place.
Has there ever been a dumber idea put forward except for perhaps the 1980 “nuclear freeze”?
Blair idea would—at best–leave the US with only 9 nuclear assets or targets–3 bomber and 2 submarine bases–along with 4 submarines at sea at any one time.
We would thus go from having over 500 nuclear targets for the Russians to worry about to less than 10, a 98% cut. If the Russians could destroy these small number of assets first they would wipe out America’s nuclear deterrent.
Why would we make it easier for Russia to attack the United States? As General Scowcroft once wrote about exactly this problem, why not paint a bullseye on our nuclear deterrent and hang a sign on it saying “Come get us”!
That brings us to the next point–can we afford to modernize our nuclear deterrent forces to keep them survivable?
Here the children of the nuclear freeze apparently have no idea why the US maintains a nuclear Triad of bombers, submarines and land based missiles.
We maintain such a stabilizing force because it guarantees the US will have a second-strike, retaliatory capability, even should any part of the Triad be vulnerable to attack or technological breakthroughs by our adversaries.
The Triad also allows us a very high degree of flexibility and options to keep parity with our most worrisome adversaries especially Russia.
Now our Triad is in the early stages of modernization. The annual cost is projected to grow to an average of $28 billion a year in 2021-2 and then $30 billion by 2030 when it peaks and then declines. This requires at most 4-5% of the entire defense budget and one-half of one percent of the Federal budget.
In the meantime our 450 Minuteman missile silos spread out over tens of thousands of square miles, complemented by our bombers that can become air-borne in a crisis, and our 4-5 submarines that are continuously at sea provide a sound, stable, effective and credible deterrent.
The reason we spend $24-5 billion annually on our nuclear deterrent forces–still less than 4% of the defense budget– is to ensure we don’t ever have to launch our deterrent forces on warning or launch quickly in a crisis. There is no fear that we have to “use ’em or lose ’em” to a Russian first strike.
This deterrent capability was not just created by accident.
We have acquired a robust retaliatory second strike capability for two very important reasons.
First, nearly four decades ago, President Ronald Reagan pushed hard to defeat the nuclear freeze and modernize our nuclear forces, upon which we are still dependent. Without such a modernization we would never have won the Cold War and dismantled the Soviet empire.
And second, President Reagan’s “peace through strength” policy coupled with a creative arms control process—known by the shorthand phrase “trust but verify”—helped end the Soviet empire. But it also subsequently reduced Russian and American deployed strategic nuclear warheads by nearly 90%, an unprecedented accomplishment which the nuclear freeze would have prevented.
And today, our nuclear deterrent remains safe and secure but will remain so only if we fully modernize the deterrent just as we did under President Reagan.
We should accelerate that modernization plan and accomplish in the 21st century what we did with the Soviet Union in the 20th century. End an existential threat to our country—the USSR—while also dramatically reducing nuclear dangers—which we did.
Unfortunately, having accomplished these twin goals, we went on a procurement and intellectual holiday. As former USAF Assistant Chief of Staff Garrett Harencak explained, we stopped modernizing our deterrent and we stopped thinking how to best to deter.
Since the end of the Cold War, we delayed—with some exceptions–the modernization of our nuclear deterrent. As a result, we are now faced with making up time for a nearly 30 year nuclear procurement holiday. The nuclear enterprise as a whole needs to be modernized beginning now and extending for another 15-25 years.
Now we face a heavily armed Russia, with a reckless nuclear policy, along with a rising nuclear armed China, a nuclear armed rogue state in North Korea, and what appears to be an emerging destabilizing nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India.
We previously have faced the choice of modernizing our nuclear deterrent and keeping parity with our then top adversary, a nuclear armed Soviet Union, or looking for an easy way out and stopping any such effort.
In 1970, for example, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senators Kennedy, Symington, and Fulbright worried that a huge Soviet warhead buildup threatened the US nuclear arsenal. Their solution? Adopt a “launch on warning” strategy rather than modernize and make more survivable our nuclear deterrent.
The Nixon and subsequent administrations refused to adopt such a reckless policy. Unfortunately, however, the 1970’s was a decade of unfortunate indecision and delay in keeping our nuclear (and conventional) deterrent up to snuff.
And delay had its consequences. During the ensuing decade, the Soviets conquered a dozen and a half countries including Afghanistan, while Iran was lost to the Islamic Mullahs. And our nuclear deterrent atrophied.
And in 1980 we faced the siren song of a “nuclear freeze” from Moscow, which had surface appeal but was defeated—thankfully– by the wise heads in the Reagan administration in cooperation with the wiser heads in Congress.
We face similar geostrategic conditions and challenges today.
Russia is resurgent and is planning to fully modernize its entire nuclear deterrent by 2021 before the USA has even built a single new submarine, land based missile or bomber.
China is similarly modernizing its nuclear forces both on land and sea to an unprecedented degree. Iran is arming terrorists, propping up its client state Syria, even while it seeks nuclear bombs. And North Korea keeps building and testing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.
So here we face a choice. Go with Reagan’s “peace through strength” policy and actually accelerate and get back on pace with the nuclear modernization plans now before us.
Or adopt unilateral reductions and what one might term a “trifecta of stupidity”—reducing our deterrent forces by 90%, forgoing much modernization, and letting our adversaries outpace us. The result will be that deterrence is lessened, instability heighted and future arms control jeopardized.
In short, nuclear dangers will increase and with it the prospects for the nuclear Armageddon we seek to avoid.
Let’s go with the alternative-“peace through strength” with a heavy dose of “trust but verify”.