Building on the Reagan Arms Control Revolution

by PETER HUESSY August 7, 2017

As the United States proceeds with an important nuclear posture review, a key requirement of our future nuclear deterrent must be kept front and center in any analysis. And that is keeping the Minuteman land based ICBM force as a critical stabilizing deterrent force and most importantly supporting its future modernization with the ground based strategic deterrent now beginning to ramp up in the USAF budget.

Opposing this requirement are a number of voices that remain stuck in the prism of Cold War thinking and assume our silo based land based missiles remain highly vulnerable to attack. As such their analysis is not only weak but irrelevant to today's nuclear deterrent environment.

Let us explain.

The May 26, 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) nuclear arms executive agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics allowed the two countries to have roughly 1710 and 2347 missile launchers aboard submarine and ICBM silos, respectively. The talks had begun in 1969 after the Johnson administration was concerned with Soviet building of missile defenses and a massive deployment of new land based missiles.

Subsequently, the United States sought further limits on Soviet missiles as both President Ford and Carter worked to put together SALT II which would have limited each side to 2250 silos and launchers but would have also included bombers. The treaty was never agreed to by the United States Senate, as after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter administration withdrew its request for Senate advise and consent.  

Why is this history important? The arms race during this period was a relatively simple proposition. In the absence of any upward limits on missiles, the new mirv (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles) technology of putting a lot of warheads on one missile-10 or more for example on the Soviet SS-18 land based missiles-meant that one missile could strike a lot of other missiles simultaneously. In particularly the very large size of the Soviet missiles meant they could carry thousands of warheads with which to strike and eliminate the 1000 Minuteman missile silos deployed in the United States. The Soviets would still have multiple thousands of warheads left over with which to threaten the United States in such a conflict and force an American President to "stand down".  

This led to SALT I but ironically the agreement still allowed both countries to build up their respective nuclear arsenals to well over 13,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads aboard bombers, submarines and land based silos. That number was reached at the very end of the Cold War just as the Reagan initiated 1991 START I agreement between the United States and Russia would begin dramatically to shift deployed strategic nuclear arsenals down to roughly 6000 warheads , a nearly fifty percent decline.

Even with SALT I, the United States spent a decade between 1974 and 1983 still looking to make our land based silo missiles more survivable and able to withstand a massive Soviet strike. Many possible plans were examined some fanciful, some workable but all quite expensive and requiring the use of a lot of land to run missiles around on trains, trucks or mobile launchers.

In the end a very simple yet elegant solution was found. The United States would modernize its nuclear land based missiles along with its submarines and bombers while simultaneously seeking major reductions in nuclear weapons. But the land based missiles would both go in existing silos-the 10 warhead Peacekeeper would be deployed in old Minuteman silos in Wyoming. In addition, a new smaller, mobile, single warhead land based missile, the SICBM or Midgetman-would be developed and deployed later on to make our ICBMs more survivable over the long term. As Senator Malcolm Wallop told me, "You can't make an elephant (Peacekeeper) a rabbit, and you can't make a rabbit (the SICBM) an elephant." So the idea was to deploy both.

As it turned out, we eventually were able to get rid of the elephant-banning land based multiple warhead missiles-and keep the rabbit-in this case the Minuteman land based missiles of which 500 were in silos. Apparently, the opponents of the new ground based strategic deterrent remain stuck in the 1970's and 1980's when the survivability of our land based systems was indeed of deep concern to the strategic community and our commanders.

But President Reagan solved the problem through putting on the table deep reductions (START I) in nuclear weapons-lessening the threat-- and simultaneously over the long term changing our land based missiles to all single warheads (accomplished in the three successive administration's following the end of the Cold War). Although Midgetman was not built, our Minuteman force of all single warhead missiles worked just as well because Russian warheads eventually were reduced some 90+% from over 13,000 to 1550, to where our silos based missiles are now fundamentally survivable and stabilizing.

Today, there are too many of our missiles compared to too few Russian warheads, the exact opposite of the destabilizing situation during the 1970's and 1980's when we were facing over ten thousand Soviet and then Russian warheads and a fixed number of American missile silos.  

Here is why things grew more stable and why fixed silo missiles are both the best way to go budget-wise and with respect to stability.

The United States land based missiles became an unattractive target to take out as they each were all reduced to carrying only one warhead. Simultaneously they also became far less attractive as destabilizing offensive weapons as one Minuteman single warhead missile could at best take out only one Soviet or Russian silo based missile. Most analysts believe it would actually take 2 warheads to successfully attack and destroy hardened silo based missiles. That makes Minuteman and the new planned GBSD even more unattractive as first-strike weapons as you have to us more warheads than you destroy.

This is in stark contrast to the 10 warhead American Peacekeeper missile we used to have in service along with the 3 warhead Minuteman. Theoretically, each Peacekeeper missile could take out ten SS-18 Russian silo-based ten warhead missiles. In short, the attacker could use 10 warheads to destroy 100 warheads which benefits the attacker. That however is no longer the case. And it will remain this way.


As former Chief of Staff of the USAF General Larry Welch explained in a draft paper of February 6, 2012, (permission given to the author to use), the Reagan initiated change had not only dramatically changed the strategic environment there is little chance any future technology can alter that fact. As General Welch explained: "Only the ICBMs seem unlikely to be unaffected by technological change. I cannot conceive of a technological breakthrough or an operational innovation that could put 450 single warhead ICBMs at risk.  That makes the ICBM the most stabilizing leg of the triad today."

The Russians would still have to fire a nuclear armed missile many thousands of miles through space to destroy an American silo no matter how fast or accurate their missiles became. And the Russians still, at best, would have to use at least one warhead (probably two) to destroy a single silo based missile warhead, so again what's the advantage to striking first?

Most recently, on June 7, 2017, General Robin Rand, the commander of the USAF Global Strike Command, reiterated these points in testimony before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Commission.

He explained that our hundreds of ICBMS "presents adversaries a nearly insurmountable obstacle of numbers should they consider a disarming attack on the United States." And he went further, noting that ICBMs, far from being either unnecessary or destabilizing, were "a cornerstone deterrence platform." He continued: "ICBMs are the sole weapon system capable of rapid global response and impose a time-proven and unpalatable cost to attack by peer, near-peer and aspiring nuclear nations."

These points are not a current "invention" designed to just get more nuclear spending. They have been understood for some time. For example, a 1998 Department of Defense Nuclear Task Force understood the points both General Welch and General Rand were making. Here is what the 1998 Department of Defense task force concluded: "The Task Force believes that the change in the relative value of the ICBM force is important and not adequately understood. This is the leg whose value increases the most with declining forces. As the total numbers on both sides moves the situation from warhead rich to target rich, the single warhead silo-based ICBM becomes highly stabilizing. It requires more than a 1:1 ratio for the attacker to attrit this force and that changes the correlation of forces against the attacker..."

In short, the strategic environment had so changed that we can now conclude that with the US having a significant numbers of ICBMs, an adversary is denied the benefit of a limited attack on them. It just simply makes no sense to attack only a small number of the 450 land based silos in the United States. And a wider attack trying to destroy all of America's land based missiles is also simply irrational-as the surviving land based missiles, the submarine missile warheads at sea and the bombers that are airborne [the US strategic Triad of forces] all can retaliate against an adversary with such devastating force as to make any initial nuclear attack against the United States simply incredible.

However, to do as some have suggested, which is to eliminate all 450 missile silos, would in fact be setting ourselves up for the very surprise attack anti-ICBM analysts are so worried about.

For example, while the sea based SLBM leg of the Triad remains highly survivable in the day-to-day posture, its small number of submarines (12) makes it unwise to vest an ever larger percent of a reduced force in this leg of the Triad. The Task Force concluded: "Doing so could lead an adversary to seek an advantage by focusing intently on means to attrit this [submarines in port and at sea] force over time, particularly since it might be done without attribution and would take years for the US to recover with new production."

Thus the Task Force emphasized that at lower and lower levels of nuclear warheads, "A Triad [subs, bombers and land-based missiles] is essential to a stabilizing and effective deterrent. Each leg of the Triad is of increasing importance as the numbers are reduced." Even without going after our hidden submarines at sea, an adversary could go after our three soft bomber bases and two onshore submarine facilities if our 400 ICBM silos were eliminated. All subs and bomber bases could be attacked with plausible deniability, (meaning we might not know who attacked us), thus drastically altering the correlation of forces between the United States and a nuclear armed adversary, as to put at serious jeopardy the security of the United States.

In short, while the Triad was developed during the Cold War, maintaining it is not based on some fondness for Cold War relics or assumptions. Such a Triad maintenance strategy is based on common sense and simple math: why make it easy for an adversary to disarm our nuclear capability which eliminating the ICBM force would do? With ICBMs we have over 500 targets for the bad guys to be concerned with. Without ICBMs, the targets drop to under ten still facing 1750 warheads, a huge 175 to 1 ratio. Add in the Chinese and the ratio reaches over 200 to 1.

Now some anti-ICBM analysts have backed off their push to eliminate ICBMs and suggested we simply extend the service life of the current Minuteman III force for a few more years and assess the strategic situation again down the road. But as General Rand warned, the current system simply cannot be extended. The Minuteman III was first deployed in 1970 and life extended between 1993 and 2012, but it eventually will says Rand "suffer from age out, asset depletion, and numerous performance shortfalls." He went on: "It will not meet critical mission performance requirements or force commitments by 2030."

General Rand was thus very clear that "Modernization, however, is mandatory" and that the USAF had already "identified promising areas for intelligent commonality between GBSD systems and future Navy weapons" which can lead to significant budget savings, even though ICBM modernization/replacement is already both the least expensive element of the TRIAD to build as well as cheaper than doing another life extension effort.

The General concluded "We cannot afford to delay modernization initiatives" while the "American people and our allies are counting on congressional action to fund our nuclear enterprise modernization efforts."

Finally, as General Welch concluded in 2012, there is also no danger that our ICBMs might be inadvertently or accidentally launched. That canard is a common criticism of ICBMs but it is without any validity. Said the General: "Of all the legs of the triad, the most secure, tried, proven, validated, continually tested command and control system is the one that controls the ICBMs.  We test the command and control system every day.  We red-team challenge it frequently.  We validate it over and over again.  There is simply no way to launch an ICBM without the approval of the President of the United States. Our ICBMs arsenal on alert continues to be the lowest risk of any element of the nuclear deterrent."

It should therefore be pretty clear. All three--the 1998 DOD Task Force, General Welch's 2012 Draft Paper and the 2017 General Rand SASC testimony -concluded we must go forward with the ground-based strategic deterrent. Opponents especially those stuck in the past should gracefully move out of the way and let America defend herself.    

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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