Cooking The Nuclear Books

by PETER HUESSY April 10, 2017

Should the United States make a dramatic change to its nuclear deterrent and unilaterally reduce its nuclear deterrent by one-third? Would the US still be able to maintain an adequate deterrence against our nuclear armed adversaries?

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and the Arms Control Association have both endorsed just such an initiative in recent essays and they think such unilateral moves are safe.

Both cited an administration study to justify their conclusions.  

Apparently a 2013 nuclear guidance paper endorsed such reductions.

Is this true?

Let us take a look.

When examined the unclassified version of the report on nuclear guidance and nuclear strategy clearly combines such possible reductions with a negotiated mutual agreement with the Russians, not unilateral US action. A reduction of one-third in the nuclear weapons allowed under the 2010 New Start might then make sense but only if the US also maintained a Triad of nuclear forces says the report.

But even more problematic is that the benign strategic environment the report envisioned no longer exists.

For example, the guidance assumed "although differences between our countries continue to arise and Russia continues to modernize its nuclear forces, Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and the prospects of military confrontation between us have declined dramatically." As Senator Inhofe explained at a April 4 SASC hearing, the strategic environment has significantly deteriorated from the description in the 2013 guidance.

As for whether the US should maintain at least parity with the Russians, the nuclear guidance document warned: "Although the need for numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War, large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. Allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced. We therefore continue to place importance on Russia joining us as we move to lower levels of nuclear weapons."

If that is the case, certainly a disparity between a US deterrent of 1000 deployed strategic weapons (the Perry recommendation) and 500 theater weapons (our current force in Europe) compared to Russian forces of at least 1550 deployed strategic weapons and between 2000-4000 theater weapons would qualify as "large" in that the Russians would have any-where from 2000-4000 more warheads in total than the United States or 200% to 400% greater than our entire deployed nuclear deterrent.

It is also understood that the Pentagon and its nuclear experts sought and received assurances that any such reduced force would have to be achieved: (1) mutually with the Russians; (2) as part of a Triad of forces; (3) while including a special counting rule for our strategic bombers and (4) while maintaining overall parity.

In particular, the special counting rules were necessary because they would make up for cuts elsewhere. For example, the counting rules would allow each of our 60 American strategic bombers to carry up to 20 cruise missiles or gravity bombs each. They would only "count" as 60 weapons, but in actuality they could number over 1000! This would give us an additional total nuclear cruise missile or gravity bomb total up to 120-140% greater than the total allowed notional force of only 1000 warheads.

The report as noted also explicitly endorsed a Triad at any level of warheads which is strikingly different than the unilateral proposals by Perry and ACA I referenced above. They both called for the elimination of the land based leg of the Triad and the long range strike cruise missile for the bombers, outcomes specifically rejected by the military professionals whom we were assured had endorsed the one-third cut.  

On this the new 2013 guidance was very clear:

"The new guidance states that the United States will maintain a nuclear Triad, consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear-capable heavy bombers. Retaining all three Triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities."

As for the supposed endorsement of a one-third reduction, this is what was actually in the report: "While safely pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from the level established in the New START Treaty...the U.S. intent is to seek negotiated cuts with Russia so that we can continue to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures."

But then for some strange reason, the report continues: "Although the new U.S. nuclear employment strategy would allow reductions below New START Treaty levels, the new employment strategy does not direct any changes to the currently deployed nuclear forces of the United States" which were the 1550 warheads allowed under the 2010 New Start Treaty.

To describe such reductions then as a good idea is disingenuous. To ignore that the strategic environment has deteriorated markedly since the guidance was published is cooking the books. To pretend a Triad is still not needed is not kosher. And to claim such reductions can be done unilaterally is simply not clear from the record.

All in all the program of record is the right way to go forward. The Triad is required; it keeps us safe; no unilateral or reckless reductions make sense; and the strategic environment remains serious and unstable.

Keeping our powder dry remains the smart choice.

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Peter R. Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and a guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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