Looking For Nuclear Armageddon

by PETER HUESSY January 10, 2018

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Strategic Command head James Cartwright want to scrap the entire U.S. ICBM arsenal, a proposal described as "bold" in a November 22, 2017 "Special Report" by Reuters reporter Scott Paltrow.  

It is true both defense officials have for several years worried that because the U.S. land-based missiles are deployed in fixed silos, they could be targeted by the Russians in a crisis.

They conclude if an American President wanted to use these fixed-silo based ICBMs to strike at the Russians, the missiles would have to be launched before any arriving Russian warheads took them out.

What worries Cartwright and Perry is if an American President gets a warning of incoming Russian warheads and then decides to launch our missiles at Russia, before determining whether there is in fact a Russian attack under way.

Is this a realistic worry?

Would Russia, even in a crisis, just strike at our 450 land based missile silos and their 48 associated launch control centers, but leave untouched our three nuclear bomber bases and our two nuclear-armed submarine bases to say nothing of our numerous submarines at sea?

After all, just these five bases hold 60 U.S. bombers armed with multiple hundreds of nuclear bombs and cruise missiles as well as roughly 6 submarines armed with 120 missiles also with hundreds of nuclear warheads.

Bruce Blair, the founder of Global Zero, of Princeton University, says Perry and Cartwright are right. He thinks the Russians might indeed launch "100 missiles" to carry out just such a strike against the U.S. He says the President would have no more than 10 minutes in which to decide to "use our ICBMs or lose them."

Really? Is such a scenario realistic?

Let's examine it.

First, what would 100 Russian ICBMs do?

Well, let's look at the numbers. The Russian entire ICBM force has 1040 warheads deployed on 307 missiles. Even using the 100 missiles Blair postulates the Russians would launch, the most they could hit America with is 716 warheads.

How do we get that number?

Well, if Russia launched 100 of their multiple warhead land based missiles, they could strike us with a maximum of 716 warheads available using 46 of their 10-warhead SS-18's; 20 of their 6-warhead SS-19's; and 34 of their 4-warhead SS-27s.

But to hit all our 450 ICBM silos and the 48-associated launch control facilities, would require the use of 2-4 Russian warheads for each American target says James Mattis, our Secretary of Defense. That is somewhere then between 996 and 1992 warheads, or somewhere between 100-200% of the entire Russian ICBM force.

Even Russian Generals can do that math, although apparently Blair cannot.

Obviously, 716 warheads would not do the job. Upwards of 221 U.S. ICBMs could survive, and then possibly be launched back at the Russians. To say nothing of our available submarine and bomber launched warheads that could also be used for a retaliatory strike.

In the nuclear business, "not getting the job done" is not what the Russian commander of the strategic rocket forces would want to hear when thinking about rolling the cosmic dice and putting his country on the path to geostrategic suicide.

Cartwright and Perry must think otherwise because apparently, they think those in charge of the Russian nuclear missiles when given the evidence outlined here will nonetheless say "Oh, what the heck, lets launch!"

For what possible reason would Russia do this? Jon Wolfsthal was Vice President Joe Biden's adviser on nuclear proliferation. He said at CSIS earlier this year that it would be totally irrational for the Russians to attack the U.S. ICBM force for two reasons.

First, he said it would be irrational to attack the continental-US based Minuteman force because Russia could not be confident they could destroy all our land based Minuteman missiles. And they would have to expend their most potent nuclear weapons and fully two-thirds of their missile force to take out only 20-25% of the United States strategic nuclear arsenal.

What would be the point?

That is the first "oops!"

Second, Wolfsthal acknowledged any such Russian strike would also most certainly precipitate a devastating retaliatory strike from our submarines and bombers, further reinforcing the irrationality of any such hypothetical Russian strike on the United States.

That is the second "oops."

I asked Frank Miller, a former top OSD and White House nuclear policy official, to address this very issue at remarks he presented at the October Nuclear Security Working Group which I co-hosted. I asked him whether critics of the American ICBM force survivability would urge an American President to strike similarly vulnerable Russian land-based missiles, just as they assume a Russian President would seriously contemplate striking the United States.

Here is what Miller said.

"You're a very senior adviser to the president of the United States," he said. "You go into the Oval Office and say ‘Mr. President, I'm worried about the Russians and I think our best option is to strike first and eliminate their [ICBM] nuclear forces. I know they have missile detection and warning systems, and in the Russian case perhaps a ‘dead-hand' launch capability, and they will see us coming, but maybe we can get lucky."

Mr. Miller continued: "In the famous Cold War movie classic ‘Dr. Strangelove', General Buck Turgidson recommends the [US] President try a pre-emptive disarming strike against the Soviet Union, declaring ‘Mister President', I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10- to 20-million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks."

Concluded Miller: "Can anybody seriously envision such a scenario? The notion that any President of the United States would indulge in such a cosmic throw of the dice is completely and utterly unbelievable. There are sufficient issues to talk about in nuclear deterrence and force modernization policy without indulging in such nonsensical flights of dark fantasy."

What Cartwright and Perry are missing is that the United States very quickly and accurately obtains tactical warning and attack assessment data on potential nuclear attacks against the United States. Our missile defense program over the past few decades has given the United States a significantly enhanced ability to detect not only that a missile has been launched toward the United Stets but to assess where it launched from.  This capability provides sufficient time for the President and military (both civilian and active duty members) to appropriately respond with certainty to an attack.  

The second ICBM "fact" that Cartwright and Perry miss is that the downloading of the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, de-MIRVing, of our ICBM Minuteman force may be both the single greatest improvement and the least understood achievement in nuclear stability. 

Our de-MIRVed ICBM force has simultaneously become a force largely invulnerable to a surprise attack. No adversary in a warhead constrained environment-which is what the New START treaty provides-- can assume if they strike first that they can both confidently destroy the destruction of our ICBM force or assure their own survival from a retaliatory attack by our nuclear forces, including our ICBMs. 

The calculous simply does not produce a benefit to anyone nation to attack our ICBM force. And thus, at the end of the day, when you look at capability, cost and effectiveness, the ICBM leg of the Triad provides one insurmountable foundation for nuclear peace, as do all the legs of our nuclear Triad.

Thus, whatever one thinks of the Russian nuclear threat we now face, the Russians are not suicidal or crazy. If they are, then deterrence won't work no matter what the U.S. deploys. Just as one cannot envision an American President launching such an attack on the Russians, the converse is also true-no Russian President would launch such an irrational attack on the United States.

In a rational world, our deployment of 450 land based ICBMs is itself a formidable obstacle to overcome, to say nothing of the submarines and bombers we also have in our nuclear deterrent Triad that stand able to retaliate should our national command authorities order such a strike.

To eliminate the ICBM force by forgoing modernization, as Perry and Cartwright suggest, would reduce our entire nuclear deterrent assets to submarines in port at two bases, and our bombers at three bases. Counting submarines at sea, our nuclear assets would consist of just ten discrete targets.

Ten, compared to over 500 today.

What possible benefit would there be in making it vastly easier to attack the United States by reducing our nuclear assets by upwards of 98%? If anything would not that encourage an adversary to seek ways of pre-emptively eliminating our entire nuclear deterrent in a series of small strikes, starting with surreptitiously attriting our submarines at sea?

General Stephen Wilson, the Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF told me last year getting rid of our ICBMs was incomprehensible. Just to illustrate the radical nature of what Perry and Cartwright were proposing, he explained the Chinese had told him North Korea had 10 nuclear weapons.

He then explained that a bad guy with 10 nuclear weapons could thus wipe out our continentally based-U.S. nuclear deterrent in one strike-our 2 national command headquarters, our 3 national nuclear laboratories, our 3 bomber bases and our 2 submarine ports. 

A "bold" move is usually described as confident, courageous, and valiant.

But what about what Perry and Cartwright have proposed?

Well, it just might compel or tempt the Russians to try and strike us first.

After all they might think they could find all our ten nuclear targets and over time take them out.  

That would qualify as a third "oops!"

But unfortunately, it gets worse. Both Secretary Perry and Bruce Blair, perhaps in their enthusiasm in selling the idea of killing whole sections of our nuclear deterrent, have been less than accurate in their description of American nuclear strategy and capabilities.

At the Washington cathedral November 30, 2017, Perry claimed that US nuclear strategy was now based on launching our nuclear weapons on warning of an attack. And Blair, in a fund-raising letter this month, argues that he must stop Air Force missile launch control officers from-on their own-being able to "go berserk and fire without authorization".

Tragically, these false claims by Cartwright and Perry are being spread widely where our friends and allies might wonder about our sanity and our enemies wonder whether we intend to suddenly start Armageddon.

That is the fourth and most serious "oops".

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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