Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) No Longer Mutual: U.S. Unilaterally Vulnerable

by DR. PETER VINCENT PRY March 14, 2018


 "The Cold War-era doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction will continue to deter nuclear war for at least another decade despite Russia's claims of new and provocative doomsday weapons, said General John Hyten, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command" (Washington Examiner: March 7, 2018).  In fact, the U.S. no longer has the ability to deliver 400 equivalent megatons (EMTs) to destroy 25% of Russia's population and 75% of industry after a Russian first-strike, which is the classical definition of MAD requirements for the U.S.  In contrast, Russia--after a U.S. first-strike--has the capability to destroy more than 25% of U.S. population and 75% of industry by delivering 100 EMTs against the U.S., whose population and industry is much more urbanized and concentrated than in Russia.  U.S. population and industry is also much less well protected.  The white paper below was written in 2010 during the Obama Administration, based on analysis performed in 2009 for the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission to warn that U.S. nuclear deterrence and warfighting capabilities were already, in 2009, dangerously deficient.  After 8 years of the Obama Administration's withering of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the 2010 analysis below not only remains relevant-the U.S. strategic posture is even worse, and consequently the Free World even more vulnerable.        

What The Strategic Posture Commission Never Told You    

President Obama is pressing the Senate to ratify his Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, termed "New START," immediately, before closure of the "lame duck" Congress.  In 2008, Congress established a bipartisan expert commission, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, to help the Congress understand strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. strategic posture and preparatory to congressional review of New START.  The Strategic Posture Commission delivered its excellent report to Congress in 2009, rendering valuable analysis and consensus recommendations on a wide range of issues vital to the future U.S. strategic posture, including on the important role of missile defense, sustaining the scientific-industrial nuclear weapons infrastructure, and protecting against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.[1]

However, under the legal charter establishing the Strategic Posture Commission, the Commission was specifically tasked by the Congress to include "force-on-force exchange modeling" as part of its analysis, in order to "calculate the effectiveness" of the U.S. deterrent "under various scenarios."  Yet, the Commission report contains no such analysis.  No consensus could be reached among Commissioners about the necessity or relevance of this classic means of evaluating the strategic nuclear balance, now that the Cold War is over.[2]

This article is based on analysis performed for the Strategic Posture Commission, in fulfillment of the congressional requirement for force-on-force exchange modeling, to evaluate the U.S. nuclear deterrent under various scenarios  This analysis did not achieve consensus support among the Strategic Posture Commissioners for publication in their final report.  Nonetheless, key findings of this analysis are offered in the hope that members of the Congress and the general public may find the information useful in evaluating the U.S. strategic posture today, under New START, and beyond, and to encourage further analysis, if this approach is deemed still relevant and useful.

Potential Nuclear Adversaries

The Cold War is over and Russia is no longer considered a threat to the West.  Nor are China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and India officially regarded by the United States as nuclear threats.  Nonetheless, this judgment is based on political factors that could change rapidly.  Moreover, while the United States no longer presently regards U.S. relations with any state as so strained as could spark nuclear confrontation or war-Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian political and military leaders regularly and publicly disagree with this U.S. view, including in their official military doctrines that advocate preparedness for conflict with the United States.  Indeed, threats of nuclear attack have been made against the United States and its allies by the Russian Duma  in May 1999 over NATO's bombing of Serbia, by China's General Xiong Guankai (Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff) during the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, routinely by North Korea against South Korea and the U.S., and routinely by Iran and its terrorist minions against Israel and the United States.[3]          

Nor is it hard to imagine circumstances where Pakistan or India's nuclear weapons could imperil the United States.  Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could, as a result of a jihadist coup or Taliban revolution, virtually overnight become a threat to the United States.  India seems impossibly removed from ever becoming a threat to the United States, just as in 1942 Japan and Germany seemed impossibly removed from ever becoming among the closest U.S. allies.  India's behavior in a supreme national crisis, such as a nuclear war with U.S. ally Pakistan, is unpredictable, but could involve targeting the United States, if only to avenge a nuclear holocaust against India's major cities.         

The President and the Congress should be informed of at least the most basic threats that could be posed to U.S. forces and population by at least the biggest nuclear rival to the United States--Russia.  A rounded analysis should include the present and future nuclear capabilities to threaten U.S. forces and population posed by China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India, and terrorists.

Such an analysis would show that a disproportionately large amount of damage could be inflicted on U.S. military forces, population, and industry by a very small number of nuclear weapons-even by a single weapon.  Perhaps because rigorous analysis of potential adversary nuclear attack options has been out of vogue since the end of the Cold War, most U.S. political leaders and certainly the general public are unaware that profound changes in the U.S. strategic posture have greatly increased U.S. vulnerabilities. 

Awareness of these increased U.S. strategic vulnerabilities may partially account for the great enthusiasm in Russia and China for modernizing their nuclear arsenals and, in North Korea and Iran, for acquiring nuclear weapons.        

Reports to Congress and the President on the U.S. strategic posture regularly and rightly include such basic information as political-military relations with other states, arms control agreements and their status, and the numbers of nuclear weapons of Russia, China and others.  The most fundamental reason these facts matter is because of the potential nuclear threat, however unlikely, that Russia or other states could pose to the United States.  The "moves" Russia or others could make on the "nuclear chessboard" in a future crisis or conflict, however remote, are certainly among the most basic and important information that can and should be routinely provided to the President and Congress.

Highlights of U.S. Vulnerabilities Under New START

New START is an opportunity for extensive congressional hearings on the Treaty and on the overall U.S. nuclear posture in order to rebuild--or to knowingly abandon--the strategic consensus in Congress and among the American people on these nuclear deterrence principles that for over six decades prevented a nuclear World War III: 1) U.S. nuclear forces should be "second to none" numerically, so that no potential adversary achieves any real or perceived advantage in  numbers of nuclear weapons that could erode the credibility of deterrence and of U.S. security guarantees to allies; 2) U.S. nuclear forces should be "second to none" technologically, so that no potential adversary achieves any real or perceived militarily significant advantage;  3) U.S. nuclear forces should have an Assured Destruction retaliatory capability to deliver unacceptable damage against the population and industry of any aggressor, while also having robust and flexible Counterforce capabilities to destroy enemy military and nuclear forces in a retaliatory strike; and 4) The U.S. strategic posture--the numbers, readiness, and capabilities of U.S. nuclear forces--should be so robust as to discourage any hope by China or lesser actors that they could become nuclear peer competitors, or otherwise credibly threaten or execute crippling attacks against the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

New START fails to uphold any of the above core nuclear deterrence principles that saw the United States safely through the Cold War.  However, this is not the fault of the Obama administration.  Successive administrations and successive Congresses--Republican and Democrat alike--have allowed the U.S. strategic posture to so deteriorate that New START will further exacerbate already dangerous U.S. nuclear deficiencies and vulnerabilities:

The U.S. nuclear deterrent is no longer "second to none" numerically.  New START does nothing to reduce Russia's huge advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, variously estimated to number 4,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000, while the U.S. retains only some 200 tactical nuclear weapons.  Most Russian "tactical" nuclear weapons are very powerful, capable of destroying a city, and all are considered "strategic" by U.S. allies who are within their range.  New START, by failing to cut Russian tactical nuclear weapons, cedes to Moscow a heavy preponderance--better than three-to-one at least--in overall numbers of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. nuclear deterrent is no longer "second to none" technologically.  New START, by focusing only on numerical limits of strategic weapons, cedes to Russia and other nations unchallenged qualitative improvements in nuclear weapons--including potentially decisive advances in new generation nuclear warheads.  While the U.S. relies upon nuclear weapons and delivery systems designed and built during the Cold War, Russia is developing and deploying new generation delivery systems and advanced nuclear weapons, what the Russians term "third generation" nuclear weapons of specialized function.  For example, open source Russian military writings describe "mini-neutron" nuclear weapons, small and clean enough to be used on the battlefield, just like conventional bombs, but far more effective.[4]  Most disturbing, the Russians claim to have developed what they term "Super-EMP" nuclear warheads, designed specifically to paralyze the U.S. nuclear deterrent with an extraordinarily powerful electromagnetic pulse that will destroy even protected electronic systems and strategic communications.[5]  China also reportedly has "Super-EMP" weapons.  Credible Russian sources, and South Korean military intelligence reportedly, warn that North Korea is developing "Super-EMP" nuclear weapons with foreign help.[6]  The United States has no comparable weapons in its inventory--and is the only nation in the world that has unilaterally prohibited its military scientists from working on even theoretical designs of advanced nuclear weapons. 

Under New START, for the first time in the history of the U.S.-Russian nuclear competition, U.S. retaliatory capabilities following a hypothetical Russian first strike will no longer be able to achieve Assured Destruction against Russia or offer robust Counterforce capabilities.  Since the early 1960s, minimum deterrence has been equated with Assured Destruction: the surviving U.S. capability, after a Russian disarming first strike, to still inflict unacceptable damage on Russia by destroying 25 percent of its population and 75 percent of its industry--achievable by a residual U.S. nuclear force that can deliver 400 equivalent megatons (EMTs).[7]  New START will so reduce the numbers of U.S. strategic weapons that the United States, following an adversary disarming first strike, will probably no longer be able to muster 400 EMTs among its surviving forces.  Nor will the surviving U.S. nuclear deterrent offer robust Counterforce capabilities--or any Counterforce capabilities, since Counterforce retaliation would diminish further forces available for Assured Destruction, and so weaken the "intra-war deterrent" shielding American cities from nuclear attack.  In contrast, under New START, Russia will retain robust Assured Destruction and Counterforce capabilities, as Russia would likely strike first in any nuclear exchange with the U.S..  Even in the case of a Russian second strike, Moscow needs less than 100 EMTs to inflict Assured Destruction on the United States.                  

The U.S. nuclear deterrent is no longer so robust as to deter China or lesser actors from aspiring to become a peer competitor, and has serious vulnerabilities that, in a crisis, could invite attack from rogue states or even terrorists.  Deep reductions in U.S. strategic forces have made the United States more vulnerable to surprise attack not only by Russia, but by China, rogue states, or any actor in possession of even a single nuclear missile.                       

Specifically, U.S. bombers, ballistic missile submarines, ICBMs, strategic command and control, and population and industry are unprecedentedly vulnerable, as shall be explained more fully later.

Cold War "Window of Vulnerability"

In order to better understand how the present U.S. strategic posture has become markedly more vulnerable since the Cold War, it may be useful to revisit U.S. strategic vulnerabilities that were of great concern during the Cold War, so that these may be contrasted with the present U.S. situation.  Moreover, recounting these Cold War vulnerabilities may be instructive, since many policymakers are unaware of these nuclear threats faced by the United States.  

Estimates of some possible Soviet nuclear threats-or attack options-against U.S. strategic nuclear forces were provided to Congress on September 11, 1974, by then Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger.  The briefing was classified Secret but later sanitized and declassified.[8]

Defense Secretary Schlesinger testified to Congress that Moscow then had a range of limited nuclear Counterforce options that it could threaten or execute against the United States.  Any and all of these Counterforce options, according to Defense Secretary Schlesinger, were more credible and more likely than an all-out nuclear attack on the United States, that would guarantee a U.S. all-out nuclear response.  Limiting collateral damage to the U.S. population made these Counterforce nuclear attacks credible.  The more limited the collateral damage to U.S. population, and the more effective the Counterforce attack, the less risky and more credible the attack option.

Defense Secretary Schlesinger described to the Senate some limited nuclear war scenarios that Moscow could pursue that would destroy vitally important elements of the U.S. strategic deterrent, while limiting U.S. civilian casualties to a very small fraction of the total U.S. population.  The Defense Secretary presented tables and graphs to support Department of Defense calculations.

According to Defense Department calculations in 1974, Moscow could make a limited nuclear attack on U.S. ballistic missile submarine bases that would destroy U.S. submarines in port, about one-third of the fleet.  The attack would limit collateral fatalities from all nuclear effects, including fallout, to about 100,000 Americans.  This was less than 0.0005 of the total national population at the time (212,600,000 people in 1975).

According to Defense Department calculations in 1974, Moscow could make a nuclear attack limited to all 45 U.S. strategic bomber bases, that would destroy the unalerted bomber force, comprising 75 percent of all U.S. strategic bombers.  Such an attack would kill 300,000 people and produce total casualties, killed and injured, of about 700,000.  This was less than 0.003 of the total U.S. population. 

According to Defense Department calculations in 1974, Moscow could destroy one-third of U.S. submarines and three-quarters of U.S. strategic bombers-that carried collectively more than two-thirds of all U.S. strategic nuclear weapons-while inflicting 400,000 deaths on U.S. civilians, less than 0.002 of the U.S. total population.

According to Defense Department calculations in 1974, Moscow could make a nuclear attack limited to U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with the warheads airburst to minimize fallout, at a cost of 800,000 American dead.  Total casualties, dead and injured, were estimated at 1.5 million, about 0.007 of the total national population.  If the warheads were groundburst against U.S. ICBMs to produce fallout "it would drive the number of fatalities or casualties to a significantly higher level, something on the order of 3 million," according to Secretary Schlesinger. 

The 1974 Schlesinger briefing demonstrated that a Soviet Counterforce attack on all three legs of the U.S. Triad-submarines in port, bombers, and ICBMs-could be accomplished while limiting U.S. civilian fatalities to about 1-3 million, at most about one percent of the total national population.

Today's "Window of Vulnerability"--Counterforce Attacks

Today, Russia could do much better than in 1974 both at destroying U.S. strategic forces and in limiting collateral damage to the U.S. civilian population.  This is because of the increased effectiveness of Russian strategic forces and because of the more vulnerable and much smaller U.S. strategic posture.  The U.S. strategic posture today differs from 1974 in a number of important respects, not least in that it could invite attack from actors other than Russia: 

In 1974 and today, one-third of U.S. ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that are normally in port, while the others are at sea, could be destroyed by attacking two submarine bases (King's Bay, Georgia and Bangor, Washington).[9]  Today, compared to 1974, the capability to threaten or destroy one-third of U.S. SSBNs would have a much more crippling effect on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, because a larger proportion of U.S. nuclear weapons and Counterforce capabilities are now invested in submarines.  China could easily manage this limited disarming strike against U.S. SSBNs today.  North Korea, Iran, and India are developing ICBMs that could perform such an attack, that requires only two warheads.  Today, North Korea, Iran or terrorists are capable of attacking U.S. SBBNs in port by launching conventional anti-ship missiles off a freighter.  Unclassified overhead imagery is now available on the internet showing the exact location of Ohio-class SSBNs at their berths that could support geolocation for their precise targeting by ballistic or non-nuclear cruise missiles.[10]    

In 1974, the Defense Department postulated that Moscow would attack 45 strategic bomber bases.  Today, the number of U.S. strategic bomber bases has been reduced to three (Minot, Barksdale, Whiteman AFBs).[11]  Defense Department calculations in 1974 showed that Moscow could attack three U.S. strategic bomber bases and limit collateral civilian casualties to about 10,000 persons, using high-yield "dirty" bombs of the type attributed to the Soviets in 1974.  China could easily manage this limited nuclear option against U.S. strategic bombers today.  North Korea, Iran, and India are developing ICBMs that could perform such an attack, that requires only three warheads.            

In 1974 about 25 percent of U.S. strategic bombers were maintained on strip alert, armed, ready to take-off on short notice.  In contrast to 1974, today the U.S. is especially reliant on strategic bombers like the B-2 to conduct selective, surgical strikes, that are politically necessary in order to prosecute conventional conflicts or "police actions."  Today U.S. strategic bombers are not on alert, not even armed, and would be totally destroyed in a surprise attack.    

In 1974, because strategic bombers were on strip alert, they complicated an adversary first strike, making it difficult to attack bombers and ICBMs simultaneously.  Today, because bombers are no longer maintained on alert, bombers, ICBMs and SSBNs in port can be attacked simultaneously.  

In 1974, the Defense Department postulated that Moscow would attack each U.S. ICBM silo with two 1-megaton warheads, each half fission yield.  The fission yield greatly increases fallout and drives up civilian casualties.  Today, Russia's ICBMs are sufficiently accurate to achieve a higher kill probability against U.S. ICBM silos employing a single warhead, of one-half megaton or less.  Moreover, because of superior design, the fission yield in modern Russian strategic warheads is probably much less.      

In 1974, the Defense Department postulated that Moscow would attack 1,054 U.S. ICBM silos.  Today,  the number of U.S. ICBM silos has been reduced to 450.  China may be tempted to acquire Counterforce capabilities against this much diminished-and under New START likely to diminish further-target set. 

In 1974, U.S. strategic command and control was much more robust than today.  Airborne Launch Control Centers (ALCCs) provided redundant launch means for ICBMs.  TACAMO aircraft were widely dispersed and on strip alert to communicate an Emergency Action Message (EAM) from the President to submarines at sea.  SSBNs cannot launch without an EAM.  An Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) buried antennae supplemented TACAMO communications with submarines.  Today, ALCCs and ELF no longer exist, all replaced by TACAMO aircraft.  Today, TACAMO are almost entirely not on alert and concentrated on a single base (Tinker AFB), where they could be destroyed by a single warhead.  A single ICBM would place the potential for a decapitating strike against U.S. strategic forces within the grasp of not only Russia or China, but North Korea, Iran, India, or Pakistan.        

Today, compared to 1974, a Russian or other hostile nuclear planner has some unprecedented targeting "bargains," that are worth repeating for emphasis:  Two warheads on SSBN ports could destroy one-third of the strongest Triad leg.  Three warheads could wipe out the bomber leg of the strategic Triad.  One warhead could buy most of the TACAMO aircraft, now a vital C3 link for both ICBMs and SSBNs.  Today virtually all ICBMs can be destroyed using less than one-quarter the number of warheads required in 1974.

Today, compared to 1974, a hypothetical Russian Counterforce attack against any Triad leg, or against all U.S. strategic nuclear forces, would be much more effective and result in far fewer collateral civilian casualties.  Today, estimating conservatively, Russia could probably attack all three legs of the U.S. Triad at a cost of less than 300,000 casualties,   less than 0.001 (or less than 0.1 percent) of the U.S. total population.[12]  This represents, compared to 1974, a great improvement in the ability to limit collateral casualties, in fact an improvement by tenfold    Approximately 500 Russian nuclear warheads could be used to destroy virtually all U.S. strategic bombers, ICBMs, SSBNs in port, and critical command and control nodes necessary to execute SSBNs at sea, achieving an exchange ratio and operational outcome highly favorable to Russia.  Achieving such a Counterforce capability, requiring 500 warheads, is not out of the question for China.  China would have to develop only 50 ICBMs like Russia's SS-18 for the 500 warheads needed to pose a disarming Counterforce threat against the United States.    

Finally, as noted earlier, the development of new generation nuclear weapons, that have no counterparts in the U.S. nuclear deterrent, could decisively tilt the strategic nuclear balance against the United States, rendering existing U.S. nuclear arms obsolete.       

Russia, according to their open source writings, has achieved a revolutionary technological advantage over the United States in "third generation" nuclear weapons.  These include "clean" neutron tactical nuclear warheads and "Super-EMP" weapons.  These latter, according to Russian claims, can generate a super-energetic electromagnetic pulse over the entire continental United States that would destroy the electronics of all  strategic forces and communications, and so win a nuclear war against the U.S. with a single weapon.  China, according to their open source writings, also claims to have "Super-EMP" weapons.  If North Korea also has or develops "Super-EMP" weapons, as alleged by some credible sources, Iran--the world's leading sponsor of international terrorism--may not be far behind.[13]   

Today's "Window of Vulnerability"--Assured Destruction

Under New START, for the first time in the history of the U.S.-Russian nuclear competition, U.S. retaliatory capabilities following a Russian first strike will no longer be able to achieve Assured Destruction against Russia, or offer robust Counterforce capabilities.  As noted earlier, U.S. Assured Destruction against Russia is equated with a retaliatory capability, following a Russian disarming attack, capable of destroying 25 percent of Russia's population and 75 percent of industry.  Cold War era calculations indicated that U.S. Assured Destruction was achievable against Russia with a surviving retaliatory force of 400 equivalent megatons (EMTs).[14]  Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, 400 EMTs remains a valid Assured Destruction criteria against Russia, because its population and industry is dispersed over a much larger area, compared to the United States.  In contrast, about 50 percent of the total U.S. population and over 75 percent of U.S. industry is concentrated in just 50 urban-industrial areas, targetable by less than 100 Russian EMTs. 

This asymmetry in urban-industrial vulnerability highly favorable to Russia is made even more marked by Russia's still extensive civil defense programs to protect the general population, that have no equivalent in the United States.  Nor does the U.S. have Russia's thousands of hardened command posts, including hundreds of deep underground shelters, many virtually invulnerable to nuclear attack, to enable hundreds of thousands of Russia's political-military elite to survive and recover their nation from a nuclear war.  During the Cold War, some U.S. military planners were so concerned that a Russian first strike and strategic defense could so dangerously diminish U.S. retaliatory capabilities, that the notion of "synergistic deterrence" was introduced, where each Triad leg was supposed to be independently capable of Assured Destruction. Today's U.S. nuclear Triad is no longer sufficiently powerful to support "synergistic deterrence" nor will it be able to support Assured Destruction under New START. 

Something like Assured Destruction, though "politically incorrect" and not much publicly discussed today, is still part of U.S. strategic thinking and military operational planning.  The 2009 U.S. Air Force Doctrine Document Nuclear Operations still expects U.S. strategic nuclear forces to have a survivable retaliatory reserve for intra-war deterrence and successful war termination: "The goal behind using nuclear weapons is to achieve U.S. political objectives and resolve a conflict on terms favorable to the U.S....Finally, the U.S. must maintain forces in reserve which will continue to protect against coercion following a nuclear strike, convincing the adversary that further hostilities on its part will be met by a swift response."[15]  During the Cold War, and today, the idea of Assured Destruction was not actually to employ this capability to destroy the adversary's population and industry.  Rather, Assured Destruction was intended to deter nuclear war in the first place.  Failing that, an Assured Destruction capability held in reserve, it was hoped, might contain a nuclear exchange to Counterforce by deterring the adversary from escalating to nuclear attacks on cities.        

New START so diminishes the numbers of U.S. strategic weapons that, after a Russian disarming attack, all three legs of the U.S. Triad--ICBMs, bombers, and submarines--will not collectively have enough surviving forces to muster 400 EMTs to threaten Assured Destruction against the aggressor--who may contemplate a second wave of attacks against U.S. cities to compel Washington to surrender.  Current thinking about New START seeks to preserve the U.S. Triad, but this is not compatible with Assured Destruction, as ICBMs and bombers are so vulnerable.  Nor will abandoning the Triad for a more survivable Dyad of bombers and submarines, sharing equally the 1,550 New START warheads, salvage Assured Destruction.  A surprise attack that wipes out the bombers and submarines in port will still leave the U.S. with less than 400 EMTs.  Even a Monad comprising only submarines, the most survivable platform, even if all submarines survive a surprise attack, if all are armed with the W76 100 kiloton warhead, will still fall short of the 400 EMTs for Assured Destruction.[16]  Only a Monad of submarines, all armed with the W88 475 kiloton warhead, could suffer the loss of submarines at port, and still offer a strategic reserve of 400 EMTs for Assured Destruction and intra-war deterrence.  However, this submarine Monad, above and beyond the reserve for Assured Destruction, would offer only about 375 warheads for Counterforce attacks--wholly

inadequate against the thousands of military targets in Russia or China.  375 U.S. weapons would be vastly overmatched for a nuclear exchange with Russia, that after a first strike under New START would still have over 1,000 strategic warheads and thousands of tactical nuclear weapons for additional attacks[17] 

Yet all these calculations about Assured Destruction are rendered obsolete by the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states, who can achieve an Assured Destruction capability against the United States by means of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.       

The Congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack warns that any nuclear weapon could be used to make an EMP attack against the United States-with catastrophic consequences for U.S. critical infrastructures that support the economy and survival of the national population.[18]  Electronic systems are indispensable and increasingly vital to the operation of the national critical infrastructures--electric power, communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water--that sustain modern civilization and the lives of the American people.  An EMP attack could destroy the critical infrastructures--that are indispensable to the existence of the United States--perhaps beyond recovery.  During the Cold War, the United States estimated that an adversary threat of Assured Destruction against the U.S. population and industry would require large numbers of warheads.  Today, any nation or group armed with a single nuclear missile can threaten or make an EMP attack against the United States that is essentially equivalent to Assured Destruction of U.S. population and industry, with all the diplomatic and strategic leverage that capability implies. 

Many U.S. policymakers and analysts during the Cold War believed that an Assured Destruction capability was all the United States needed to ensure its security and enforce its broader duties as a nuclear superpower.  Now U.S. vulnerability to EMP attack has placed Assured Destruction within the grasp of much lesser states, rogues, and even terrorists.       

Reports by the Strategic Posture Commission (2009) and the Department of Energy (2010) independently confirm the EMP Commission's warning that rogue states and terrorists could make a catastrophic EMP attack against the United States.  Both reports urge implementation of the EMP Commission's recommendations to protect U.S.  critical infrastructures against EMP attack.[19]     

Asymmetry In Strategic Intelligence

As the purpose of this analysis is to illuminate the stability or instability of future strategic force postures and the credibility of nuclear deterrence, it is important to note a factor bearing on these matters that is outside the realm of nuclear exchange calculations.  An asymmetry in strategic intelligence highly favorable to potential U.S. adversaries may be the single greatest advantage for any nation or group planning an attack against the United States.  Washington has declassified most of the record of its political, strategic, and military thinking about nuclear weapons during the Cold War, from the end of World War II through the 1980s.  Previously Top Secret Presidential Directives related to nuclear policy, U.S. nuclear war plans, Top Secret National Intelligence Estimates, previously classified debates and discussions of the U.S. political and military elite during every nuclear crisis of the Cold War have been published for the world to read.  It is a treasure trove for every hostile intelligence agency that seeks to understand and predict how the U.S. is likely to react in crisis and war.  And the record does reflect remarkable consistency and continuity in U.S. strategic thinking and behavior over the decades, regardless of party or president.  The U.S. lacks comparable intelligence on any potential nuclear adversary.  A potential adversary armed with such rich intelligence may be able to predict, or convince itself that it can predict, how the United States leadership can be psychologically managed to accept defeat in a nuclear confrontation or conflict.    

Why Worry About Nuclear War?

Why would Russia or any state attack the United States?  Miscalculation may be the most likely cause for a Russian nuclear attack on the United States.  Moscow's political and military elites still often think in Cold War terms, perceive the United States as a threat, and may overreact catastrophically to some U.S. or allied action, even a perfectly innocent one.  For example, the Russian nuclear alert on January 25, 1995, in mistaken response to Norway's launch of a meteorological rocket, is probably the closest Moscow has ever come, closer even than the Cuban missile crisis, to launching a nuclear strike.[20]  Elites in China, North Korea, and Iran, for different reasons and from different perspectives, share Russia's suspicious view of the United States.  All states are capable of miscalculation.  

Russian aggression on its periphery, as recently against Georgia, may in the future be aimed at bigger game, and go so badly that Moscow may resort to tactical nuclear strikes to extricate itself, rapidly escalating to the strategic level.  So a local or regional conflict could inadvertently lead to a confrontation between Russia and the United States, in a nuclear replay of World War I.  China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and India all have local potential nuclear flashpoints-for example, in Taiwan, South Korea, Iraq, and Kashmir-that could escalate in unpredictable ways.

In a nuclear replay of World War II, Moscow might gamble on a cosmic roll of the dice to reverse the verdict of the Cold War, by launching a surprise nuclear attack to crush the United States, and thereby dominate the world.  China, North Korea, or Iran could be similarly motivated for lesser goals, such as regional dominance, that might satisfy their highest aspirations.  Nor should vengeance by collapsing states, such as North Korea or Iran should their own policies lead to self-destruction, be underestimated as a motive for war, even nuclear war, should the means and opportunity present themselves.      

Hopefully, these scenarios and the nuclear arithmetic that could make them possible will never matter.  But no one can foresee the future.  These scenarios and the nuclear balance could matter very much to Congress and the President someday, and perhaps soon. 

What Is To Be Done?

None of this is to argue against ratification of New START under any circumstances.  New START can become a boon to U.S. national security if hearings on the Treaty in Congress can begin rebuilding a bipartisan strategic consensus and become a launching pad for initiatives, supplemental to New START, to correct the vulnerabilities in the U.S. strategic posture described here.     

If the bipartisan strategic consensus that prevailed in the Cold War were still functioning today, solutions to the problems described here would include the following: 1)  Building-up U.S. nuclear forces to cancel Russia's overall advantage in numbers of nuclear weapons, in order to negotiate a ban or equal reductions in tactical nuclear weapons;  2) U.S. development and deployment of new generation nuclear weapons, in order to negotiate a ban or equal reductions in such weapons; and 3) Increasing the survivability of U.S. strategic forces, so they can fulfill Assured Destruction and robust Counterforce missions, by returning strategic bombers to strip alert and dispersed basing, and protecting strategic forces with missile defenses.

However, the strategic consensus that prevailed during the Cold War no longer exists, not even within the Republican Party.  Most of the vulnerabilities in the U.S. strategic posture began and worsened when Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress.

Perhaps a new bipartisan strategic consensus can be forged around President Obama's vision of "banning the bomb"?  Nuclear abolition, if it could be achieved, would be vastly preferable to continued reliance on an increasingly vulnerable nuclear deterrent--that under New START will become so vulnerable that it virtually invites attack.  The hardheaded arithmetic of force-on-force exchange modeling analysis makes "banning the bomb" look less like an idealistic fantasy, and more like a realist solution. 

Perhaps the U.S. could launch a "peace offensive" to Russia, China and the other nuclear weapon states and begin a major foreign policy initiative to ban nuclear weapons globally, as chemical and biological weapons have been banned.  Perhaps the Obama Administration could appeal to Russia to revive the Ross-Mamedov talks and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's vision of a Global Defense Initiative--development of a joint U.S.-Russia-NATO-China missile shield to protect all the nations of the world from nuclear missiles, and so render nuclear weapons technologically and politically obsolete.  Alas, this too is probably a fantasy.  The nuclear weapon states, not even close U.S. allies, are likely to agree to "ban the bomb" when rogue states are so near to nuclear arms, and global defenses against nuclear missiles are non-existent.  Nor are Russia or China likely to agree to "ban the bomb" when their nuclear weapons exist primarily to deter or defeat the vastly superior high-tech conventional forces of the United States.

Strategic consensus within the United States may be achievable on at least one crucial point--protecting U.S. military forces and critical civilian infrastructures against nuclear EMP attack.  EMP is the single most worrisome nuclear challenge facing the United States today.  Terrorists or rogue states armed with a single nuclear missile could inflict an EMP catastrophe on the United States that, given our current state of unpreparedness, would within 12 months of the EMP attack kill two-thirds of the U.S. population through starvation, disease, and societal breakdown.  Given current U.S. unpreparedness, the United States might never recover from an EMP attack. 

However, the Obama administration's Department of Defense is taking steps to protect U.S. military forces from EMP.[21]  In the Congress, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have made common cause to protect the critical civilian infrastructures from EMP, including through HR 5026 "The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act" that passed the House and now awaits passage through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

HR 5026, the GRID Act, is perhaps emblematic of these strange and dangerous times, made more dangerous by the obsolete strategic thinking represented by New START.  The little known GRID Act is far more important to U.S. national security than New START.  National security against EMP attack rests, not in the hands of the august Senate Committees on Foreign Relations and Armed Services but, oddly, in the lesser known Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, whose staff rarely think about nuclear strategy.*  The most dangerous times and the most dangerous threats are those that demand for security a radical paradigm shift in thinking strategically and in acting institutionally, as is the case with EMP.

*The Senate failed to pass the GRID Act.

[1] Chairman William J. Perry and Vice Chairman James R. Schlesinger, America's StrategicPosture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2009).

[2] Ibid, p. 115.  See also: National Defense Authorization Act  for FY 2008, Public Law 110-181, Sec. 1062 Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, paragraph (e) Report subparagraph (3).

[3]See for examples: Nikolay Poroskov, "NATO's Eastward Expansion Prompting Review of Russian Nuclear Strategy," Moscow Vremya Novostey (July 7, 2004) translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service CEP20040707000456;  Mark Schneider, The Nuclear Forces and Doctrine of the Russian Federation, No. 0003 (Fairfax, VA: United States Nuclear Strategy Forum, National Institute Press, 2006); Department of Defense, Annual Report to the Congress: The Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2005 (Washington, D.C.: DOD, 2005);  Mark Schneider, The Nuclear Forces and Doctrine of the People's Republic of China, No. 0007 (Fairfax, VA: United States Nuclear Strategy Forum, National Institute Press, November 2007); Cynthia E. Ayers, "Ahmadinejad's Dangerous Worldview: A Nightmare Scenario," Proteus Futures Digest (Carlisle Barracks, PA: National Intelligence University, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and U.S. Army War College, 2007).   Nasir Bin Hamd Al Fahd, Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction Defended on Basis of Islamic Law: A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels translated and analyzed in A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels, No. 0008 (Fairfax, VA: United States Nuclear Strategy Forum, National Institute Press, September 2008).     

[4]Vladimir Belous, "Characteristics and Missions of Modern Neutron Weapons," Moscow Yadernyy Kontrol, No. 3 (May-June 1999) translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service FTS19990903000070; Viktor Mikhaylov, "Russia's Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century," Moscow Vek (February 20-26, 1998) translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service FTS19980223000419; Schneider, op. cit., passim. 

[5] Aleksey Vashchenko, "Russia: Nuclear Response to America Possible Using Super-EMP Factor," Zavtra (November 1, 2006) translated in CEP20061108358006.

[6] Kim Min-seok and Yoo-Jee-ho, "Military Source Warns of North's EMP Bomb," JoongAng Daily (September 2, 2009).  For more on interest in nuclear EMP attack and work on "Super-EMP" weapons in Russia, China, and North Korea see my testimony and statement for the record on behalf of the EMP Commission submitted to: U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, "Foreign Views of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack," (March 9, 2005).

[7] For an excellent history of the role of Assured Destruction in U.S. nuclear strategy see: Keith Payne, The Great American Gamble: Deterrence Theory and Practice from the Cold War to the Twenty-First Century (Fairfax, VA: National Institute Press, 2008), chapters 5 and 6.

[8] Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, Hearing Before The Subcommittee On Arms Control, International Law And Organization, Committee On Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Briefing On Counterforce Attacks, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, September 11, 1974 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975) sanitized and declassified January 10, 1975. 

[9] Normally on a daily basis, when U.S. ballistic missile submarines are  not generated, a surprise attack would find about one-third of the submarines at port while two-thirds are at sea (one third in transit and one third on station).

[10] See "IMINT and Analysis" (December 22, 2007) http:/

[11] A useful source for the current numbers and status of U.S. strategic forces is: Amy E. Woolf, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues, RL33640 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, January 20, 2010).

[12] 300,000 casualties, killed and injured-200,000 from attacking 450 ICBMs and C3, 90,000 from attacking two SSBN bases, and 10,000 from attacking three bomber bases. 

[13] See  sources cited in notes 5 and 6.

[14] An "equivalent megaton" (EMT) is a measure of the area that a nuclear weapon can destroy by subjecting all targets in the area to at least 5 psi of blast overpressure, which will severely damage or destroy most buildings and people.  One EMT will cover an area of about 58 square miles with 5 psi overpressure.  The equation EMT=Y2/3(power) where Y is warhead yield in megatons gives a warhead's equivalent yield (EMT).  The equation Area=EMTs(58) gives the total area that a warhead or warheads can destroy.  See: Peter Vincent Pry, The Strategic Nuclear Balance: And Why It Matters (New York and London: Crane Russak, 1990), pp. 187-189.

[15] U.S. Air Force, Nuclear Operations: Air Force Doctrine Document 2-12 (May 7, 2009--UNCLASSIFIED), p. 9.

[16] A submarine Monad armed with the W76 will have 333 EMTs before an adversary first strike. Afterwards, if one-third of SSBNs are destroyed in port by a surprise attack, total capability remaining for Assured Destruction will be reduced to 222 EMTs.     

[17] A submarine Monad armed with the W88 will have 944 EMTs before an adversary first strike. Afterwards, if one-third of SSBNs are destroyed in port by a surprise attack, total capability remaining for Assured Destruction will be reduced to 629 EMTs.  Subtracting 400 EMTs for the Assured Destruction reserve leaves 229 EMTs, or about 375 W88 warheads, remaining for Counterforce.  

[18] Report of The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, Volume 1: Executive Report (Washington, D.C.: 2004);  Report of the Commissiion to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: Critical National Infrastructures (Washington, D.C.: April 2008).   

[19] America's Strategic Posture, op. cit., pp. 90-91; U.S. Department of Energy and North American Electric Reliability Corporation, High-Impact Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System (Washington, D.C.: DOE and NERC, June 2010), pp. 77-89.

[20] Peter Vincent Pry, War Scare: Russian and America on the Nuclear Brink (London: Praeger, 1999), Part V.  For another example of nuclear miscalculation by Moscow see:  Central Intelligence Agency, Ben B. Fisher, A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare, CSI 97-10002 (CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, September 1997).

[21] Perhaps as part of the Obama administration's efforts to "ban the bomb" they could make a special effort to ban the use of nuclear weapons to make EMP attacks and ban  especially "Super-EMP" weapons.  Russia, which has agreed to honor arms control treaties concluded with the Soviet Union, may already be obligated by treaty to abolish any "Super-EMP" weapons.  Under the terms of the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques the U.S. and Russia are prohibited "to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction....'environmental modification techniques' refers to any techniques for changing--through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes--the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including the biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere and outer space."  Since nuclear EMP works on the atmosphere, outer space and magnetosphere to generate catastrophic environmental effects, arguably under the terms of the Treaty, nuclear EMP attack and "Super-EMP" weapons are illegal.  See:  U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements (Washington, D.C.: U.S. ACDA, 1990), pp. 214-215.       .


Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, both Congressional Advisory Boards, and served on the Congressional EMP Commission, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of Apocalypse Unknown: The Struggle To Protect America From An Electromagnetic Pulse Catastrophe and Electric Armageddon, both available from and



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