Nuclear Mythologies Are Getting Worse

by PETER HUESSY June 1, 2017


Opponents of America's planned nuclear modernization effort believe the United States deterrent policy is going for a first strike against the Russians or the Chinese and must be roped in. They claim the US is now deliberately targeting our adversary's weapons, not their cities, as part of a long dreamed of capability to disarm them in a sudden, first strike.

In this narrative, missile defense, a recent test of which worked perfectly, is not to protect Americans against rogue or aggressive state missile threats such as North Korea, but is also part of America's first strike strategy, designed to shoot down whatever small number of warheads our adversary's might have left to shoot back at us after we have attacked them first.

In addition, so the narrative goes, in order to have sufficient warheads to strike first at our enemy's nuclear armed missiles, bombers and submarines, (their nuclear weaponry), such a strategy requires its proponents to be for really big American nuclear arsenals, and thus against arms control, a charge recent disarmament advocates have increasingly levelled against those favoring nuclear modernization. .

To stop this strategy, the argument goes, a nuclear freeze is necessary. And there is historical support for such an idea because supposedly the nuclear freeze campaign in 1979-81 forced the Reagan administration to abandon similar nuclear first strike ambitions and reluctantly support nuclear arms reductions.

This bundle of nuclear misconceptions about American nuclear deterrence strategy are re-emerging from the American disarmament community just at a time when both the United States Congress and the current administration are moving to finalize, in part through the Nuclear Posture Review, the modernization plan for our nuclear enterprise. Should these misconceptions, unfortunately, take hold, they will make efforts to modernize our deterrent more time consuming and more costly. And if as a result, the current modernization effort is truncated or stopped given the nuclear threats we face in the world today, we could eventually undermine the very foundations of American nuclear security and increase the risks of the very nuclear catastrophe the disarmament community is so worried might come to pass.


This idea that America has a pre-emptive first strike nuclear strategy is largely based on the new but fanciful idea that our submarines at sea have nuclear armed missiles that are now so accurate that in a sudden first strike they could now wipe out all or almost all of the Russians strategic nuclear deterrent retaliatory capability.

This a very strange claim. For decades, even the anti-nuclear lobby has acknowledged our submarines are the nation's primary second strike, retaliatory force able to survive a first strike by a nuclear armed enemy and still be able to fire back. This was seen as critical to stability in international affairs in that a United States President would not feel compelled to fire first in a crisis. This is because those submarines at sea can hide from our enemies and thus not be attacked with any confidence and thus would be available to shoot back.

Now the disarmament lobby are claiming-for the first time-that our submarines are a dangerous pre-emptive first strike force. In short, this very first strike capability now onboard the Ohio-class submarines with their D-5 missiles is seen by the disarmers as the realization of a long-held dream of American nuclear planners for what they describe as "nuclear dominance".

This entails United States leaders planning to strike Russian or Chinese military assets rather than their cities in order to successfully disarm them. Given that there are a lot more military assets to find and destroy than Russian or Chinese cities, so the disarmament narrative goes, the American nuclear supporters opposed "arms control" because they wanted no limits on the big United States nuclear arsenal needed to cover all the military targets.

But how could such a first strike American strategy work? Surely many Russian or Chinese warheads would survive an American attack and come hurtling back toward America.

To answer that concern, the disarmament lobby had to invent another myth. And that is the United States is deploying a massive missile defense shield capable of shooting down any retaliatory strike by Russia or China. Accordingly, it is not the recent ground based interceptor system successfully tested that concerns them. No, it's the U.S. Navy Aegis system of ships and on board missile defense interceptors. The United States Navy is supposedly planning to field

700 missile defense interceptors onboard multiple dozens of Navy Aegis cruisers patrolling along the east and west coasts of the United States.

If true, America's ballistic missile defenses would be radically transformed from an insurance policy against peer adversary, rogue state or terrorist missile launches to part of a dangerous, first strike strategy, which would give opponents of missile defense the moral cudgel with which to beat missile defense funding into the ground.

Here the disarmament lobby plays an interesting trick. Having long held that missile defense doesn't work, why suddenly are they claiming it will work, and work perfectly? After all what American President would order a nuclear attack against our enemies not absolutely certain any retaliatory strike would be completely absorbed by our own missile defense shield?

The disarmament lobby readily admits the evidence shows the Navy Aegis interceptors cannot effectively shoot down Russian ICBMs. But these same disarmers conclude, the Russians will have to believe the interceptors can do the job. They will adopt "a worst case analysis", so the Russians will think the United States is really going for a first strike!

Now what do the disarmers say we should stop this dangerous American strategy?

Here the disarmament lobby reinvents history while playing another trick on unsuspecting readers.

As we have noted, the disarmament folks claim the entire American Cold War push for bigger nuclear arsenals was a plot to enable America to successfully strike the Soviets first.

And in this telling, only the 1979-80 nuclear freeze movement forced the Reagan and then Bush administrations--against their will-- to adopt the nuclear reductions in the 1987 INF and 1991 & 1993 START treaties. In short, the supposed illegitimate American push for huge nuclear arsenals was broken by the nuclear freeze advocates of some four decades ago, and apparently can again serve as the basis for stopping the current U.S. "arms racing".  


Is this charge true?

No it's a fairy tale.

President Regan, long before he became President, called for major reductions in nuclear weapons at least as early as 1963. But his strategy was to negotiate from a position of strength where the U.S. nuclear arsenal was fully modernized, and thus from that position he could secure verifiable nuclear reductions.

According to a Heritage Foundation assessment, "As early as 1963, Reagan criticized what he described as ‘the liberal establishment of both parties' for asserting that a policy of accommodation was the only way to prevent a nuclear war. Reagan instead focused on what he saw as the economic and technological weakness of the USSR. He argued that the United States should pursue a vigorous competition with the Soviet Union, including an arms race. If it did so, Reagan said, the Soviet Union would realize that it would be able neither to afford economically nor to keep up technologically with the United States."

Continued Heritage, "As a result, the Soviets would be willing to agree to deep reductions in nuclear weapons" and "be compelled to ‘modify their stand' in a broader sense. He implied that this would include a realization that the USSR could not win the Cold War, that the Soviets would see aspects of the Western ‘way of life' as attractive, and that they would begin to change the fundamental nature of their system. In Reagan's mind, destroying [reducing] nuclear weapons and winning the Cold War were closely tied together."

Reagan also understood that the "restraint" imbedded in the disarmament lobby, including the nuclear freeze and counter-city deterrence strategists, was animated by at least two serious misconceptions about geostrategic relations between adversaries, especially the United States and the Soviet Union.

The first is that restraint by one party will clear up what are assumed to be "misconceptions" between enemies and lead to a "lessening of arms races".

The second misconception is that the United States adopted a policy of targeting the other guys weapons rather than his cities to drive up the need for more warheads (the other guys number of nuclear weapon assets supposedly exceed the number of their cities). This is turn led such militarists to "oppose" arms control.

Let us examine the idea of "restraint".

"Restraint" has never worked with Communist or totalitarian regimes. It didn't work when the Vatican tried it in east-central Europe in the 1970s. In fact, the "Ostpolitik" of Pope Paul VI made matters worse for the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

It didn't work vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the years of détente, which coincided with some of the worst Soviet assaults on human-rights activists.

It hasn't worked with China, where repression has increased in recent years and an entire industry of harvesting human organs from political prisoners has emerged. On top of which, China is aggressively pursuing an illegal expansion of its territory in the South China Sea, putting at risk over $1.2 trillion worth of goods shipped to the United States through that area.

Restraint also definitely backfired during the 1970's when nearly two dozen countries fell to either Soviet communism or Islamic totalitarianism. In addition, while the United States and NATO failed to even fund the purchase of a single INF missile in the 1970's, often for fear such action would be considered provocative, the Soviet Union deployed thousands of SS-20 warheads on exactly such INF class missiles. And from the Soviet archives documents were discovered after the Soviet Union collapsed that detailed the nuclear freeze was indeed a Soviet adopted strategy to both stop the deployment of any United States and NATO INF missiles and  break apart NATO over the issue.

As for the American deterrent strategy of targeting the other guy's weapons as opposed to cities, there is both a humanitarian and practical aspect of the strategy. In the first 35 years of the Cold War, the only arms treaties were the SALT I and SALT II agreements. They allowed a huge build-up of weapons, and no reductions. That is why President Reagan in his first press conference described the SALT treaties as hardly arms control as they allowed for a huge build-up of nuclear weapons.

Given the huge Soviet expansion of its nuclear arsenal, the United States needed a counter deterrent strategy. Thus the idea of holding at risk or targeting the huge arsenal of Soviet weapons was to have the option of preventing the use of nuclear weapons as soon as possible should conflict break out. This "counterforce strategy" as it became known as, was adopted gradually in the early-to-mid 1970s. Ironically, during much of the previous Cold War, the United States and Russia had a policy of primarily retaliating with nuclear weapons against the other guy's industry and cities, even though simultaneously our nuclear arsenals expanded greatly.

Most importantly, the counter force strategy we had then and now have was designed to eliminate or prevent the use of as much as possible those military forces the Soviets had along the entire spectrum of conflict. Given the huge disparity in conventional force levels in Europe, U.S. nuclear capability rebalanced that disparity in forces. Given the growth in overall Soviet military power during the 1970's and 1980's that was a formidable task and not something that could be accomplished with a small, minimal number of nuclear weapons.

It is true, the deterrent strategy the United States originally adopted at the beginning of the Cold War included retaliating against a vast number of Soviet targets including industry and population centers. This policy was often referred to a mutual assured destruction, or MAD, appropriately. Early in the Nixon administration and for each successive administration, the United States policy was changed to increasingly hold at risk Soviet and then Russian military assets and move away from a counter city strategy.

The purpose?

The strategy was to deny in the final analysis the Soviet the military power the Soviets would need to achieve their political and military objectives. The central idea was that the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets at any time during a crisis or during a conventional conflict would result in the eventual elimination of most of their military arsenal, making it impossible for them to achieve their hegemonic objectives.

Of course with the expansion of Soviet forces-endorsed by the 1972 and 1979 SALT treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union--the United States had little choice but to have a retaliatory arsenal capable of striking back sufficiently at Soviet forces and military assets to deny the Soviets their objectives. That involved the central requirement of being able to destroy-"hold at risk" as military planners call it-those national assets the Soviet leaders held most dear and which were essential to achieving their military goals.

Nuclear freeze advocates have long supported simply burning down Soviet (now Russian) cities as an adequate American deterrent strategy, apparently oblivious to the humanitarian and immoral nature of such a strategy which almost all Americans would find abhorrent. The freeze and disarmament crowd has a strange misconception that threatening to burn to the ground hundreds of Russian cities is a strategy they describe as "deterrence" but taking out Russian military assets is described as "nuclear war fighting", the first being acceptable but the latter strategy to be discarded.

This is because the nuclear freeze and disarmament people think the United States wants to attack first and disarm the Russians. One disarmament advocate recently wrote "the whole point of counterforce targeting [going after military targets] is to destroy - or at least severely degrade - an adversary's ability to retaliate." That is not the United States strategy at all. Counter military targeting is to destroy an adversary's ability to continue fighting and also hold at risk those assets valued by a regime such as Russia as the best means of making our deterrent policy credible.

What about the nuclear freeze of 1979-80?

Did it push the Reagan administration to adopt arms control?

Not at all. The real reason, parenthetically, the Soviets invented the idea of a nuclear freeze in 1979 was to unilaterally stop the U.S. nuclear modernization effort, especially the counter deployment of medium range missiles in Europe.

At that time Moscow had nearly completed the modernization of their nuclear forces and the United States had hardly begun, as the 1970's witnessed the (1) constant delay of the American nuclear effort including failure to find a secure base for the MX missile, (2) delays in the purchase of the Ohio class submarine and its compliment of new D-5 missiles, (3) outright cancellation of the B-1 bomber and (4) no funding for purchases of the INF class Pershing and GCLM missiles.

This then brings us back to the first two disarmament myths laid out at the beginning of this essay.

According to top nuclear experts who know the facts, the D-5 missile aboard our submarines-on patrol on a day to day basis-do not have a pre-emptive disarming first strike against Russian military assets. Especially in that Russian silo-land based missiles are now being hardened considerably. And the Russian submarines at sea cannot be targeted. And Russian bombers face no appreciable American air defenses. (Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara under President Johnson took down our air defenses theorizing that once America did not have air defenses the Soviets would not need bombers!).

We only roughly five D-5 capable submarines on patrol at any one time with roughly 400 deployed warheads (my notional estimate is 5 submarines each with 20 missiles and each armed with an average of four warheads). Our total force of 12 submarines has somewhat less than 1100 warheads per the terms of the 2010 New Start Treaty

How can approximately 400 warheads at sea available to be used possibly destroy 523 Russian land based missiles, including considerable number of Russian missiles that are mobile and very difficult to target? To successfully target an adversary's silo based land based missiles it is generally understood an attacker needs two warheads per silo target to reasonably be assured that the silo will be destroyed.*

As for the missile defense Aegis cruisers, to deploy 700 interceptors would require the deployment of over 150 ships when we are actually planning to deploy roughly 32. Furthermore, the SM3 missile has never been tested against an ICBM or SLBM though it is highly capable against shorter range missiles. So the idea that the United States has any such missile defense plans as outlined by the disarmament community is pure invention.

But even the proponents of this bizarre theory about American strategy admit it makes no sense. Here is what they write: "For all practical purposes, the intercept capability of the SM-3 Block IIA is negligible." 

Nonetheless, the disarmers claim "the appearance created by the vast expansion of this missile defense program can and will contribute to perceptions among Russians that the United States is seeking nuclear dominance", even though in reality the U.S. has absolutely no plans to build anywhere near the number of Aegis based interceptors claimed by the disarmers.

Even more bizarre is that the disarmers are claiming the American first strike strategy emerged as the D-5 submarine missile got significantly more accurate, but even as the United States simultaneously had reduced its deployed nuclear arsenal from over 13,000 in 1989 to 1550 warheads today.

However, if the United States adoption of a counterforce nuclear doctrine was predicated on both an opposition to "arms control" and an embrace of greater and greater number of nuclear weapons, why did the United States simultaneously reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons arsenal by 85-90% and sustain a counterforce deterrent strategy?

In short, the facts are simply radically different than portrayed by the disarmament folks.

First, holding at risk military assets of an enemy is how deterrence has been maintained for decades, at least since the early 1970's. Such a strategy threatens those assets our enemies most value. In so doing we clearly demonstrate such weaponry will not be available for such countries to achieve their hegemonic ends as the means-weapons-won't be available for use, whether through future blackmail, coercion or warfare.

Second, to deliberately target cities is more than immoral. As my colleague and friend Dr. Peter Pry wrote recently "Military dictatorships and societies [are] ruled by iron-fisted elites...where the people are considered expendable". This is particularly true of Russia, China and North Korea. Does the disarmament community really want the United States to emulate these regimes and adopt a strategy that deters through the threat of killing millions of civilians?

Third, ironically, the American advocates of a counter force military strategy are the same American military planners that also supported and implemented radical reductions in our deployed warheads starting with President Reagan. These reductions now approach 85-90% of the arsenal the United States deployed as the Cold War came to an end and have been implemented by the 1991 START 1, the 2002 Moscow Treaty and the 2010 New Start Treaty.

Finally, it is absurd to suggest that the Reagan administration was "pushed into" adopting reductions. The idea of modernizing our nuclear deterrent while simultaneously reducing the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviets was a long held strategy of President Reagan, his own idea long before he became President.


The counter-force deterrent strategy adopted by the United States for much of the nuclear age is perfectly consistent with major reductions in nuclear weapons, as history confirms. A strategy of holding at risk what the Russian leadership values-its military power---is a far more moral and credible strategy than one which coldly calculates to burn down cities and in so doing kill many millions of civilians.

The United States nuclear force is also not postured to go first or disarm an adversary in a surprise first strike. The American arsenal is without question sized to be the most effective, credible and stabilizing force we can build, even as it has been reduced some ninety percent since 1989. It is designed to retaliate effectively, and that is why each leg of the Triad is simultaneously stabilizing and survivable in the context of the whole force.

Poor analysis, widespread myths and other misconceptions need to be abandoned. Not the least of which are fanciful ideas that the United States through eight successive administrations are seeking to start a nuclear war.


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*Our entire submarine force-which is not completely on patrol at any one time---cannot have more than 1090 warheads under the 2010 New START treaty. If the entire force was used against the Russian ICBMs, the United States will still face massive retaliation from Russian submarines at sea.

Here are three recent disarmament essays laying out the myths addressed in this essay.

1. The Case Against New Nuclear Weapons - Center for American ...


3. How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability...

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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