Nuclear Weapons: Trust But Modernize (Part II)

by PETER HUESSY March 29, 2017

Part I - Click Here

The United States is reducing some of its strategic-long-range--nuclear warheads on its nuclear Triad of submarines, bombers, and land based missiles. This is to comply with the 2010 New START treaty agreement with the Russians which allows each side only 700 active missiles and bombers and 1550 warheads.

In particular, as part of this process, the US Air Force is completing the download of the 400 Minuteman missiles from three to one warhead, a process that started over a decade ago after the 1993 START II and 2002 Moscow nuclear treaties with Russia.

But at the same time, as we reduce, our nuclear force as it is more modernized will actually get more capable. Without modernization, it will "rust to obsolescence" as Clark Murdock, the founder of the Program on Nuclear Initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies so correctly put it. In addition, in testimony before the HASC March 14, 2017, every senior US military nuclear commander echoed this view, noting that absent modernization the US nuclear capability is in danger of slipping backward.

For some reason, this compliance with the New START treaty by reducing some ICBM warheads, even as we simultaneously modernize all our nuclear systems, is being described by critics as inconsistent with a more capable, "second to none", deterrent. They complain the Trump administration support for a strong deterrent is belied by taking down warheads from our land based missiles.

That is not at all the case.  

As we reduce our warheads to comply with the New Start Treaty, we are also as I have noted improving the capability of the remaining platforms of submarines, missiles and bombers, as well as the warheads and command and control systems.

There is nothing inconsistent with having a deterrent "second to none" or "at the top of the heap" and simultaneously working arms control agreements with our adversaries. President Reagan did precisely that. He both modernized our entire nuclear deterrent while putting into place the framework for historically unprecedented reductions in deployed strategic warhead levels that now approach ninety percent of our arsenal at its peak in 1989. In a new book, "Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan", former White House nuclear expert Sven Kraemer explains in great detail how this twin strategy was put together. President Reagan called for reductions while also modernizing the forces that were left. He called it "build down"-build newer, better systems while simultaneously reducing.

For some reason, critics are complaining that following the same policy now is somehow inconsistent with maintaining a strong deterrent. In particularly, they cannot understand how we can agree to an arms control deal with the Russians that forces us to reduce our in the field warheads. Otherwise the critics are saying the Trump administration's push for a strong deterrent is just "bluff" and not serious.

Is this criticism valid?

No, the choice being put forward between arms control and topnotch modernization is a false one.

The administration has signaled its support for a much stronger defense. This includes a major increase in defense spending and within the upcoming nuclear posture review guidance, a pledge to improve our nuclear deterrent capability.

In short, we can in the interim between now and when Start goes fully into force comply with the New Start treaty numbers, keep our "powder dry", while watching the Russian compliance record as well, even as we modernize.

Furthermore, whether or not Russia eventually complies with the New Start treaty "numbers", "shouldn't we in any case stay on "top of the heap" in "nuclear capability" as the administration has pledged to do? And we can always add warheads back to the Minuteman missiles, as that flexibility is preserved.

Ironically, while criticizing the administration's call for the US to maintain a nuclear deterrent of the highest capability, ("top of the heap"), these same critics claim out deterrent today exceeds that of the Russians. They assert we would not trade our forces for the Russian forces so why the worry? But if that is the case, that our nuclear deterrent capability does now in fact exceed that of the Russians, what is wrong with the new administration pledging to continue just such a balance in our favor?

As the new administration and Congress grapples with the question of whether to reduce or to modernize or do both, and as the nuclear posture review goes forward, here are ten guidelines to help frame the debate that will sweep aside the wrongful criticisms we described above.  

First, as most nuclear deterrent commanders have repeatedly underscored, if the US doesn't proceed with its own nuclear modernization effort we will fall behind our adversary's capabilities. The new administration has simply echoed the concerns of our nuclear civilian and military commanders that the US is in danger of falling behind the Russians in terms of our nuclear deterrent capability if we do not fully and quickly modernize.  

Already, Russia has a nuclear force growing in capability in a significant way to where Moscow's full modernization will be completed around 2021-2. Most worrisome is the Russian capability-should they bust out of the New Start treaty limits---to increase its arsenal to as many as 4000-5000 offensive strategic nuclear warheads, on top of its current multi-thousand warhead advantage in deployed theater and strategic weapons.

Second, the 2010 New Start treaty does benefit the US as it bounds Russian strategic offensive capabilities. But the treaty does also have weaknesses. Like most other arms control deals with Moscow, it does not restrict Moscow's regional or theater systems where they have such a major advantage. And it does not restrict the pathways of future expansive growth for Russia's nuclear arsenal, particularly in that multi-warhead land based missiles were not banned. 

Third, the new administration just assumed office. It is ridiculous to assume that within less than 60 days into office, the administration could do a thorough or detailed nuclear posture review, and come up with alternatives or changes to US policy. That does not mean, however, that the concerns of the new administration are not on target. They are, definitively.

Fourth, the entire modernization plan now having been approved by Congress and on which we are moving forward will improve the capability of our nuclear forces-better missile accuracy, better stealth for our submarines, greater lethality for our bombers, better communications, safer and more secure warheads and reductions in the cost of operations for all three legs of the Triad. That's all more capability, exactly what the new administration has pledged to support.

Fifth, while such critics are complacent about future modernization given their view that our deterrent today exceeds in capability the Russian systems, why the fear that the new administration seeks to maintain exactly that advantage? Instead, should we make our submarines easier to find? Or our new ICBM's less accurate? Our new bombers less capable? 

Sixth, we are reducing (de-mirving) our Minuteman missile warheads from three to one on each missile to make our ICBM's a less valuable target-as opposed to Russian land based missiles many of which  have 10 or more warheads. De-mirving our land-based Minuteman missiles help stability.

Seventh, having single warhead land based missiles in our inventory still preserves the ability for the US to upload if necessary back to three warheads. And having such a force doesn't dictate whether the US will stick with the current New Start treaty numbers or not.

Eighth, the whole purpose of the forthcoming nuclear posture review is to, in fact, review our options. Within the next year we will know whether the Russians are in compliance with the New Start treaty limits which kick in February 2018. We know Moscow has already violated the INF nuclear treaty as it has numerous other agreements, including according to some analysts the 2010 New Start treaty itself.

Ninth, during the ratification fight over the 2010 New Start treaty, the then Secretary of State claimed the treaty allowed the US to maintain an effective and modern nuclear deterrent force that was second to none, exactly what the new administration has vowed to continue.

Tenth, rushing to judgment, as administration critics have recklessly done, is not the path toward a sober review of our options. Warning about complacency, facing the dangerous deterioration in our nuclear capability, and assessing the serious nuclear threats we face is the prudent thing to do.

That is what the nuclear posture review is for. Let us get on with that job.

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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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