The Baker's Dozen Principals of Nuclear Deterrence

by PETER HUESSY March 7, 2017

To get the nuclear business right, you have to start with a Baker's Dozen of nuclear principals. They are:

  1. The nuclear Triad is not a jobs program. As General Bernard Schriever told me some 35 years ago, we developed both sea and land based intercontinental ballistic missiles to complement our existing bombers in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Our very national survival was at stake. How did we know in advance both new missiles would work?
  2. Nuclear deterrence-and the Triad-says former USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, has worked 100% of the time for 60 years.
  3. Our nuclear armed missiles are not on computer hair trigger alert. As President Kennedy told the nation, our Minuteman missiles were "our ace in the hole" in preventing the Cuban missile crisis from ending up in doomsday.
  4. So stable have our nuclear missiles been they have been on alert a collective 67 million minutes and never ordered to be launched by an American President. But they have deterred.
  5. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, (NPT), doesn't require us to get rid of our nuclear weapons. It was signed in 1969 and then we were facing a huge Soviet advantage in conventional weaponry across all of Central Europe. NATO's saving grace was America's nuclear deterrent.  
  6. Even so, from the 1987 INF Treaty to the 2010 New START treaty the United States has reduced its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by nearly 90%, or a cut of 11,500 nuclear warheads. Such "restraint"-coupled in a reciprocal treaty with the Soviet Union and then Russia-- is unique in world history.
  7. However, unilateral restraint, doesn't make the world safer. We cut nuke spending 2/3rds in the decade after the end of Cold War, unilaterally eliminated thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, and the Russians? They said thanks but no thanks, refusing in 2000 to agree to START II which would have reduced nuclear weapons by another 60% and banned bad boy Russian multi-warhead land based missiles.  
  8. Our planned modernization is not just on a different cycle than the Russians. The only two American modernization periods began in 1958 and 1981. That's 23 years apart. Our next new missile, or submarine or bomber will not go into the force until 2027, 46 years after the last modernization. While Russia is marching forward, we have been on an extended nuclear procurement holiday.
  9. Every American President has said we have to have a capable nuclear deterrent second to none. Why then are critics saying an American nuclear deterrent they now claim is actually superior to the Russians should not be maintained in that condition under President Trump?
  10. The modernization of our nuclear deterrent is a bargain. Current costs are $27 billion a year for the entire nuclear enterprise, or 4% of the defense budget. To modernize over the next decade, spending would go up to $36 billion a year. Every American would have to pitch in an extra $28 a year.
  11. Russia and China spend more on nukes than we do, contrary to popular belief. 
  12. Unilaterally going down to 1000 warheads, a one-third cut, as some have pushed, is not supported by our military. Going to lower numbers would require the US at a minimum to fully modernize, still maintain a Triad, somehow get Russia to follow along, and bring China's totally opaque nuclear arsenal under arms control limits as well.
  13. The New Start treaty is both good and bad; yes it gave us stability over time as long as Russian nuclear weapons remain constrained; however, because it did not preclude massive pathways for Russian expansion of its nuclear arsenal, it was a bad deal, especially the absence of a ban or at least severe limits, on multiple warhead land based missiles, which dominate the Russia force.


With these principals understood, can we adopt alternative paths to nuclear modernization to get greater stability or save money? Or is the program of record-12 submarines, 400 GBSD missiles, and 100+ new bombers-the right way forward?

Let's look. Some suggest we build 8 and not 12 new submarines and kill land based missiles at the same time. That means from 2030-40 we hit a big "bathtub" where the combined number of old and new submarines together falls to six.

That means, realistically, as few as two submarines with only 32 missiles would be at sea in their patrol box at any one time, compared to the 5-7 we have today. With so few retaliatory weapons, we could not meet our official deterrent requirements, and whole swaths of China and Russia would remain in sanctuary.

Even if tried to remedy this deficiency and loaded up the smaller number of subs to the maximum number of warheads per missile, would have a smaller patrol area, thus be closer and more vulnerable to our adversaries, have less targeting flexibility, and have a lot of redundant warheads.

What about just eliminating our 400 land based missiles now spread around 5 states.

That is another real dumb idea.

Our land based missiles only each have one warhead. They are totally unattractive targets. Russia would have to launch a huge attack even to try and get them all. We would see it coming and make our other forces even more difficult to strike.

Even worse, if the US went to zero Minuteman, our remaining nuclear assets would number less than 10.  A nuclear power as small as North Korea could target all of them with its arsenal of nuclear weapon.

Why would we make it easier for bandit states like North Korea to attack the United States?

And if the bad guys with their 60 attack submarines could eventually find our submarines at sea, without the insurance of the Minuteman land-based missiles, we would be nuclear toast.

In summary, since 1945, the nuclear age has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of people that perish from war. From 1914-45, 3% of the population every year died. That has dropped to 0.1% of the people.

That means the nuclear deterrent works, and it saves lives and it's a bargain. And synonymous with the nuclear deterrent is our extraordinary Triad, which has kept the nuclear peace for more than half a century.

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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