The NPR: Modernizing America's Nuclear Capabilities Is Top Priority*

by PETER HUESSY February 19, 2018


In April 2017, the Pentagon launched the U.S. Defense Department's legislatively mandated quadrennial Nuclear Posture Review to determine American policy, strategy and capabilities. The process now underway involves testimony from experts arguing over how the estimated $27 billion spent annually (growing over the next decade by an additional $10 billion a year) on America's nuclear arsenal should be allocated.

One claim, made by a number of experts, is that investing in the effort to upgrade America's exiting nuclear arsenal - the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), -- would be both destabilizing and wasteful, as they are highly vulnerable to enemy attack and therefore do not provide deterrence. Of 40 House members proposing to kill the land-based missiles, one is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The opposite position was expressed recently by General Robin Rand, the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). He persuasively argued, far from being either destabilizing or unnecessary, "Our bomber and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) forces, and our nuclear command, control, and communications systems defend our national interests, assure our allies and partners, and deter potential adversaries."

Addressing the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on June 7, Rand said, "ICBMs are the sole weapon system capable of rapid global response and impose a time-proven and unpalatable cost to attack by peer, near-peer and aspiring nuclear nations."

The discrepancy in viewpoints stems from the difference in perception about American nuclear power and deterrence. Those who disagree with Rand are stuck in Cold War thinking, which is largely irrelevant to today's world. To understand this better, a review of the history of the U.S.-Soviet arms race is in order.

In January 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced that the U.S.S.R. had greatly expanded its powerful multiple warhead land based missiles, as well as having begun to build an anti-Ballistic-missile defense system (ABM) around Moscow - enabling it to launch a first strike against the U.S. without fear of an effective retaliation against Soviet leadership bunkers - and called for strategic arms limitations talks (SALT).

Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, continued with the process, formally launching the negotiations in November 1969 that led to the signing of the SALT I executive agreement in May 1972. When Gerald Ford became president, he agreed with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev on a general framework for a second agreement - SALT II - to only marginally limit some the deployment capabilities of each side, but still allow major increases in warheads, especially powerful, multi-warhead land based Soviet missiles.

Although SALT II was signed in June 1979 by Ford's successor, President Jimmy Carter, it was never ratified by the Senate, members of which on both sides of the aisle argued that it would not "reverse trends in the military balance adverse to the United States." A week after 19 senators expressed this warning in a letter to Carter, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Carter withdrew the treaty from further consideration.

Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan - who had been vehemently opposed to SALT II before his election - knew the treaty's upward limits would readily accommodate his proposed modernization efforts and thus agreed to abide by it in principle. But here he switched gears while pursuing a markedly different military and diplomatic avenue, in the form of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Reagan proposed that we simultaneously modernize while seeking reductions, instead of just allowing huge increases in warheads under the SALT process. This also challenged the Soviet idea of a nuclear freeze-especially in that the Soviets were well through their nuclear modernization and the United States had not even begun.

Early in the Reagan administration the U.S. continued seeking to make its land-based silo missiles better able to withstand a massive Soviet strike. Many plans were examined, but all were quite expensive and required the use of a lot of land on which to move the missiles on trains, trucks or mobile launchers.

Ultimately, in 1983, Reagan reached a simple, but elegant, solution: a three-step program. First, deep reductions in nuclear weapons; second, putting the new, modern very large 10-warhead Peacekeeper US land-based missiles in existing Minuteman silos; and third, simultaneously developing a much smaller missile with only one warhead to be made mobile later-on. This was accomplished during the three successive administrations following the end of the Cold War but with one key change. Given that Russian and American strategic warheads eventually were reduced by more than 90 percent under the Start I, Moscow and New Start Treaties, all American silo-based missiles-all with only a single warhead-- became fundamentally survivable even deployed in silos where they remain today. The mobile ICBM, dubbed Midgetman, need not be deployed.

Thus today, the situation is the opposite of what it was during the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. - with a fixed number of American silos -- faced thousands of Soviet warheads with the prospect that the USSR would deploy as many as10,000 fast-flying missile warheads. In other words, the strategic environment might become very unstable, and this was the "window of vulnerability" President Reagan warned about in 1979-80.

What this means is that although the nuclear triad was conceptualized and developed during the Cold War, maintaining it is just as imperative today. Today single warhead ICBMs are highly stabilizing as prior to the dramatic reduction in warheads called for by Start I, the Moscow Treaty and New Start, ICBMS especially those deployed by Moscow, were heavily multi-warhead, relatively unconstrained and thus highly destabilizing. Eliminating ICBMs today, or delaying their modernization with the GBSD, would eliminate all the benefits of nearly three decades of nuclear warhead reductions, and re-open the very window of vulnerability some 25 years after it was shut!

Even more crucial, however, is the need to invest in modernizing the ICBMs, and to begin doing so immediately. The suggestion -- among some of the less extreme anti-ICBM analysts -- that the current ICBM force be extended for a few more years and reassessed at a later date is not a viable option, according to General Rand, who says that the U.S. "cannot afford to delay modernization initiatives" while the "American people and our allies are counting on congressional action to fund our nuclear enterprise modernization efforts."

Let us hope that those who do not grasp how necessary it is for the United States to go forward with the ground-based strategic deterrent will not be heard as the newly issued Nuclear Posture Review is followed and the needed, but much delayed, nuclear modernization effort, including GBSD, gets underway. With the new defense spending agreement for the next two-year budget, an affordable nuclear deterrent became even more so. America's ability to defend itself is at stake. And thus, it is a prudent and reasonable path toward greater security.

[*This is an updated version of an essay that on July 27, 2017 was originally published by the Gatestone Institute.]

Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He was also for 20 years, the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation 

and will host February 21, 2018 a nuclear modernization panel at the Access Intelligence nuclear conference at the Pentagon City Ritz Carlton, as well as discuss these nuclear matters on Voice of America on Wednesday February 21 from 10:30-11:00am.


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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