The Reagan Strategic Nuclear Revolution

by PETER HUESSY March 5, 2018


The conflict between force modernization and arms control highlighted by critics of the 2018 NPR reflects their inability to understand how we arrived at where we are. In the nearly forty years since the start of the Reagan revolution, strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the US and Russia have been reduced by nearly 90% or from roughly 12,000 to 1550.

Now while much of that decline occurred after the end of the Soviet empire, we got to that place because of the policies adopted by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 and fully reflected in the nuclear arena by the President's famous speech at Eureka College on May 9, 1982.

The Reagan administration sought to change America's security policy by emphasizing the need for stabilizing deterrence where arms control serves that end and not the other way around.

The SALT process broke down in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Carter administration's withdrawal of the SALT II arms agreement from consideration by the United States Senate.

A new framework integrating nuclear modernization, deterrence, and arms control had to be created when President Reagan assumed office in 1981.

His security team proceeded to adopt three new strategies.

First was to modernize not only the nuclear deterrent but the entire defense forces of the country. Peace through strength was not just a slogan, it also said we meant business.

Second was to combine nuclear modernization with reductions in nuclear arms, a combination that some described as a "build down". It jettisoned the idea of the SALT process where we would agree with the Soviets to build up to massive levels of nuclear arms but then in a clever sleight of hand call it "arms control". *

And it rejected outright the foolish notion that somehow arms control had to be synonymous with a halt to modernization as was embodied in the Soviet push for a "nuclear freeze"-especially in that the Soviet nuclear forces were fully modernized and ours in the United States were not.

Third was an attempt to structure over the long term, (under what came to be known as the START process), our nuclear forces where they gave the President a highly flexible force.

This required two things: a force that did not have any gaps in capability but that would also be highly stabilizing in a crisis.

At Eureka College in June of 1982, after many months of analysis within the National Security Council, the Pentagon and Department of State, President Reagan called for a complete elimination of Soviet SS-20 missiles deployed then in Europe and Asia.

He called for a cut in half of all deployed strategic missile warheads held by the United States and Soviet Union. He also called for a simultaneous modernization of all three legs of the American nuclear Triad and the associated command and control and nuclear warhead facilities.

And a year later, he would call for the deployment of missile defenses to further lessen the coercive power of adversary state nuclear tipped ballistic missiles.

Key to this effort was a complimentary vision on nuclear modernization. Eventually our land-based missiles would be only single warheads; a very significant portion of the United States arsenal would be at sea-this limits the number of warheads on alert but increases the number of highly survivable warheads in our deterrent; and special bomber rules would count the airplanes but not the gravity bombs or cruise missiles they individually carried toward arms control limits.

The anticipated reaction of the nuclear mythologists was foreseen by the administration. The nuclear freeze, an idea first pushed by the Soviet Union in 1979, enlisted media, religious, academic and even allied governments to stop the Reagan era modernization. Even then Reagan's arms control proposals, especially the zero option for both American and Soviet European and Asian based medium range ballistic missiles, was widely described as a "trick" by freeze proponents.

The Reagan administration secured the votes in Congress to deploy the INF missiles in Europe despite a multi-million-dollar campaign by the opposition, including especially the Soviet Union. Critical to this effort was the support of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Equally important was that the Pope John Paul II did not endorse the Catholic Bishops call for a nuclear freeze but asked only that nuclear forces be "curbed".

As the American missiles were deployed in Europe with NATO's concurrence, the Soviets in response walked out of the arms talks in Geneva, vowing never to return until the United States stopped deploying its INF Pershing II and GLCMs or ground launched cruise missiles in Europe.

In 1987, President Reagan secured the end of all INF missiles in Europe and Asia, and in so doing ended the Soviet effort to split the NATO alliance over the deployment of such missiles. This led further to the end of both the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet empire, and the dramatic reductions in nuclear arms achieved under START I.

Although then START II treaty of 1993 was eventually rejected by the Russian Duma, President George W. Bush secured deployed warhead reductions to 1700-2200 under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, a 65%-75% cut from the START I levels (although the Moscow treaty did not keep the START II ban on multiple warhead land based missiles that if secured would have indeed revolutionized the strategic balance between the United States and Russia for the better.)

And the Obama administration secured New Start in 2010, which further reduced deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1550.


Compared to the warhead levels at the height of the Cold War, that was a nearly 90% reduction.

The untold story of the past 35 years of arms control, including the end of the Soviet empire, was the rejection by Moscow that a stabilizing nuclear force structure was in the security instances of both the United States and Russia.

Fundamentally, the Russian visceral dislike of such a stabilizing nuclear force structure (and missile defenses) is because Russia holds nuclear weapons-especially on-alert heavily mirved land-based missiles-- as the sin qua non of its power to coerce, blackmail and otherwise commit serial aggression.

That is reflected in the Russian deployment of nuclear weapons in an aggressive posture including at the theater level where there are no arms control limits. It is this disparity in American and Russian views of nuclear deterrence and arms control that reflects the important and dangerous security differences between the two countries.

Despite such extraordinary limits achieved by arms control agreements over many decades, a fundamental truth comes back to us: arms control such as the SALT process, does not necessarily alter for the better the strategic balance or security policies of our adversaries.

To keep the strategic environment safe, and reduce the likelihood of conflict, requires the very peace through strength that a modernized and flexible nuclear deterrent gives you.

President Reagan understood this fundamental truth-we arm because we do not trust the Russians, not because they are armed. This lack of trust is flows from then Soviet and now Russian aggression and their totalitarian character.

That is the reality the new NPR of 2018 reflects-precisely why its critics still don't get, nearly three decades after we won the Cold War, why we achieved a victory they were convinced would never happen.


*This was a point President Reagan made at his very first press conference when he was asked would the country be keeping within the SALT II arms limits even though the United States Senate never gave its consent to the treaty going into force. The President said the SALT expansion of weapons could hardly be described as "arms control." If you look up SALT I under Wikipedia, they put SALT under "nuclear reductions", while also placing missile defense under "controversial" nuclear policies.  The termites live.

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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