The Requirement for a Nuclear Triad: Strategic Stability and the Critical Value of America's ICBMs

by PETER HUESSY January 26, 2017

Russia and China are both markedly improving their nuclear forces at a pace not seen even during the height of the Cold War. Russian President Putin has called for continued modernization, describing Russian nuclear forces as already sixty percent modernized and the strongest in the world. Russia also has a multi-thousand advantage in tactical or theater nuclear weapons (not subject to arms control limits) which further complicates US and allied deterrent policy.  

What then should be the US response? One former Secretary of Defense has argued the US should not seek to match the Russian modernization even though both countries are parties to the New START treaty that caps strategic nuclear weapons at 1550. Other disarmers argue that despite the dramatic drop in casualties from conventional war in the Post World War II era, there is nothing definitive to conclude that nuclear deterrence has kept the nuclear armed superpowers from major war for the past seventy years, compared to the 1914-1945 period. Still others have concluded that nuclear deterrence actually plays a very minor role in today's strategic stability and a fully modernized force is not needed.

Are these assertions true? My analysis points to the need for a full modernization of our nuclear enterprise especially going forwarded with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or ICBM modernization effort. Despite much wishful thinking, nuclear weapons remain critical to deterrence, and as such, the new administration should definitely "greatly strengthen and expand" the capability of our nuclear deterrent forces as called for by the President-elect.

This is consistent with the current administration's nuclear modernization plan as supported in the past few defense bills that have passed through Congress. And such a view is also reflected in the current full year's defense appropriations bill pending in Congress, which calls for fully modernizing our nuclear deterrent enterprise.

A modernized US deterrent-- if completed in a timely manner, especially in the face of serious cumulative nuclear threats-- will have more accurate and effective ICBMs, a penetrating stealth strategic bomber and a more survivable ballistic missile submarine. All elements would thus be strengthened and their nuclear deterrent capability expanded, even while Russia and U.S. warheads remain capped at the 2010 US-Russian New START treaty levels. This mirrors the 1980's when the Reagan administration pursued an across the board modernization of our deterrent but simultaneously proposed significant reductions in nuclear weapons.

Deterrence does not just happen automatically. The ability of the United States to stop an adversary from seeking to use or credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons against the American homeland, our forces overseas and our allies requires a careful, well-thought out deterrent strategy and a companion acquisition plan that provides the modernization of the entire nuclear enterprise. An added benefit is a sound strategic deterrent and necessary, credible nuclear capabilities required by that strategy can prevent major conventional conflicts between the nuclear armed powers as it has for the past seventy years.

Unfortunately, for the past three decades the United States has delayed its own nuclear modernization efforts to the point that we now have the oldest nuclear inventory in the history of our nation.  When replaced, our B52 bombers will be over 70 years old; our submarine hulls will have 42 years in service (a record); and our land based missiles will be approaching half a century since they were first deployed in 1970. In addition, lagging capability to meet today's threats undermines the credibility of our nuclear force, weakens deterrence and puts in doubt our defense strategy.  

While nuclear critics support some modest modernization, we shouldn't be fooled that such support is adequate to maintain deterrence. These critics are actually pushing a disarmament agenda including across the board unilateral curtailment of our nuclear deterrent. That agenda involves three stated objectives to save money, to avoid the possible misuse of our nuclear weapons in a crisis and to "stop the arms race."

On the surface, each of these goals is unobjectionable.

But when examined further, these objectives hide a more ambitious agenda to significantly disarm the US of its nuclear deterrent. If implemented, the very geostrategic instability that disarmament advocates seek to avoid will actually go up dramatically, as will the likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used against the United States and/or its allies in a crisis. By seeking to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in US deterrent policy and significantly reduce our force's flexibility, the disarmament agenda would allow our adversaries, such as Russia and China, to widen the role of nuclear weapons in their own strategies. Exactly what they have done!  

For example, the nuclear critics would stop building the new air launched cruise missile for the new B21 Raider bomber, eliminate all ICBMs, and delay and reduce the construction of new submarines. US warhead service life extension programs would also be curtailed, and our overall deployed strategic nuclear arsenal would be commensurately reduced to more than one-third below the current Russia deployed level. Overall our nuclear assets would unilaterally shrink by ninety-seven percent.

These are all bad ideas that increase the likelihood of nuclear conflict, not reduce it.

The current nuclear cruise missiles are reaching the end of their service life and need to be replaced. If they are not, the US wouldn't have the added deterrent flexibility the cruise missile adds to our strategic bomber force.  

Cutting back to 8 submarines-Larry Korb's proposal-- is a very bad idea as well. The remaining submarines deployed at sea would be too few to carry out the current deterrent mission requirements and we might very well have to eliminate one of our two strategic nuclear submarine bases to economically sustain their operation.

Some disarmament advocates have sought to remedy this acknowledged shortfall in their plan. One suggested option would add the warheads from submarines not built to those remaining in the inventory-to maintain the notional number needed for mission requirements. This doesn't work either.

The added weight associated with placing additional warheads on each sub-based missile reduces the range and target coverage of our submarine's missiles. Consequently, in order to reach their targets, the submarines would have to patrol closer to our adversary's territory, thus reducing their patrol area and making enemy detection easier.

Some ICBM critics argue the US should simply sustain a sharply reduced number of ICBMs and not modernize them.  Such a plan also has numerous and dangerous drawbacks.

The cost of maintaining the older missiles through their service life actually exceeds the cost of modernization.

Why spend more money than necessary while maintaining a less capable force that will not meet the established national deterrent strategy and has to be replaced soon anyway?

But the most radical of disarmament objectives is to eliminate the US ICBM force of 450 Minuteman silos and their associated missiles. Eliminating Minuteman missiles would reduce our potential adversary's targeting challenge from over 500 "targets" to less than 12. Going to such a low level of targets is very destabilizing and incentivizes a first strike against the United States.

As the USAF vice Chief of Staff General Stephen Wilson has remarked, North Korea even with its limited nuclear arsenal could under such circumstances "have the ability to destroy our nuclear intellectual capability, our nuclear production capability, and our nuclear delivery capability for about 20 years."

In short, by removing Minuteman we would be unilaterally disarming the most significant part of our nuclear deterrent with little prospect of replacing that capability with other Triad elements. Even if you could upload the remaining submarine launched ballistic missiles with the warheads from your ICBM force, there is a serious downside. Moving ICBM warheads to new submarine missiles cannot meet the operational requirements of US deterrent strategy as ICBMs have unique characteristics that SLBMs cannot duplicate.

In short, advocating a Minuteman-less deterrent and transferring all our strategic missiles to the submarine force may appear to be a clever way to hide what otherwise would be a serious negative imbalance between US and Russian strategic warhead levels, but it simply undermines our deterrent capabilities, heightens instabilities, and endangers American security.

Furthermore, if the Russians broke out of the 2010 New START treaty limits, the strategic imbalance would quickly get worse. The Russians have the capability to build up their strategic nuclear forces to at least 3,500 deployed warheads and possibly as high as 5,000. But in the absence of Minuteman and a modernized Triad, the only missiles the US would have available to "upload" with more warheads would be our submarine-based missiles. But under this scenario, the submarine missiles would already have their maximum eight warhead loadings in order to meet the current 1,550 warhead requirement of US deterrent strategy. No more warheads could "fit" on each missile.

On top of which the inventory of available warheads may not be sufficient for such a task. Mix and matching warheads from different missiles is not now doable without an extensive, time-consuming and costly warhead rework. Future plans do call for one of the five warhead-types we are producing to be interchangeable between the ICBM and SLBM force. But that program is not due to be completed for some number of additional years and makes no sense if the ICBMs are eliminated or phased out.

Accordingly, there would be no hedge or surge capability to increase our nuclear forces, leaving an expanded Russian nuclear force able to intimidate and coerce the United States. Disarmament advocates dismiss such concerns, arguing without evidence that the American nuclear forces need not be comparable in capability or number to that of our nuclear armed adversaries, especially Russia.

Does such an assertion make sense? Throughout the nuclear era, the US has insisted that even as warheads are capped or reduced under arms control agreements, that the US has every right to maintain at least parity with Russia in our level of deployed strategic nuclear systems. We have never failed to achieve that throughout the nuclear era although today we deploy some 300-500 fewer strategic nuclear warheads than Russia.

Creating a permanent imbalance between Russian and US nuclear systems has another serious downside. Eliminating a modernized ICBM would logically entice the Russians and Chinese to dedicate a larger majority of their research and development toward making the oceans transparent, if they are not already. If they were successful in such a task, they could track, target and destroy our at-sea submarine fleet, placing our only remaining nuclear strategic missile force at risk, a point readily acknowledged even by ICBM critics.  

These combined ICBM cuts could lead to a situation where our submarines at sea, plus those in transit and in port, could through both attrition and direct attack, be destroyed, thus eliminating the ability of the United States to respond to an adversary's nuclear strike in a timely manner. As one former top USAF General Officer told me, "What would be the point of making it easier for the United States to be attacked and disarmed?"

Given the obvious dangers of eliminating Minuteman, why do ICBM critics persist in proposing to do so? 

Two reasons are being put forward in addition to "saving money" and supposedly "stopping the arms race."

We are told the ICBMs are accident prone--on a "hair trigger"-- and in a crisis might be recklessly used.

What are the facts?

In the early 1980's, a wrench was accidentally dropped in a Titan ICBM missile silo. It bounced off the concrete floor and punctured the skin of the Titan missile. This caused a liquid fuel leak. Subsequently, the fuel tank exploded. Although there was no release of any nuclear material, and the nuclear warhead remained intact and inactive, a recent television documentary raises the specter of how a very large megaton warhead on top of such a missile could have been accidentally detonated.

The case, as interesting and tragic as it was, is actually irrelevant to the currently deployed solid rocket motor Minuteman ICBM force. The 400 Minuteman missiles operationally deployed are all solid fueled rockets. The possibility of any accident similar to the Titan event is zero-simply impossible. Solid fuel does not "leak" nor can it be ignited due to the lining or skin of the missile being punctured.

In short, the concern in the new documentary about the Titan explosion ["Command and Control"] brought to us by PBS is completely irrelevant when applied to the current Minuteman ICBM. It is irrelevant to the force at large because we have no liquid-fueled ICBMs or SLBMs as all liquid-fueled missiles were retired decades ago.

The other asserted danger cited by critics of our nuclear deterrent has to do with a supposed technological deficiency of our nuclear command and control system. If true, it would actually apply to all three legs of our Triad.

It involves two aspects of what is allegedly the same problem: false warning of an attack on our country, including our missile silos, submarine and bomber bases; and a President being pressured to launch our missiles before they are destroyed thinking we are under attack.

Both concerns are without merit.

Here is why.

In 1980, a training tape was placed into a computer at NORAD, the North American command center that continuously monitors for ballistic missiles launched at the United States. The training tape warning simulated the launch of 200 missiles from the Soviet Union at the United States.

I know a number of ICBM launch officers who were on duty at exactly that time. They acknowledge that the ICBM crews were placed on a higher alert level, as were other nuclear forces, in complete accord with their extensive training. However, no order was ever given at any time to launch any US nuclear weapon.  

In fact, in less than 20 minutes, due to the comprehensiveness of NORAD training through precisely executed disciplined processes, the leadership on duty was able to determine the "data" indicating a Russian ICBM launch on the United States was false. That disciplined process, still in place today, immediately determined the cause of the false warning and allowed nuclear forces to return to normal day-to-day alert levels.

Since that day in 1980, no such additional "training tape" incident has occurred. In fact, procedures were changed ensuring that there could not be any future possibility of this type of erroneous data dissemination. Additionally, our missile defense development efforts have greatly improved our attack warning and assessment capabilities to where false warning of a missile attack just will not happen again...and it hasn't!

What about the second supposed ICBM fault line? Are the missiles prone to automatic launch [u1] in a crisis due to computer warnings? And are critics correct that it is US deterrent policy to launch our missiles automatically if we receive computer warning of a missile attack, such as the training tape we referenced earlier?

There are no facts to corroborate this fallacious assertion because the US has no such policy of launch on computer warning and has never had such a policy.

In November 1997, the senior nuclear expert on the National Security Council, Mr. Robert Bell, held a news conference. He explained that some media reports had erroneously concluded that the Clinton administration's recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) had supposedly adopted a deterrent policy requiring the US to launch our missiles on warning of an attack.

Robert Bell was adamant that the policy of the US at that time, before, and subsequent to the Administration's NPR, was NOT to launch our nuclear weapons on warning of an attack, or even if an attack was confirmed.

Robert Bell explained, the United States posture was such that no President would be under time pressure to launch nuclear weapons, even if it was confirmed the United States had been attacked with nuclear weapons that had detonated on US soil.

Robert Bell further explained that because the US chooses to sustain and operate a Triad of three independently survivable nuclear forces, the entire nuclear deterrent is designed so no US President has to promptly or inadvertently launch any nuclear weapons during a crisis.

Our submarines at sea, our bombers that can be made airborne and many of our ICBMs, will survive an initial strike and be available to retaliate in a timely manner. That is precisely why the United States spends the money it does for its nuclear Triad. Rather than trying to maintain deterrence on the cheap and rely on only one system that could be compromised or become obsolete, we have three complementary systems that make up the nuclear Triad.

Not to be deterred, ICBM critics have a third concern. Even when they acknowledge inadvertent launches of our ICBMs won't happen, they claim ICBMs are only useful if used "first."

That is not a logical argument for the following reasons:  

First, ICBM missiles are only "vulnerable" in the sense an adversary knows where the missile silos are. Second, this "fact" is then erroneously conflated to imply that all US missiles must be launched first in a crisis because otherwise they will be destroyed by an adversary that attacks the US first-because the adversary knows where American missile silos are located.

This claim is without merit.    

For example, what foreign power is going to attack all of our nearly 500 Minuteman missile silos and their associated launch control facilities, spread out over thousands of square miles over five western states? Even during a crisis, any such attack will surely invite a massive retaliation. That capability is a critically valuable element of our ICBMs-attacking US ICBMs would involve a direct and unmistakably massive attack on the US homeland.

And if a US first use of our ICBMs is a sure path to all-out nuclear exchanges, as ICBM critics allege, why would a similar Russian attack on our ICBM fields be any less foolhardy?

A Russian missile attack on our extensive missile fields would require the use of nearly 1,000 Russian warheads to at best destroy some but not all of our 400 Minuteman warheads (hitting each US missile silos and launch control target with 2 warheads to ensure their destruction).

Such a highly irrational act of attacking the US with nearly 1,000 warheads would certainly invite a devastating response; what nuclear expert Paul Nitze described to me as "inviting Armageddon".

Nonetheless, ICBM critics continue to claim that while the first use of our ICBM force against Russia by the United States would invite Armageddon, the converse is not true! An adversary's--such as Russia-- launch of its ICBM or SLBM force against the United States would of course invite a massive retaliation by the United States. Any adversary knows that a devastating US response will be forthcoming from our surviving ICBMs and submarines at sea plus bombers we may have placed on airborne alert. That is the very essence of deterrence.

Furthermore, in order to attack all Minuteman silos, an adversary would also have to put their own nuclear forces on a higher alert level. Day-to-day Russian peacetime alert levels are not sufficient to have the warheads available needed to adequately attack our ICBM silos and launch control centers. A Russian attack would require an observable generation of forces thus giving the US warning.

Thus, if contemplating such an attack, an adversary would need to put their own forces on higher alert. The very act of placing Russian forces on higher alert-putting rail garrison missiles out on the tracks, moving submarines out of port, and placing their bombers on alert or airborne---is highly desirable and stabilizing. Why? It allows our early warning satellites to provide US command authorities full information of Russian actions. This in turn allows the US to place our own forces in a more survivable mode. This enhances strategic stability and makes it far less likely that nuclear weapons would be used in a crisis. That has been the case for seven decades now.

If the US did disperse its nuclear forces, it would enormously complicate an adversary's attack plans and make it impossible to achieve any disarming first strike objectives.

One final note. A newly made complaint about ICBMs is that they are dangerous because you cannot bring an ICBM "back" once it has been launched. This is true of our entire nuclear deterrent. Sea launched ballistic missiles, air released gravity bombs and cruise missiles cannot be recalled either, but these same nuclear critics are not calling for our submarine fleet and bomber force also to be eliminated!

In summary, none of the "new" criticisms pertaining to ICBMs and our nuclear deterrent have any basis in fact.  

Fact:

Solid fueled ICBMs are more reliable and safer than liquid fueled missiles.  

The US does not have a policy to launch missiles based on computer warning.

There is no danger that a crisis will compel an American President to use nuclear weapons rashly.

Reducing our nuclear assets to twelve targets or less, as eliminating our ICBMs would do, dramatically increases the risk to the US and our allies.

Enabling our adversaries to think they have a real chance of winning a nuclear fight by striking us first in a crisis is foolhardy.

Phasing out our ICBMs is a dangerous idea-not unlike cancelling your fire insurance because you haven't had a recent fire. 

Right now we know no rational actor will attack us with nuclear weapons. 

However, eliminating key parts of our nuclear Triad is hardly a prescription for reducing any nuclear dangers.

It is inconsistent with current national deterrent strategy.

It could invite an attack on us.

Finally, it is true these nuclear deterrent systems are being "used" every minute of every day as they provide credible deterrence to our adversaries.

On the other hand, these missiles have not, obviously, been launched. And in fact, in the more than 60 million cumulative minutes since October 1962, during which our land based and sea based missiles have both been on alert, they have never been ordered to launch by an American President.

Never.

Not by any President and not even during very serious crises.

Unfortunately, nuclear modernization opponents in general and ICBM critics in particular, are ignoring these facts about nuclear deterrence. Scare tactics are being put forward, like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Despite heated rhetoric and cleverly written ghost stories, our nation's nuclear Triad is safe, secure and if modernized in due course, will remain effective. For seventy years, during and after the Cold War, the nuclear Triad has successfully deterred war between the nuclear armed super powers.

And has done so perfectly, without fail.

Why then argue with success?

 


 [u1]Earlier talks about the President launching due to pressure.

A version of this piece also appeared on http://www.realcleardefense.com/    

Peter R. Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and a guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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