Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nuclear Weapons – More At Stake than Just ‘Reduction’ (Part One of Two)

Peter Huessy

The administration is seeking to dramatically reduce nuclear weapons from our current deployed level of 2,200 to some level between 1,500-1,675. They wish to do this as a demonstration of their seriousness to begin down the road toward the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons. It may that for many Americans, the latter range of weapons appears to be more than enough to deter our adversaries. Perhaps it is. But there is another more important issue. It goes to the very heart of deterrence. It is not necessarily how many weapons you have, but how you base them.

In a crisis, you do not want the “bad guys” to reach for the nuclear button. If the U.S. had lots of warheads but very few platforms carrying these warheads, our enemies might be tempted to go first, hoping to eliminate in a pre-emptive strike all of our weapons while maintaining a robust reserve. Some observers have proposed that to save money and simplify deterrence, we keep only submarines. We have 14 Trident boats, but at any one time only four are at sea in their patrol areas while four our in transit from our two bases in Georgia and Washington, and five remain in port or in overhaul. If an adversary could fine our Tridents at sea, they could be eliminated over time by attack submarines. Those in port could be eliminated with cruise missile strikes. This would be a highly destabilizing posture. Thus, if over time our forces are based on a smaller and smaller number of submarines and land based missiles, or “platforms,” the impetus for an enemy to contemplate a “prompt launch” in a crisis remains a serious problem.

Reports are that one-third of our 450 land-based missiles may be eliminated under some plans being considered. Given that our submarine and bomber bases number only four, and submarines at sea also number four, we are essentially making it dramatically easier for an enemy to strike at America’s nuclear forces in a crisis. Remember, today China is building fleets of new ballistic missiles. And Russia is building a new multiple warhead land based missile, a new nuclear cruise missile and submarine based missile. At 1,500-1,675 warheads, the range of weapons being discussed by the United States and Russia, Russia can maintain a fully modern arsenal and only have to retire systems which are obsolete.

Many are arguing that nuclear weapons are simply “useless.” But they are actually used all the time. For the past half century they have maintained deterrence. The most critical characteristic of our nuclear forces through this period has been their imperviousness to an effective disarming attack. At one point, during the height of the Cold War, when the Soviets had nearly 12,000 deployed weapons, there was concern that using only a small portion of their warheads, they could knock out most of our missile silos and other nuclear bases. But our submarines were viewed then as survivable and some of our bombers and land based missiles would also survive.

A strategic modernization program initiated by President Reagan was coupled with dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons under the first START treaty which reduced deployed weapons to roughly 6,000. In 2002, the Moscow Treaty furthered strategic stability by keeping a maximum number of platforms while cutting nuclear weapons more than 60 percent to their present level.

If in a new treaty, the U.S. cut platforms, rather than just warheads, this would be the first time a strategic arms control treaty with the Russians would actually encourage placing multi-warheads on nuclear tipped missiles, as well as increasing the ratio of Russian warheads to U.S. nuclear platforms. This endangers crisis stability. It would also eliminate forces that the U.S. could probably never bring back without great difficulty.

We would thus be increasing crisis instability as well as putting serious roadblocks in the path of future modernization should the world not move in the direction where nuclear dangers are diminished. We have North Korea exploding nuclear devices, while Iran, according to our Secretary of Defense, may be 1-3 years away from nuclear weapons. Venezuela now announces it wishes to pursue nuclear technology with Iran as a partner, while neighboring Brazil claims it has a right to nuclear weapons by virtue of its large economy and oil exporting status.

There may be deployed levels of nuclear weapons which are greater than want we may actually need. But there may also be levels of deployed nuclear weapons which are less than what is needed to maintain deterrence. If the latter, we will know only when deterrence itself breaks down, as it has over the decades with some frequency. Why take that risk? The key to strategic stability is that in a crisis an adversary of the U.S. should have only two choices: either use all its nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive attack and thus invite certain Armageddon, or use no nuclear weapons at all. The deployed 450 missile silos spread over five western states means any contemplative attack simply does meet any rational test.

Keeping the entire currently deployed Minuteman would reduce the ratio of Russian warheads to U.S. platforms to roughly 3 to 1; cutting one wing of missiles increases that ratio to over 5 to 1. What is the point of moving the bar in such a direction? What does it get us? We can reduce nuclear warheads to the lower numbers envisioned in the next treaty, but such reductions do not call for nor require dangerous reductions in the stabilizing platform deployments which we have maintained throughout the nuclear age.

The U.S. now has a smaller nuclear inventory of both deployed and stockpiled weapons than at any other time since the Eisenhower administration, according to former USAF Chief of Staff Larry Welch. This certainly meets any requirement within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the US must seek to further the goal of arms control. To provide for the common defense at the same time, however, requires that we continue to maintain a deterrent that fully supports crisis and strategic stability, while fully recognizing we still remain in a world filled with nuclear dangers. Contributing Editor Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting company in Potomac, Maryland.

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