What’s gotten into the Air Force lately? First there was this December 2009 report from the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies calling for a bomberless dyad. Now, in an article in the latest issues of Strategic Studies Quarterly co-authored with two professors from Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Col B. Chance Saltzman, chief, Strategic Plans and Policy Division, Headquarters Air Force, calls for significant reductions in the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Just how significant you ask:
In fact, the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence. [emphasis mine].
And to think they didn’t even pick a nice round number!
Saltzman et al, argue that such a force could be maintained on a triad of 100 single-warhead Minuteman III ICBMs, 192 de-MIRVed Trident D-5 SLBMs on 12 Ohio class submarines, and ALCMs to be deployed on 19 B-2s. Apart from calling for a triad of counterforce and countervalue weapons, the article mostly ignores the other specific details of deterrence that have consumed so much energy in the context of the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review.
I’m not really up on the intricacies of Air Force bureaucracy, so I don’t know how much weight the Strategic Plans and Policy Division actually pulls within the department, but it seems to me to be noteworthy that the head of said division is associating himself with a strategy of minimum deterrence…
What do we mean by “minimum deterrence”? Jeffrey (or is it Jerry?) Lewis summed it up nicely a few years ago in the Bulletin:
A different view is that, beyond a certain point, all of this is crazy talk, and the technical details don’t matter very much at all. The balance of terror is anything but delicate. An enemy who can be deterred, will be deterred by the prospect of a counterattack, even if it consists of only a few nuclear weapons. Beyond that minimum threshold, nuclear weapons provide little additional deterrent benefit.
Saltzman et al., fit squarely within this camp. For example, they do not specify which specific warheads should make up a force of 311 weapons (e.g. should our subs carry W76s, W88s, a mix of the two, life extended W78-W88 warheads that share common components, or new, RRW-style warheads). Nor do they suggest requirements for alert levels, declaratory policy, or the nuclear complex.
They are also silent on whether the U.S. needs to develop a new SSBN or (perhaps most interestingly) a next generation long-range bomber. Finally, they suggest that the U.S. need not deploy any weapons outside the U.S. (with exception of our boomers of course) or maintain any additional warheads in reserve as either a technical or geopolitical hedge.
Oh, and I almost forgot: They claim that a reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile from the current level of some 5,000 total weapons to 311 weapons could be undertaken unilaterally regardless of whether Russia follows suit.
In response to those who might posit that the U.S. must retain a far larger force given the (allegedly) numerous threats it must deter, its obligations to its allies, or that such a small force might be vulnerable to a first-strike, the authors state that this “ignores the vast conventional superiority of the United States,” and “is also undermined by the fact that the United States is deterred in most contingencies by China, which has a much smaller force structure.”
Even their embrace of the triad is lukewarm. “If one accepts the basic idea that it is the political value of nuclear weapons that matters,” they write, “the method of delivery is immaterial.”
At the same time, they push back against the view that significant reductions in nuclear weapons would necessarily mean the end of the triad due to “concern over organizational competency and professional development.” Determining the appropriate number of nuclear weapons, they argue, “should be based primarily on the requirements for a stable, reliable, nuclear deterrent, with support issues like industrial base support, crew force management, and training only weighing in as secondary considerations.”
(Come to think of it, this logic kinda reminds me of a Wu-Tang remix I heard recently.)
Given the many ways in which they eviscerate the traditional justifications for maintaining a U.S. nuclear arsenal of thousands of excess weapons, one might think the authors call for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. They do not: “Nuclear weapons allow international life to go on in spite of their inherent dangers because leaders of nuclear states realize that that they are constrained despite their goals, desires, or rhetoric.” Hence, the title of their article: “Remembrance of Things Past: The Enduring Value of Nuclear Weapons.” Still, the title is misleading. Where they disagree with most opponents of abolition is in their belief that deterrence can be maintained with a very small nuclear stockpile.
All in all, the piece is a thought-provoking assessment of America’s strategic posture. Regrettably, it’s a perspective that probably received short – if any – shrift during the Nuclear Posture Review.