by Usha Sahay
On February 6, I attended a breakfast with North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, who delivered an address on the importance of nuclear deterrence and the U.S. nuclear triad. Sen. Hoeven, whose state houses one of the nation’s 3 ICBM bases, spoke at length about the benefits of a large nuclear arsenal in general, and the land-, sea-, and air-based legs of the triad specifically. But in a post-Cold War era, in which national security battles are increasingly fought by unmanned pilot drones and cyberweapons, it’s worth scrutinizing the justifications for retaining our current arsenal of approximately 5,000 nuclear warheads, and multiple ways to deliver them. A close examination shows that some of those justifications simply don’t hold up anymore. Here’s my take on how Sen. Hoeven overstated the advantages of the nuclear triad:
CLAIM: “…nuclear weapons keep the peace… Since nuclear weapons have never been deployed against each other in a nuclear exchange their deterrent value is clear.”
REALITY: As Kingston Reif pointed out in a recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column, it’s far from clear that nuclear weapons have been the decisive factor in keeping the peace over the years. Consider some counter-examples: nuclear weapons didn’t stop India and Pakistan from fighting the Kargil War or from engaging in a number of smaller skirmishes. In the 1970s, Egypt and Syria attacked nuclear-armed Israel. And although the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t end in war, there’s no denying that leaders took steps that knowingly risked catastrophe – despite both sides’ possession of nuclear arsenals. As James Doyle noted in a new article for Survival, “Khrushchev’s decision to send to Cuba nuclear missiles that could strike the United States was a reckless, high-risk action, the sort of thing nuclear-deterrence theory predicts would be avoided.”
Moreover, Sen. Hoeven’s position fails to take into account a major geostrategic elephant in the room: the end of the Cold War. Even if you believe, contra the above, that nuclear deterrence was what kept the Cold War cold, it’s hard to seriously argue that since 1991, the absence of great power conflict has been because of nuclear weapons. We’ve been at peace since 1991 because, well, we’ve been at peace.
And all that says nothing of the potential for miscalclulation, miscommunication, or technical error, all of which threaten to complicate the best-laid plans of nuclear deterrence optimists.
Nuclear deterrence isn’t foolproof, and to say that nuclear weapons prevent war is not a concrete truth, but merely a testament to how lucky we’ve been, so far.
(What’s more, even if you do buy that nuclear weapons deter war, that doesn’t explain why a nuclear triad, specifically, is needed to keep the peace.)
CLAIM: “The vast array of ICBM targets and the significant effort required to reliably target them deters small nuclear powers from even considering attempts to reach nuclear parity with the United States. Without ICBMs an adversary could concentrate on taking out a very small number of targets to undermine the U.S. strategic defensive capability. Eliminating ICBMs, therefore, would increase rather than decrease the likelihood of conflict.”
REALITY: This argument downplays the difficulty of a small nuclear power launching a disarming first strike against the US homeland. Even with ICBMs taken out of the equation, potential adversaries would have to hit Air Force bases in Missouri and Louisiana, naval bases in Georgia and Washington State, as well as submarines stationed at sea that would be extremely difficult to locate. There’s very little evidence to suggest that any small country would contemplate trying to disarm the US nuclear force – with or without ICBMs.
Secondly, of course, we can pursue nuclear reductions without taking ICBMs out of the equation. There’s room to keep a smaller number of ICBMs, without tempting smaller powers to try to achieve nuclear parity with us – especially if Russia brings its numbers down in tandem with the US. For instance, Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists recommends trimming one squadron of missiles from each ICBM base. The reason this makes sense vis a vis Hoeven’s argument is that it maintains the large number of aimpoints that Hoeven praises (even though that large number doesn’t matter that much, given how unlikely it would be for any country to try and hit those aimpoints).
And a bigger problem here is that ICBMs’ deterrent credibility is greatly reduced by a problem called “targeting inflexibility.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright pointed out in the much-discussed report by Global Zero that in nearly any conceivable scenario where the U.S. launched ICBMs against an adversary other than Russia, the missiles would have to fly over Russian airspace, rendering them very difficult to use outside of a nuclear exchange with Russia. This, however, would be a highly dangerous maneuver insofar as it would risk Russia misinterpreting the situation, and possibly moving to retaliate with its own nuclear launch. U.S. commanders would be much more likely to rely on sea- or land-based missiles in such a scenario.
This targeting inflexibility problem greatly diminishes the ICBMs’ supposed benefits. And at any rate, those benefits are hardly unique to ICBMs: nuclear warheads launched from bombers and submarines can hit virtually any spot on the planet.
CLAIM: “The ability to move bombers and to recall them in the air once they’ve been deployed means the bomber leg provides commanders with the greatest amount of deterrent flexibility. The Global Zero report, along with other disarmament proposals, call for bomber reductions to leave us with only the 18 B-2. That’s it, 18 planes. This would greatly weaken the bomber leg of the triad and force our allies to consider developing their own nuclear weapons, instigating regional arms races.”
REALITY: Just eighteen? Sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? But recall that per Global Zero’s recommendations, we’d maintain a force of 900 nuclear weapons, and those 18 B-2s would be armed with 180 of them. This is still a devastating force, and then some.
Just eighteen! When you think about what that really means in terms of America’s ability to launch a nuclear attack, eighteen isn’t such a small number after all.
CLAIM: “…we only have two ballistic missile submarine bases, and much of the sea-based deterrent is in port at any given moment. If adversaries can focus on submarines alone we lose much of the deterrent advantage. We need the air- and land-based legs of the triad along with the submarine deterrent to maintain our ultimate defense.”
REALITY: Sen. Hoeven really shouldn’t lose any sleep over the fact that nuclear-armed subs are routinely ported for overhaul and inspections. At any given time, the majority of our submarine-launched missiles are on patrol, meaning they’re either within range of their targets in Russia, China and elsewhere, or they’re conducting exercises at sea and able to reach those targets on short notice. Here’s a nice summary of the preparedness level of our sub fleet:
Of the 14 SSBNs currently in the fleet, two are normally in overhaul at any given time. Of the remaining operational 12 submarines, 8-9 are deployed on patrol at any given time. Four of these (two in each ocean) are on “Hard Alert” while the 4-5 non-alert SSBNs can be brought to alert level within a relatively short time if necessary.
I don’t know about you, but given this, I personally have a hard time getting worried about two subs being in port.
CLAIM: “…the Obama administration takes an idealistic view of the future, believing threats are low and even our own disarmament will convince other nuclear powers to disarm. But as former Defense Secretary Harold Brown said, quote, ‘We build, they build. We stop, they build.”’
REALITY: This is a well-known quote from former Defense Secretary Brown, implying that US disarmament doesn’t lead other countries to halt proliferation efforts. But actually, there’s reason to believe that if we stop, they might stop too – or at least move a little bit closer to it. That certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, but consider the evidence: Jeffrey Knopf has found that there is an indirect, but nonetheless persuasive link between disarmament by nuclear-armed powers and parallel activities by other countries. He writes: “signs of a commitment to nuclear disarmament by the nuclear weapon states will tend on balance to enhance support for nonproliferation.”
To be sure, the connection isn’t crystal clear, doesn’t apply in all cases, and is influenced by other factors. But it’s a connection that shows why a Manichean view of our adversaries – that is, that they will pursue proliferation no matter what we do – is far from the whole story.
In short: U.S. nuclear policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Other nations won’t take their cues solely from our moves toward disarmament, but those cues do matter. As Doyle argued, nuclear threats are transnational, just like climate change and natural disasters. These threats can only be dealt with through multinational efforts, and in that context, the U.S. leadership role matters a lot.
The bigger point, of course, is that a smaller nuclear arsenal is not incompatible with the level of flexibility and strength we need to respond to a crisis – on the other hand, it may be quite compatible indeed with the longer-term goal of moving toward a world where nuclear weapons are not a threat. Much of Sen. Hoeven’s speech was framed as a choice between nuclear reductions and security. In an era of hard choices, that, thankfully, is one choice we no longer have to make.