Nuclear Fairy Tales

Posted on Thu 08/03/2017 by


By Peter Huessy ~

The complex subject of nuclear deterrence is the subject of a new essay by a young, non-nuclear expert, a Terrell Jermaine Starr, writing for Foxtrot Alpha. The work is unfortunately such an extraordinary mash of errors, distortions, and incomprehensible assertions that it needs a strong rebuttal.

The author starts with a truism. “The Cold War is over.” But then he proceeds to a non-sequitur arguing that there is thus no need for “America’s land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.”  But if our land based missiles are not needed because the nuclear deterrent of the Cold War (now over) is no longer required, then one could argue that all US nuclear forces should be retired.

Next, he claims the costs of Minuteman ICBMs are unstainable. However, sustainment costs will exceed the cost for the modernization of the missiles.  Consequently, the USAF plan is to make the smart strategic and budget choice and modernize our ICBMs and retire the old Minuteman missiles simultaneously, which will cost less money than simply sustaining the current ICBMs. The author seems unaware of this.

Furthermore, given that the ICBMs are the least expensive part of our nuclear deterrent Triad to modernize and sustain, keeping them in the arsenal is in fact eminently “practical” from a budgetary standpoint.

But the submarine launched missiles we also have are more accurate argues Starr, so why not get rid of the ICBMs? This is a strange argument to make in that Starr says are only deterrent strategy should be to blow up Russian cities (24 in number says Starr). This would not require very accurate missiles at all.

Furthermore, if you only need enough missiles to blow up Russian cities, having 98% of your land based missiles on alert and ready to do the job, (394 missiles and 394 warheads), is less expensive than relying on submarines at sea on patrol. For example, the cost per maintaining an ICBM warhead on alert is some 28% of the cost of an SLBM warhead at sea on patrol when the full modernization costs are included.

However, this ICBM cost advantage is offset by the fact the submarines are mobile and can hide in the immense space of the oceans, factors which when taken together support the deployment of both the land based and sea based missile legs of our Triad.

And as for costs, Starr seems not to understand that he is mixing ICBM apples and oranges. The new land based ICBM will cost $64 billion according to the best industry and USAF estimates. Other estimates, such as from CBO, assume that a much smaller, new single warhead ICBM will cost the same as a very large10-warhead missile built in 1986 plus they adjust the cost for an estimated inflation for 40 years, thus doubling the 1986 cost.

Even more strange, CBO includes the full cost of the new conventional strategic bomber when the added cost to make the bomber nuclear capable is only 3%. This mistake significantly exaggerates the cost of the nuclear modernization effort.

The USAF and the Navy have also been working together finding common technologies for their respective missiles that have already saved significant funds, including the USAF Fuze program which is some $500 million below original cost estimates. So current CBO cost estimates for the new GBSD require even further adjustment downward.

In addition, the 30-year estimates of what a future nuclear deterrent force will cost to maintain and modernize upon which Starr relies are simply not relevant. Current budget issues focus on the current five-year defense plan. Nuclear deterrent funding is $27 billion today rising some additional $10 billion over the next decade. This would average only 4.5% of the overall defense budget over the next decade even if the latter remained fixed at the current House and Senate Armed Service Committee passed level, and would be a very small 6/10th of 1% of the Federal budget over that same ten years.

Starr then claims without any historical evidence that getting rid of a significant portion of our nuclear deterrent is a good idea because it would compel Russia, India and Pakistan to believe the United States “is serious about non-proliferation.” Starr believes this will further prompt Russia to reduce their own nuclear weapons.

Former Democratic Defense Secretary Harold Brown once described the nuclear balance between the US and the Soviet Union as a process where “we build, they build, we stop, and they build”. For at least two decades after the end of the Cold War we went on a nuclear procurement holiday.

But in the meantime the Russians have been building, big time. Harold Brown was right years ago and he is right again. Russia will in fact complete its nuclear modernization program around 2021-2, nearly 5 years and perhaps a decade prior to the United States even putting in the field its first new nuclear submarine, bomber or land based missile.

As the new President acknowledged during an interview with Hugh Hewitt in the summer of 2015, he was appalled at how much the US needed to upgrade and modernize its own land based missiles, in the face of massive Russian-and Chinese-modernization, a modernization Starr admits Russia is undertaking.

Equally strange is that Starr admits “until the United States and Russia negotiate a major [new]nuclear weapons reduction, Washington still needs to maintain a powerful arsenal. Modernizing the weapons we do have is essential for maintenance issues alone” [emphasis added]. These points are well taken. But modernizing the “weapons we do have” doesn’t square with “eliminating the ICBMs we do have”.

Starr then tries to shift the blame for America’s supposed lack of nuclear restraint on Congress-and their supposed refusal to go along with “denuclearization”. Here is the problem. The previous administration never put forward a plan for denuclearization though Starr says otherwise. In fact, with some modest upward adjustments, Congress approved all the former administration’s nuclear budget proposals—precisely because the budgets were part of the former administration’s 2010 pledge to rebuild and modernize the United States nuclear arsenal.

Then Starr inexplicitly claims the United States is building a new ICBM because of the recent “North Korean missile launch” of an ICBM, a wholly incorrect assertion. Starr then appears to change his mind, saying the United States historically justified buying ICBMs because of their accuracy.

But he says that is no longer the case because submarines are sufficiently accurate and we have enough of them.

He states “The U.S. Navy currently has 18 Ohio-class submarines in its fleet, 14 of which are each capable of carrying 28 Trident IIs. One Trident has eight thermonuclear Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles, each carrying a 100- or 475-kiloton nuclear warhead.”

He is wrong on all counts. The Navy has only 12 operational Trident boats. The missiles carried by each submarine number 20, not 24, and the new Columbia class submarine we are building to replace the Trident will number 12 submarines each with 16 missiles.

While the submarine missiles now can carry 8 warheads, they currently average 4-5 warheads and a total of no more than 1090 warheads allowed under the 2010 New Start treaty.

Now putting all our missile warheads allowed under the treaty on just the new 12 submarines and getting rid of Minuteman ICBMs, would require each of the 16 missiles to carry 8 warheads, leaving the United States with a zero hedge to respond to a Russian breakout from the 2010 New Start treaty. And to say nothing about responding to an expanding Chinese nuclear arsenal. In addition, we would be making a blunder of historical dimensions by literally putting all our nuclear missile eggs in one basket.

Starr then gets into a completely erroneous charge that the United States military would choose to keep a Trident submarine missile rather than a Minuteman missile, quoting former defense department official Phil Coyle. This is also not true but also irrelevant. It is the civilian leadership of the Defense Department including the President and Secretary of Defense that sets US nuclear deterrent strategy, not the military.

And as for the military, they have unanimously testified before Congress that to carry out the strategy and policy of the President of the United States, a new land based strategic deterrent is required, even as we also maintain our Minuteman ICBMs in the interim. As far back as a 1998 Defense Science Board report this same conclusion was reached-a new land based system needed to be started no later than 2017 and one which will have better accuracy and range and be cheaper to operate.

Starr assumes also that submarines are in no danger of being detected. Wrong again. While it remains true that the current and planned submarine fleet will be and should have sufficient stealth to be undetectable, technology does not stand still. The air, the atmosphere and the land have all become transparent. The military understands this completely, especially as we operate at a greater and greater tempo in space and cyberspace.

To assume that the medium of water will always remain opaque is absurd, as senior US military and civilian leaders of this nation have explained in sworn testimony before the US Congress. They have repeatedly emphasized that since tracking down and attriting our submarines over time is a future possibility, having a Minuteman land based modern system is a sound insurance policy. It is a complimentary nuclear deterrent asset for the United States and a guarantee that no adversary can logically launch a cheap, sudden or surreptitious attack against the United States to disarm her.

Furthermore, as some former senior nuclear commanders have told me we have already removed the bombers from the daily nuclear deterrence commitment, and we now essentially rely on a “dyad” of SSBNs and ICBMs to meet our daily deterrence requirements. The consistent readiness of our ICBMs, on alert near 100% of the time, has allowed us to adjust the number of SSBNs routinely at sea, and together the ICBMs and SSBNs have freed the bombers for use by commanders in a conventional role-with great effect across a range of national security needs to include against terrorist organizations.

As for David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists concern cited by Starr about the vulnerability of our land based missiles, the ICBMs indeed “have been there [in silos] for decades”. But despite all this hysteria about the ICBMs being just a few seconds away from being launched because of their perceived vulnerability to attack, they have remained on alert 32 million minutes without the President ever having ordered their use.

As for the claim that the submarine missiles can be launched by the President in one minute and are thus more useful than ICBMs that can supposedly be launched only in a 30-minute window, there is no one knowledgeable about nuclear weapons who would ever make such an absurd statement.

Starr attempts to sound fair by citing Tom Nichols and Dana Struckman and their argument that the “deterrence effect of land-based ICBMs is severely under-estimated.” Starr quotes their essay in The National Interest:

“Moreover, if the ICBM force were targeted, the United States would still be able to attack, with great speed and precision, not only the remaining enemy strategic force but important parts of enemy military infrastructure. Russia or China would then be the ones to face the fateful decision to attack cities, a situation they will inevitably bring on themselves the moment they initiate the conflict-which is exactly the realization that should deter them in the first place.”

What does Starr then say in response? That the new Trident submarine is so improved “it’s designed to phase out land-based ICBMs in the first place”. Where did that baloney come from? The new Columbia class submarine is designed for a deterrent force that includes 400 modernized ICBMs and 60 strategic bombers, all fitting under the New Start arms control ceilings.

And no Mr. Starr the United States Navy is not calling for the ICBM force to be retired. It is the USAF which is planning to build a ground based strategic deterrent (GBSD), that while being placed in current Minuteman silos will be a new missile.

As for the 2014 Rand study that claimed the cost of a new ICBM would be upwards of three times the cost of sustaining the current Minuteman force, Starr seems confused on at least two levels. If the Rand study is right (which it is not), spending one-third of the cost of a modernized ICBM to keep the ICBM leg of the Triad sustained and thus viable would be a great cost-saving decision. Far from being a budget buster, it would make great budget sense. So which is Minuteman? A cheap alternative or a budget buster?

In fact, the Rand study included only the cost of redoing the ICBM propulsion system, not the guidance or command and control or other elements of a new ICBM. As such the Rand study is simply useless. And given that in fact modernizing the ICBM leg of the Triad is cheaper than sustaining and maintaining the old Minuteman ICBMs, even Starr’s support due to budget concerns for a sustainment only strategy and not a full elimination of ICBMs right away falls apart.

Starr then concludes with the old canard that even if you think Minuteman is affordable, it still will trigger a new arms race or even a nuclear war. These assertions rely on two erroneous and wrong-headed assumptions by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, which Starr cites at length.

Here Perry is simply wrong.

First, Russia and China are the only major nuclear adversaries of the United States that are arms racing. The USA is not.

As I noted, Russia will complete its nuclear modernization just after the end of this decade. A new Minuteman would not get first deployed until around 2028-30, nearly a decade AFTER Russia is finished its current modernization efforts. Not only are we not racing, we have not even put on our running shoes.

Second, as for Minuteman or ICBM missiles having to be launched quickly in a crisis, this is another nonsensical “nuclear fairy tale”.

For example, the United States has faced many crises over the 70 years of the nuclear age, perhaps none more serious than the Cuban Missile crisis. What did President Kennedy have to say kept us safe in 1963? He said, “Minuteman was my ace in the hole” having put the first Minuteman missile on alert the very day he told the American people that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear armed missiles in Cuba. Was Kennedy not telling the truth?

As Jon Wolfshal, formerly the national security adviser to Vice President Biden, explained at a CSIS conference a few weeks ago, a leader of a country would have to be totally irrational to try and take out all 400 American Minuteman missiles in a sudden or quick attack. Only if that might happen in a crisis would an American President think “Well, I better use these missiles now or I’ll lose them to an attack”.

But further, not only would such an attack be irrational, but Wolshal admits it could not even be done technically with any confidence. And if tried, of course, it would certainly trigger a USA retaliation with hundreds of warheads going the other way.

Starr concludes his mistake filled essay with some extraordinary wishful thinking. He admits the previous administration’s “reset” with Russia “failed” but then blames the Trump administration for the failure to reach a new arms control deal to reduce nuclear weapons further.

First, as even Starr acknowledges, the Russians are violating both the INF and the New Start treaty. Putin has also said he has no interest in further nuclear reductions, only in perhaps extending the time during which the New Start treaty remains in force. This is an environment in which Starr thinks the Senate would approve a new arms deal with Russia or unilateral American cuts? Not likely.

Further, the new administration is doing a strategic and nuclear posture review, just as every previous administration has done upon taking office. I think we should first get the strategy adopted and then do arms control, not the other way around.

Starr even gets the history of the Cold War wrong in trying to draw a parallel between what Reagan did and what Trump could do.

Contrary to Starr’s misreading of history, the United States and Soviet Union did not “overcome our differences”. The Soviet Union went out of business, it was dissolved. We did not meet the architects of the gulag and concentration camps and terrorism and wars of national liberation “half way” which Starr implies. We defeated the Soviet Union because it was a change in US leadership-the election of Ronald Reagan-that won the Cold War, not new Soviet leadership.

In fact, upon taking office, Gorbachev didn’t reach out to accommodate the United States. He increased the deployment of nuclear SS-20 missiles in Europe and Asia, added troops to Afghanistan, and accelerated the Soviet arms modernization and support for terror wars especially in Central America. He thought he could out tough Reagan.

It didn’t work. As Reagan told an assembled group of reporters at his first press conference, his idea of the Cold War was simple; “We win, they lose”. He did that through a policy of peace and freedom through strength, not appeasement and unilateral restraint.

Thus, it was a “visionary” American President-Ronald Reagan-along with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, that changed the world and liberated hundreds of millions of people from communism, not some silly and clever slogans such as glasnost and perestroika.

Whether we can sustain that achievement remains to be seen.

Unilateral cuts in America’s military, especially in its nuclear deterrent, were often advocated during the Cold War. Just as Starr now favorably wants to follow the very bad advice of Philp Coyle and others to have the United States unilaterally go down to 1000 deployed strategic warheads from the 1550 allowed under the New Start treaty. Starr describes this as a “step toward a world without nuclear weapons.”

If we did something so foolish, recklessly cutting fully one-third of our nuclear deterrent in the hope President Vladimir Putin would follow suit, all President Putin would do would be to pocket the concession and ask for more.

He would not reciprocate. In his world, things are a zero-sum game.

And after pocketing the concession by the USA, he would turn to his military advisers and wonder aloud, “Why did the Americans just make it easier for us to disarm them?” Contributing Editor Peter Huessy is the President of GeoStrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland, a defense and national security consulting firm.

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