If Nukes Are So Useless, Why Are Iran, North Korea, China and Russia Building Them So Fast? by Peter Huessy

January 29, 2013
Senator Hagel, while signing up to the timetable for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, also said in the 2009 Al Jazeera interview, that nuclear weapons can be abolished because they no longer need to play a traditional deterrent role. As part of this strategy, Hagel proposes to "de-alert" our weapons, making them unusable in a crisis. This raises the question of why any adversary would also volunteer to put its nuclear warheads in reserve and significantly delay its own ability to use such weapons, especially when doing so is largely unverifiable.

The "Global Zero" campaign to "zero out" all nuclear weapons is pressuring the US to set an example for the rest of the world to follow, by dramatically cutting its nuclear forces even further to a level not seen since the dawn of the nuclear age 60 years ago.

This cutback is on top of the already considerable 90% reduction -- since the height of the Cold War in 1981 -- in our deployed strategic nuclear forces, as well as a similarly significant reduction in our reserve stockpile and our tactical nuclear weapons.

In proposing a larger reduction, a logical question has arisen: What is the role, if any, of the nuclear weapons we will keep prior to their elimination? In short, what is the function of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era, now seen as the post-9/11 era and its concern about terrorism?

A little history is in order. The essence of the US triad of missiles on land, submarines at sea and bombers ready to fly is that it is virtually impossible to take all of these forces out in one quick, sudden unexpected strike by the bad guys, which would leave us "naked", i.e., with no nukes left with which to deter or strike back.

The Global Zero forces have long wanted to eliminate the land based missiles -- at the height of the Cold War we had 1050 such missiles on land spread over 7 states; we have 450 now over five states.

Global Zero wants to get rid of the land-based Minuteman missiles and rely primarily on our submarines, both to save money and to demonstrate that we are truly dedicated to "going toward" zero weapons.

But we only have two bases or ports for our submarines, one in Washington and one in Georgia. Those subs in port can be destroyed by a cruise missile attack. But those subs at sea, usually four, in their patrol areas, cannot now be found by any adversary so they can survive to fire back at any adversary who might strike the US first.

But our Navy leaders believe anti-submarine warfare technology may in a number of years make it easier to detect and find them. Thus, prudence dictates we continue to make the fleet as quiet and survivable as possible, as well as maintaining the insurance policy of our land-based Minuteman missiles to ensure we can retaliate if attacked. The cost of the Minuteman program annually is roughly $500 million in research, development and acquisition, a bargain at less than $1 out of every $7600 spent by Uncle Sam.

If an anti-submarine warfare breakthrough occurred, our submarines over time could be eliminated while underwater on patrol. Under those circumstances, we would not know what country had taken them out.

This would be a deadly serious crisis, because the US President would be faced with the prospects of the United States losing its nuclear deterrent. This entire dilemma, however, can be avoided simply with the expedient of the US keeping all of our Minuteman missiles in their silos sustained and modernized.

The next strategy proposed by Global Zero involves a degree of sleight of hand. After proposing that 450 submarine-based warheads would remain in our inventory, they propose that the same warheads be "de-alerted". This would require making technical changes to the submarine missile-launchers. The submarine commander, upon receiving orders from the President to fire such weapons, would not be able to carry out such an order for upwards of seventy two hours or three days.

Since taking the missiles "off alert" is not verifiable, we would be hoping our adversaries did likewise. Instead of President Reagan's policy of "Trust, but verify", we would be in a new world of "Trust, don't verify, and hope".

Finally, the Global Zero advocates try to hide the weakness of their approach by proposing that if needed in a crisis, the submarines could add an additional 450 warheads to their missiles by returning to port and adding such warheads to their missiles from stockpiles stored nearby. The only problem is that, as experts have explained, such an endeavor would take many months. And the logical question arises, why would the "bad guys" wait around during a crisis for the US to re-arm?

In this context, the Global Zero campaign has now authored a proposal in which nuclear weapons would be eliminated by 2030 -- with the US leading the way by eliminating much of its current Nuclear Triad of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. Some number of weapons would remain throughout the period leading up to the elimination of the rest.

Here things get confusing. What would be the doctrine upon which the current nuclear forces would rely? If not available for use in a crisis, what would their purpose be? And if other nuclear armed nations kept their weapons ready to use, we would enter every crisis potentially unprepared to deter war.

One author of the report, former Senator Chuck Hagel, now nominated to be the new Defense Secretary, asserted in a 2009 Al Jazeera interview that the doctrine of mutual assured destruction or MAD, was no longer relevant although it had been the doctrine of the US and the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War. What then would take its place?

The report itself, primarily authored by the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright, has underscored that nuclear deterrence still needs to be maintained, and has proposed that the US keep some 450 warheads for that purpose, with an additional 450 warheads "in reserve" on a reduced force of ten submarines and 20 bombers.

But the Global Zero report also calls for these 450 reserve warheads to be removed from their bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and stored elsewhere, a change which would require many months before they could be brought back from storage and used.

Why any adversary would also volunteer to put its nuclear warheads in reserve and significantly delay its own ability to use such weapons remains unexplained -- or what purpose would be served by bringing nuclear weapons to bear in a confrontation already underway for some time or possibly even already resolved?

Further, moving our deployed warheads off alert, so they could not be used for days or months after a crisis occurred, certainly would give incentives to other parties in a conflict to have nuclear weapons at the ready so they could be used to defeat everybody else.

There are adversaries of the US that have, or are urgently attempting to acquire, nuclear weapons; adversaries that include Russia, China and North Korea, with Iran now projected to have sufficient nuclear material for a weapon as early as 2014. Will all of these nuclear powers actually put aside their nuclear weapons, making them unusable in a crisis?

Any crisis could emerge involving any number of the current nine nuclear weapons states. In that light, the primary objective of the United States should be to ensure that no nuclear weapons be used, whether those weapons were to be used against the US and its allies or not. To do that, nuclear deterrence would be required. And such deterrence must be -- and appear to be -- both credible and stable. The Global Zero strategy is neither.

What then should a credible US nuclear policy look like? At a minimum, it should preserve nuclear stability, the guiding principal of which would be that during a crisis, the US would work to ensure that: (1) No nuclear weapons were used by anyone against anyone else especially while nuclear weapons remain in the arsenal of nations; and (2) That peace is preserved, and any aggression, even conventional, is avoided.

In that light, how do any of the Global Zero proposals make sense, especially in de-alerting those warheads that remain in our inventory while eliminating our ICBMs

Most problematic about the Global Zero strategy us that it relies upon verification measures -- not yet identified -- to preserve the peace in a non-nuclear world with many rogue states that have a strong propensity to cheat. In these circumstances, would war of any nature be less likely or more likely? Let's look at four key issues.

1. Assuming the US, and its allies would not completely trust a commitment by Iran, North Korea, China, Pakistan and others to get rid of their nuclear weapons, wouldn't it require extremely intrusive inspections -- including those made without notice -- to adequately verify such an eradication, as even the proponents of such an agenda admit?

What happens, however, even if we reach such a hypothetical condition of zero nuclear weapons? Would the Global Zero proponents also tell us that with nuclear weapons no longer available, war between countries -- including terrorist-sponsoring states and their terror allies -- would go away? As General Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Council Adviser to President Bush, has asked: What part of the pre-nuclear era of World War I and World War II are folks hoping we go back to?

As conventional war would still be possible between nations -- and without nuclear deterrence, possibly even more likely -- wouldn't the benefit of getting nuclear weapons first, on the sly, be of enormous strategic advantage to a country seeking to commit aggression against another? Would verification be so foolproof that we could be certain such a surprise would not happen?

If North Korea were to invade South Korea solely with conventional forces -- even unsuccessfully -- would not South Korea be sorely tempted to secure nuclear weapons to ensure that such an attack would never happen again? Or what about a conflict between India and China, or Pakistan and India, or Iran and Turkey? Would nuclear weapons stay out of the geostrategic equation for long?

A nuclear-free world would also therefore be a world where very quickly there would be a rush to rearm, as the likely outcome, or attempted prevention, of any perceived potential conflict. The world would soon be awash in aspiring nuclear powers with the attendant instability this situation would entail with few "rules of the road" in operation.

2. Some advocates of nuclear zero also assert that nuclear weapons currently serve no usefully military purpose, in that they cannot be used for any militarily useful goal, and thus can safely be eliminated.

A recent essay by Ward Wilson, cited as further evidence that nuclear weapons have never been useful and thus can now safely be abolished, asserts that the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II not because of the US use of nuclear weapons, but because the Soviet Union entered the war in early August 1945.

General Larry Welch, the former US Air Force Chief of Staff and Commander of the Strategic Command at the height of the Cold War, and one of the key authors of the initial US effort to reduce nuclear weapons to lower but more stable numbers, found such a proposition "at odds with the facts, even at odds with the information presented in Wilson's article."

"The Japanese emperor," Welch wrote me, "was the only authority in Japan to overrule the military and declare an end to the war. The use of nuclear weapons against Japan gave him the necessary leverage to surrender and to make it stick. ... The idea that the Soviets' entry into the war did the trick is not supported by any understanding of the facts at the time." He added, "The Russians had no significant capability facing Japan, and no naval capability. Their forces were concentrated in the European theater."

Welch also noted that, "The overwhelming evidence was that a US and allied invasion of Japan would have cost America 500,000 to 1,000,000 military casualties and 1-2 million subsequent Japanese casualties. After the war, we discovered very large caches of war material being readied to fight just such an invasion."

Wilson's claim that nuclear weapons had no role in the peace maintained throughout the Cold War – is "devoid of supportable rationales" said Welch.

"The very fact," Welch wrote, "that there was no armed conflict between two superpowers armed to the teeth, facing each other across an artificial border, is de facto evidence that nuclear weapons served a military purpose unparalleled in human history —-they played a major role in avoiding war for an extended period between two heavily armed adversaries, an accomplishment, let me emphasize again, largely unparalleled in human history."

The "whole point of deterrence was never to use these weapons" he continued. "The idea that the use of such weapons was wholly irrational and would not accomplish one's war aims was precisely the point of deterrence; the use of such weapons was so horrible to contemplate, their use by our adversaries was deterred."

3. The next issue is whether nuclear weapons serve no further purpose. "If nuclear weapons are so useless as he asserts," Welch continued, "why are rogue states and others seeking to acquire them?"

If nuclear weapons really serve no purpose, then it makes sense for the US unilaterally to take the lead and be the first to disarm: have the US get rid of its nuclear weapons unilaterally, before any of our adversaries do as well?

If, however, as even global zero advocates concede, nuclear deterrence remains essential, then the argument should be about what is needed for both strategic deterrence and for maintaining strategic stability.

In that regard, reference to the one treaty now in force that calls for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons would be useful. The whole purpose of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] was to reduce those nations with nuclear weapons, to stop proliferation and eventually reduce and then eliminate nuclear weapons.

The NPT, signed in 1968 and entering into force in 1970, also called for general disarmament of conventional forces as part and parcel of any such nuclear disarmament. The US nuclear umbrella was widely seen during the Cold War as keeping the peace in Central Europe, preventing a superior Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact conventional capability from being used on the continent. The US was hardly ready to give up its nuclear deterrent in Europe and leave in place a vastly superior Soviet conventional capability facing NATO across the Fulda Gap. Even today, leaders of countries from Germany, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, for example, credit the US nuclear umbrella for forestalling major proliferation pressures among US allies.

Nuclear weapons, then, have served a major purpose: stopping the very proliferation which the Global Zero campaign claims is one of its chief concerns. But with the removal of the US deterrent umbrella, including the remaining tactical nuclear weapons the US has in Europe,, proliferation will only be encouraged.

Proponents of Global Zero probably have to make up their minds: do or do not nuclear weapons give whoever possesses them a decided advantage in strategic affairs? If they do give such an advantage, pursuing Global Zero could actually be an unfortunate prelude to Global Proliferation, as nations seek to match or overtake smaller and smaller US nuclear forces. Global Zero could also lead to a world where just a handful of such weapons could obliterate other powers shortly after Global Zero had been reached. Again, a rush to rearm would result.

4. A key part of the Global Zero agenda is to "de-alert" the weapons of the United States, and implicitly those of Russia as well. This has sometimes been described as taking our warheads off of their missiles or removing them from bombers, then storing them separately from the platforms from which they would be launched, or delaying the time by which warheads on their respective missiles could be launched.

This has the purpose of not allowing nuclear weapons to be used for up to 72 hours after they have been de-alerted, and months for submarine-based weapons stored ashore. The first action cannot be verified and the latter takes so much time as to have no impact on a crisis or conflict already erupted. Thus, re-alerting and reconstituting our submarine force, for instance, would be a task taking not just days but in some instances months.

The first thing wrong with such a proposal is that it is, in large part, not verifiable. The second thing wrong is that the adversary's weapons could surreptitiously be "re-alerted." In a crisis, there would be the very same rush to rearm, which the very instability that the Global Zero push for no nuclear weapons is supposed to prevent.

Global Zero's recommendations would therefore produce the likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used against us and our allies. We would not cheat, but the other side well could.

The most worrisome part of the Global Zero agenda is its proposal to dismantle unilaterally most of our current stabilizing nuclear deterrent. Cartwright and Hagel both propose to eliminate our 450 land based missiles and most of our bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and then rely almost entirely on our submarines.

This may sound attractive but it is not. Our submarines are in two ports, in Georgia and Washington. A certain number (four) of these 12 Trident boats are, on an ongoing basis at sea, patrolling within their pre-assigned boxes. Some boats remain in port, while others transit from port to patrol area. They are considered highly survivable out at sea as an assured second-strike retaliatory capability. The submarines place no pressure on a President in a crisis to cross the threshold and use nuclear weapons.

According to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the highest ranking Naval Officer in the US, the quest by our adversaries to develop an underwater, or anti-submarine warfare [ASW] capability, is high on the list of his most worrisome possible future developments.

If acquired, this would put at risk our submarines out at sea, where they could be destroyed by underwater torpedoes -- with the US totally blind as to which nation might have carried out such an attack. Over time, our fleet could be targeted or eliminated, and with it our entire nuclear deterrent capability.

Today, while our submarines remain safe as they patrol at sea, we still maintain 450 Minuteman missiles in silos in the ground spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles in five states as a key insurance policy. To take out the Minuteman silos would require the "bad guys" to launch two warheads at each silo, which would require a massive attack. But even if all of our missiles in their silos did not survive--highly unlikely--our submarines at sea could retaliate. Thus any adversary would face the daunting task of simultaneously taking out our submarines in port and at sea as well as our land based missiles. Given the different flight times required to take out each element of our Triad, we would have sufficient warning of an attack and be able to strike back but only with all three Triad legs in place and sustained.

The presence today of 450 Minuteman missile silos spread over five states thus makes a pre-emptive attack on the US non-credible. Minuteman is thus a critically important strategic insurance policy, as is each element of our Triad. In a crisis, the bad guys know they cannot eliminate our ability to strike back , if necessary, with nuclear weapons. This maintains the strategic balance where no side is tempted to go first with nuclear weapons. That is what deterrence has to entail.

If the advocates of Global Zero really believed that relying primarily on our submarines made sense, they would not have admitted, as they did, that beyond 2040 an ASW or anti-submarine warfare breakthrough could occur that would put our entire underwater deterrent in fatal jeopardy.

Given the proposal to eliminate the Triad now, what would be the insurance policy upon which the US would rely to keep our needed deterrent if an ASW breakthrough occurred before 2040? The proponents of eliminating our Triad are either betting that our adversaries will not achieve any ASW breakthrough before then, or they are assuming that a lot of nuclear-armed lions will be getting along well with a lot of de-nuclearized lambs.

To claim the US deterrent is safe -- except for a technological breakthrough -- is less than prudent. Obviously a technological breakthrough, of which the US might not be aware, would alter the strategic balance, dramatically shifting the "correlation of forces" toward a nation which believed that eliminating the US nuclear arsenal would be to its advantage militarily and politically.

The proposal to eliminate the Triad brings with it -- as with other proposals by the people of Global Zero -- not peace, but a heightened geostrategic instability. Such a posture as Global Zero advocates would only encourage nuclear powers to seek to eliminate the US nuclear capability, while brandishing their own nuclear weapons to secure their own objectives. The use of nuclear weapons and planned aggression by an adversary may indeed become even more likely, and increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons might be used by someone other than the US in a crisis.

Global Zero would actually create the incentive for nations to bring nuclear weapons secretly back into their inventory; such weapons would once again become the "coin of the realm," sought by rogue state bullies as the ultimate weapon with which to secure their often totalitarian goals.

Tyrants and nations would rush to impose their will, and with it the loss of our liberty previously guaranteed by a nuclear deterrent, now removed.