Here’s a quick quiz about national security. What is the single greatest danger to America’s survival? Global terrorism? Biological warfare? Cyber attacks? Nope, none of the above. The biggest threat by far is still the Russian nuclear arsenal. If Russian leaders decided to launch a large-scale strategic missile attack against America right now, most of the people you know would be dead by sunset. And there’s basically nothing we could do about it — nothing, that is, except destroy Russia in retaliation.
Few Americans today still worry about the huge destructive power of the Russian nuclear force, or the growing reach of Chinese intercontinental missiles. We have learned to live with the possibility of nuclear annihilation to such a degree that it seldom intrudes on our thoughts. Perhaps the biggest reason why is that during the cold war the United States constructed a secure “triad” of retaliatory forces that the Russians and Chinese could not destroy in a surprise attack. They know that attacking our forces or our society with nuclear weapons would bring swift retaliation in kind, making it an act of suicide.
The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the last 50 years trying to escape from this “delicate balance of terror,” and in the process it has developed some very sophisticated defensive weapons such as the present ground-based interceptor system. But those defenses can only stop a relatively small attack, such as North Korea might launch. We gave up on trying to stop a large-scale attack some time ago, because the prospects for success were too bleak. So instead we count on our own nuclear weapons to deter the Russians and Chinese from contemplating World War Three.
However, if you want to build a defense posture based on deterrence, then you have to maintain a credible deterrent. In other words, potential aggressors have to be convinced that no matter what they throw at you in a surprise attack, you can retaliate with devastating force. Unfortunately, recent revelations about Air Force nuclear surety practices have called into question whether the strategic deterrence mission is still getting the high-level attention it deserves.
One area of concern is the 450 Minuteman III missiles maintained by the Air Force at bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. There used to be a thousand Minutemen, half of which carried multiple warheads, but as a result of arms control treaties and economy moves, the number has been cut by more than half and the payloads reduced to one warhead each — at the same time the Air Force was gradually removing long-range bombers from the nuclear deterrence role to conduct conventional missions. That leaves only 450 single-warhead Minutemen plus a handful of Trident submarines — say about ten at any given time — to ride out a surprise attack and retaliate.
The Air Force has decided to further compromise the credibility of our nuclear deterrent by ceasing production of Minuteman missile motors next year for the first time since construction began 50 years ago. Once production ceases, skills unique to the Minuteman will quickly wither away. And yet the service cannot prove today that its missiles will remain workable until 2030, as mandated by law. That evidence will not be available until 2014, long after production capability to respond to any performance shortfalls has disappeared. This is a dangerous move that can be avoided at very modest cost by continuing to build a dozen motors per year. What kind of thought process leads a service to undercut nuclear deterrence in order to save a few million dollars each year?
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