This week President Obama formally proposed that the United States and Russia reduce their arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear warheads by a third from the level of 1,550 agreed to three years ago. The Russians don’t seem enthusiastic about the proposal so far, but they’ll come around because it costs a lot to maintain all those warheads and their associated delivery systems in a high state of readiness. If and when the Russians agree to the proposal, though, U.S. military planners need to think clearly about how the U.S. strategic deterrent should be organized with only a thousand warheads available. In 1961, the year President Obama was born, the U.S. had 25,000 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads in its arsenal.
The easiest way to cut from 1,550 to 1,000 would be to eliminate one component of the so-called nuclear “triad.” The triad currently consists of sea-launched ballistic missiles carried on 14 Trident submarines, 450 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles in hardened silos at several bases in the nation’s interior, and 96 nuclear-capable bombers (B-52s and B-2s) deployed at three domestic bases. Billions of dollars could be saved by phasing out one category of delivery system or another. However, converting the triad to a dyad could make America more vulnerable to nuclear attack in a crisis, because Russian (or Chinese) leaders might then believe they had a shot at disarming the U.S. in a surprise attack.
The most important thing to understand about U.S. nuclear strategy is that it deters attacks by threatening aggressors with devastating retaliation. Thus, what matters most in maintaining a stable balance is how many deliverable warheads the military would still have after absorbing a surprise attack. That’s the retaliatory force that deters. The paradox of this arrangement is that in the process of deterring, we give enemies a very strong incentive to launch a first strike if they think they can disarm us, because our force is a threat to their survival. That is why experts refer to the nuclear balance between America and Russia as a “mutual hostage relationship.” The U.S. would be a lot better off if it could actually defend against nuclear attacks, but as of today we have no way of blunting a large-scale Russian attack. So deterrence based on secure retaliatory forces is the name of the game.
The value of the triad resides in the fact that no adversary could conceivably wipe out all three legs of it in a first strike and thus avoid retaliation. Enemies can’t find the sea-launched missiles when Tridents are on station beneath the seas, they can’t get to the bombers before the planes fly out of their bases, and they can’t achieve a favorable exchange ratio by trying to take out single-warhead Minuteman missiles in hardened silos. So they’d have to be crazy to launch an attack in the first place, knowing what would follow. But what if we got rid of the land-based ICBMs, and then the Russians figured out how to target Tridents while they were on patrol? If we were taken completely by surprise, the Russians could wipe out both our strategic subs and our bomber bases with barely two-percent of their arsenal. Or what if we got rid of subs, and relied entirely on ICBMs and bombers for deterrence? Then the Russians would know where all of our warheads were on any given day, making a successful surprise attack more plausible.
Bottom line: the easiest way of cutting the nuclear arsenal by a third is also the most dangerous. As the number of warheads available for deterrence shrinks, the preservation of a nuclear triad becomes even more crucial to assuring a stable strategic balance. Back when we had more warheads than we knew what to do with, it might have been believable that we could have stable deterrence with the bombers or the subs gone from the force. With only a thousand warheads left, though — and considerably fewer after a hypothetical first strike — we need all the diversity that a triad delivers to guarantee the retaliatory capability on which U.S. survival depends.
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