American zero

U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

In this Jan. 28, 2009, photo, President Obama tours the Pentagon for the first time with, from left, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey; former Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James E. Cartwright, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

Article Highlights

  • The 'diversity premium' is rising -- but we're talking about the US nuclear program, not affirmative action

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  • Not only big and aging nuclear delivery systems need fixing but the big and aging warheads too.

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  • We are on the cusp of a much more “multipolar” and “balanced” global nuclear equation that is more complex & less stable

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The Cold War is an increasingly distant memory in American military minds, except in the minds of the arms control community, and in particular those who seek the elimination of nuclear weapons. Alas, our president is a member in good standing of this community—indeed, an organizer.

So, too, it appears, is Obama’s “favorite general,” James “Hoss” Cartwright, a Marine who recently retired as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He led a panel for the no-nuke Global Zero advocacy group that has recommended a radical reduction in, and restructuring of, our already-shrunken and aging U.S. nuclear deterrent. Other panel members included many establishment “formers”: Republican senator Chuck Hagel, arms control negotiator Richard Burt, ambassador Thomas Pickering, and NATO commander General Jack Sheehan. In other words, Cartwright was the young, fresh-faced former.

Naturally, the panel produced a report, and just as naturally, the report’s recommendations pointed toward “an urgent and transformational change in U.S. nuclear force structure, strategy, and posture.” That means cutting warhead levels to about 900 (already headed down to about 1,500 under Obama’s “New START” pact from the Cold War peak of 25,000), eliminating land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and cutting the Trident submarine fleet by a third. The bomber fleet would consist of 18 B-2s (the stealth bomber that’s celebrating its 15th anniversary of active service); no word about a successor airplane. This represents a pretty good approximation of where the Obama administration would like to go in its second term.

But whereas every forward-thinking strategist—not only in the United States but around the globe—is trying to puzzle out the emerging great-power balance of the 21st century, Cartwright and his posse are still locked in the bottle with the Soviet scorpion. The principal justification for the reductions they recommend is that current arsenals exceed what is needed to assure the minimum of deterrence between Moscow and Washington. Further, the “existing threats to our two countries cannot be resolved using nuclear arsenals.” Since the Hoss panel doesn’t have much time for other great-power developments, its members see the rest of the problem as limited to “threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict-driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics, or climate change.” I can’t believe they didn’t mention the national security implications of obesity and bullying, but you get the idea: They’re hip to the “new security” agenda, “as underscored by last year’s survey of several hundred experts by the Council on Foreign Relations.”

Apparently, none of the experts surveyed works in the national security bureaucracies of the nations who are building more and more modern nukes. These are, notably, China, India, Pakistan (which might soon have the world’s third-largest nuclear force), and the Rogue Regimes—Iran, in particular—which have learned the lesson of North Korea: Even a handful of nukes deranges the Americans and their allies; the missile doesn’t even have to work. In sum, we are on the cusp of a much more “multipolar” and “balanced” global nuclear equation, but therefore one that is more complex and inherently less stable; if nothing else, the opportunities for miscalculation are much multiplied.

The reductions proposed by the Hoss panel report (primarily written, no doubt, by Bruce Blair, the driving force behind Global Zero) would exacerbate these structural and other dangers. That’s certainly true if the numbers of warheads go down, but it will also be true if the diversity of the nuclear force—the traditional triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers—is diminished, and if the already-at-risk efforts to modernize America’s deterrent come to a complete stop.

Indeed, the force posture that the study proposes—900 total warheads and 450 “deployed,” carried by 10 Trident boats and a minuscule B-2 fleet—is an extremely tempting target for a preemptive strike much smaller than a Soviet-style barrage. The B-2s all live at Whiteman Air Force Base. If the Navy had just ten Tridents, as the study acknowledges, two of those would be in long-term overhaul at any time. Of the eight left, traditional Navy “at-sea” measures call for 70 percent of the fleet to be ready to rapidly deploy (“at-sea” does not mean actually at sea). A more realistic assessment of the number of submarines actually on patrol might be as low as two, one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific. In other words, much of the fleet would be in port, an obvious and soft target. Nor do subs that are on patrol carry a full magazine of nukes.
"In a world with fewer nuclear weapon systems but more people and threats to deter, we need more survivability and less firepower." -- Thomas Donnelly

Even under current plans, there’s reason to worry. There are just three ICBM bases left, but those facilities are extremely hardened; the targets may be known, but they are not at all soft. Preserving—even increasing—the utility of the land-based leg of the triad is actually becoming more, not less, important.

Any serious assessment of the nuclear world of the future argues for keeping the triad and modernizing it rapidly. In a world with fewer nuclear weapon systems but more people and threats to deter, we need more survivability and less firepower: The “diversity premium” is rising. It’s not only the big and aging delivery systems that need fixing—the bomber, the D-5 sub-launched missile, and a Trident replacement with fewer launch tubes and more boats—but the big and aging warheads. Smaller warheads would be a more credible deterrent—or, in the latest neologism, “compellent”—particularly to the rogue nuclear powers. Over the next decade, we are bound to repeat some of the early Cold War debates about nuclear use, particularly in light of the continued reductions in U.S. conventional forces and the proliferation of technologies that threaten to erode our conventional edge.

Arms control mavens could actually play a useful role in this environment. The Hoss report points out a “basic deficiency in the framework of ongoing nuclear arms talks: the exclusion of everyone except for Americans and Russians.” The relaxation in U.S.-Russia nuclear tensions ought rightly to be viewed as an opportunity to try to “globalize” arms control treaties—arguably the single most stabilizing thing that could happen in East Asia would be to limit Chinese intermediate-range missiles. Alas, it’s clear that our commander in chief and his favorite general would rather start with “American Zero” than go global.

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