CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
March 3, 2012 – 12:21 p.m.
The New Nuclear Age
By Megan Scully, CQ Staff
Shortly after taking office, President Obama traveled to Prague and pledged to move toward a world without nuclear weapons. He called on the United States, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to abandon Cold War thinking, reduce the nation’s strategic reliance on nuclear weapons and urge other nations to do the same.
His most tangible progress to date on those goals has been pushing a divisive arms-reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate in the waning days of the 111th Congress. Today, his administration is contemplating a move that could be one of the most far-reaching of his presidency — a series of proposals that could shrink the nation’s nuclear force by as much as 80 percent.
Doing so would be a significant political victory for the president, whose aspirations for creating a nuclear-free world helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize. But any such decision could require Obama to make good on perhaps the most elusive of the promises made in Prague: persuading his administration and Congress to move beyond the mindset of a bygone era.
Administration officials and lawmakers from both parties still cling to what has been the basic blueprint for the nuclear force for the past half-century — a trio of venerable bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) first developed to thwart the Soviet enemy. But this reflexive devotion to the so-called nuclear triad comes at a steep price, just as the Pentagon is reining in its budgets. At the same time, it’s not at all clear that the full triad is still necessary to deter today’s nuclear threats, from Iran to North Korea to China. This has a growing number of outside analysts asking whether it is time to consider scrapping the half-century-old strategy.
The question is a pressing one. Like the Cold War warriors who developed them, these decades-old weapons systems are aging and will face retirement in the next 20 to 25 years. Their replacements carry a total price tag measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, putting a squeeze on a leaner-than-expected defense budget just as department officials seek to buy new fleets of fighters, boats and ground vehicles. Billions more are needed to build increasingly effective defenses against terrorism, cyber warfare and other emerging threats. The administration’s current nuclear forces review — due in the coming months — is the first decision point in this debate, which will play out in the Armed Services and Appropriations panels in the coming years.
If the military spends its increasingly limited defense dollars fielding a multilayered portfolio of high-end nuclear weapons, there may not be room in the budget for other, potentially more pressing, priorities. Nuclear weapons do little to ward off terrorists, and they do not protect critical and increasingly vulnerable information networks. Iran, North Korea and China are investing in nuclear programs, but the U.S. arsenal — even stripped of one leg of the triad — far surpasses their capabilities combined.
Retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that there is some inherent logic behind a three-pronged deterrent. It does, after all, provide the United States with backup options should Plan A fail. But the world is a far different place than it was in the 1950s. Today’s military must stave off a multitude of threats not conceived of during the height of the Cold War. Cartwright stresses that the military simply cannot afford to field a trio of weapons against other pressing threats, such as terrorism and cyber and biological warfare. Why, then, must the United States base the nuclear force on the concept of the triad?
“There’s going to have to be balance here,” says Cartwright, who retired from the military last year and is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The size of today’s nuclear force, while a far cry from that of the nuclear heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, is still an impressive show of American military might. Giant missile silos dominate the sparse landscape at Air Force posts in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, where the military’s 450 Minuteman III ICBMs are housed. The Air Force’s roughly 60 heavy, nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers, deployed from their bases in Missouri, Louisiana and North Dakota, are a foreboding presence in the skies. And the Navy fleet of 14 ballistic missile subs, home-based strategically in Georgia and Washington, are capable of surprise attacks from hostile waters around the world.
Each system has its flaws, but together they created the complete Cold War package. The ICBMs, although vulnerable to attack, provided long-range accuracy and an immediate response capability to target Soviet military forces and infrastructure. Ballistic-missile submarines, meanwhile, were considered the most survivable leg of the triad but lacked accuracy. (Over the years, the missiles fired from the subs have become far more accurate.) The nuclear-capable bombers could fall victim to enemy air defenses but were nonetheless easily and quickly deployed.
The New Nuclear Age
Those who support the triad point immediately to nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, whose erratic regimes are cause for concern to the security of the United States and around the world. Somewhat more predictable, but nonetheless perplexing to military planners, China looms large as a rising nuclear power and potential threat to the United States.
“The triad itself is part of the basic construct of deterrence, and deterrence is saying to our adversaries that we have an ability to respond or retaliate to . . . prevent them from taking overwhelming conventional or nuclear force against the United States,” says Ohio Republican Rep.
Turner’s thinking isn’t necessarily partisan. Indeed, the Obama administration said as much in its most recent Nuclear Posture Review, released a year after Obama’s Prague speech. Each leg of the three-pronged deterrent, the administration concluded, offers strategic advantages that warrant keeping it in the force. “Retaining all three triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities,” according to the April 2010 review.
The chances of the military retaliating against Iran or North Korea with nuclear weapons is small, considering the proximity of those countries to U.S. allies and the other retaliatory options at Washington’s disposal. If the U.S. military were to strike back, it would be far more likely to use the superior conventional weaponry in its arsenal before turning to its nuclear force. “They don’t lose any sleep at night because we have nuclear weapons,” Cartwright says. “Their worry is, we come after them conventionally and occupy them. That’s what deters those two countries. It’s not our nuclear arsenal.”
China, meanwhile, is a constant concern for military planners. But many observers doubt that the increasingly sophisticated military power would aim its nuclear weapons at the United States, whose inventory dwarfs Beijing’s. “We are so far superior to the Chinese that the likelihood they would want to engage in nuclear war is negative zero,” says Massachusetts Democratic Rep.
Setting aside those potential adversaries, that brings the military full circle back to Russia, a sometimes unpredictable ally that is upgrading its own sea, land and air nuclear weapons to keep up with the United States. “The triad is still fundamentally about the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons, and the course of Russia’s future is uncharted,” says Franklin C. Miller, a former senior Defense Department and White House official.
The Bottom Line
Any responsible discussion of military strategy, particularly in a resource- constrained environment, cannot take place without considering the bottom line. Put simply, is it worth the cost? Replacing the three legs requires an upfront investment in research and development — essentially seed money to fund design teams, set requirements and get programs off the ground. The biggest bills come when the military actually purchases the majority of these pricey new weapons later this decade and through the 2030s. But decisions made now will affect the eventual size, scope and cost of these programs.
Despite budget pressures, Pentagon officials emerged in January from a strategic review of its missions and priorities still committed to the triad, albeit with some small sacrifices. The Navy will delay by two years its new ballistic-missile submarine to defer multibillion-dollar procurement costs that will all but consume the service’s shipbuilding accounts. And, in another bid to save money, the Air Force’s new bombers may not be equipped for the nuclear mission right away.
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized those proposed delays, but Defense Secretary
Even Democratic lawmakers who want to reduce the size of the nuclear stockpile seem content to keep the triad — at least for now. “I’d maintain the triad at this point but work on the excessive size” of the nuclear force, says Senate Armed Services Chairman
The issue, however, isn’t black and white, even within arms control circles. Morton H. Halperin, a nuclear expert and veteran of the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations, maintains that setting aside the political battle over whether to keep and modernize the delivery systems would focus the debate on arms reduction and help pave the way for agreement on fewer warheads. “Having a triad makes it easier to argue that we can go to lower numbers,” he said at a January Arms Control Association event.
Others, including those who have worked on nuclear issues for decades, believe that the number of warheads in the arsenal will help determine the future of the triad. To comply with New START, the military is cutting the arsenal to 1,550 strategic nukes. But as part of a nuclear weapons review required by Congress in the fiscal 2010 defense authorization law, the administration is exploring scenarios that could reduce that number to between 300 and 1,100 warheads.
The New Nuclear Age
The review should be wrapped up in the coming months, but Republicans quickly blasted reports that the arsenal might be cut by as much as 80 percent. Arizona Republican
But with significantly fewer weapons, some argue, it may not make sense to maintain the diverse and expensive fleet of delivery systems.
In the highest-profile acknowledgement that the triad may not be here to stay, Adm.
Even among current administration officials, there seems to be some acknowledgement that the triad may not be a permanent fixture in the U.S. arsenal. Ellen O. Tauscher, who served as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs until early February, told reporters at a January breakfast that the administration is constantly reviewing nuclear issues, including the future of the ICBMs, bombers and submarines. The ultimate goal is to have a smaller, more robust and more predictable nuclear stockpile, said Tauscher, now a special envoy at State.
Gen. C. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, acknowledged to reporters last fall that the triad isn’t a trinity, but he added that maintaining all three legs is the “right thing to do now.” The future of the deterrent, he said, will hinge on arms control agreements, budget realities and threats facing the United States. “The answer about whether or not we’re going to need a triad, I think, is it depends,” he said. “It depends on the strategic situation we find ourselves in.”
Like Mullen, Kehler acknowledged that, at some point, the nuclear force could become too small to justify maintaining the triad. Indeed, he said, doing so could actually be counterproductive. But what the breaking point is — and when the military could hit it — remains an open question.
“I think there will be some very tough decisions to make here at certain levels and whether or not you can then sustain a leg of the triad without it becoming hollow, so to speak,” he said. “Can you have enough expertise? Can you have enough sustainment horsepower, if you will, behind it to really make it a viable leg? Those are all great questions, and those are questions we’re going to have to raise.”
The nation’s strategic reliance on the nuclear triad has been unchallenged for years, but it truly is an accidental doctrine.
At the outset of the Cold War in the 1950s, everyone at the Pentagon wanted a piece of the nuclear business. It was where the money and influence was — and it guaranteed relevance in the years after World War II. But the U.S. military never set out to build a three-pronged deterrent. What ultimately became the triad grew more out of competition between the military services and a scramble for defense dollars than out of any military necessity or strategic design.
“From the beginning, the triad was a bastard child. It wasn’t planned that way,” says former Pentagon official Miller, who pointed to interservice rivalry during the 1950s as a big driver in the creation of the ground, air and sea deterrent. “The Department of Defense decided this was an ugly duckling turned into a swan and really liked it because of its various and different strengths,” he explains.
At the beginning, the bombers represented the U.S. military’s only option to deliver nuclear weapons. That quickly changed in 1959, when the military deployed its first six Atlas D intercontinental ballistic missiles. By 1960, the Navy had completed the triad by adding the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile to its fleet.
The New Nuclear Age
In the early to mid-1960s, the military’s aircraft fleet boasted more than 1,300 nuclear- capable bombers. By 1967, the ballistic-missile submarine fleet had grown to its high of 41 ships, while the ICBM inventory hits its peak in 1970, with 1,054 Titan II and Minuteman I, II and III missiles in the arsenal. But the number of delivery platforms for nuclear weapons has declined steadily since the end of the Cold War. The military now has 450 Minuteman III missiles, 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, 20 B-2 bombers and about 85 B-52s, 44 of which are currently nuclear-capable.
Over the next several decades, the Navy plans to buy 12 new ballistic missile submarines to replace the Ohio class, while the Air Force wants to buy 80 to 100 new bombers. The plans for the replacement ICBM force are not yet known, although the administration has previously signaled that it wants to keep up to 420 of the Minuteman IIIs in its inventory for now.
The submarines, particularly with the improvements in their accuracy, are widely considered the bedrock of the nuclear force. They come with a hefty price tag — now estimated at $5 billion a ship — but replacing the Ohio-class ships has strong backing within the Navy, where officials consider the replacement a key mission despite concerns that it could eat into other shipbuilding programs.
Within the Air Force, which is charged with both the ICBMs and the bombers, some analysts believe that the luster of the nuclear mission has worn off in the years since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons require money, time and people, areas that are all under stress now. The service has other, top-dollar priorities, including purchasing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new fleet of aerial refueling tankers. Top Air Force officials have mused publicly that, in a bid to save money, the early iterations of the bomber may be capable of only conventional weapons-dropping missions.
“There are too many other things the Air Force wants to do. That’s not new. That’s a 15- to 20-year-old phenomenon,” Miller says. “The bomber mafia gave way to the fighter mafia.”
For its part, however, the Air Force insists that it continues to support the three-pronged deterrent, which the service considers key as the military implements the New START reductions. The service’s top officer, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz — marking a striking difference from both Mullen and Kehler — has signaled that a smaller nuclear force actually makes the triad more important strategically.
“As you go down in terms of nuclear force structure . . . the triad actually becomes more important,” Schwartz said at the Pentagon on Jan. 27. “The diversity, the variety, the attributes associated with each leg of the triad actually reinforce each other to a greater degree.”
Even if the military services were willing to part with their nuclear missions, Congress has the final say. Few lawmakers pay close attention to nuclear issues these days, but the ones who do have very strong opinions.
Nuclear advocates, such as Turner, are prepared to fight any effort to scale back the triad or make other significant reductions to the nuclear force beyond those already planned. “I think we have to be very cautious here in even how the debate moves forward, because the basic crux of this issue is protecting the United States and a nuclear deterrent,” Turner warns.
On the other side of the debate, Markey, who has introduced legislation that would cut $100 billion from the nuclear weapons budget over the next 10 years, says the cost to modernize all three legs of the triad is simply unaffordable, given the national debt and other priorities in the defense budget. “I’d rather cut nuclear submarines than Navy SEALs,” Markey says. “I’d rather cut nuclear bombers than conventional drones. Our security is better enhanced.”
Markey is unlikely to gain much traction because he lacks the firm backing of influential lawmakers such as Levin who believe that it’s necessary to trim the nuclear arsenal but fear that eliminating one leg of the triad would go too far. Also, parochial interests cannot be overemphasized. The Cold War may be long over, but the nuclear business is still a job creator on military bases and within defense companies sprinkled around the country.
Indeed, Montana’s two senators, Democrats
The New Nuclear Age
Aside from citing the strategic benefits the ICBMs provide, Tester and Baucus warned that it would be too costly to make it worthwhile to stand down the missiles in their state and elsewhere. “The large costs associated with closing down large installations, such as environmental remediation and other costs associated with dismantling nuclear infrastructure, would likely offset most potential savings,” they wrote in a letter to Panetta dated Dec. 7.
The politics at play are not lost on the Obama administration as it weighs whether to stand down more warheads. “How does this new review match the pledge in Prague to put an end to Cold War thinking? That’s a high bar, and nobody really has defined what that means,” Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said at the January Arms Control Association event.
Given the track records of other post-Cold War presidents and the political resistance a drastic change would prompt, Kristensen and other nuclear analysts say they expect any new proposal on the size and structure of the nuclear force to be modest. “Nobody goes in and makes giant, huge, fast decisions,” Kristensen said. Modest changes to nuclear policy, however, add up over time. The hope of arms control activists, such as Kristensen, is that whatever tweaks the administration ends up making will prompt a shift in strategy rather than simply signal the status quo.
Regardless of the political repercussions, others, including Cartwright, believe there should be a governmentwide look at deterrence and what is needed to protect the United States from the wide range of 21st-century threats. The question, ultimately, comes down to where the United States should spend its newly limited defense dollars. What is most important?
“There’s going to have to be balance here in order to deter more proliferated threats against the United States today versus what we had in the ’50s,” Cartwright says.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Defense cuts, CQ Weekly, p. 352; New START approval, 2010 Almanac, p. 6-8;