Guest Post: Al Mauroni on why “Nuclear Weapons Planning is Not Simplistic”

One of the main reasons Lawfire exists is to serve those readers who sense that they are not getting the full story about national and international security issues.   In my experience the major media outlets very often get it wrong when they talk about nuclear weapons matters.  In this post guest author Al Mauroni takes the New York Times to task for being “academically lazy and deliberately sensationalistic” in an editorial that criticizes the U.S. nuclear stockpile.  Apparently, the Times editors think we have more weapons than the nation needs, and Al explains some nuclear weapons’ ‘facts of life’ to show the editors approach is wrongheaded.  

Al is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies and author of the book, “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy.” The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.  Here’s your chance to consider what a real expert has to say. Take it away Al!

The New York Times editorial board recently published an opinion piece criticizing the U.S. nuclear stockpile as having “far too many” warheads. In this article, the writers assumed that the U.S. government could employ about a quarter of those warheads to “decimate” the civilian populations of Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and China. The measure of “decimate” was using nuclear weapons to kill one-quarter of each country’s civilian population. By this simple measure, the editorial board declared that the current number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile “is far more than the country could ever need.”

You might rightfully expect that many political and military leaders might disagree with this position, or at least the logic by which this conclusion was reached. The debate over how many nuclear weapons are enough to address U.S. policy objectives has been a long-standing discussion that spans over decades. Each presidential administration, since the dawn of the atomic era, has had many studies conducted by government agencies, think tanks, and policy wonks in attempts to determine how many nuclear weapons had to be developed and stockpiled to secure the United States from an attack from a nuclear-armed adversary. This editorial piece will not stand among those serious studies.

I am not a nuclear weapons planner, but I have studied nuclear weapons policy making. This editorial contained at least three egregious errors that need to be highlighted. These errors include: 1) a complete failure to understand the guidelines of nuclear weapons planning in today’s security environment; 2) a failure to distinguish between operationally-deployed nuclear warheads and those in the active and inactive reserve; and 3) a failure to consider countermeasures by those adversaries who may be targeted by U.S. nuclear weapons planners.

One of the constants of disarmament advocates is their unerring dash to the Cold War histories to find rationale for eliminating the U.S. nuclear stockpile. This editorial uses, as a basis for its “decimate” definition, an statement from former defense secretary Robert McNamara that the United States needed to demonstrate the ability to kill at least a quarter of a nation’s population to deter it from attacking the United States first. But that’s not what he said. What he said was, to deter the Soviet Union from launching a strategic attack against the United States, the United States would have to be able to absorb a first-strike and then destroy in retaliation 20-25 percent of the Soviet Union’s population and 50 percent of its industrial capability. Achieving this goal would lead to strategic stability. He didn’t mention nuclear planning assumptions for China or the other five nations.

So a few points about that, moving past the obvious point that the U.S. government’s general concept of employing nuclear weapons no longer focuses on taking out population centers. The Cold War is long over and, given more accurate nuclear weapons and lower-yield warheads, the U.S. military doesn’t plan like that anymore (what we call “countervalue” strikes). Note that McNamara said the first factor was to “absorb a first strike.” By that statement, one has to assume that a nuclear-armed adversary would want to hit U.S. nuclear weapon sites as primary targets – the vast ICBM fields, the three U.S. strategic bomber bases, and the two nuclear ballistic missile submarine ports. Knowing that the U.S. nuclear stockpile would take significant losses prior to being able to retaliate, the number of nuclear warheads required already goes up beyond the casual number proposed in the opinion piece.

Current U.S. policy (from the previous administration) states that non-nuclear weapons states who are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will not be attacked by U.S. nuclear weapons. So let’s focus on Russia and China, the only two nuclear-weapon states that can significantly imperil the United States with a strategic nuclear attack. Let’s take for granted that the opinion piece calls for a little less than 1000 nuclear weapons for those two nations and ignore the possibility of an adversarial first-strike reducing the number of nuclear weapons at any of those U.S. nuclear bases. There’s still 4000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. military stockpile, by the count of the Federation of American Scientists. Why so many?

Well, this number isn’t broken down by what we like to call “treaty math.” Only 1650 nuclear weapons in the U.S. military stockpile are ready to be used immediately (a number that will go down to 1550 deployed weapons by February 2018). That is to say, about 2,200 nuclear weapons are sitting in storage, not mated on any delivery systems, not ready to be used in any immediate war plans. Another 2800 nuclear warheads are awaiting dismantlement (i.e., not usable). And the disarmament advocates know this. They don’t like to admit it, but they know the difference. They believe that all nuclear weapons need to be eliminated to ensure that they are not used and that terrorist organizations will not try to steal them. So they use the idea of “7000 U.S. nuclear weapons” to frighten the general public as to the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, rather than using the more accurate numbers.

The idea of retaining an “active reserve” of nuclear weapons is also not a new idea. When the end of the Cold War came about, President Bill Clinton initiated a number of nonproliferation and arms control treaties with an eye to reducing the nuclear threat between the two superpowers. While his administration reduced the role of nuclear weapons, the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly called for “an affordable hedge in which the approved force structure could support weapons levels greater than those called for… should major geostrategic changes demand it.” That is to say, if the Russians changed their mind and decided to ramp up the number of their nuclear weapons, the U.S. government would be prepared to add more nuclear weapons to its deployed forces.

The other side of “hedging” refers to the possibility that one of the three legs of the strategic nuclear forces (ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers) might someday have a technical problem or somehow become unusable. In that case, it would fall on the other two delivery systems (as all use different warheads) to continue the same level of protection. Given that the U.S. nuclear infrastructure is not nimble enough to refurbish and manufacture new nuclear warheads, the actual number of active nuclear weapons had to be significantly higher than the bare minimum required for war plans. This technical and geopolitical hedging was also called out as necessary in the Obama administration’s employment strategy.

Last, there is the question of whether all of the U.S. nuclear weapons will get to their intended targets. The editorial piece makes no reference as to the types of nuclear weapons targeting the seven countries; the graphics freely mix warheads from the ICBMs, aerial bombs, cruise missiles, and SLBMs without consideration as to the enemy’s efforts to take those delivery systems out. The enemy is not an inactive player, it gets a vote in determining the outcome of U.S. military operations. ICBMs can be shot down, spoofed, or disabled by technical means. Bombers and submarines can be intercepted prior to their launching weapons. Populations can be evacuated out of cities, high value targets can be hardened. Our weapon systems, while guided with very good electronics, can (theoretically) miss their targets or not detonate. These measures call for an added level of redundancy to ensure success. One cannot assume to target one city with one warhead.

In short, the New York Times editorial board has been academically lazy and deliberately sensationalistic to demonstrate its resolve to chastise the U.S. government. By simplifying nuclear weapons planning to a set of pictures depicting the necessary amount of destruction established by a Cold War measure, it makes the argument to reduce nuclear weapons even less credible. Nuclear weapons exist and threaten the United States. Deterring such an existential threat requires a credible capability that threatens those nuclear-armed adversaries. Civilian and military planners in U.S. Strategic Command and in the Pentagon take great steps in order to meet U.S. policy objectives within the resources available, considering many different situations that could challenge the employment of nuclear weapons.

There are ways to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, other than assuming more risk to U.S. national security interests. One of these ways is to develop new nuclear warheads that are more accurate and have lower yields, which could replace a larger number of older warheads designed for military requirements developed during the Cold War. Another way would be to increase funding to the National Nuclear Security Administration and upgrade their aging infrastructure so that the U.S. government could dismantle retired nuclear weapons faster. Both of these measures require political decisions by Congress along with guidance from the White House. These are reasonable goals, to modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile while at the same time reducing its size. But the New York Times editorial board seems to fall short in understanding these issues.

I think Al is spot on with his critique, but as we like to say on Lawfire, get the facts, check the arguments, and decide for yourself!

You may also like...