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A Report and Commentary on the Current Plans for Nuclear Weapons

Admiral Holland served in OPNAV as Director of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare when Admiral Jim Watkins “blew the whistle” on the MX Basing Schemes in 1982.

The President’s announcement in January that the United States would reduce the number of “operationally deployed” nuclear warheads to 1700 to 2200 signaled a new methodology in determining the U.S. Strategic Force structure. These numbers followed from the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) completed last fall.1 The Review, like its 1996 predecessor, outlines plans for the U.S. nuclear force levels and infrastructure for the next ten years. Public discussion at the time was limited to short articles in a few major papers. Serious analysis in the public domain was stealthy, partly because of the coincident War against Terrorism but also because of lack of interest. Recently, a flurry of articles dealing with targeting has brought the Review back into prominence. In these, a few facts are mixed with hypothesis, superstition and propaganda.

Substantive descriptions of the new policy, general plans and numbers were revealed in the Department of Defense’s January briefing when the report was released. 1 Some additional insight can be gained from the National Research Defense Council (NRDC) analysis, recognizing the organization is an advocate for abolition of nuclear weapons. In the past, the NRDC’s documents have been close to the mark, so in spite of the organization’s bias, the descriptions of the force sizes reported by the NRDC are probably reasonably accurate.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld characterized the new policy as:
“First and foremost, the Nuclear Posture Review puts the Cold War practices related to planning for strategic forces behind us …. As a result of this review, the U.S. will no longer plan, size or sustain its forces as if Russia presented merely a smaller version of the threat posed by the former Soviet Union.”

This summarizes nicely the shift of our national strategic policy from addressing a known threat (the USSR) to having capabilities to respond to unknown foes in unforeseen circumstances in the future. The President’s recent ‘axis of evil’ speech and some suspected planning scenarios has heightened concern about the targets at which American weapons are pointed. Secretary of State Colin Powell claims, “Right now, today, not a single nation on the face of the earth is being targeted by an American nuclear weapon on a day-to-day basis” .4 This truth diplomatically obscures that a wide range of aim points will continue to exist at Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) as the identity, nature, number, and capability of potential enemies changes. However, in the words of the Department of Defense spokesman, Victoria Clarke, “The Nuclear Posture Review is not a targeting document. It is not a targeting list.

Concluding that nuclear weapons will continue to be a major ingredient of the national defense leads to a number of specific plans:

  • Maintain a TRIAD of forces to include non-nuclear strike capabilities.
  • Replace the Minuteman missiles with a new ICBM in 2020.
  • Replace TRIDENT submarines and missiles in 2030.
  • Deploy a new heavy bomber in 2040.
  • Develop new warheads for each of these delivery vehicles.
  • Develop and deploy ballistic missile defenses.
  • Develop the ability to target deep underground facilities and mobile targets with conventional as well as nuclear weapons.

If this looks like more of the same, it mostly is. Few participants in these reviews bring views at odds with the cultures of the Energy Department Weapons Laboratories that develop the war-heads and the Strategic Forces Command that deploys them. Nonetheless, several of these steps mark major changes in Strategic/Nuclear force policy.

Three major innovations are apparent in this review besides the reduction in overall numbers of warheads. First and closest to the heart of the present administration is the addition of ballistic missile defenses to the family of strategic forces. Second is a disregard of arms control considerations in future force sizes. And finally and perhaps most significant militarily is the inclusion of non-nuclear weapons in the descriptions of the TRIAD strike forces.

While the NRDC criticizes that, “far more has been retained than discarded from the Cold War’s doctrine and practice”, the end of the Soviet Union did not change the nature of nuclear weapons or their enormous influence. These Weapons of Mass Destruction threaten an opponent of their owner in a way that conventional forces never will. By threatening the very existence of the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons created an unmatched stability in the relations between major states with inimical interests. In any future confrontation between states, nuclear weapons will continue to limit the violence in conventional war and deter use of weapons of mass destruction.

For most of the Cold War’s Mutual Assured Destruction debates, the numbers of warheads and delivery systems on each side were seen as vital issues and various scenarios were created to describe their need and utility. Whatever analysis supports 1700 to 2200 “operationally deployed warheads” as the country’s 2012 “goal” remains undisclosed. The NRDC version of the plan focuses little on policy motives and, typical of the organizations’ bias, focuses frenetically on the numbers of warheads. The failure to disarm unilaterally and instantly disappoints NRDC and other advocates of unilateral reductions but displays a remarkable restraint by policy makers to avoid what would be a popular but potentially dangerous move. Proceeding with deliberate speed toward the announced goals in a ten year program allows adequate planning, consideration of unintended consequences, development of alternatives as conditions in the environment change while maintaining the option of changing course should conditions warrant.

While maintaining the TRIAD, the new numbers reflect earlier agreements to eliminate multiple warheads on land-based missiles by planning deactivation of the MX/Peacekeepers. Even here, total dismantlement may be years away as NRDC reports the missile bodies and silos will be retained apparently to allow future reconstitution. Five hundred Minuteman III missiles remain indefinitely, each armed with a single warhead.

The reduction of the SSBN force from 18 to 14 ships also includes plans to adjust the number of warheads mounted on individual sea-based missiles to meet the overall total. Of immediate significance to the sea-based leg, the Review, in its only specific funding recommendation, endorses fully funding the Trident D-5 SLBM Life extension program. Evidently maintaining two ocean deployments and bases is endorsed following the long understood dictum that more platforms with fewer weapons is better than fewer platforms with more weapons.

B-1 bombers will not be retained as nuclear delivery platforms leaving 56 B-52H and 16 B-2 nuclear capable bombers in service indefinitely. The actual number of weapons for these planes is somewhat murky since the Air Force has already converted numbers of air launched cruise missiles formerly nuclear armed to conventional explosives.

In what little reflection followed the announcements, consider-able attention was paid to the disclosure that warheads removed from delivery vehicles will not be dismantled but stored in a reserve. The time necessary to return these warheads to service ranges from days or weeks to months and years depending upon the delivery system with which they are associated. This aspect of the plan is heavily criticized by the NRDC which overlooks the purposes of these reserves: first to discourage others from trying to compete with America’s nuclear arsenal and second to hedge against future developments that might require larger or different forces.

How the Cold War Major Attack Options will be retained or modified given the administration’s pronouncements about being in a post-Cold War world is not clear. The Nuclear Posture Review briefings and the NRDC report suggest that attack options scaled to sizes to preempt opposing threats will be developed, supplemented by an “adaptive planning” process that anticipates a range of nuclear contingencies while being flexible enough to respond quickly where and when a crisis occurs. The command and control equipment installed and techniques instituted in the past that allow rapid re targeting of missiles make such schemes more than just a policy maker’s wish. However, to exploit the technology, processes will have to be practiced in order to use the options available. Unless the President and his immediate advisors understand the methodology of the decisions in such matters, the technology and doctrine will be ignored.

Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) activities related to strategic programs are mentioned in substantially less detail than the weapons and delivery systems. This is not surprising since few policy experts appreciate either the importance of such systems or grasp the technical details necessary to distinguish them from magic. Either the lack of interest in their reporting or the dominance of the policy and nuclear laboratories’ personnel who have little interest in C4ISR is reflected by the almost complete lack of discussion about these facets. The NRDC reports only a general direction to make efforts to track mobile targets on land and to develop long-range precision strike weapons to “dissuade a potential adversary from investing heavily in mobile ballistic missiles” or other “threatening capabilities.

Missile defense has become a major attribute of the strategic plans. The Nuclear Posture Review holds that such defenses will defeat limited missile attacks intended to coerce the United States into abandoning an embattled “ally or friend.” The Review argues that just the existence of such defenses can deter potential adversaries by making it “more arduous and costly for an adversary to compete militarily with or wage war against the United States.” Concretely, the Review outlines an “emergency missile defense capability” for the 2003-2008 time period consisting of an Airborne Laser for “limited operations” against “ballistic missiles of all ranges,” a “rudimentary” Alaska-based midcourse interceptor system against “longer-range threats,” and a sea-based Aegis system with “rudimentary midcourse capability” against “short-to-medium range threats.

Maintenance and improvements to the industrial base for nuclear weapons is highlighted as much to discourage other countries from entering the competition as to bolster any nuclear capability for the United States. Given the military-industrial complex that is the nuclear weapons industrial base, it is not surprising that the NPR advocates its improvement not only to support dismantlement and assure safety of existing weapons but to be ready to design, develop, manufacture and certify new warheads needed for new delivery vehicles and to threaten mobile, relocatable, hard and deeply buried targets. Such developments seem to include non-nuclear as well as nuclear weapons.

Overlooked in the public discussions is the recognition that conventional weapons can now threaten many targets that in the past were the province of nuclear weapons. This second conclusion confirms on a strategic level what the Navy decided years ago when unilaterally removing tactical nuclear weapons from ships. The official description of the New Triad includes non-nuclear strike capabilities and the body specifically cites the conversion of four TRIDENT submarines to carry cruise missiles.

Unfortunately interest in and concern about nuclear capable forces has declined steadily until now they are generally ignored in most policy arenas as well as in force structure concerns. Few academics or think tanks now deal with the subject. The Air Force, father of strategic bombardment and child of the LeMay tradition of air power dominance, appears ready to divorce their mate and orphan their offspring. The Navy finds itself almost the sole proprietor of Strategic Forces and the operator of the most significant important portion of them. Yet attention to the employment of nuclear capable forces or the political ramifications of their development and deployment in Navy is most remarkable by its absence. No responsible policy level office exists in the leadership of the Navy Department and the few courses of instruction that dealt with these matters in educational institutions civil and military have largely atrophied. The vast majority of naval officers consider this mission to be an unfulfilling and wasteful adjunct to “the real Navy”. Evidence of this neglect can be seen in the professional literature of both the Navy and Air Force, where nuclear weapons matters are singularly remarkable by their absence.

On the other hand, portraying the U.S. nuclear arsenal as the symbol of American power was never very realistic. U.S. commercial and technological leadership have always been the essence of long-term strength. However, nuclear weapons have never been insignificant and are not now less important simply because there are fewer of them. While today the conflicts between nation states are relatively benign, only Pollyanna would dream that this stability would continue forever, especially when much of the stability stems from the overwhelming military and economic power of the United States. The future is unpredictable and the Nuclear Posture Review’s proposals to achieve its force goals through measured and gradual reductions rather than immediate wholesale slashes make good sense. Should international relations evolve into a peaceful and predictable pattern, forces can continue to be downsized to reflect that Eden. Should the more likely circumstance transpire and the earth once again become a dangerous and threatening place, this design allows reductions to be halted and, if warranted, forces reconstituted.


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