Capt. Bill Norris is a retired submarine officer with long experience in nuclear force analysis. Upon retirement from the Navy, he went to work for Sandia Corporation in Albuquerque, NM. one of the nation ‘s premier nuclear weapons research facilities.
The future of US nuclear weapons and the policy for their use has never been more in doubt than today. While the last fifteen years has seen significant reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons in our arsenal, their main function is still deterrence. But who and what are they deterring and how? And are the weapons that we have inherited from the Cold War the right weapons for today or tomorrow?
One way to state the US policy for nuclear weapons is that they deter the use of all weapons of mass destruction by being able to hold at risk those things that an aggressor values most. Over time, as the United States gave up its arsenals of chemical and biological weapons, it was always done with the knowledge that nuclear weapons were their unstated replacement in the deterrence equations.
The equations referred to above are really left over from the Cold War and may not be applicable today. I don’t believe that anybody envisioned the type and capabilities of today’s precision delivered munitions or Special Operations Forces. Very few sensed how dominant US conventional military capabilities would become. The bulk of our remaining nuclear forces are really maintained as a hedge against a resurgent and unfriendly Russia or an emergent China. While some may be nervous about and negatively influenced by the current trends in Russian freedoms, the latent power of the Chinese, now also facing a nuclear armed India, or even new proliferators, there is not a viable competitor to the US supremacy on the horizon.
On the other hand, fifteen years ago few believed that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist were a real threat or that their delivery might be by other than military systems. No one envisioned the use of a commercial jet as a weapon of mass destruction. No one saw the explosion of technology and information sharing that exists on the internet that gives extremely technical information on weapons, conventional or nuclear, systems and their designs to any intelligent browser. Most people believed that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was a guarantee against nascent nuclear powers. Few expected that the US would use the technicality that the other party to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty no longer existed and therefore the treaty was no longer applicable. Almost all treaties have a clause that allows “withdrawal for reasons of supreme national interest.”
To some degree, we have entered an era when we may need to think of three kinds of weapons. First, we have the conventional weapons. Second we have what I would call weapons of mass “disruption.” These are chemical and biological weapons, attacks with radio logical weapons, attacks on our web based systems or attacks on our utilities and transportation systems. The third class is weapons of mass destruction, which only nuclear weapons really fit. This paper will limit its discussion to the third category.
The nuclear weapons we retain today were all designed and fielded between fifteen and forty years ago. They were all designed for the Cold War, and in general, for use in the nuclear Armageddon of massive exchanges. Warhead yield was not a concern; in fact some would say that yields were larger than necessary to overcome any deficiencies in delivery accuracy. Like the nuclear weapons, the Department of Defense (DoD) delivery platforms have also had a hiatus in development or production. In essence, both the hardware and policies that define our nuclear deterrent today are now aging one year every year.
The most recent Nuclear Posture Review in 200 l and the national policy that emerged from it for the first time began the integration of missile defense and precision conventional strike into the nuclear policy. That formulation was based on an assumed national missile defense (NMD) system and initial size of that system. As the total size of the NMD system and its demonstrated reliability is deter-mined, then the policy needs to be updated. But always remember that NMD only addresses one of a multitude of weapons delivery options, and may not be the most likely in the future. The latest uses of our conventional capabilities have concerned other nations, specifically Russia, who has said that it would treat a precision conventional strike as a nuclear strike and respond accordingly.
In most cases one determines a policy and then determines what is necessary to accomplish it. Today we seem to be trying to make a policy that works with our existing stockpile and delivery systems. It would now appear likely that we should envision, in the foresee-able future, the use of only several nuclear weapons at one time instead of the nuclear Armageddon. If we are only going to use several, do we want to use weapons systems whose reliability might leave unexploded munitions in the hands of the adversary? After our experiences in conventional war over the last fifteen years, do we believe that a bomber can continue to fly directly over a target in order to deliver its munitions? Can we ever hope to use a missile system that must over fly even a friendly Russia and have first and second stage debris falling on ourselves and our friends? Should we use a MIRVed delivery vehicle to strike a single target and thus be willing to sacrifice the now more valuable other warheads on the delivery vehicle?
US nuclear force levels are headed downward as a result of the last bilateral treaty between the US and Russian Federation to l 700 to 2200 strategic warheads, mixed between gravity bombs, cruise missiles, land-based ballistic missiles and submarine based ballistic missiles. I believe that the nuclear warhead numbers still in the inventory are inflated as a result of hedging our bets in an unsure world where the emergence of a more kindly, gentler Russia was in doubt. I believe that we can now pronounce the Soviet Union dead and continue trying to encourage a more democratic Russia. We should not allow a slower than desired transition from an autocratic culture deter us from the right moves for the future. As we move to an era and policy that is further and further away from an old Soviet Union and nuclear Armageddon, we should expect this number to drop again, probably into the 1000 range, and then possibly even lower. This level of weapons will make previous decision making on the US nuclear force mix look easy.
Change is about the budget. Strategy is the allocation of re-sources. The defense budget must emphasize what we need today projected into the future, of which nuclear deterrence is really no longer the first priority. Planning for the future (prioritization and resource allocation) is about being bold and making changes to drive the answer rather than waiting for tactical stimuli like budget or emergent world situations to drive a short term solution. Therefore it should no longer be about how we hedge and do “salami slice” budgeting, but what is the future and how do we get there?
If we continue to make deterrence the cornerstone of why we retain nuclear weapons, then we should examine which weapons should be kept based on the three building blocks of deterrence:
1. A credible weapon
2. A credible ability to deliver the weapon
3. The national will to use it
First, a credible thirty year old nuclear weapon (or any nuclear weapon for that matter) requires a credible infrastructure. The potential enemy must believe that the weapon was quality built, maintained, updated and tested to ensure its functionality. Second, a credible weapon in an environment where only one or two will be used requires an even more reliable weapon than today. In an era in which a nuclear weapon was designed to work in the massive retaliation case, the fact that one or two didn’t work would probably not reduce the overall effectiveness of the plan very much. But when one or two out of one or two don’t operate for the same reasons, not only have you failed the mission, you may have given the target country or organization a real asset as well as significantly degraded the viability of your overall national deterrence.
A credible nuclear weapon should be one that’s properly aligned with the damage expectancy requirements for mission success. Always remember that the use of a nuclear weapon, whether it is only one or two weapons or a massive strike, is a monumental national decision that everyone hopes will never be made. Assigning an existing nuclear weapon whose yield size is twice as large as required for mission success, may now be deemed not usable because of the collateral damage that may be inflicted.
I must admit that having made that monumental decision that a nuclear weapon must be used, I sometimes think that worrying about collateral damage is a tertiary concern. Do you then shift to a weapon with a less desirable delivery system or less estimated reliability so you can minimize the collateral damage? I contend that once that monumental decision is made, we must succeed above all else. It would be nice to have the perfect delivery system and the perfect weapon, but we should never expect to have the stars fall into alignment with such fairy tale timing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand the highest reliability weapons, near desirable yield and delivery platforms that are flexible and state of the art.
There is a debate raging both in Congress and in the public that the modernization of our existing stockpile shouldn’t be allowed because it makes our weapons more usable, more real than some-thing that seems so terrible that it has not been, and probably will never be, used. I believe that the debate should be centered on whom or what we are or will be trying to deter and what nuclear weapons would be necessary to give credence to that deterrence. I am not sure that our future opponents will worry so much about the niceties of how they will use the similar weapons that they have expended so much political and economic capital to acquire. If something is not done, then we take the risk of losing the first part of the nuclear deterrence equation.
In this debate there is much talk that there are either countries or groups that are undeterrable. If we look at both Al Qaeda and Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq, one could make the case that neither believed it credible that the United States would ever take military action and therefore they were really unconstrained because they did not believe in the national will part of the deterrence equation. We must also remember that the deterrence part of the national strategy is not limited to nuclear weapons and we need to tailor the whole defense establishment to their specific niches while trying not to neglect any credible facet.
Much of the discussion about what targets we cannot truly hold at risk today is pointed toward deeply buried targets. The newest stockpile weapon, the B61-l 1, gave us our first real capability against such targets, albeit a limited one. Attempts to gain a better capability have continually foundered in Congress in either getting funding or having such limitations put on programs that they cannot be undertaken. The problem in gaining Congressional funding is probably tied to the usability argument discussed earlier.
One of the items that must be considered in a budget constrained environment is the numbers of different types of nuclear weapon types that must be maintained. That is a cost to both the DoD and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). For each system that we keep, the military must have trained technicians and certified delivery platforms and crews with demonstrated reliability. NNSA must have the technical resources to maintain the nuclear weapons and assess their safety and reliability. Some worry that the fewer systems we have, the closer we are to a one point failure that could undermine our whole deterrence. On the other hand the more systems (or variants) you maintain, the more it costs and the Jess you may know about each system or variant.
Turning to the second factor in the deterrence equation, we must have a credible means of delivering the nuclear weapon. Today we rely on three different means of delivery; gravity bombs, cruise missiles warheads and ballistic missile warheads from the traditional triad of bombers, land based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and sea based Submarine launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). There is little doubt that these are credible in the all-out Armageddon usage. If we reduce our probable usage to one or two, some become less credible.
There is no question that our fighters today and in the future will be world class and can accurately deliver munitions from gravity to precision to nuclear. Once domination of the air environment has been gained, these fighters can be even more effective. The one drawback they have with today’s nuclear weapons is that they must make essentially a final straight-line approach to the target and be reasonably close to the target at weapons release. There is a rational reason why nuclear bomb delivery remains so basic. They were designed to be delivered in any environment we might face in an all-out nuclear war and so had to be stand-alone systems.
When we begin to discuss the use of one or two weapons in an essentially benign environment where Global Positioning System (GPS) is now probably available for both the delivery aircraft and munitions, there is no reason that nuclear bombs cannot be modified by strap on guidance systems (or even integral systems) similar to what we have done for conventional ordinance in and since both Gulf Wars. Such a minor adaptation would allow high altitude, accurate delivery without requiring the target or its immediate vicinity to be over flown. This would be a significant enhancement for mission success and aircraft survivability.
An even greater enhancement could be the development of a Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM) type delivery system or even possibly a GPS guided glide bomb that could be launched from either a fighter or bomber. These short-range nuclear munitions could be targeted on board the aircraft and accurately delivered by use of a rocket propulsion system or strap-on or extendable wings. This would also give the US a great capability to go after mobile launchers, again without directly flying over the target area.
One must be careful when starting down this slippery slope. Nuclear weapons described in the preceding paragraphs might be wonderfully effective in the benign environment, but totally ineffective in the non-benign environment of the old Cold War. As with all policies and their execution there must be some balance such that nuclear deterrence can be maintained across the spectrum. While we cannot have everything, we must make irreversible decisions with great deliberation and caution.
Cruise missiles are a big enigma. Their capabilities, including accuracy, are among the best (and could be even better with GPS). However, their sub-sonic speed and long-range (i.e. long flight time) delivery make them a less reliable system. In their long distance flight they are vulnerable to all anti-aircraft systems. A mechanical failure during that flight could be just as problematic. An even bigger problem is that either of these mission failure modes leaves a nuclear weapon in the hands of your adversary. Clearly, again we see the difference in weapon selection when trying to decide weapon application for one or two instead of thousands.
I find ICBMs (as deployed today) in a probable world of targeting one or two, to be an unusable system. The first reason is that the launch of a multi-stage ballistic missile means that the expended first and second stage have to come to earth somewhere on their flight path. In today’s deployment, that means in the United States or Canada. Second, because for almost all targets they are launched on a polar trajectory, they will fly over Russian territory. Their use therefore might require prior notification of the Russians and their faith in our promise that the warhead is not either targeted at them or will not accidentally fail in a way that causes it to impact in their territory. (As an aside, we must also address this problem of Russian notification for use of an ABM system or an SLBM launch, mainly because of early warning launch detection systems.)
ICBMs are probably our least accurate delivery system. This can be offset in the launch of large quantities of nuclear weapons by having a large yield and lesser concerns for collateral damage. This will probably not be tolerable in the one or two weapon case (as discussed earlier) where mission success should be the predominant factor in mission planning but gets clouded by the col lateral damage considerations.
Today, NNSA is forced to maintain three different warheads to support this leg of the old triad. In the next decade it will probably be reduced to only two warheads. While from different eras and slightly different designs, their end use capabilities are all very similar. There would be definite economy for the NNSA if they had either one type or even none to maintain.
There is some discussion of creating a limited ICBM capability on the ocean coasts to be able to work around the first and second stage problem referred to three paragraphs ago, and possibly for some targets, most of the Russian over flight problem as well. The launch detection problem remains the same. I think this would require a cost benefit analysis to determine its viability and what capability could really be gained that is not already available by other means. However, without increased accuracy and decreased yield, I do not believe that ICBMs can compete favorably. That, in and of itself, may make it not cost effective. Requiring NNSA or the USAF to maintain a small inventory, single use system in a more budget constrained environment also significantly degrades its cost-effectiveness.
SLBMs are a system worthy of much discussion as we move forward. They have always been valued as the ultimate survivable nuclear weapons system. In the days of Armageddon planning, that was most important. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the decreased threat of its Navy, a more friendly relationship, the absence of any other peer competitor with a blue water Navy and the increased importance of small mission planning, survivability may become a less important characteristic. The downside of this approach is the same for nuclear weapons and delivery systems, especially single mission ones. Their development is lengthy and their costs are great. Therefore, if they are not there when you need them, they will take too long and too much money to redevelop or reconstitute.
SLBMs are one of our more accurate delivery systems as well as our only remaining MIRVed system. Today, these are much more important in mass strike planning than the use of one or two weapon planning scenarios. While the SLBM weapon system design allowed for quick re targeting and less than full load usage, that would mean both wasting more valuable nuclear weapons assets and some dirtying of the landscape. That dirtying, like excessive collateral damage, might now be unacceptable. The footprint for each missile has some limitations that if the targets have too much geographic separation and therefore require two missiles, resulting in discarding more valuable warheads than one might want and dirtying even more landscape (In the future, the number of warheads being wasted will probably outweigh the condition of the landscape). For the small scenario planning, it may be smart for the next generation SLBM to have single reentry body capability. Because the SLBM can reposition itself, the first and second stage concerns discussed concerning ICBMs can almost always be avoided. If single weapon loading capability became a reality, then the SLBM weapon might also benefit from looking at the possibility of changing its nuclear yield or examining earth penetration capabilities to optimize targeting. The future deterrence missions might require that the submarine missile warhead loading be varied from most missiles with full warhead capacity to some missiles with medium capacity loading and some with one warhead with a variety of yields. With even better accuracy and an optimized warhead, the mission space for the SLBM force could be intelligently expanded.
The third element of deterrence is national will. Merely continuing to support the nuclear deterrent budgetarily is a strong signal. The actual decision to employ a nuclear weapon will be made by the President. But his decision will be greatly influenced by his advisors based on the case at hand. As we have discussed, the only option for deterrence is not nuclear weapons and that is indeed a good thing. So what is needed is a series of continuing command post exercises that put scenarios in front of these advisors that require decisions. A good feedback system on what decisions were made and why, what options were considered or discarded, and what new or different capabilities would have led to a better decision is crucial. The wrong path forward is to wait until a real decision is necessary.
As one can see there are a lot of variables in determining the direction and execution of nuclear policy could and should go. The only sure thing is that the total numbers of nuclear weapons will continue to decrease. Further decreases should require us to determine whether it is time to break the traditional triad of bombers, ICBMs and SLBMs. As the last nuclear posture review put forward the modern triad of forces, defenses and infrastructure tied together with robust Command, Control, and Intelligence systems and avoided any real decisions on the old triad., I believe that the time is ripe as we head towards nuclear stockpiles of I 000, or even 500, to realign and head steadily toward a new force construction.
Maintaining a single purpose system in a budget constrained future is ill-advised. ICBMs should be considered very seriously at risk. While SLBMs will remain our survivable system, without the suggested improvements noted above or improvements in and regular employment of their other war fighting capabilities, they too may become unaffordable. Upgrading the submarine warfighting capabilities of the next SSBN would make it look more dual capable. Fighter and bomber nuclear weapons are sadly overdue for modernization to capabilities more suited to the present war fighting environment. Lastly, without changes that can make nuclear cruise missiles viable, the days of the noble B-52 may finally be over.
The rice bowls are cracking. As Les Aspin said, nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. The nuclear deterrence mission will not go away. It must be done right with a right-sized force structure. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to define the answer and to start moving forward with a vision to the future.