Admiral Mies is Chairman of the Board of Directors for The Naval Submarine League. on active duty he served as Commander, Submarine Forces and as Commander, US Strategic Command.
Welcome to the 29th annual Naval Submarine League Symposium. As I indicated at the last Technology Symposium our Submarine Force faces a challenge similar to the ones we faced at the start of World War II and the Cold War- a period of great uncertainty. This time we face an extremely adverse fiscal climate and a corrosive political environment in the midst of an impending Presidential election. The perfect storm. As a Nation we are sailing into uncharted waters; and as a Submarine Force we will be challenged like our forebears in WWII and the Cold War. But as a great poet once said, “A man can see farther through a tear than a telescope.” Adversity is a great teacher. Calm seas do not make a skillful sailor.
I’d like to focus today on the role of nuclear weapons in our national security and the importance of the OHIO Replacement Program in sustainment of our SSBN Force- the preeminent leg of our strategic deterrent.
As the title of my presentation indicates, I intend to talk broadly about managing strategic force risks and uncertainties in a new strategic age.
Let me unequivocally state at the onset that none of my following discussion on risks and uncertainties is intended to discourage reductions in our nuclear arsenal that promote greater stability, but to recognize that the journey is far more important than the destination and that the overriding goal is not reductions for disarmament’s sake but increased international stability and, most importantly, the avoidance of war.
The Defense Science Board 2007 Summer Study Report delineates in detail many elements of this new strategic age. I encourage you to go to the DSB website and read that report. To summarize some of the report’s key findings:
We live in an uncertain world where:
- the character of warfare is changing
- we face great risks involving the proliferation of:
– weapons of mass destruction
– their means of delivery
– hard and deeply buried targets that are relatively immune to our conventional superiority
- There is an increase in the fluidity and unpredictability of the international security environment driven largely by the emergence of a wider range of more diverse threats including non-state actors and potential near peer competitors who can challenge us in asymmetric ways.
Deterrence- the act or means of preventing someone from acting out of doubt or fear that the action will provoke a response with disadvantages that outweigh the advantage- is an enduring strategic concept, but one that needs to be constantly rethought and adapted to fit changing contexts and circumstances. During the Cold War strategic deterrence was primarily bi-polar in character; today it is far more complex in this multi-polar world we find ourselves in.
Nonetheless, its primary purpose remains to influence potential adversaries’ intentions far more than their capabilities through two interrelated means- the power to hurt and the power to deny. These powers are most successful when held in reserve and their non-use, their potential, exploited through diplomacy. The most successful threats are the ones that never have to be carried out.
Figure 1 is intended to illustrate the journey of our strategic forces and doctrine that was charted in the 200 I Nuclear Posture Review. I emphasize that this is about a journey rather than a destination because the marker shown in 2012 is just a milepost. A journey we began out of recognition that U.S. nuclear doctrine and forces needed to have lower salience and a less adversarial character; most directly as a result of our changed relationship with Russia; and also out of recognition that deterrence was likely to be more complex and perhaps less reliable, particularly against non-state actors, although not necessarily less relevant. And while we have made great progress in the drawdown of our strategic forces, progress to field new capabilities (on the bottom of the figure) to achieve the vision of a New Triad has been inadequate to meet our national security needs, particularly in the areas of:
- building a robust strategic infrastructure
- enhancing strategic command and control, intelligence, and planning
- recruiting and retaining well-qualified and talented people
In many cases, well documented in a number of reports in the past decade, most recently in Admiral Chiles’ DSB Report on nuclear expertise and skills, the Schlesinger Task Force Reports, and the Nuclear Comprehensive Review that I chaired, we have experienced significant erosion in our strategic deterrent capabilities. In spite of the rhetoric of the past two Nuclear Posture Reviews and the National Defense Strategy, there has been a paucity of senior-level Administration thinking on the role of our strategic deterrent, and particularly the role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century. There are many reasons given for this (e.g., the Global War on Terror, operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unchallenged US conventional superiority, etc.). Nevertheless, the result is a glaring mismatch between the rhetoric of national strategy and the resources committed to our national strategy objectives. The failure to engage Congress in a meaningful debate and build a national consensus on the role of our strategic forces has resulted in an atrophy of our strategic capabilities. This atrophy should not come as a great surprise. As I stated earlier, it has been well documented in numerous reports over the past decade. There is little new in the Schlesinger Task Force reports, The Chiles Defense Science Board report, or the Nuclear Comprehensive Review. This erosion manifests itself across the entire strategic enterprise, although in recent days, I believe actions have been taken to arrest some of this erosion. In general, we seem paralyzed by inaction and a lack of consensus. Our nuclear forces are frozen in time- aging and of declining reliability. As I discuss in greater detail later, this atrophy and diminution of our capabilities may call into question our ability to credibly deter, to extend that deterrence to allies and friends, and to prevail in the event of conflict. It might embolden others to challenge us.
In general, the fundamental underlying cause has been a lack of senior leadership attention- both civilian and military across Administrations- to nuclear weapon issues. This lack of senior leadership attention has resulted in public confusion, Congressional distrust, and a serious erosion of advocacy, expertise, and proficiency in our nuclear forces.
It is appropriate to focus on the risks associated with further strategic force reductions beyond those of the New START Treaty. As we contemplate reductions in our nuclear forces to lower levels consistent with our national security needs, at some lower levels, we will inevitably encounter several risks related to our national security strategy of assurance, dissuasion, and deterrence:
- First, the credibility of our extended nuclear deterrent may fall into serious question by some of our allies. Instead of promoting non-proliferation, our reductions may have the perverse, opposite effect. This relates to what some refer to as the 5 and 95 percent paradox. While a small amount of uncertainty (e.g. 5 percent) as to whether the US may or may not employ nuclear weapons is likely to deter potential adversaries from conflict or aggression, our allies demand a much higher level of assurance (e.g. 95 percent) in the credibility of our extended deterrence commitments.
- Second, below certain levels, potential adversaries may be encouraged to challenge us. A smaller arsenal may appear to be a more tempting and easier target for preemption or breakout or a race to parity.
- Third, at some level it will become more difficult and economically impractical to sustain the present strategic triad. While there is nothing sacrosanct about the triad, numerous analyses and studies have repeatedly reaffirmed the wisdom of preserving the complementary capabilities of the strategic triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and strategic bombers. Each leg of the triad contributes unique attributes that enhance deterrence and reduce risk such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. ICBMs provide a prompt response, the potential to launch under attack, and a hardened, geographically dispersed target base. Additionally, single warhead ICBMs are considered stabilizing since they are less attractive than MIR Ved ICBMs as targets and the ratio of weapons required to destroy them is greater than one. Missile submarines provide survivable, assured response and the mobility to adapt missile overflight to targets. Strategic bombers provide great flexibility in force posturing, signaling intentions, route planning, and recall-ability. Together they comprise a robust deterrent capability that complicates a potential adversary’s offensive and defensive planning and a synergistic force that provides protection against the failure of a single leg.
In every STRA TCOM force structure analysis I’ve been involved with over the years, there were two general truths:
- For the same force levels, a triad performs better than a dyad, and a dyad performs better than a monad. Diversity affords a hedge against single point failures and significantly complicates a potential adversary’s offensive and defensive planning considerations.
- There is a tyranny in low platform numbers that greatly restricts the flexibility, survivability and resiliency of the force. Fewer eggs in more baskets fares far better than too many eggs in too few baskets.
Figure 2 is a relative comparison of the US and Russian nuclear stockpiles over the past three decades starting from the outside and working toward the center.
There are several noteworthy points: As you can see we have dramatically and unilaterally drawn down our tactical nuclear forces in contrast to Russia. To my knowledge, our unilateral disarmament initiatives have done little to promote similar initiatives in our potential adversaries, and at the same time, have reduced our arms control negotiating leverage. In that sense, the lead part of the “lead and hedge” strategy- the idea that if we lead others will follow- has proven to be illusory. Second, and similarly, the promise of a responsive infrastructure remains largely unfulfilled- we have had virtually no warhead production capability for the past two decades and little likelihood of developing one within the coming decade. Finally, because of the difficulties and our lack of leverage in expanding arms control initiatives to include these elements (tactical or non-strategic nuclear forces and production capability), if we jointly agree to reduce our strategic nuclear forces to even lower levels, the asymmetries in our stockpiles will become more and more pronounced. In a subsequent figure I’ll also address what I believe to be an artificial and inappropriate distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
Figure 3 is a notional chart intended to illustrate several of the dilemmas of strategic targeting. The curve on the right represents our present and long-standing targeting doctrine of flexible response- a counter-force doctrine designed to provide the President the widest range of options using the minimum level of force intended to achieve our objectives. The curve on the far left illustrates that if we adopted a counter-value or counter population targeting strategy we could achieve significantly more damage with fewer weapons.
As we reduce the number of available weapons, that flexible response curve moves to the left and the robustness and flexibility inherent in a moderately sized arsenal (a few thousand as compared to a few hundred) will be diminished. Stability- the assurance against being caught by surprise, the safety in waiting, the lack of an incentive on either side to initiate major aggression or conflict- will be challenged. Greater stress will be placed on the reliability and survivability of our remaining forces. As I indicated earlier, at some level it will become more difficult and economically impractical to sustain the present strategic triad. And, of greatest concern, the range of flexible response options designed to provide the President with minimum use of force will be reduced.
Ultimately, below a certain level, to remain credible our targeting doctrine and policies would have to shift away from flexible response and counter-force targets to counter-population targets (as depicted by the two curves on the left that represent the range of counter population options)-a transition that is counter to our historical practice, politically less tolerable, and morally repugnant. Although I am not an international lawyer, I would also argue that such a transition is in violation of the Law of Armed Conflict and the Theory of Just War.
If you think about our strategic capabilities as an enterprise, it really is a pyramid as Figure 4 depicts, whose foundation is the scientific and technological expertise resident in our nuclear complex employees and in our strategic operating forces. That foundation is growing increasingly thin and brittle- through both an aging work force and difficulties recruiting and retaining the best and brightest. And while many have spoken eloquently about the importance of science and technology programs as critical underpinnings of the DOE nuclear enterprise, there are really few, if any, programs analogous to the science-based stockpile stewardship program or the advanced computing initiatives, on the DOD side. We have raised a whole generation of war-fighters within DOD who have received virtually no professional education in the theories of assurance, dissuasion and deterrence, and consequently fail to think in war-prevention terms. Additionally, there is little, if any, programmatic advocacy within OSD, the Joint Staff, and the Military Services for the strategic nuclear enterprise.
Several points are worthy of mention with respect to this enterprise pyramid. Foremost, deterrence depends on the health of the entire pyramid not just any one element. We can’t deter with just a strong foundation- a virtual deterrent is simply not credible. Second, the distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons is an outmoded, treaty-derived distinction that relates more to delivery platforms than actual warheads. There is little significant difference in the design and capabilities of our tactical and strategic warheads. Any tactical nuclear weapon can be used with strategic effect. Despite these factors, our focus on the enterprise tends to be disproportionately narrow- driven to an over-emphasis on the very top of the pyramid to strategic weapons and even then indirectly – because of our captivation with strategic warhead numbers, limitations in monitoring and verification capabilities, and our failure to view the enterprise in a more comprehensive way.
Figure 5 illustrates the aging of our legacy Cold War stockpile and our lack of design and production capability. We have lost people with unique skills as well as design and production knowledge. Many of our warheads are beyond their design lives and lack desirable safety and surety features we are now capable of incorporating into replacement designs. Our legacy warheads are sophisticated machines, similar to a 20th century Rolls Royce, with as many as 6000 intricate parts and complex chemical interactions. Because of their sophistication, some warhead performance margins are extremely narrow. And unlike wine, the reliability of sophisticated machines doesn’t improve with age. The best we can do is to extend their lives. Needless to say, reestablishing design and production capabilities remains a very complex and lengthy process.
Figure 6 complements the previous one. Not only is our warhead stockpile aging, all of our strategic delivery systems are approaching end-of-life. Contrast this with other key nuclear capable nations who are modernizing substantially their strategic forces. Hence, we must not be hasty in taking irreversible steps that reduce our capabilities or flexibility.
Credible deterrence ultimately depends not on our ability to strike first, but on the assurance we always have the capability to strike second. So the number of survivable strategic submarines at sea remains critical.
And credible deterrence is both a function of our capabilities and will as perceived by our potential adversaries. The great paradox of nuclear weapons is that they deter conflict by the possibility of their use, and the more a potential adversary perceives the credibility of our capabilities and will, the less likely he is to challenge their use. The converse of that proposition is also true. To be credible, capabilities and plans have been developed since the early 1960s to provide the President with as broad a range of options as considered prudent to enable him to respond with the minimum use of force. Hence, based upon figures 5 and 6, at what point do our smaller and aging strategic forces lose credibility?
Figure 7 attempts to capture a fiscal comparison of our conventional and nuclear forces. There is a common misperception that nuclear forces are a “cash cow”- expensive relative to conventional forces- and that further reductions will free significant resources for alternative uses. As the graph on the left of Figure 7 illustrates, in reality, nuclear forces are very cost effective relative to conventional forces and historically have consumed less than 5% of the DOD budget (including dual capable forces like bombers). Most of this cost is driven by overhead and infrastructure such that warhead reductions will not result in any meaningful savings. The graph on the right of Figure 7 is an expanded view of the nuclear force costs in the left graph. Considering their role in war prevention, I believe you should think of our nuclear forces much like you think personally about health and life insurance. Nuclear weapons are cheap no expensive- I believe their cost as a small percentage of the DOD budget is a very reasonable premium for the Nation’s “ultimate insurance policy.”
As Figure 8 illustrates, there are a significant number of areas where action is sorely needed to improve our strategic capabilities. Here is a partial list of those I consider most important. They are self-explanatory. Further inaction and postponement to develop these capabilities is not an acceptable answer and will only make recovery more difficult.
With Figure 9 I’d like to be a little provocative and take a few moments to address the widely publicized initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons. l believe a significant burden of proof rests upon those who advocate this position to answer some fundamental questions about the logic of zero. Without compelling answers to these questions and achievable actions, I believe this vision will prove counterproductive, promote unrealistic expectations, and serve as justification to keep the strategic enterprise adrift- paralyzed and frozen in time. The quote at the bottom summarizes my view. Nuclear abolition has to be cart not horse. As an experienced statesman said, “Nations don’t distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other.” Instead of focusing on disarmament, we need to focus more on the fundamental, underlying causes of distrust.
So these are four questions for which I don’t believe we’ve received compelling, comprehensive answers from those advocating nuclear abolition:
First. Is it feasible? If so, what detailed, specific actions must be taken by individual nations and the international community and what timeframes are envisioned to accomplish those actions? How do you achieve those reductions and avoid the risks and uncertainties I’ve already highlighted. I personally cannot foresee the abolition of nuclear weapons in either my or my children’s lifetimes.
Second. Is it verifiable and enforceable? If so, by whom and with what means? How would compliance be enforced? Again, I personally do not believe such an intrusive and comprehensive verification regime is achievable in our existing geopolitical framework.
Third. If it is both feasible and verifiable, is it inherently stabilizing and hence sustainable? Since the knowledge to build nuclear weapons cannot be erased and many nations will have latent nuclear capabilities, what disincentives will preclude cheating or breakout? If the threat of biological terrorism remains a major threat despite the abolition of biological weapons, why do proponents believe that abolition of nuclear weapons will significantly reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism? I personally question what means will exist to prevent a terrorist from acquiring fissile material which will still be in abundant supply. And what means will exist to prevent a rogue nation from aspiring to become a nuclear superpower in a non-nuclear world? As a former professor of mine, Tom Schelling has written, under abolition, present nuclear powers would actually be latent nuclear powers – hardly “former nuclear powers.” And if the bomb could be invented from scratch during World War II, imagine how quickly the nuclear genie could be conjured back into action now:
“In summary, a world without nuclear weapons would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to pre-empt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to pre-empt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or pre-empt. It would be a nervous world.”
And lastly, if nuclear weapon abolition can be achieved and sustained, is it really desirable? How can we be sure we are not making the world safe for conventional war? And how safe and secure will we be as a nation when at some future inevitable time, we are no longer the world’s superpower? To me these are fundamental questions that the abolitionists blithely ignore.
I use Figure 10 to reinforce my last question. As this graph of wartime fatalities as a percentage of world population illustrates, conventional warfare took a devastating toll throughout history before the advent of nuclear weapons.
However, as depicted in Figure 10, since the advent of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, the transformation of warfare has been dramatic. I would argue that a principal reason for this transformation is the recognition that nuclear weapons have extended the potential of warfare to a level where classical warfare concepts cease to apply or have meaning. Nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from conventional weaponry: pound for pound, they are several million times more potent and no adequate defense against them is known or foreseen to exist. Regardless of force superiority, conventional weapons are contestable both temporally and geographically; in contrast, nuclear weapons are not contestable. Whereas in the past, nations sought to achieve strategic objectives through war, I would argue that nuclear weapons have created a strong restraining force among nations to avert war. And that has contributed to a remarkable, revolutionary transformation in warfare.
There is a common fallacy about deterrence that holds that nuclear weapons deter only nuclear weapons. To accept that, one has to accept that nuclear weapons have played no role in the remarkable peace among the nuclear powers during the past six decades, despite periods of significant tension and East-West confrontation. While it is impossible to prove a negative, I believe the graph clearly illustrates the role nuclear weapons have played in transforming warfare.
And it would be equally fallacious to assume, that without some fundamental change in the political configuration of the world, nuclear weapons have no relevance for the future. Deterrence is about preventing all major wars, not just nuclear ones, since major war is the most likely road to nuclear war. I seriously question what evidence those advocating disarmament and nuclear abolition can point to that illustrates how disarmament has made the world more peaceful.
The quote in Figure 11 is self explanatory. Theories and concepts abound on the political, strategic, and military significance of nuclear weapons but we should be mindful of their limitations. We lack sufficient hard evidence about the consequences of nuclear weapon use. After all, we only have one example of the actual use of nuclear weapons in conflict. In the words of an experienced practitioner:
“The resulting limitations in our knowledge ought to instill in all who make predictive statements about these issues a degree of humility not always evident. .. There is no substitute for looking at the merits of what is said than the eminence of who said it. .. the means for creating a world without actual nuclear weapons would have to be of a basic political kind, not a matter of technical arms control. Secure nuclear abolition would be consequence, not cause; and in the journey it has to be cart, not horse… Better unquestionably, pending political transformation, to have nuclear weapons but not war than to have war but not nuclear weapons.”
As we continue on this strategic journey, I believe there are a number of fundamental principles that should guide us. I’ve tried to enumerate many of them here on Figure 12. Most are self explanatory but allow me expound on a few.
First, we should continue to focus on arms control measures that directly and demonstrably enhance stability and reduce the risks of war. Stability- the lack of an incentive on either side to initiate major aggression or conflict, the assurance against being caught by surprise, the safety in waiting- rather than numerical parity is the most important criterion in assessing force structure and posture options. As Albert Wohlstetter wrote many years ago, “Relaxation of tensions, which everyone thinks is good, is not easily distinguished from relaxing one’s guard, which everyone thinks is bad.” There is a naive and mistaken belief that the “nuclear danger” is directly proportional to the number of nuclear weapons and accordingly, lower is, axiomatically, better. However, disarmament is not inherently stabilizing. One can envision many scenarios where small numbers breed instability. As we reduce our nuclear forces to lower levels, numbers alone become less important. Issues such as survivability, reliability, transparency, accountability, reconstitution, force asymmetries, production infrastructures, and verifiability become more and more important. It is ultimately the character and posture of our forces as well as those of our allies and adversaries, more than just numbers, that makes the strategic environment stable or unstable.
Second, strategy must be the starting point- it should drive numbers rather than the reverse. A number of people have declared with unwarranted certitude that we can successfully reduce our operationally deployed forces to some lower number (e.g. 500 or 1000) without ever formulating or articulating what changes in national strategy, objectives, capabilities, force structure, and force posture would be required. Instead of threat based or capabilities-based deterrence, underpinned by rigorous analyses, war-gaming, and risk assessment, they seem to be advocating a form of faith-based deterrence. Again, strategy must be the starting point. It should follow a logic path similar to the following:
- Whom do we want to deter and under what circumstances might we need to simultaneously deter more than one potential adversary?
- What do those potential adversaries hold that they value most?
- What kinds of capabilities do we need to hold what they value at risk under the most stressful of scenarios?
- What kinds of capabilities do we need to meet our extended deterrence commitments to our allies and friends?
- How do we hedge those capabilities against technological surprise and imperfect intelligence?
- What form of strategic reserve, supporting infrastructure, and reconstitution capabilities are required to
maintain those capabilities?
- How do we posture those capabilities to promote stability- to discourage any potential adversary from preemption, to avoid a “use them or lose them” situation, and to ensure we always have the capability to strike second?
- And finally, what numbers of various capabilities based upon rigorous analyses are required to hold at risk a sufficient amount of what our potential adversaries value without accepting undue risk ourselves while providing the President the widest range of options using the minimum level of force intended to achieve our objectives?
Third, and related, given the clear risks and elusive benefits inherent in additional deep reductions, the burden of proof should be on those who advocate such reductions to demonstrate exactly how and why such cuts would serve to enhance our national security.
Finally, I believe that an early strategist’s metaphor that nuclear planners are like homebuilders remains true today. A wise architect does not design only for benign environments, but for the worst weather conditions one can reasonably anticipate. We have to consistently maintain a building code for our strategic forces to ensure they can weather the most stressing scenarios we can reasonably postulate. On that note I’d like to close with a story related by Sir Michael Quinlan:
There exists a fine town hall in Windsor, near London, with a pillared portico designed by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. It is recounted that when he first submitted his plans the town corporation complained that there were not enough pillars holding up the portico roof. Under protest, he added extra ones; but he made his point, visible if you look closely to this day, by arranging that the added pillars stop a few inches short of the roof. Now, it may be true that some components of US deterrent planning and force provision have been “overkill” and were corporation pillars rather than Wren ones. But it cannot be doubted that the roof needed pillars; and that it was safer with too many than with too few.
In closing, I firmly believe we need to carefully manage the risks and uncertainties we face in this new strategic era. Our strategic enterprise and particularly our force structure and doctrine needs to be robust, flexible, and credible such that we always maintain the ability to both reassure our allies and to convince potential aggressors to choose peace rather than war, restraint rather than escalation, and conflict termination rather than continuation.