Franklin Miller is a Principal at the Scowcroft Group in Washingto11 D.C. He served ill the White House as a Special Assista11t to President George W. Bush and as Senior Director on the National Security Council. He also served for twenty-two years in the Department of Defense in a series of progressively senior positions under seven secretaries. During his career he had unusual influence 011 the evolutio11 of 11atio11al deterrence and nuclear targeting policy.
It is an honor to be here and an honor to speak to this distinguished audience.
This is an important time to discuss our nuclear deterrent. Our modernization programs are lagging and the very need for an effective US nuclear deterrent is being questioned in some quarters in Washington.
Let me begin by discussing why we need a deterrent in the first place. It is my firm belief that nuclear weapons will continue to influence global affairs for the foreseeable future and that as a result the United States-to protect our vital interests and those of our allies, and to moderate great power behavior-will continue to need an effective and viable strategic nuclear deterrent capability.
It has recently been in vogue in some circles in our nation’s capital to assert:
- “the risk of a nuclear confrontation with either Russia or China belongs to the past not the future”
- “a large scale conflict with Russia or China is ‘implausible’ ” or that ‘it seems increasingly improbable that US relations with China or Russia would deteriorate so severely in the next ten years that the nuclear balance would become a salient factor”.
Pretty bold predictions, the danger of which can be summed up by Neville Chamberlain saying after the 1938 Munich Conference: “Herr Hitler has assured me he has no further territorial ambitions in Europe”
Trouble with pronouncements like those is that they reflect our aspirations and hopes, not what other capitals are saying and doing ….
And those capitals have been fairly clear that they believe nuclear weapons are important tools in their diplomatic and military arsenal. No other nuclear weapons state has embraced the American and British desire ‘to reduce the role of nuclear weapons’. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred:
In Russia, the role played by nuclear weapons has been dramatically increased: nuclear weapons are now at the very heart of Russian security doctrine. The public statements of the most senior Russian officials, the President, Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff routinely threaten nuclear weapons use against Russia’s neighbors and, just a month or so ago, General Makarov asserted that Russia might use nuclear weapons pre-emptively against NATO BMD sites. Russian policy states that NATO is an enemy. Russian exercises feature simulated nuclear strikes against NATO countries, or those bordering on NA TO and Russian strategic bombers are routinely violating US, UK, Norwegian and Japanese airspace. The Russians are now deploying two new types of SLBMs, a new class of SSBNs, a new type of ICBM, and are working on a new bomber and long range cruise missile. The Russian government is even contemplating building a second new type of ICBM-a giant Cold War throwback in the heavy ICBM class. Am I suggesting that a new Cold War has begun? No. Am I suggesting that the Russian government uses its nuclear arsenal to intimidate its neighbors? Yes. And do I think that Moscow has accepted the notion that nuclear weapons should have a “Reduced role”? Hardly.
The Chinese government refuses to engage in any discussion of its nuclear policy, maintaining a total opacity except for making the operationally empty statement that it has a “no first use policy”. That, of course is a meaningless statement since such a policy can be changed literally in an instant by the Central Committee (and it’s worth recalling that the USSR had a “no first use” declaratory policy and “first use operational policy”). China is deploying two new types of ICBMs, is building a new class of SSBNs and a new type of SLBM and refuses to accept any limits on the growth of its nuclear forces. “Reduced role”? Not apparently.
This leads to the point that it is an enormous conceit and the height of intellectual arrogance to believe that, because some Americans may believe some policy goal to be desirable, other countries’ leaders-with extremely different values and with their own interpretations of their national interests-will also believe the same thing. In this case, it should be obvious they do not. And, as a result, the United States must maintain a strong, viable, and effective nuclear deterrent to prevent the other Great Powers from believing that they can threaten us or our allies with nuclear attack or blackmail or conventional attack.
Is our nuclear deterrent an all-purpose deterrent? Of course not. Nuclear weapons are not, never have been, and will never be, an all-purpose deterrent.
They are not useful for deterring terrorism (even WMD terror-ism by state-less entities) or piracy, or cross-border drug trafficking, or even low-level insurgencies. They won’t be useful in helping the free Syrian forces overthrow Assad. They are arguably of marginal use in deterring all but the most catastrophic cyber attacks or attacks against our space assets. And it’s a cheap rhetorical trick to suggest that nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness by pointing to attacks they failed to deter when they were not intended or deployed to prevent such attacks. So when you read recently published sentences like “no sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 2151 century problems we face – threats posed by regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, mass migration of refugees, epidemics or climate change” or “9/11 exposed the irrelevance of nuclear forces in dealing with 21st century threats”, I urge you to recognize them and reject them for what they are: cheap rhetorical tricks.
To meet the new threats of the 21st century, which are very real and which must be deterred, or defeated and destroyed, the United States must continue to rely on-and to modernize-its conventional forces, its ballistic missile defenses, its special operations forces, and its space and cyber capabilities. And I urge you to remember that nuclear weapons were not designed to serve this role and can’t; they can, however, prevent the big war and allow us to use our other tailored capabilities to deal with more proximate and daily threats-threats which are more proximate and daily precisely because nuclear deterrence has made the threat of Great Power conflict less proximate.
And while I am on policy topics, there are two other myths currently in vogue which I would like to destroy.
The first concerns our allies. You may have heard it said that “Non-nuclear forces are also far more credible instruments for providing 21st century reassurance to allies whose comfort zone in the 20th century resided under the US nuclear umbrella.” Well, clearly some American philosophers believe so. But our Allies do not. And try as the philosophers may, and they have done so mightily, our Allies still make clear they want the reassurance provided by our nuclear umbrella. This is still the case in Asia and it is still the case in NATO, where twice in the last three years, the leaders of the Alliance have reaffirmed this.
And speaking of NATO, consider this remarkable set of statements made recently: “[The] military utility of US tactical nuclear weapons is practically nil.. .. They remain deployed today only for political reasons within the NATO Alliance.” Imagine that! To some, apparently, it is now a bad thing for our nuclear weapons to reassure Allies, persuade them that they do not need to develop their own nuclear weapons, and to ensure that Moscow understands that an attack on NA TO could trigger a nuclear response? I don’t think so. Nuclear weapons have always been political weapons, weapons of war prevention. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was and remains a very good thing.
And, speaking of proliferation, we also are told ad nauseum that our nuclear weapons are contributing to the threat of nuclear proliferation. I’ve already noted how our nuclear arsenal is in fact an anti-proliferant, because we protect allies who otherwise might and could build their own nuclear weapons. But it is important to recognize that the oft-discussed linkage between the continued existence of the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states and further proliferation simply does not exist.
- The history of the last 20 years is that the US, British, French and Russian nuclear arsenals have declined dramatically in that time period while over the same period the Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and North Korean arsenals have grown.
- North Korea has not pursued a nuclear weapons pro-gram because of our nuclear arsenal. It has pursued one because it seeks to intimidate its neighbors and to deter US conventional military action. The same holds for Iran. And while the continued existence of the nu-clear weapons states’ arsenals makes for a convenient talking point in international (and domestic) NPT circles, it is factually wrong and intellectually patronizing to believe that proliferant governments are mindlessly aping PS policies.
So, nuclear weapons are going to be around for a long time and they will continue to play a significant role in war prevention, in deterring major conventional aggression, and in moderating Great Power interaction. The question now before us is how to structure our nuclear forces in the future to continue to carry out this vital task.
The US nuclear Triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-based SLBMs and heavy bombers is a deterrent force which for five decades has provided a survivable and manifestly-capable deterrent. While its birth as a coordinated and combined deterrent force was unintentional (it was the product of inter-service rivalry) the Triad has shown, in its combination of alert status, basing modes, delivery systems, and warhead types to provide an overall capability which ensures that no enemy attack could prevent effective US retaliation. The force’s multiple basing modes ensured that an enemy attack could not destroy our retaliatory capability. The multiplicity of warheads and delivery systems ensured that no single technical failure, however serious, could negate our capability to respond. The combination of different ICBM and SLBM attack azimuths complicated and defeated a potential enemy’s attempts to defend against our fast-flying deterrent. And our bombers provided every President since Harry Truman an ability to signal resolve and determination in a crisis.
But what of the future force?
In essence, the Triad has been modernized twice, in the early 1960s by the Kennedy Administration and in the 1980s by the Reagan Administration. But that was a long time ago. All of the Triad systems will require significant modernization or replacement in the next two decades, or they will be lost. Let me repeat that: absent modernization we will not have a nuclear deterrent in a few decades.
Have the policy and strategic requirements for having a triad changed? Some would certainly have you think so. Again, it is in vogue in some circles in this town to suggest that we should eliminate the ICBM force and remove the SSBNs from alert status-indeed to make them incapable of responding for up to 72 hours.
What’s wrong with this picture? First, under the current force, any Russian leadership, in a future crisis-and remember we are not talking about any of this from a bolt-from-the-blue posture but in a hugely dangerous crisis in which the use of military force is being contemplated in the Kremlin-including the use of preemptive nuclear strikes as Russian doctrine suggests-would have to consider launching a huge attack in order to neutralize our ICBM force as well as the other Triad legs and our national command and control.
- Eliminate the ICBM force and the problem becomes dramatically easier: to succeed you only have to destroy two SSBN bases, two bomber bases, and Washington and then demand a cease fire. Even a smaller nuclear power could figure this out. Do we really need to discuss further why this is a terrible and dangerous idea?
- Second, removing forces from alert status has been a quest for some people in this town for decades. But they can’t tell you why they are doing so … except, in the words of a recent study, they believe and here I quote that our ICBMs’ ” ‘rapid reaction posture’ runs a real risk of accidental or mistaken launch”. That, of course, is just not true. Then they will tell you that they are worried about the security and safety about Russian ICBMs …. but from all the Russians do and say, the Russians aren’t worried about that. Moreover, de-alerting measures are inherently unverifiable. If you want to discuss this at length, we can do so in the Q and A session or you can just read the piece I wrote for the Perry-Schlesinger Commission in 2008. Finally, tying the President’s hands and making it impossible for the US to respond for 24-72 hours is a perfect formula for a nuclear blackmail scenario which all of you could conjure up in a few seconds.
So, keeping a strategic triad, elements of which are always on alert, will remain vital. Additionally, as you will have discerned from my comments about NA TO, not only do I believe a strategic triad remains vital, I believe we must maintain forward deployed weapons in Europe until our allies tell us they no longer believe those weapons have important deterrent value.
Finally, there is the question of how many warheads we need to maintain in the active force. A few short years ago, General Chili Chilton, at the time testifying on the New START treaty in his role as Commander, US Strategic Command, stated to Congress that he was “comfortable with the force structure that we have” provided by the New START treaty as it is “adequate for the mission that we’ve been given, and is consistent with NPR”. That meant a force of about 1550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, which translates into about 2200 -2500 actual weapons due to the treaty’s counting rules. While some additional reductions may be justified depending upon future positive international developments, it should also be clear that radically deep reductions to only a few hundreds of weapons would be wholly inadequate. Such a small force would fail almost all of the requirements of a capable, secure and credible deterrent because
- It would not be able to deter direct attack on the US, let alone threats to and blackmail of our allies, because it would be too small to threaten retaliation against the most valued assets of a Russia or China gone bad, and
- The force would be too small to be based survivably, and most likely would have to be deployed in only a single basing mode rather than a triad. Put another way, it would be susceptible to an enemy pre-emptive first strike.
Finally, in thinking about nuclear deterrence, it is absolutely critical that we remember that the task is to deter a potentially hostile foreign leadership which possesses nuclear weapons. Our task is not to deter these states today; it is to deter them in a future crisis when they are contemplating the use of military force, including nuclear weapons, against our-or our allies’-vital interests. In such a perilous situation, US policy must reflect the fact that we deter hostile leaderships by threatening what they value most, not what~ value most We value our people. Hostile authoritarian leaderships value their ability to remain in power, the security apparatus which enable them to do so, their military forces, and the industrial capacity to sustain war. And so it is a strategic mistake of enormous proportion to believe an effective deterrent in a future crisis can be based on a few hundred weapons which threaten a potential enemy’s cities. That strategy would be both immoral and self-defeating. “Mirror-imaging” is a dangerous and fundamentally flawed approach to deterrence, and we must never fall into that trap.
With that point made, let me thank you for your time and your attentiveness and tum to your questions ….