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Global Zero Running on Empty

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

A small group of nuclear abolitionists are pushing for the United States to dramatically reduce its nuclear weapons and eliminate the strategic nuclear triad, which for half a century has maintained the peace. Global Zero, which bills itself as an international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and counts among its supporters a raft of former and current policy elites, recently released a report calling for steep reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Global Zero claims that the enhancement of ballistic missile defenses, long-range conventional prompt strike, and overall conventional military capabilities allow the United States to reduce its deployed nuclear forces to a level roughly double that of Pakistan and India combined or half that of China.

Unfortunately, if adopted, such a force structure would make the world a far more dangerous place and highly unstable. In fact, nuclear weapons use would be more likely.

Let us go through the numbers. Global Zero proposes the United States reduce to 450 warheads deployed day-to-day from the current 1,550, and dramatically reduce the number of nuclear-armed platforms upon which the warheads rest.

Today, the United States has 450 Minuteman intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBM) in widely dispersed silos, 60 B-52 and B-2 nuclear-armed bombers at three bases, and 14 ICBM-carrying nuclear submarines that, at any one time, are either tied up at one of two bases, in transit, or carrying out their sea patrols.

The bombers only count as 60 "warheads," although each can carry upwards of 12 to 24 nuclear bombs or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Therefore, the actual "warhead" level under "New START" is considerably higher than 1,550, and is probably closer to 2,000 deployed weapons. So, the proposed reduction to no more than 450 warheads deployed day-to-day is close to a 75 percent reduction in deterrent capability, even as world-wide security threats grow, including modernized Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals.

The point of maintaining the current dispersed and very flexible basing of our nuclear deterrent is to present an adversary seeking to attack these forces with an impossible task. Our current nuclear forces would survive any strike and be ready to retaliate, which is the very essence of deterrence.

But the new proposals, endorsed as they have been by a number of former senior U.S. defense and diplomatic officials, would change that complicated task. Perhaps it would be an inadvertent result; nevertheless, the task of targeting America's nuclear forces would be made far easier and therefore more tempting.

These nuclear abolitionists propose the United States maintain 10 ballistic missile submarines and 18 B-2 bombers at only three bases - Kings Bay, Georgia; Bangor, Washington, and; Whiteman AFB in Missouri. Two to four of our ballistic missile submarines would be at sea at any one time, although to maintain an at-sea fleet of four ballistic missile submarines with only 10 total boats would be highly unlikely. To do so today requires a fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines.

What then are the implications for an enemy seeking to eliminate U.S. nuclear striking power in a crisis or over time?

For example, should an adversary wish to eliminate the entirety of the American nuclear deterrent in one strike today, it would require hitting roughly 450 to 470 discrete targets. Under the proposed deal, the nuclear abolitionists would reduce those targets to as few as six.

This point bears repeating. An adversary would be faced with an array of only six U.S. targets. Russia, for example, could have 900 warheads if they had the same as is being proposed-450 deployed and 450 in reserve. These would be aimed at six U.S. targets, compared to today where Moscow has roughly 1,400 strategic warheads potentially aimed at hundreds of discrete nuclear force targets.

Today's strategic balance has a ratio of three Russian warheads to one U.S. target, requiring more than 1,000 Russians warheads to take out the U.S. deterrent - assuming such a strike could be carried out. The new strategic imbalance would be 150 Russian weapons for every U.S. target. Here, the target base is so small that only a relative handful of Russian warheads could eliminate all of America's nuclear retaliatory capability, especially if Russia could find our ballistic missile submarines at sea.

This would be like hanging a sign on our nuclear forces that says: "Here we are, come get us!"

There is also a very serious logical contradiction to the Global Zero proposal. The three elements of enhanced U.S. power - enhancement of ballistic missile defenses, long-range conventional prompt strike, and overall conventional military capabilities - that make its proposed reductions in nuclear forces a safe bet are all elements that Russia claims make it necessary for it to increase its own nuclear arsenal.

In fact, it is these American capabilities (all of which I support deploying) that make Russia nervous. The Russian government repeatedly claims that the United States and NATO have secret plans to launch strikes against it.

Russia is modernizing its strategic force with three new types of land-based ICBMs, a new type of ICBM-carrying nuclear submarine, a new model of submarine-launched ICBM, a new air-launched cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and a new strategic bomber along with a multitude of new nuclear warhead types and capabilities.

Now the advocates of these cuts say "Not so fast." One senior former U.S. ambassador assured me that anti-submarine warfare "studies" proved that the number of U.S. ballistic missile submarines that would be deployed under this new plan would not be vulnerable. He said the reports were classified. But everything was fine until at least 2040, he said.

But I believe the ambassador is wrong. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert wrote in the July 2012 issue of the Naval Institute's Proceedings that, "The rapid expansion of computing power also ushers in new sensors and methods that will make stealth and its advantages increasingly difficult to maintain above and below the water." His testimony before Congress has echoed these concerns as well. Advances in acoustic and computer technology are making the oceans more and more transparent.

In fact, the advocates of zero nuclear weapons admit that the ability of an adversary to find our submarines at sea that would make their proposals to cut nuclear warheads to such low numbers null and void. They write an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) breakthrough would "dramatically alter" their assurances that survivability of our forces at sea would not be a problem.

Compounding this error is their proposal to de-alert those few SLBMs that remain in our submarines at sea. They argue that U.S. missiles should not be available for launch up to three days after a crisis emerges. How one is meant to verify that our adversaries will also keep their weapons in abeyance for three days is a mystery but, as the Washington Post wrote in support of such an idea, U.S. policy makers "just have to make it happen." So, now we are placing our nuclear security on the backs of strategic magicians.

On top of which, in a crisis there could very well be a scramble to secretly re-alert, placing a premium on the ability to shoot first when an adversary's missiles are still unavailable for use. Far from creating greater stability, the combined proposals by the abolitionists for both a very small and de-alerted deterrent could create great incentives for the first use of nuclear weapons in a crisis.

But perhaps equally important is the geostrategic context in which such proposals are being made. Russia views America's enhanced capabilities one way. Nuclear abolitionists see them in just the opposite fashion. When such assumptions are allowed to underlie U.S. policy, a condition whereby a simultaneous mix of benign and highly negative interpretations of the same strategic balance will come about, a possibly dangerous condition that might lead to a serious strategic miscalculation, even recklessness, on the part of Moscow or another adversary during crisis.

Currently, the contraction of American military power is not leading to similar retreats elsewhere. A top Chinese general officer asserted that China has jurisdiction over Okinawa as necessary to extend Chinese power. Okinawa, which is part of Japan, is home to many U.S. military bases. China views Okinawa as a key part of the island chain known as the "String of Pearls" in Chinese military strategy.

To China, the "Pearls" also include islands in the South China Sea that Beijing has been populating with fishing vessels, naval ships, energy exploration equipment, and other visible manifestations of their ownership claims. Former New York Times military correspondent Richard Halloran noted, "Of all the potential flashpoints that could explode into full scale hostilities between the United States and China, one of the most dangerous would be a confrontation in the South China Sea."

China is also helping Iran with ballistic missile and nuclear technology, according to both intelligence reports and a lawsuit brought by the attorney for the City of New York. Such reckless Chinese behavior is now standard fare.

In the last decade, China has added to its arsenal 54 land-attack cruise missile launchers, 21 ICBMs, 67 medium-range ballistic missiles, and 750 short-range ballistic missiles, according to a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. To that, add the development of a new ballistic missile nuclear submarine and a new type of road-mobile, land-based ICBM.

On the Russian side of the ledger things are not much better. Moscow is Iran's biggest weapons supplier. Syria is receiving tons of weaponry brought by Russian ships, which may eventually include advanced fighter planes and helicopters. Reports from a senior Russian general are that Venezuela has offered Moscow a base at which to park strategic nuclear bombers. This is on top of reports that Caracas has been building a base for the deployment of Iranian Shahab-3 missiles, of which the advanced version just coincidentally can strike downtown Miami.

What are the prospects for a face-to-face confrontation between Moscow and Washington, or Beijing for that matter? Given the advancement of Russian and Chinese military power into areas critical to U.S. security, I think we should think long and hard about ensuring that any possible confrontation not tempt either party to seek the use of nuclear weaponry.

Going to zero nuclear weapons is neither practical nor achievable. Keeping only a diminished force - under the assumption that we are on the way to zero - would seriously undermine extended deterrence. This deterrent umbrella over our NATO allies and important friends keeps the peace in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Dangers are looming, and our military capability - particularly a strong, viable, stable and credible nuclear deterrent - is necessary to carry out that part of our constitution that calls for "Providing for the Common Defense."

Peter Huessy, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis and the senior defense consultant at the Air Force Association. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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