The New York Times appears convinced the United States has plans to hurl 4000 nuclear warheads at Russian cities in the event deterrence breaks down, a retaliatory threat they claim is far beyond what is needed to keep the peace. Instead, they call for a unilateral cut in our nuclear force to roughly 1000.
For some reason, the Times did not get the memo some half-century ago that the United States deterrent policy does not target an adversary’s cities. Nor are the number of warheads in the American deployed nuclear arsenal anywhere near the 4000 claimed by the Times.
They were reduced by half that number in 2002 under the Moscow Treaty, and to even lower by the 2010 New START Treaty.
The Times, believing American nuclear deterrent policy is still based on burning down to the ground our adversary’s cities, calls for the country to keep no more than a few hundred warheads to incinerate either Russian or Chinese cities, and roughly no more than a total of 1100 warheads to raze the cities of an expansive list of our nuclear-armed enemies.
The Times’s glaring error is its failure to grasp that since the late 1960’s, the United States deterrent policy with respect to the Soviet Union and now Russia has been one of retaliating against or otherwise holding at risk the military capabilities of our enemies, and moving completely away from relying upon the assured destruction of cities that had earlier been adopted as part of U.S. nuclear policy.
Targeting civilian populations with nuclear weapons has long been held by America’s leaders to be both an immoral and ineffective deterrent policy. Deterrence requires holding at risk what tyrannical societies value most — and that is their military power, not their impoverished citizens.
Despite these facts, the Times claims the alleged current American “stockpile” of 4000 warheads the U.S. now has is far too high and can safely be reduced unilaterally, as the U.S. supposedly has more than enough warheads to target the cities of all our adversaries. Here the Times is adopting the most radical position of the arms control community.
In graphic displays of ostensibly U.S. surplus warheads, the Times calculates — absurdly — that the United States needs precisely 1103 warheads to fire at all our adversaries to maintain deterrence, which they define as killing 25% of our adversary’s populations.
The Times does acknowledge that American nuclear weapons have already been significantly reduced since the height of the Cold War. The United States has, in fact, cut its deployed, strategic, nuclear, in-the-field weapons from around 13,000 in 1991, to 1550 warheads today, a 90% reduction.
Ironically, at any one time, roughly 1000 warheads — not the 4000 the Times conjures up — might be on alert and be available for retaliation. There is no possible way we could launch 4000 warheads at Russia or any adversary.
To get to 4000, after the initial warheads fall to their targets, and the delivery missiles burn up in the atmosphere while returning to earth, we would have to find hundreds of missiles we do not have, place them in our empty silos and submarine launch tubes, load up more warheads and launch them again.
Can we do this? Of course not. So, what are the real facts of its deterrent capability?
The U.S. deterrent policy currently holds at risk the critical military capabilities of our adversaries. U.S. national leaders — in this instance, President Barack Obama — determined in the 2010 nuclear posture review and the associated guidance to America’s nuclear commanders that this is what the U.S. needs for deterrence. The nuclear force the U.S. now has was determined to be necessary by the previous administration and previous Presidents. At this time, a new nuclear posture review is examining those requirements; the third such review in the past 15 years.
Moreover, the number of warheads the U.S. has deployed — on station — in its nuclear deterrent, flow only from the President’s determination, not from some false notion that to deter adversaries, it is necessary to kill millions of people.
Ironically, writers at the Times have not always thought 1000 weapons were sufficient to deter America’s adversaries or that any deployment number above that level was unnecessary. On May 2, 1982, they ran an column by Senator Gary Hart that chastised the Reagan administration for proposing major reductions in nuclear weapons, and argued that the defunct 1979 SALT II treaty between the United States and Soviet Union — withdrawn from the Senate by the Carter administration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — should nonetheless be agreed to as it would supposedly “slow Soviet acquisition of additional nuclear weapons.”
As one nuclear expert has noted, the United States Senate Armed Services Committee, under the control of the Democratic majority, disagreed.
It unanimously concluded in 1979 that SALT II was not in the United States’ “national security interests” — precisely because it would not slow the build-up in Soviet nuclear weapons.
The chief criticism of the treaty, in fact, to which the Times seemed oblivious, was that SALT II would permit a destabilizing vast modernization and expansion of Soviet strategic forces, hardly the “arms control” slow-down the Times would claim was anticipated. The Times appeared to not be aware such growth was allowed, or perhaps the editors were taken in by the “arms control” propaganda of the treaty’s proponents.
While it is true, for example, that the Soviets under SALT II had to dismantle many missiles, a point the Times emphasized, what was also true was that the remaining silos under the terms of the treaty became the homes of new, vastly more powerful missiles with a lot more warheads. Even if the Soviets adhered to the terms of the 1979 SALT II deal, the Soviets could double the number of their strategic warheads, from 5,000 in 1979 to 9,200 by 1986 and to 12,000 by 1990.
Under the SALT framework, by the end of the Cold War, the Soviets could build more than 13,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, hardly characteristic of any “arms control” within the plain meaning of the term.
Reagan, on the other hand, sought real arms control — reductions — and spoke about it as early as 1977. As president, he persisted in pushing a strategy of peace through strength, and building a strong nuclear deterrent. While simultaneously seeking major arms reductions, he modernized what was to be kept. He then added the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983, to further enhance our deterrent capability and undermine the Soviet push for first strike threats.
While the SALT treaties in 1972 and 1979 were agreements to build-up both the Soviets’ and Americans’ nuclear weapons to the level both had already planned to reach, the START process was a revolutionary change to build-down — reducing while modernizing.
But most importantly, while SALT led to dangerous instabilities with very large multiple warhead missiles dominating the Soviet force, START sought to channel modernization to vastly fewer warheads and more nuclear warheads based on submarines at sea, only single warhead missiles on land, and flexible bomber rules for the only recallable — air — portion of the U.S. Triad.
Coupled with that was a major push to challenge the Soviets to eliminate all their SS-20 medium range INF nuclear armed missiles in Europe and Asia under a zero-zero option.
Ironically, all these ideas were opposed by the then-Soviet inspired and popular “nuclear freeze” which, at the time, the New York Times embraced.
What was the result of the Reagan revolution in strategic thinking and doctrine of peace through strength?
Did it work? Yes, the U.S. won the Cold War because President Reagan combined military reductions while pushing for modernization, including SDI. The Soviets had no diplomatic answer to nuclear reductions and could not economically match U.S. modernization.
Bertrand Russell once said that people “often defend most passionately those opinions for which they have the least factual basis”. The Times certainly does. It apparently believes there is a US deterrent policy of burning cities to the ground, but the policy does not exist.
The Times supported treaties such as SALT I and II that increased warheads dramatically, but later complained such numbers were far in excessive of what was needed. Russia then labeled as unfair Reagan’s proposals to reduce warhead levels that the Times said were excessive.
The United States nuclear arsenal is the smallest it has been since the early Eisenhower administration.
Even at such low levels, the U.S. deterrent holds at risk those military assets most important to our adversaries, the destruction of which would cripple them if they attacked the United States first. That ability has been the essence of American nuclear deterrent policy for at least the past half century — and it has worked perfectly. Radically changing that successful formula, as the Times wants the U.S. to do, would be a reckless, dangerous mistake.
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He was also for 20 years, the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation.