Zbigniew Mazurak's Blog

A blog dedicated to defense issues

“Minimum deterrence” is no deterrence at all

Posted by zbigniewmazurak on February 3, 2013

Leftist pacifists are waging a purely ideological, bordering on religious, crusade against America’s own nuclear deterrent, claiming that it is somehow a threat to the US and to world stability and a “liability”. They want to do away with it entirely and unilaterally if Russia doesn’t agree to a bilateral treaty.

But an outright, immediate, unilateral nuclear disarmament would not pass, as the Congress and the public would never allow such course of action.

So, like Fabian socialists (and most pacifists, including Barack Obama and many House Democrats, also happen to be socialists), they deceptively advocate a transitional policy called “minimum deterrence” to lull the Congress and the public into a false sense of security by claiming they support providing for nuclear deterrence – just at much lower force levels – while they actually treat such policy as a mere temporary, transitional step on the road to zero nuclear weapons.

So, while they pretend to support nuclear deterrence, they really don’t – and for them, the deep further cuts in the nuclear deterrent they advocate would be just a temporary step towards a disarmed America.

What is wrong with that?

To start with, EVERYTHING.

Let’s pretend for a moment that cuts in the nuclear arsenal would stop at the levels which pacifist organizations like the Arms Control Association, the CATO Institute, the PDA, and Global Zero advocate. The ACA wants to see the total US arsenal down to 1,000 or fewer warheads based on no more than 300 ICBMs, 8 ballistic missile subs, and the current fleet of B-52s and B-2s. CATO and PDA want to see similar cuts. Global Zero wants to see even deeper ones: to just 450 active and 450 inactive warheads, based on just 10 submarines, while all ICBMs, bombers, nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and tactical nuclear weapons would be scrapped or (in the bombers’ case) relegated solely to conventional missions.

Let’s pretend for a moment that cuts would permanently stop at that, ignoring the fact that these pacifist, leftist organizations treat them as a mere step on the road to nuclear zero.

The fact is that such a tiny arsenal would be woefully inadequate. In other words, what they call “Minimum deterrence” is no deterrence at all. It is weakness and an invitation to aggression – even to a first strike by Russia or China.

The US needs a large nuclear arsenal, not a small one. This need is driven by America’s potential adversaries – primarily Russia (6,800 warheads) and China (up to 3,000 warheads). The US nuclear arsenal has to be large in the face of such large enemy arsenals for two reasons:

1)      SURVIVABILITY: A small nuclear arsenal – such as that proposed by the above-mentioned organizations – would be easy for Russia to destroy in a first strike. Fewer warheads, missiles, submarines, and bombers located on fewer bases would be far easier to destroy in a first strike than a large number. 300 ICBMs, a handful of bombers at 3-5 bases, and just 8 SSBNs (only 4 of which would be at sea at any given time) would be far easier to destroy in a surprise disarming first strike than 450 ICBMs, 14 SSBNs, and more bombers at more bases. Global Zero’s cuts would be even more disastrous – cutting the entire arsenal to just 900 warheads (including 450 active ones), zero ICBMs, zero nuclear-capable bombers, and just 10 SSBNs stationed at two bases (Kitsap and Kings’ Bay). This would dramatically reduce the number of targets an enemy would need to strike – from 455 to 2 (or 5, if nuclear bombers were retained) – something that even China could do quite easily, given that it has over 60 ICBMs and at least 72 SLBMs.

2)      CREDIBILITY. In order to deter, a nuclear arsenal must not only be able to survive, it must also be able to hold the vast majority (if not all) of enemy military and strategic assets at risk. Given how large the Russian and Chinese militaries (including their nuclear arsenals and China’s 3,000-mile-long network of tunnels for nuclear-armed missiles) are, this clearly requires a very large nuclear arsenal; a small arsenal would not even be close to sufficient, as there would be way too few warheads to hold enemy targets at risk. The Heritage Foundation has estimated in an impartial, exhaustive study that between 2,700 and 3,000 warheads are needed for that purpose.

A small nuclear arsenal could only target Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian population centers, as it would be woefully insufficient to hold the majority of enemy military assets at risk. This would mean a shift from counterforce to countervalue targeting – i.e. targeting innocent civilian populations instead of enemy warmaking capability. Is this the policy we want? The proponents of arms reduction do.

But such a policy would arguably be immoral, and would not be accepted by most Americans. So the only credible and acceptable policy is counterforce – which requires a large number of warheads.

Another fact that should warn against further cuts to America’s nuclear deterrent – and which utterly disproves claims that it’s “oversized” or “excessive” – is that while Russia and China are threats to many, they are protectors to nobody, while the US has to provide a nuclear deterrent not only for itself, but also for 30 allies.

And before you shout “They should defend themselves! We should not defend them!”, please think calmly and remember that dumping those allies and failing to provide a credible nuclear umbrella for them will force them to develop their own nuclear warheads – which several of them, including at least 6 Pacific Rim allies, could do in mere months if need be.

This would lead to more proliferation, not less. In fact, as Heritage Foundation nuclear experts Baker Spring and Michaela Bendikova point out, the US nuclear deterrent has done more to prevent nuclear proliferation than any arms control treaty ever signed. In testimony before Congress, analysts such as Stephen Rademaker and Kori Schake have also pointed out the nonproliferation value and contributions of America’s atomic umbrella.

Cutting the US nuclear deterrent will lead to more proliferation, not less.

The nuclear capabilities of America’s adversaries

Russia has a very large strategic nuclear arsenal (2,800 warheads, 1,500 of them deployed and 1,300 in reserve) and the means to deliver it:

  • Over 250 strategic bombers (64 Tu-95s, 16 Tu-160s, and 151-171[1] Tu-22Ms), each capable of carrying six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and a nuclear freefall bomb;
  • 14 ballistic missile submarines (5 Delta III class, 7 Delta IV class, 1 Typhoon class[2], and 1 Borei class submarine[3]), which can carry 16 ballistic missiles each (the Typhoon class boat can carry 20); these missiles include the 12-warhead Liner SLBM and the 10-warhead Bulava SLBM;
  • 434 ICBMs, including (numbers in parentheses refer to the maximum warhead carriage capacity):
  1. 58 SS-18 Satan missiles (10 warheads and 30 penetration aids each);
  2. 136 SS-19 Stiletto missiles (6 warheads/missile);
  3. 171 SS-25 Sickle (RT-2PM Topol) missiles (single-warhead);
  4. 74 SS-27 Sickle B (RT-2UTTH) missiles (single-warhead);
  5. at least 18 SS-29 (RS-24) missiles (4 warheads/missile).

The Satan fleet alone can carry 580 warheads to the CONUS. Russia’s ICBMs are not currently loaded with the maximum possible number of warheads, but can be thus loaded at any time, if the Kremlin so orders.

Russia also has a huge tactical nuclear arsenal – far larger than that of the US. It is estimated to have at least 1,000-4,000 tactical nuclear warheads – by any measure, far more than the US has (about 500). These are warheads of various types: missile warheads, aircraft bombs, nuclear depth charges, nuclear torpedo warheads, nuclear artillery shells, etc. They are deliverable by a wide range of systems, including aircraft (e.g. the Su-24, Su-25, Tupolev bombers, and the Su-27/30/33/34/35 Flanker family; Russia plans to procure 200 Su-34s), short-range ballistic missiles (e.g. the SS-26 Stone), surface warships, submarines, and artillery pieces.

So Russia alone has a huge nuclear arsenal which America must defend itself and its allies against. It has, in recent years, made repeated threats (over a dozen in the last 4 years alone) to use these weapons against the US or its allies if they don’t succumb to Russia’s demands on various issues.

Thus, the Russian threat, by itself, is huge and justifies the retention of a large US nuclear arsenal.

China has 1,800, and potentially up to 3,000, nuclear warheads, as determined in objective, impartial studies independently by Professor Philip Karber (Georgetown) and Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, a former Russian missile force chief of staff. Their estimates are based on Chinese fissile material stockpiles, delivery system inventories, potential targets for China, and itsst, 3,000-mile-long network of tunnels for nuclear missiles.

North Korea has about 12 nuclear warheads and the capability to deliver them to the US, as demonstrated by its successful December 2012 test of a genuine ICBM and the fact that it can mate nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. North Korea, of course, also has large arsenals of SRBMs and MRBMs.

Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons and may have them by next year. It is also developing an ICBM capable of hitting the US, which US intel estimates it may have by 2015, and already possesses ballistic missiles which can hit targets as far away as Warsaw (e.g. the Sejjil missile).

To disarm in the face of these multiple nuclear threats, including Russia’s and China’s large arsenals, would be worse than a folly: it would be utterly suicidal.

Yet that is what pacifist, pro-disarmament groups such as the ACA, the PDA, Cato, and Global Zero advocate. They want to deeply cut the US nuclear arsenal, down to what they deceptively call a “minimum deterrence” posture, in a few years, and they view such cuts as a mere transitional step on the road to a completely disarmed America.

Contrary to their claims – made in order to mislead those Americans worried about the debt – even very deep cuts to the nuclear deterrent would only bring about puny, phantom “savings” which would be more than outweighed by the tragic consequences of the Russian nuclear first strike such cuts would invite, and the consequences of further nuclear proliferation around the world, as ally after ally would have to “go nuclear” to provide a nuclear deterrent for himself in the absence of a nuclear umbrella.

The costs of maintaining the US nuclear deterrent are small. Its ICBM leg costs only $1.1 bn to maintain; the bomber leg, only $2.5 bn per year. The entire nuclear arsenal plus its supporting infrastructure costs only $35.2 bn per year ($352 bn per decade) to maintain, according to the StimsonCenter (the Obama Administration, despite supporting nuclear disarmament, estimates the arsenal to cost even less). Only biased, anti-nuclear pacifist organizations like Ploughshares falsely estimate the nuclear arsenal to cost over $660 bn per decade – a totally fake number which was rightly rebuked by, of all people, WaPo “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler.

So the policy which pacifist, pro-disarmament organizations advocate would be utterly disastrous. It would invite (if not outright guarantee) a Russian first strike on a small, unsurvivable nuclear arsenal; force allies around the world to “go nuclear” and thus dramatically worsen nuclear proliferation; embolden America’s enemies everywhere around the world;  undermine America’s and allies’ security, freedom, and independence; and allow any idiot to build a few hundred warheads to match the US in nuclear weapons. All while utterly failing to save taxpayers more than a pittance and contributing virtually nothing to deficit reduction.

For all of these reasons, the cretinous, suicidal “minimum deterrence” policy must be completely and permanently rejected. “Minimum deterrence” is no deterrence at all.


[1] Reputed analyst Sean O’Connor estimates Russia to have 171 Tu-22Ms; Wikipedia says Russia has 151 (93+58).

[2] Russia also has 2 additional Typhoons in reserve. It is not clear what it intends do to with these boats: scrap or recommission them.

[3] The first four boats of the Borei class will have 16 missile tubes each. All successive boats of this class, however, starting with the fifth, will have 20 missile tubes each, meaning that the Russian submarine fleet’s SLBM carriage capacity will increase as the 5th and every consecutive Borei class boat enters service.

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