Rebuttal of Kingston Reif’s blatant lies about the nuclear triad

On November 19th, AOL Defense published a litany of blatant lies about the nuclear triad’s utility and cost written by an anti-defense hack, Kingston Reif, the “director of non-proliferation” at the “Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation”, a part of the pacifist “Council for a Livable World”, an organization that advocates deep, unilateral defense cuts.

In it, Reif exaggerates and complains about the cost of the nuclear triad, falsely calls it an “outdated Cold War construct”, falsely claims that America’s nuclear arsenal is still based on Cold War assumptions, lies about the nuclear triad’s (including ICBMs’) utility, and denies the decisive peacekeeping role played by nuclear weapons since 1945.

Of course, it was written by an ignorant hack from an organization which zealously advocates America’s unilateral nuclear disarmament, so it’s not surprising that it attacks the nuclear-triad. But it doesn’t excuse AOL Defense for publishing this screed.

Here’s a facts-based rebuttal. Reif falsely claims that:

“Gen. Chambers, the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, overstates the peace-promoting virtues of nuclear weapons. In addition, he exaggerates the benefits of the nuclear triad and downplays the significant financial resources that will be required to sustain it.”

No, he doesn’t. Nuclear weapons are THE most important tool the US has to keep the peace and prevent war. Since their inception in 1945, they have prevented any war between the world’s major powers and have forced them to accept coexistence and avoid conflict.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, which Reif invokes, only proves the value of nuclear weapons. They didn’t cause the crisis, and they didn’t make it grave. OTOH, they prevented war by forcing Washington and Moscow to negotiate and to make a difficult compromise (Castro stays in Cuba, Moscow withdraws its missiles from the island, Washington withdraws its missiles from Turkey and Italy). Had nuclear weapons not existed, the US and the USSR would’ve had little or no incentive to make such a difficult compromise and would’ve likely gone to war. ONLY NUCLEAR WEAPONS prevented war in that case.

No, the chances of “something going terribly wrong” did not increase, let alone exponentially, because only President Kennedy could’ve authorized a nuclear strike, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.

As General Chambers rightly wrote, “our nuclear forces played a central role in winning the peace.”

While nuclear weapons have not prevented all wars, they have prevented the bloodiest ones – wars between major powers, including what would’ve otherwise been a hot war between the US and the USSR in Europe if it weren’t for nuclear weapons. As former SAC commander and USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch rightly says, nuclear weapons are the only deterrent which has NEVER failed during its entire existence. While nuclear deterrence is not foolproof, it has NEVER failed so far in practice.

The benefits of the nuclear triad are huge: prevention of any war between major powers, and peace and security for America and the over 30 allies of the US who rely on the American nuclear umbrella. And the costs are microscopic, as I demonstrate below.

“Yet while it is true that the great powers have avoided major wars and that nuclear weapons may be one of the causes, it is not at all clear that the bomb has been the decisive factor…”

This is clearly wrong. Nuclear weapons were one of the causes of avoiding major wars and were THE decisive factor. They were, and are, THE factor which has made wars between major powers unthinkable and unrealistic. Before nuclear weapons were invented, wars between major powers were common and devastating, from the Hundred Years War, to the Thirty Years War to WW2, which left 60 million dead around the world and two continents devastated – because without weapons as devastating as nuclear arms, no side had any incentive for restraint. Nuclear weapons have made another world war, or any war between major powers, impossible and unthinkable. Without nuclear weapons, there would’ve been no catastrophic consequences of war and thus no big incentive to avoid war.

Thanks to the US nuclear umbrella, since 1945 the US and its treaty allies have enjoyed  unprecedented peace and security, uninterrupted, to this day.

“Gen. Chambers’ case for the triad is equally flawed. He writes that the triad remains vital because “the number of nuclear armed states is increasing” and “complex regional crises” could “approach the nuclear threshold in the near future.” However, only North Korea has joined thenuclear club since 1998 and it is believed to possess fewer than 10 nuclear weapons.”

No, General Chambers’ case for the triad is not flawed at all. The number of nuclear states IS increasing. In 1998, Pakistan joined the nuclear club; North Korea joined in 2006 and is estimated by to have 13 warheads; Iran is now well on its way to the club and will have enough uranium for a nuclear weapon by June 2013 if its uranium production continues at its current pace.

“Gen. Chambers defends the ICBM leg of the triad on the grounds that it ensures “no future enemy would consider nuclear use or coercion.” But what of the ability of nuclear warheads on a dyad of submarines and bombers to perform this deterrence function? Gen. Chambers is silent on the matter.”

But I will not be silent.The fact is that ONLY a triad of ICBMs, bombers, and SSBNs can deter any enemy, including Russia and China. Why? Because a triad is the most survivable arrangement – far more survivable than a dyad or monad. As Robert Kaplan has rightly written, “Never leave your opponent with too few problems to solve because if you do, he’ll solve them.” A dyad or a monad would be far easier to wipe out in a first strike: just attack bomber or submarine bases, hunt down those American SSBNs that are currently at sea, and voila! You’ve eliminated America’s nuclear deterrent.

A triad, however, is far more difficult to eliminate: you would have to attack not just all bomber bases and both of America’s SSBN bases, and sink all SSBNs at sea, but also destroy all 450 ICBM siloes. That is far more difficult, costly, and risky than destroying a dyad or a monad – and far too risky for any enemy to do. It is THE reason why America has enjoyed peace and security since 1945.

The triad’s survivability increases even further if strategic bombers are put on a constant 24/7 air patrol, as was the case during the Cold War.

Neither a dyad or a monad could deter enemies and defend America and its allies as well as the nuclear triad can and does.

“Given the survivability and promptness of the submarine leg and the fact that ICBMs are unlikely to be used in a nuclear conflict with most of the countries we might attack with nuclear weapons (because the missiles would have to fly over Russia to reach their targets),”

That is completely wrong. ICBMs’ survivability can be greatly increased if they are placed in hardened siloes (and maybe the USAF’s siloes *are* hardened), in tunnels between siloes (as was done with the MX Peacekeeper missile), or placed on railroad launchers. There’s a myriad ways to increase their survivability. And they can reach their targets as fast as SLBMs. The claim that they would have to fly over Russia to reach their targets and would thus not be used in a conflict with most potential enemies is also completely false: it’s wrong in the case of China (whose bases and troops are located mostly in its south and southeast), and Iran.

Reif’s claim that:

“ICBMs are really only useful for fighting a major nuclear war with Russia – a threat which has long since disappeared.”

is a blatant lie. The Russian threat has anything but disapeared. Russia still has 434 ICBMs (many of which can carry far more warhead than America’s ICBMs*), 13 SSBNs, and well over 100 strategic Tu-95, Tu-160, and Tu-22M bombers. It has 1,492 deployed strategic warheads (just 58 short of the New START limit) and 2,800 in total (according to the FAS). On top of that, it has untold thousands (it refuses to say how many exactly) of tactical nuclear warheads deliverable on a wide range of systems, including torpedoes, cruise missiles, artillery pieces, and SRBMs such as the SS-26 Iskander.

Russia is now modernizing all three legs of its nuclear triad, with SS-29 ICBMs and Borei class SSBNs entering service and with PAKDA strategic bombers and “Son of Satan” heavy ICBMs under development. The Russian nuclear threat is GROWING, not shrinking. That’s because Russia, unlike the US, does not believe in or indulge in fantasies of “a world without nuclear weapons”; it knows that such fantasy is pure moonshine.

“Gen. Chambers claims that the cost to maintain the triad indefinitely is manageable. But our budget pressures are real and likely to get worse.”

But the cost of maintaining the entire nuclear triad – let alone its ICBM leg – are miniscule. The ICBM leg of the nuclear triad costs only $1.1 bn per year, and the bomber leg only $2.5 bn per year, to maintain. Collectively, these two legs provided by the USAF cost only $3.6 bn per year to maintain – a bargain price, especially the benefits they provide in terms of security for America and its allies. Source:

$3.6 bn is a paltry 0.6% of the DOD’s $531 bn annual base budget and 0.5% of the total annual military budget ($645 bn). Less than one percent. It’s a microscopic, negligible cost. It’s not merely “manageable”, it’s microscopic. Consequently, no real savings can be made by cutting or even eliminating the ICBM or bomber legs of the triad. None. Cutting or eliminating them would be penny-wise and pound-foolish: it would gravely undermine America’s nuclear deterrence capabilities while producing almost no savings whatsoever.

The DOE’s nuclear weapons programs cost $7.589 bn per year, paid out of the DOE’s budget. Combined with the cost of these two legs of the nuclear triad, that’s $11.189 bn, i.e. just 2% of the total military budget.

In other words, 98% of the total military budget is spent on something other than ICBMs, bombers, or nuclear weapons.

“As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. James Cartwright put it: “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.””

That is also completely wrong. Modernizing the nuclear triad could be very cheap, and will certainly be cheap compared to other DOD weapon programs. A single ICBM costs only $70 mn to procure; a single Next Generation Bomber which the USAF is developing  (and which will also perform conventional long-range strike) will cost, at most, $550 mn per unit, INCLUDING R&D costs; and a single new SSBN will cost only $2.4 bn (same as a Virginia class SSN) if the DOD builds a Virginia class derivative instead of an entirely new submarine class. A fleet of 12 Virginia class derivative boats would cost only $28.8 bn.

“Every dollar spent to modernize and replace aging nuclear weapons systems is a dollar that cannot be spent on defense priorities that are far more relevant to the 21st century security environment, such as upgrading conventional air and naval power projection capabilities.”

That is also completely wrong. There is NO higher defense priority than nuclear deterrence, and can never be, because America’s nuclear deterrent protects the US and its 30 allies (who rely on America’s nuclear umbrella) against the most catastrophic threats: nuclear and ballistic missile attack, whether by a major power like Russia or China or a rogue state like North Korea. Given that Russia and China have large and growing nuclear arsenals, and that beyond them the US must also deter North Korea and Iran – and given that the number of nuclear powers is growing, with Iran likely to join the nuclear club in 2013 – the nuclear deterrence is THE most relevant defense asset in the current security environment. Conventional air and naval power is useful, but is not, and will never be, a substitute for the nuclear deterrent.

Every dollar spent on modernizing and replacing aging nuclear weapons is a dollar well spent.

Moreover, USAF bombers, as stated above, serve in a DUAL role: they can (and do) perform conventional strike missions just as well as they can provide nuclear deterrence. USAF ICBMs could also be converted for conventional long-range strike missions if need be. SSBNs can, likewise, carry Conventional Trident missiles if need be, and there’s actually been a Conventional Trident program. Reif’s claim that USAF bombers and ICBMs and USN SSBNs are somehow unable to perform conventional missions, or are somehow siphoning defense dollars away from conventional weapons, is a blatant lie.

Reif’s claim is even moreso a blatant lie given that, as documented above, the ICBM leg costs only $1.1 bn, and the bomber leg only $2.5 bn, per year to maintain, all told costing less than one percent of the base defense budget (to say nothing of the entire military budget). And, as I said, a single ICBM costs only $70 mn, while a single next-generation dual-capability bomber will cost only $550 mn (R&D costs fully included) and a Virginia class derivative SSBN would cost $2.4 bn.

So all dollars spent on maintaining the nuclear triad add up together to only a tiny percentage of the defense budget.

No, the nuclear triad is not siphoning defense dollars from anything. On the contrary – it is certain CONVENTIONAL weapons programs such as the notorious F-35 (total program cost: $396 bn) and non-weapon DOD costs (especially personnel costs, which now consume a full 50% of the defense budget), which are siphoning money away from the overdue modernization of the triad and from other defense priorities. Cutting the nuclear triad would not save anything; reining in the above-mentioned personnel costs would save tens of billions of dollars.

Readers should not be fooled by Kingston Reif’s sudden supposed concern for “higher defense priorities” like conventional air and naval power. His organization advocates, and has long advocated, deep cuts in the US military across the board – in nuclear as well as conventional weapons, in strategic bombers and submarines as well as conventional air and sea power. He couldn’t care less about higher defense priorities or conventional weapons; all he and his organization want is America’s unilateral disarmament. He participated in Barney Frank’s “Sustainable Defense Task Force”, which proposed deep defense cuts ACROSS THE BOARD, in nuclear as well as conventional capabilities, in weapons as well as in troops, and in the Soros-funded CAP’s “Task Force on the Unified Security Budget”, which proposed virtually the same deep defense cuts.

Kingston Reif’s claim that:

“The assumptions that undergird the current U.S. arsenal of approximately 5,000 nuclear warheads were devised for a confrontation with the Soviet Union that no longer exists. As the Obama administration contemplates its second term defense priorities in a time of budget austerity, it should not let outdated Cold War constructs such as the triad stand in the way of reshaping U.S. nuclear policy.”

is also a blatant lie. The assumptions that undergird the current US nuclear arsenal were NOT devised against the Soviet Union, were NOT devised during the Cold War, and had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or the CW. They were devised by none other than President Obama himself, based on the belief that 5,000 nuclear warheads were enough for deterrence. At the end of the Cold War, America’s nuclear arsenal was much larger than today. It consisted of over 10,000 nuclear warheads, coming on the heels of Reagan’s defense buildup. The First START treaty, signed in 1991 with the Soviet Union, still allowed both Washington and Moscow to retain 6,000 DEPLOYED strategic warheads and 1,600 DEPLOYED strategic launchers (ICBMs, SLBMs, strategic bombers) each. By the early 2000s, the US still had over 10,000 nuclear warheads. At its peak in the 1960s, the US nuclear arsenal consisted of over 33,000 warheads.

By contrast, today, the US has only ca. 5,000 nuclear warheads in total – the smallest arsenal since the early Eisenhower years, and the New START permits the US to have only 1,550 deployed warheads, only 700 deployed strategic launchers, and only 800 total strategic launchers, deployed and nondeployed. America’s nuclear arsenal is far smaller than it was during the Cold War.

Any claim that it is a product of, or is ungirded by assumptions made for, the Cold War is a blatant lie. Likewise, Reif’s claim that the nuclear triad is an “outdated Cold War construct” is also completely false, because as I demonstrated above, the triad is as much needed for deterrence today as during the Cold War, because only a nuclear triad provides a highly survivable and effective nuclear deterrent. Moreover, only a nuclear triad can defend and reassure America’s allies and discourage them from going nuclear – and, as I also demonstrated above, all three components of the triad have conventional long range strike capabilities.

Any further deep cuts in the deterrent will leave America open to blackmail and attack by Russia and China, and will leave America’s allies no choice but to develop their own nuclear weapons, which they currently don’t need to do due to the size of America’s arsenal. If that arsenal is cut, they will have no choice but to go nuclear themselves.

Such a policy is utterly unacceptable.

MGEN William Chambers is absolutely right; Kingston Reif is completely wrong. It’s as simple as that. Reif owes General Chambers an apology and a retraction; and AOL Defense owes its readers an apology for publishing Mr Reif’s misleading, completely false hit-piece.

Last but not least, readers should not believe anything Reif says. He, like other members of the “Council for a Livable World”, advocates America’s unilateral disarmament. He therefore has an incentive to lie and to malign nuclear weapons. Therefore, he’s utterly and irredeemably biased.

*The Russian SS-18 Satan ICBM can carry 10 warheads and up to 30 countermeasures such as decoys; the SS-19 Stilletto can carry 6 warheads; the SS-29 (RS-24 Yars) can carry four warheads. By contrast, America’s sole ICBM type, the Minuteman-III, can carry only 3 warheads.


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