The Buzz

I Rebuilt America's Nuclear Arsenal from Scratch. This Is What It Would Look Like

Maybe. But the conditions that created the nuclear force of 1964 are not the conditions of 2014. If we’re serious about establishing nuclear weapons solely as a deterrent against nuclear attack on the U.S. or its closest allies, then we have to structure our forces so they can do nothing else but retaliate for such an attack.

ICBMs are the perfect retaliatory weapons precisely because they cannot be hidden, defended, or tailored to tactical missions. Moreover, they have one essential quality that establishes their deterrent value: they are located in the United States of America. There is no way to attack those weapons, and to strip America of its retaliatory capability, without attacking the sovereign territory of the United States. Prospective enemies must be denied any hope of half-way measures against us: if they mean nuclear war, then they must decide upon nuclear war.

Nuclear exchanges on the high seas or plucky bomber pilots making their runs deep inside enemy territory only happen in Tom Clancy’s pulpy novels. During the Cold War, we thought hard about how to convince the Soviets that a conventional war – one we would certainly lose on the ground – would escalate to nuclear conflict. Today, America is the preeminent conventional power and will remain so for decades to come (assuming we decide to maintain those abilities). There is nothing that nuclear weapons can do for us, short of deterring nuclear use by others, which we cannot achieve with conventional arms.

This issue of nuclear “utility” is one we avoided during the Cold War in the name of deterrence.  But sooner or later, we have to face two realities. First, the consequences of even a tiny nuclear exchange are more than any of us – and that includes Russia and China – are really willing to bear. Second, the use of even the smallest nuclear arms in crowded areas like Asia and the Middle East will inflict costs on our friends and allies that we, and they, will never accept.

So here’s what our new deterrent should look like.

America can defend itself with a small number of strategic nuclear arms, perhaps as low as two or three hundred. Scholars at the Air War College have pegged a number close to 300, which might even be high, but since we’re already at 1550 by treaty with Russia, there’s room to cut.  Start with a base of 300 bombs, and keep a third of those on single-warhead missiles in North America. (ICBMs with one warhead would be useless as first-strike weapons and thus their mission of retaliation would be clearer.) Assume the enemy surprises us – these days, pretty much a ridiculous assumption, but always plan for the worst – and somehow manages to destroy two-thirds of them before we even know what’s happening. That leaves 25 land-based missiles landing on enemy cities and infrastructure, killing millions, inflicting almost unrecoverable damage, and raising the cost of war beyond any benefit gained by this notional attack.

And then there are the submarines.

If four U.S. nuclear submarines with 16 to 20 missiles (and one to three warheads on each missile) are on patrol at any given moment, that means that the 100 warheads of the land-based force will always be backed up by anywhere from 64 to 240 warheads. Even at the lowest number, with three out of four lost to enemy action, one submarine would still be left to level the enemy’s capital and a dozen more cities. If that isn’t a deterrent, nothing is.

This reboot would streamline our nuclear forces, simplify our overly-complex nuclear strategies, and save billions of dollars. Conventionally-armed bombers will always be crucial in picking up missions that require the heavy use of airpower. (Bombers aren’t going away.) But nuclear bombers would be a “nice to have” not a “must-have,” and before arming a single bomber with a nuclear bomb, someone would have to make a case based on strategy rather than tradition.

When I worked for the late John Heinz in 1991 when he was the senior senator from Pennsylvania, he voted against continuing funding for the B-2 strategic bomber. The B-2 advocates came to our offices, and made no better case for the nuclear mission of the B-2 other than to say: it’s a cool weapon for fighting a long nuclear war with the Soviet Union…oh, and there are lot of subcontractors who need production to keep going. Heinz was undecided until the last minute, and then he went and voted. I was waiting for him outside the Senate chamber, and when came out, he said: “I did the conservative thing: I voted to save money.”

Start from zero, and add enough survivable nuclear weapons to destroy the regime of any nation that attacks us with nuclear arms. Put all the exotic toys away, focus on that one mission, and America will do not only a conservative thing, but a sensible thing, by saving money and confirming that our nuclear weapons actually have a real reason for existing besides the science-fiction scenarios of nuclear warfighting.

Missiles and submarines, Day One, eight o’clock.