America Must Be Ready to Nuke Back Fast

 Image: Operation Upshot-Knothole, Badger explosion. Public domain.

The greatest nuclear danger is not an accidental attack, but a failure to deter.

American policymakers have long believed these “gizmos of mass destruction” are for deterrence only. Not so Vladimir Putin, who in August 2014 while in Crimea talked about “our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons.”

And then there are the Chinese. In August 2011, Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese general working for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, indicated in blurted-out comments to the South China Morning Post that his country was planning “a surprise attack on the U.S.”

And Chinese flag officers, echoing infamous comments of Mao Zedong, have from time to time suggested they were willing to accept deaths in the hundreds of millions in a nuclear exchange with the United States. For instance, in July 2005 Major General Zhu Chenghu, in comments that threatened the first-use of nuclear weapons against America, said his country was prepared “for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian.” Most of China’s population, and most of the country’s major cities, are east of that city.

Comments like this, at a minimum, tell us that in the post-Cold War world the concept of deterrence is evolving and perhaps breaking down. The Russians and Chinese appear to view nuclear weapons in different ways than Americans do, and this mismatch could be exceedingly dangerous. De-alerting, especially when missiles are disabled for days, decreases the possibility of retaliation and therefore leaves the door open for nuclear adventurism.

In one limited instance, it may be possible to take weapons off what critics call “hair triggers” and still deter adventurism. Before that can be done, however, the U.S. Air Force has to remove its highly vulnerable land-based missiles from silos and put them on railcars or, like the Chinese and Russians, on transporter-erector-launchers—trucks in common parlance. The U.S. is almost forced into a launch-on-warning posture because the Minuteman III, in fixed and known locations, will almost certainly be destroyed by the first wave of a nuclear attack. “Use them or lose them” is the calculus.

The Air Force is now seeking funds to replace the missiles, first deployed in 1970 with an expected ten-year lifetime, but the plan is to put the replacements into silos. The new missiles, however, should be mobile. As Sokolski says, “The proper modernization of the land-based leg should make launch on warning unnecessary.”

If the new missiles, the main part of the GBSD or Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, could be carried by truck or rail, the American arsenal could generally be safely de-alerted if doctrine called for only minutes—not days or weeks—between confirmation of detonations of enemy nukes and the launch of retaliatory strikes. Of course, any de-alerting, however short the timeframe between first attack and launch, would require even more detailed planning to assure the United States could respond following the decapitation of civilian and military leadership in a first strike against the homeland.

Critics like Cartwright and Global Zero co-founder Bruce Blair want to scrap land-based missiles altogether, but at a time of increasing nuclear threats that is not, as a practical matter, going to happen. The task now is to make the land leg of the “triad” survivable. Mobile missiles will cost far more than the now-projected $62 billion price tag for GBSD between now and Fiscal Year 2044, but if activists say de-alerting is critical, they should be willing to support additional budgetary burdens.

Today, nobody remembers September 26, 1983, and for that we have Lt. Col. Petrov to thank. Yet at this moment the primary nuclear risk is not accidental launch but failure of deterrence, and so the U.S. must leave each potential attacker in no doubt it will be obliterated soon after launching against the American homeland.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.  Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Image: Operation Upshot-Knothole, Badger explosion. Public domain.