Nuclear Abolitionists Are Getting Ukraine Wrong

Nuclear Abolitionists Are Getting Ukraine Wrong

The war in Ukraine does not mean the U.S. deterrent failed. It means the United States failed to use its deterrent.

There are important new developments within the nuclear abolition and disarmament community, largely in reaction to Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Moscow’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons should the United States or its NATO allies “interfere” with Russia’s war against Ukraine has led to a considerable reevaluation of Russia’s regional and theater nuclear capabilities and the current theater nuclear forces imbalance with the United States.

Unfortunately, despite acknowledging Moscow’s new threats and acknowledging that the United States’ regional or theater nuclear systems are vastly inferior to Russia’s, many in the disarmament community have somehow concluded that America’s nuclear deterrent doesn’t have to be fully modernized. In fact, the disarmament community contends that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is relatively less valuable than other U.S. military and diplomatic tools because it apparently failed to deter Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine.

While some global zero advocates think the U.S. deterrent never was in the mix, they are ignoring that, in fact, Russia’s nuclear deterrent actually worked: Putin’s nuclear threats certainly deterred the United States from using its own military forces from defending Ukraine.

Indeed, the United States explicitly and unilaterally took its own nuclear and conventional deterrent off the table (and implicitly that of its NATO allies as well) because the United States did not wish to challenge Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

This was in large part because the Biden administration understood that directly engaging the Russians with U.S. military forces might very well risk World War III and a nuclear conflict that could end civilization.

However, by taking its deterrent off the table—even before a conflict began—U.S. strategists have no way to figure out whether the U.S. nuclear deterrent if exercised or threatened would have stopped Putin from invading Ukraine. We only know that Putin’s nuclear deterrent stopped the United States from defending Ukraine.

Another development raised by Putin’s nuclear threats is whether arms control can help lessen threats and promote stability. Many global zero advocates admit formal bilateral arms control for all intents and purposes is dead, especially due to the hostile environment between the United States and Russia, despite U.S.-Russia meetings in early 2022 on the subject. Thus, Biden administration official Wendy Sherman has noted that serious negotiations between Moscow and Washington on nuclear arms control would be difficult at best.

On top of which, any arms deal would have to meet Senate requirements that China’s growing nuclear forces be included in such a deal, further complicating matters. Of course, there is a near-unanimous view among foreign policy experts that China has no interest in any such agreement with the United States, whether bilateral or multilateral in nature.

But arms control may not be dead. As the late Army general Edward Rowney, arms negotiator for five U.S. presidents, wrote, it can take “one to tango” in the arms control business—a U.S. president can unilaterally decide to engage in one-party arms control as a means of jumpstarting arms control, much as President George H.W. Bush did in 1991 with his President Nuclear Initiatives (PNI).

At the time, the first Bush administration unilaterally took thousands of U.S. regional and theater nuclear weapons from the Army and Navy, expecting that the new Russian Federation would reciprocate following the Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of the Cold War. However, despite the U.S. decision to dramatically curtail its overseas regional or theater nuclear systems, the Russians did not reciprocate: they currently have at least 2,000 and perhaps as many as 5,000 such warheads even though the United States only has several hundred left in Europe.

Not only did the United States eliminate nearly the entirety of its regional or theater nuclear capability, but in the following decade after the Soviet collapse, the United States also unilaterally stopped the production of three key long-range strategic programs—the Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Ohio-class submarine, and B-2 stealth bomber. Combined, these cancellations led to what has been described by Maj. Gen (Ret.) Garret Harencak as a multiple decades-long “nuclear procurement holiday” which is only now being reversed as the United States pursues nuclear modernization with initial deployments scheduled for the end of the current decade.

Even today, in the absence of a new arms control framework, the Biden administration appears to be committing to unilateral cuts, with the FY2023 budget proposal to eliminate funding for a nuclear-armed Navy cruise missile and the B-83 earth-penetrating nuclear warhead.

Although to its credit, the administration’s overall nuclear modernization funding is in relative terms consistently robust, arms control enthusiasts still are pushing unilateral cuts to the ICBM force, up to half of the U.S. Navy’s submarines, and stopping the funding for the cruise missile for the U.S. strategic bomber force.

However, one would think history would put a kibosh on such future efforts. For example, after the Bush’s PNI, Moscow went in the opposite direction under Vladimir Putin—developing a plan between 1997-99 to field twenty to twenty-five new strategic nuclear systems and thousands of new warheads by 2020, which are now 89.1 percent complete according to Russian senior officials.

Yet global zero advocates continue to pursue unilateral arms control. How then can such a strategy be supported? Here another clever logical twist is created by global zero advocates. If one concludes that the U.S. deterrent did not stop Putin from invading Ukraine, then it follows that the U.S. nuclear deterrent itself must be less valuable than assumed. And thus, if it is less valuable, investing in a “wasting” asset becomes meaningless, and therefore in the nuclear arena, the United States can obviously invest less and build less.

Robin Wright of the New Yorker wrote recently that some analysts believe that U.S. nuclear deterrence is no longer effective, because as pointed out above, the United States failed to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine. Wright also explains that since the primary Russian threat may now be the limited use of regional nuclear forces, and not a large-scale massive strike, U.S. retaliatory needs could be sharply diminished given the reduced size of Russia’s initial nuclear attack.

This new paradigm assumes that to deter a limited escalate-to-win type nuclear attack from Russia, the United States needs only a relatively small number of warheads to respond. Such a proportional retaliatory strike certainly would not require the planned 400 Sentinel ICBMs missiles or the planned 192 D-5/2 missiles to be aboard twelve Columbia-class submarines carrying as many as 1090 warheads.

As House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith explained in a 2021 hearing, a low-yield D-5 missile warhead aboard a U.S. submarine would not be useful in responding to a small Russian nuclear attack. Further, if such a response option was exercised, once on the surface, the submarine with all of its roughly 100 warheads would be exposed to a counterattack when the United States would only need a few warheads to respond.

Specifically, this viewpoint supports the United States having fewer deployed nuclear warheads than are currently planned for the land-based legs of the U.S. triad because it is assumed that far fewer warheads will be needed to respond to the most likely “limited” nuclear threats.

Although critics of the ICBM Sentinel program acknowledge losing the battle over whether to build a new land-based missile—rather than staying with the old Minuteman III ICBM or eliminating ICBMs altogether—these critics are now focusing on whether the United States needs 400 missiles (the current plan) or should build a lower number.

In the case of an all-out Russian attack on the United States, they say, no U.S. fixed silo-based ICBMs would survive to retaliate. Therefore, they play no role in deterrence. However, in the case of a limited Russian nuclear attack, a proportionate retaliatory ICBM strike force needs to be relatively limited as well, meaning that 400 missiles are excessive.

Unfortunately, this last point entirely misses why the United States maintains such a retaliatory capability for deterrence purposes. During most of the Cold War and in the more than thirty years following the Soviet Union’s demise, the disarmament community repeatedly pushed for a minimal city busting capability as the only required deterrent. They assumed that destroying some small numbers of Russian or Chinese cities secured deterrence and contended that there was no need to destroy the bulk of the remaining Russian or Chinese military capability in a retaliatory strike.

However, since at least the Kennedy administration, U.S. nuclear strategy has emphasized holding Russian and Chinese military assets, which these governments highly value, at risk. This has its own deterrent value as destroying their weaponry would prevent Russia and China from securing hegemony, which would precisely be their goal in using nuclear weapons in the first place. For if you knew that all your military capabilities would be destroyed, then what would be the point of attacking in the first place?

It is widely understood the current U.S. administration took Putin’s nuclear threats seriously, which means, as far as Putin is concerned, his nuclear threats worked. This suggests that more threats may be on the way.