As Russia looms, modernizing US nuclear arsenal is non-negotiable

As Russia looms, modernizing US nuclear arsenal is non-negotiable
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Many disarmament and zero-nuclear proponents are now near hysterical that a draft version of the administration’s nuclear posture review (NPR) has been released calling for the development of a sea-based low-yield theater nuclear deterrent to better extend our current nuclear deterrent umbrella over our allies in Europe and Asia.

At issue is the U.S. proposal to develop a new mix of nuclear weapons — perfectly consistent with both existing law and U.S. treaty obligations — that better deter the Russians who are developing an entire array of such theater nuclear weapons.

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Would the U.S. action make nuclear weapons “more useable” and thus make nuclear war more likely, as these administration critics are warning, or would such American action be a prudent step in improving deterrence and thus both our own and our allies’ security?

According to the Russians themselves, the function of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons — of which they have between 2000-5000 compared to 180-200 deployed in Europe by the United States — is to defeat U.S. conventional forces.

Although the U.S. has zero naval-based theater nuclear forces, Russian President Putin's directive of July 2017 highlights Russia’s naval non-strategic theater nuclear weapons precisely because they are more lethal than our conventional weapons and, in the Russian’s view, can defeat us in any conventional conflict by being used first. Such a strategy is characterized as “escalating to de-escalate.” So, in terms of the current balance, the Russian modernization of its nuclear forces is not in response to U.S. modernization but is in fact to give the Russians a new and better mix of nuclear forces with which to defeat America’s deterrent capability.

Despite the NPR critics’ claim that all the U.S. needs to do is to modernize our conventional forces, no U.S. or NATO conventional weapon can compare in destructiveness to even a low yield nuclear weapon. According to the Russians themselves:  “They (nuclear weapons) are capable of nullifying the combat qualities of all modern conventional systems,” so said Colonel-General Vladimir Muravyev, deputy CINC of the Strategic Missile Forces, in December 1999.

President Putin’s decree referenced above declared:

“The primary elements of the strategic deterrence system are nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence. Conventional naval forces retain an important place in the implementation of strategic deterrence objectives. …”

“During the escalation of military conflict, demonstration of readiness and determination to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons capabilities is an effective deterrent. …”

“Indicators of the effectiveness of measures undertaken to execute the State Policy on Naval Operations are … the capability of the Navy to damage an enemy’s fleet at a level not lower than critical with the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons.”

What then are the implications of the Russian president’s decree? What should the United States NPR assessment conclude?

First, Russia’s investment in multiple types of low-yield weapons loudly proclaims the Russians think those weapons are usable, even in the face of NATO’s current conventional and nuclear arsenal. This is not a matter of what we or our NATO allies think. To underscore a key point, nowhere in the NPR draft criticized by disarmers is there any mention of making our nuclear weapons of any kind “more useable.” These words do not appear in the NPR draft.  

Second, the deterrent we seek to improve is to convince the Russians precisely that their low yield nuclear weapons are “not usable.”

Third, the NPR seeks to accomplish this goal and to neuter the Russian investment in low-yield nukes with a better or more balanced mix of warheads for the U.S. arsenal.

Fourth, there is of course no real world empirical evidence that any kind of nuclear or conventional deterrence will always work as no one has fought a war with two nuclear armed adversaries. So, we cannot prove that deterrence will always work and why, but prudence dictates that we not ignore an enemy’s stated intentions.

Fifth, since there is clear evidence of Russian investment in new non-strategic nuclear weapons, as well as no doubt about Russian declaratory policy on nuclear weapons, we can either ignore such developments or counter them. The NPR recommends that we counter them.  

Sixth, and finally, the idea that our NPR initiative of building a new sea-based theater capability somehow creates “more usable nuclear weapons” is pure invention. It is a deliberate false tag used by disarmament advocates unwilling to admit the Russians have been ignoring their call for zero nuclear weapons and going like gangbusters in the opposite direction.

Ash Carter, the previous Defense Secretary, underscored these points September 2016:

“It’s a sobering fact that the most likely use of nuclear weapons is not the massive nuclear exchange of the classic Cold War-type, but rather the unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks, for example, by Russia or North Korea to try to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis.”

As one former senior defense official wrote to me:

“It is an unpleasant reality, but Russia refers to ‘theater’ or ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons as ‘sub-strategic,’ for a good reason. These weapons are ‘strategic’ in their minds, in affecting the outcome of a crisis or war. The evolution of Russia’s military doctrine in its most recent post-Cold War iteration and its concept of ‘strategic deterrence’ integrates all of the instruments of Russian military power ranging from information operations to a central nuclear exchange — including sub-strategic systems.”

He further warned:

“Sub-strategic terrestrial, maritime, and airborne weapons play an important role — including both nuclear and non-nuclear armed systems — in Russia’s concept of deterring adversaries.  Most Russian missile systems have nuclear as well as conventional weapons associated with them and many of these have been modernized with new nuclear weapons.” 

While Russia certainly seeks to deter direct attacks on its territory by NATO or other foreign adversaries, (hardly a probable event), Russia has a much broader menu of options to affect the outcome of an intense crisis with adversary states. These include scenario-dependent opportunities to include information operations, cyber and space operations, electronic warfare, conventional precision strike, integrated nuclear and conventional strikes, air and missile defense, as well as a wide variety of sub-strategic conventional and nuclear strike systems. 

The flexibility Russia has built into its sub-strategic as well as strategic forces describe a Russia that has assembled a powerful diplomatic and a modern military capability to support its increasingly aggressive regional diplomatic and security aims. The Russian modernization of its sub-strategic and strategic nuclear forces jeopardizes the U.S. capacity to credibly deter. As a result, the changes the draft NPR is proposing — including new sea based capabilities — are one step of many critical to deterring Russia from using its advanced nuclear capabilities in a future crisis.

In summary, it is the Russians who see nuclear weapons as “useable.” Understanding this reality will focus attention back where it belongs — the need for the United States to modernize its nuclear forces to better deter our adversaries and keep the peace, precisely because it is our enemies that routinely threaten the use of nuclear weapons against us, not the other way around.

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.