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Why A Nuclear Deterrent Without ICBMs Would Be Dangerous And Destabilizing

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 13, 2021

On August 9, House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith sent a letter to President Biden concerning potential focus areas for the administration’s planned nuclear posture review.

It is a thoughtful letter that recommends areas of inquiry rather than proposing outcomes.

But included among the nine recommendations is one idea, that, if acted upon, could make nuclear war more likely in the decades ahead.

Chairman Smith suggests that the posture assessment “review the size and/or necessity of the land-based leg of the triad.”

“Triad” is the term used to describe a tripartite nuclear force of land-based ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missiles, and bombers equipped with cruise missiles.

The U.S. strategic arsenal has consisted of a triad since the 1960s, and every nuclear posture review conducted since the Cold War ended—in 1994, 2001, 2010 and 2018—has endorsed retention of a triad.

So within the nuclear community, the notion of eliminating one leg of the triad (thereby creating a “dyad”) is a radical idea.

This is not the first time Chairman Smith has raised such a possibility, and its inclusion in his letter to the president is more than a rhetorical flourish.

In fact, one of his colleagues, Readiness Subcommittee Chairman John Garamendi, introduced a bill last month proposing to delay development of a next-generation land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ten years—until 2031.

If that bill became law, it would begin the unraveling of the land-based missile leg of the triad because it would mean no new ICBM is fielded before 2040, and Air Force officials have repeatedly stated existing Minuteman III missiles cannot reliably be maintained beyond 2030.

If there’s one thing U.S. nuclear planners don’t need, it’s retention of weapons in the force that might not be safe or reliable, so retirement of Minuteman III would have to proceed with or without a replacement.

Without ICBMs in the U.S. strategic force, nuclear war and carnage on an unimaginable scale would become more likely.

The reason is simple: in the absence of 450 ICBM silos that nuclear aggressors must destroy to avoid fearsome retaliation, the number of targets they would need to eliminate in a surprise attack falls to less than 20.

Specifically, they would need to take out a dozen submarines hosting most of the warheads in the U.S. strategic force, plus three bomber bases.

As Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, destroying the bombers wouldn’t be hard in a surprise attack, because they typically aren’t on alert.

That means that the entire weight of deterring a nuclear attack in some future crisis would fall on those dozen submarines, some of which would be in port on any given day.

The thought process of those proposing to eliminate land-based missiles from the triad necessarily rests upon the assumption that submarines at sea can’t be tracked or targeted and thus would be able to execute the necessary retaliation regardless of what happened to the rest of the U.S. arsenal.

That certainly is possible: the Navy is planning to buy a dozen Columbia-class ballistic missile subs to replace the existing Ohio class, and each of the future boats will carry 16 long-range ballistic missiles that host several independently-targetable warheads.

In other words, even a handful of the Columbias could destroy every major city in Russia or China, presenting a powerful deterrent to nuclear attack.

However, presuming the survivability of U.S. strategic submarines for many decades into the future could reflect, to use the language of the 9/11 commission, a failure of imagination.

The Obama administration’s nuclear posture review warned that “Today, there appears to be no viable near or mid-term threats to the survivability of U.S. [ballistic-missile subs], but such threats—or other technical problems—cannot be ruled out over the long term.”

Similarly, the Trump posture review warned that “advances in anti-submarine warfare could make the [ballistic-missile sub] force less survivable in the future.”

Nobody today can predict what such advances might entail, but it isn’t hard to imagine long-endurance drones in the air or on the water equipped with sensors and computing power sufficient to follow the telltale signatures of even the quietest submarines.

One thing we can say for certain, though, is that if the ICBM leg of the triad is eliminated, then potential aggressors will focus their research into disarming weapons on the remaining legs.

It is easy to dismiss the idea of a disarming first strike as fantasy, but we can’t know what kinds of leaders might be making such decisions in the future, nor what kinds of crises they might be confronting.

Crises have a way of escalating to a point where decisionmaker judgment is impaired; under the pressure of impending danger and constrained timelines, a future Russian or Chinese leader might feel compelled to launch forces for fear of losing them in an attack.

That move would not make much sense if there is no way of disarming the United States in a first strike.

But if the ICBMs are gone and the foreign leader knows his or her forces can target U.S. ballistic-missile subs even when at sea, then the barriers to aggression would be reduced.

This is one reason why almost nobody who studies nuclear weapons thinks that eliminating land-based ballistic missiles from the nuclear force would make America safer.

It might save $200 billion over the next several decades to forego a new generation of ICBMs, but that would be a foolish way of saving money if it made nuclear war more likely.


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