You know, I go away for a week to attend to some family business, and things just get silly. I’m talking about the “nuclear aim points” issue that was apparently started by one of the analysts over at the Heritage Foundation — of course — but then generated a response from the usually very sharp folks over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies PONI, or Program on Nuclear Issues. (Full disclosure: I was a fellow at CSIS back in the day.)
This mini-debate is nuclear theology right out of the later Cold War. At first blush, it seems to be asking an important question: If the United States eliminates its land-based ICBM force, how many “aim points” would a potential enemy have to strike in order to cripple any hope of U.S. retaliation?
In theory, a strike against the United States would have to eliminate 450 or so land-based missiles. If they’re gone, all that would be left would be a handful of bomber bases and submarine pens. An enemy contemplating a surprise attack against the U.S. nuclear deterrent would only have to worry about getting off a dozen or so strikes, instead of hundreds. Right?
I’ll cut to the chase and answer this for you: it doesn’t matter.
But let’s examine the debate anyway, because these simplistic numerical arguments constitute exactly the sort of frippery that’s complicating what should be a far more direct and clear debate about how much nuclear force it would take to defend the United States against…well, against something, including a nuclear first strike.
This apparently started when Michaela Bendikova at Heritage wrote:
If ICBMs were to be eliminated, the number of aim points for the Russian or Chinese missiles would be reduced from about 460 to six. This is insanity, given that both countries continue to expand and modernize their strategic arsenals.
This led Eli Jacobs, the program coordinator and research assistant for the Defense and National Security Group at CSIS, to examine this claim in a lot more detail (and with some very cool, Strangelove-like maps). Jacobs concedes that on pure math, Bendikova is right:
As it turns out, Bendikova’s numbers are pretty spot-on. The nuclear triad – composed of silo-based ballistic missiles, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines – currently consists of around 460 aim points, an amount that could be reduced to 8 or 9 were we to eliminate the ICBMs.
Now, I expect this kind of stop-reductions-at-all-costs sort of number-juggling from Heritage. It’s what they do. (That’s the nature of the partisan think-tank world. I don’t expect reasoned discussions from the Institute for Policy Studies, either.)
In fact, I once admired Heritage: I was in college when the conservative think-tank burst on the scene in the first Reagan administration, and I can remember thinking what a refreshing voice they were after the defeatism and gloom of the 1970s.
It might be hard to remember now, but in the late 1970s, there was a pretty pessimistic feeling out there in the U.S. and in NATO that the Western Alliance was toast, the Soviet Union was ascendant, and that we’d better all start boning up on command economics, because that’s what our Kremlin overlords were going to impose once the decadent West finally collapsed and surrendered.
Obscure movie digression: there’s a wonderful, if now-forgotten 1979 comedy called Americathon that recaps how America by 1998 ended up being a second rate fast-food stand owned by China and owing insolvent loans to a Native American tribe — after angry mobs stormed the White House during the “energy crisis” and lynched Jimmy Carter. That’s how things felt right about 1979, and the only oddity in the movie is that the winners of the global competition were the Chinese, not the Soviets. So the folks at Heritage, in their day, had a point.
But at some point, Heritage needs to set a forwarding address and move to the 21st century. That old-time religion of defending the nuclear triad and worrying about how many strikes will precede Red Dawn so that we don’t have to do The Day After is not only out of date, it’s dangerous. It’s the kind of scenario planning that gives the politically retrograde military officers in Moscow — which is to say, most of them — the grist they need to engage in idiotic nuclear planning of their own.
Worse, Heritage is wasting some important opportunities here, because they’re right, but for the wrong reasons. Getting rid of the land-based ICBM force is a terrible, even criminally stupid idea, but not for the weird, WarGames reasons that Heritage wants to defend.
(Yes, I just worked three 1980s movie references into this post. Trifecta. I rock.)
I’ll explain in a moment why we need those land-based ICBMs, but first, I just want to return to this point about missed opportunities. If the United States really is going to lead the way toward a world whose nuclear security is defined by very low numbers of nuclear arms, those initiatives are going to have to come from political conservatives, not liberals.
Or, as Spock once told Kirk: “There is an old Vulcan proverb, Captain.Only Nixon can go to China.”
The problem for American liberals is that they were in favor of nuclear reductions even when nuclear reductions weren’t a good idea. They allowed their cause to be championed by eccentrics like my personal favorite, Australian pediatrician and professional hysteric Helen Caldicott. (She’s still around — in Australia.)
These anti-nuclear activists made no distinction between the moderates (like me) who were working on projects, as I did many years ago, on creating “defense dominance” so that we could get off of the addiction to offensive nuclear strategies, and the more right-wing kooks who were lookin’ to go toe-to-toe in a nu-ku-lar war with the Russkies.
In other words, both the right and the left burned a lot of credibility on this issue a long time ago.
That’s one of the reasons that the “zero” initiative gained force five years ago: because a group of senior nuclear hawks from both parties, the “Gang of Four” and its associates led by Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and the magnificent George Shultz, took up the cause. But it’s hard to be supportive of that cause if places like Heritage are going to depict deterrence as a big game of nuclear aim-point Whack-a-Mole.
For his part, Jacobs did an admirable job of trying to take this whole business seriously. That’s his job, after all, and CSIS has always been a moderate voice in foreign affairs, regardless of what its critics — especially in the old Soviet Union — may have said.
But there’s no way to take any of this seriously, because this is just not the way normal human beings think about nuclear arms. The whole discussion defies common sense. Jacobs edged close to this admission when he wrote:
Arguably, possessing a nuclear arsenal that can withstand a first strike is of diminishing importance post-Cold War. It would be difficult to persuasively argue that the United States continues to face a legitimate threat of a disarming first strike. Further, even if these threats could manifest at some point in the future, the submarine leg of the triad is by far the most secure. The technological capabilities of our adversaries will continue to improve, to be sure, but there is no foreseeable route to rendering the seas transparent. Although deployed SSBNs only constitute a handful of aim points, this handful may be sufficient to deter.
And then, he just had to take a dive right at the end:
[T]his discussion reveals the importance of numbers in analysis of the triad and deterrence.
No — it reveals the exact opposite, that numbers don’t matter, human psychology matters (which is why the issue of the subs and their inevitable survival are important, as he himself noted).
So how many aim points we really need in the continental United States (CONUS, for us security experts) in order to deter a nuclear strike? He’s a good guess:
One. Okay, maybe two.
No matter how few strategic nuclear weapons the United States will ever possess, there is no way, no sensible plan, in which the United States nuclear force is attacked without attacking the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska. After all, that’s why STRATCOM is there: to coordinate a nuclear war.
Personally, I’d add that any possible enemy who contemplates a nuclear strike against the United States but has no plan to obliterate the Pentagon and everything around it is dumber than a bag of hammers, and just asking for the world of hurt that will eventually come down.
This means killing hundreds of thousands of Americans instantly, and many more over time from the effects of fallout and contamination. (A strike on Washington, and we’re talking millions of killed and injured with little hope of recovery of the capitol area.) If running that kind of risk isn’t enough to deter a strike, nothing is.
The “only six aim points” argument also presumes that an enemy is willing to take the chance that not even one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine, and its load of 72 (or even just 24) sea-launched ICBMs will survive. But if it does, whoever launched that attack is going to be eradicated as a political entity. (Russia and China are barely functional as major industrial countries on a good day; a dozen nuclear strikes will be unendurable and they know it.)
But let’s talk about those land-based ICBMs. They need to stay right where they are.
Retaining a land-based retaliatory capability should be organized around reinforcing a much simpler model of deterrence than the intricate plans and strikes and follow-on strikes and all that malarkey that used to occupy nuclear thinkers all day.
It should send one clear message: that the United States, for the near future, will maintain a very small nuclear force whose only purpose is to guarantee the continued existence of the United States by deterring any notion of using similar weapons against us. No plan for a disarming strike on the United States should ever have a plausible component to it in which CONUS escapes major damage.
This might seem illogical, but so is nuclear war. The only way to convince an opponent that the President would pull the nuclear trigger is to place the President in a situation where he or she will have no choice if the United States is to survive (or at least to outlive whoever was stupid enough to attack us.)
Hiding our nukes in the ocean’s depths, or dispersing them on bombers, or sticking them up on Moon Base Alpha is all well and good, but in the end, we have to have the fortitude to say that we, as a nation, will never use nuclear weapons — unless nuclear weapons are used against our nation.
But wait, I hear you
yelling saying: what about if someone uses nukes against us overseas? I think that’s a red herring in all this, but I’ll talk more about it in a later post (and in my book, this winter). The fact of the matter is that there’s really no military scenario out there where we’re better off using nuclear weapons, and inducing the massive enemy casualties and damage that we ourselves would end up having to deal with. More on that another day.
In the meantime, two words for the Heritage Foundation: Calm down. Conservatives are supposed to be the level-headed ones, remember? (Oh, and 1981 called: it said it would like you to move out and take your stuff with you.)