Debating nuclear “aim points:” Who cares?

A map of a nuclear attack on the U.S. circa 1963. Which is about where this debate is still mired.

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.

Don’t miss any.

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 those too young to get that “Whack-a-Mole” reference.

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.

Pretty sure this has to go, no matter what.

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.)

Attack this, Commies.

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.)

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  1. Tom,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. At this point, I’m basically fated never to think about nuclear arms like a normal human being, which makes it all the more refreshing to have someone engage my work so thoughtfully. Thanks.

    I do have three comments, though, each slightly different in tone. First, good point about command and control infrastructure. Tim McDonnell made a similar point in a comment on the original post, and it’s definitely true. To me, the takeaway here is similar to the broad conclusion of your post: that it’s foolish to think that a small number of nuclear aim points makes a first strike relatively easier to contemplate/achieve.

    Second, I think the tension created by my decision to “take a dive” and argue that numbers still matter is easily resolved with a little bit of context. My point is that the raw number of aim points is not decisive in our ability to avoid a nuclear bolt-from-the-blue, but the raw number of ICBMs is important when discussing the qualitative benefits provided by each leg of the triad. This latter fact is interesting because folks tend to talk about legs of the triad without reference to their numbers—as if survivability is an inherent characteristic of the subs, signaling an inherent characteristic of the bombers, etc. The idea that numbers influence the qualitative characteristics of the ICBM leg of the triad is wholly consistent with the idea that numbers may not be the whole story in discussing aim points.

    Third, your argument that ICBMs are valuable because they force an attacker to deal significant damage to the continental US (making the threat of retaliation more credible) is interesting, but I don’t think it’s correct. First of all, an attack on US ICBMs wouldn’t kill very many civilians—Minot, Warren, and Malmstrom AFBs are pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Minot, ND has about 45,000 people, and Cheyenne, WY and Great Falls, MT each have about 60,000. This would be a huge number of civilian casualties, and it would certainly compel a U.S. response, but so would an attack against many of our other nuclear sites. For military sites, Barksdale AFB is directly east of Shreveport (pop 220,000) and Seattle (610,000) is less than 20 miles downwind of Bangor. For command and control installations, STRATCOM is just southeast of Omaha (410,000), and the Pentagon is (obviously) right near DC (5.6 million). An attack that attempted to eliminate US nuclear warfighting capabilities would cause tons of civilian casualties, but relatively few of them would result from attacks of US ICBMs.

    Again, thanks so much for your thoughtful response!


    • Eli- Thanks for reading and posting. (Don’t be offended by “taking a dive,” that’s just the way us 1950s tough guys talk — even though I wasn’t born then. Just color commentary.)

      I’m not sure the triad still needs to exist, but I do take your point that people talk about it as if it would still function in the same way today as it did in 1970 if it had 1 bomber, 1 sub, and 1 land-based ICBM. In that sense, you’re right: the numbers do matter — but only if you think the triad itself matters. (I have gone around and around with my USAF colleagues about why nuclear-armed bombers need to exist. I am unconvinced, but that’s a fight for another day.)

      I do not agree, however, that the ICBM fields being in the boonies — no offense to our friends and colleagues out there in the Great Plains and Rockies — means that they are functionally equivalent to being nowhere. I cannot imagine a Russian or Chinese leader contemplating the explosion of a nuclear weapon anywhere on the sovereign territory of the United States — I don’t care if it’s Guam — with equanimity merely because it’s far from New York or LA. That’s how policy analysts think, but I don’t for a moment believe that actual human political leaders think that way.

      Imagine it in the other direction: “Mr. President, we’re going to strike four sites in the Russian Federation. Not a lot of people live near them, but it’s going to be a hell of a mess out there in Siberia.” It won’t make a lot of difference.

      And as always, my challenge to this kind is scenario planning (and this more for your colleague at Heritage than you) is to ask Michael Howard’s question: This war, what is is about? What happened in the real world of politics that would make a strike against 6 “aim points” any more tempting than a strike on 400 — especially since the result, for the attacker, will likely be the same in the end?

  2. Of course it’s not really knowable what would be responses to the actual use of nuclear weapons, since that’s only happened a very long time ago. That may well give a dangerous air of unreality to the process of planning actual execution strategies, as opposed to signals with them, although the “threshold” effect of actually giving an order to detonate even one might, or might not, make the signal games all be bluffs, if of course some regard that as a dangerous idea as to credibility.
    As to the submarines, there was a collision between two boomer subs, not of course Ohio, but not antiquated either, that some wondered as to total invulneability being the case, if of course to take out subs, one would for sure be using tactical nuclear weapons, to make sure.
    Since as you say, killing civilians is different, to a point, than killing military personnel, as to response, that may be the “hostage” defense for having land-based ICBMs, although if you killed the Tridents on patrol, even that would be more than one thousand casualties who have a lot of friends who are well-armed, as to being passive in such an event.
    As to targeting points, it all depends of C4RSI, as to redundancy, although I can generate a scenario that has a real-world event some wondered about as to a missile field com-links failing. Could be just one of those things, could have been a test of a reverse engineering of a failure mode (they ping the missiles to say hello, which can become dynamically unstable for the links to 50 missiles, has happened twice, once in 1994, once in about 2009). If one had reverse engineered U.S. nuclear command and control, that would be the biggest threat, and always has been, if given some pre-delegation, some of which might be informal in character, it would be hard for an adversary to take that risk with a .99 level of certainty, say like how SAC set the default on the codes to 000000 or something like that, just in case. There are other modes of pre-delegation that might exist, if that of course has its risks too, as there is a definite tension between centralized command and control, i.e. civilian control, and survivability as to retaliation, if again, possibly all this is because the biggest tension of all is generated by the paradox of weapons so powerful everyone is afraid of using them.

  3. For some reason on fixating on your statement that “it reveals the exact opposite, that numbers don’t matter, human psychology matters”. God knows I’m just an engineer, and know virtually nothing about human beings or nuclear chicken, but how does his discussion imply anything about human psychology? The argument is, is seems, “a few secure MRV’d nukes is enough to smoosh anyone. Why bother with more?”. Once you’re above the “smoosh threshold” for all nuclear capable adversaries, you’re all set, right?

    I guess you’ll argue that deterrence is necessarily about psychology. Ok. Nevermind.

    • Henry Kissinger once said that there is a “virginity” to nuclear weapons in the modern age, and that no one wants to be the one to cross that line. (Other scholars call it a “taboo” or “tradition of non-use.”) There’s something so awe-inspiring in the use of a nuclear weapon that people think differently about it — we have multiple examples of this from Cold War history. So yes, there’s a “smoosh threshold” — we’d call it minimum deterrence — but in the end, yes, all deterrence is about human psychology.