How To Start, And Lose, A Nuclear War

How To Start, And Lose, A Nuclear War

Losing a nuclear war is surely not intended by the Biden administration and congressional allies, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. But their call for unilaterally abolishing U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would surely lose a nuclear World War III.

The U.S. won the Cold War without the USSR launching a thermonuclear holocaust, thanks to the U.S. Triad of ICBMs, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

Each Triad leg plays a special role making a well-rounded nuclear deterrent for the broadest range of scenarios:

—Strategic bombers are the most flexible deterrent, can carry nuclear or conventional weapons, and can be recalled;

—SSBNs, when generated so all boats are at sea, are the most survivable deterrent, a secure strategic reserve to hold at risk the most valuable adversary targets, thereby deterring attack on the most valuable U.S. targets, especially cities;

—ICBMs are the most responsive deterrent, over 95% of the force always standing on alert ready to launch in a few minutes, rapidly retargetable, linked by multiple secure redundant means to the National Command Authority for near instant execution of Emergency Action Messages (EAMs).

Today, anti-nuclear radicals in the Union of Concerned Scientists, Federation of American Scientists, and Nuclear Threat Initiative are an important part of the Democrat Party’s political and intellectual base — and are calling for unilateral abolition of U.S. ICBMs.

These same groups and their pseudointellectual sophistry, masquerading as deep strategic thinking, would have lost the Cold War.

Now they are being welcomed into the Biden Administration.

Anti-ICBM politicians and activists see the greatest virtue of ICBMs — over 95% always on high-alert, every day, for years, serving as sentinels against surprise attack — as the very reason to abolish ICBMs, that they falsely allege are on a “hair trigger” for accidental nuclear war.

Elsewhere, I and others have made the case at length why ICBMs are indispensable to the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and that the alleged risks from their high-alert rates causing an accidental nuclear war are minimal.

For example, see my report "Surprise Attack: ICBMs and the Real Nuclear Threat"(Oct. 31, 2020) or Matthew Costlow’s report "Safety in Diversity: The Strategic Value of ICBMs and GBSD in the Nuclear Triad" (National Institute for Public Policy: May 2021) or, last but not least, recent testimony about the desperate need for U.S. ICBM modernization by Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of STRATCOM.

Eliminating U.S. ICBMs would make much easier adversary nuclear surprise attack, as they would no longer have to destroy 400 hardened ICBM silos, just 3 strategic bomber bases and 2 SSBN ports.

U.S. strategic bombers are no longer maintained on alert or nuclear-armed and would be completely destroyed by a surprise attack. Surprise attack would destroy most of the 14 U.S. SSBNs that are normally at port, while only 3-4 are on patrol at sea.

If the U.S. bans ICBMs, thereby reducing U.S. strategic targets from over 400 to just 5, even if there is thereby a tiny reduction in the possibility of accidental nuclear war, there would be an enormous increased temptation to Russia, China, even North Korea and Iran, to make a surprise attack.

If U.S. ICBMs are eliminated, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran do not even need nuclear weapons to destroy U.S. bombers on their bases or SSBNs in port. Cruise and anti-ship missiles with high-explosive warheads could do the job.

Iran has Russia’s Club-K missile, which has a launcher disguised as a shipping container, so any freighter can be converted into a guided missile cruiser.

If U.S. ICBMs are abolished, and so too the biggest impediment to adversary surprise attack, during a crisis or conflict it would become far more urgent to mobilize U.S. bombers and SSBNs to a more survivable posture.

Bombers would have to be put on strip-alert and nuclear weapons uploaded. Submarines would prepare to put to sea.

Mobilization of U.S. bombers and SSBNs would be highly visible to the adversary—and highly provocative.

Absent ICBMs to deter surprise attack, would the U.S. dare mobilizing bombers and SSBNs—ever? Would the adversary allow the U.S. to mobilize bombers and SSBNs, or strike first?

Banning ICBMs would:

—Greatly increase adversary incentives to strike U.S. bombers and submarines while they are sitting ducks;

—Greatly increase the range of scenarios when the U.S. must mobilize bombers and SSBNs to survivable posture, thereby also greatly increasing risk of triggering “action-reaction” escalation resulting in accidental nuclear war;

—Introduce a real “use them or lose them” dilemma with U.S. bombers and SSBNs where no such dilemma now exists because of the ICBM deterrent;

—Create a real "hair trigger" posture for U.S. SSBNs on patrol, and probably for bombers that will of necessity have to return to airborne or strip-alert, because of greatly increased vulnerability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent without ICBMs;

—Thus, banning ICBMs would undermine and destabilize the foundations of nuclear deterrence in ways more likely to realize the worst fears of anti-ICBM activists.

If you want to start, and lose, a nuclear war — abolish U.S. ICBMs.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, was Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, and served on the staffs of the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.  He is author of The Power And The Light: The Congressional EMP Commission’s War To Save America.

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