Bush’s Nuclear Blueprint

March 1, 2002

For decades, the US nuclear deterrent has rested on a “triad” of land-based missile, bomber, and submarine forces. That familiar triad will continue to exist for years to come, but it might become merely a subsidiary aspect of a larger constellation of strike forces, missile defenses, and revitalized nuclear weapons facilities.

That, at least, is the plan as sketched out in the Bush Administration’s wide-ranging Nuclear Posture Review, unveiled at the Pentagon on Jan. 9.

This so-called “New Triad” would offer national leaders a broader array of options for ensuring the nation’s security, the Administration said. It better reflects today’s geopolitical reality, in which the rigidly defined threat of one superpower adversary has been supplanted by the bewildering uncertainties of the post-Cold War world.

The New Triad would require deployment of many fewer warheads, according to the nuclear review, which was more than a year in the making. The US nuclear stockpile can be cut to 2,200 or fewer deployed warheads, said the NPR, as President Bush announced after his November meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bush Administration officials firmly believe that such a reduction should not be irreversible, however. Thus, they reject the framework of traditional arms control treaties, negotiated and written so laboriously over the last 30 years, as pieces of paper that might inhibit US flexibility in years to come.

“Threat-Based” No More

The NPR bills these changes as a much-needed shift from “threat-based” to “capabilities-based” planning. In other words, the key question no longer will be, “What do we need in order to counter Soviet nuclear intimidation?” but “What do we need to handle any contingency likely to arise?”

At a press briefing to announce the new policy, J.D. Crouch II, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, summed up the basic question this way: “What are the kinds of capabilities that we need to counter the potential adversaries or the capabilities of potential adversaries that are either extant today or that will emerge in the years to come?”

The full NPR is a classified assessment of existing and proposed US nuclear forces and strategy. The study was mandated by Congress in the 2001 defense authorization act. The last full-up nuclear review was conducted in 1993-94. Portions of that study were made public in September 1994.

In some ways, the new NPR completes the work begun in the Clinton-era study. The 1994 nuclear review was itself an initial attempt to revamp US forces to deal with a new, post-Soviet era. However, it was undertaken in an era of continued uncertainty about the direction that Russia and other former Soviet states might take regarding nuclear weapons.

The US problem in 1994 was finding the correct balance between the acts of “leading” and “hedging,” in the words of then-Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. To what extent, asked the Pentagon chief, should the US cut its stockpile to demonstrate leadership in controlling and reducing nuclear weapons worldwide, while at the same time allowing sufficient margin for error to guard against any turn toward hostility in Moscow

“Already the Russians are reducing their warheads more slowly than us, and there’s a question about what might happen in the future,” warned Deputy Secretary of Defense John M. Deutch in a September 1994 press conference.

Thus, Clinton’s Pentagon leadership rejected radical cuts in the arsenal, such as an elimination of an entire leg of the US nuclear triad. Instead, defense officials outlined the need for a slightly downsized force structure that closely corresponded with the terms of existing and prospective strategic arms control treaties.

The START I pact, signed in 1991, committed both the US and the Soviet Union (later, Russia) to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles and 6,000 “accountable” warheads on each side.

START II, which was signed in 1993 and ratified by both nations several years later but which never entered into force, called for new reductions, down to the 3,000- to 3,500-warhead level.

A START III accord never was negotiated, but the so-called “Helsinki accords,” announced by Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1997, called for further reductions to a level of 2,000 to 2,500 in each nation. This was to be the basis for a START III accord.

Clinton Force Cuts

The Clinton-era review did call for some force cuts. These included retirement of four Ohio-class missile-carrying strategic submarines (reducing the fleet from 18 to 14) and removal from the strategic force of 28 B-52 bombers (shrinking the fleet from 94 to 66). That NPR also called for stripping the B-1B bomber of any nuclear role and accepted an earlier decision to cap the number of B-2 stealth bombers at 20, down from the planned 75.

The “hedge” aspect of the 1994 NPR included elements that would preserve an option to start building the US arsenal back up again if relations with Russia turned sharply for the worse. The warheads necessary for such a buildup would come from an active reserve of semiretired weapons, said the Clinton NPR. As Deutch pointed out, “I think that both countries have warheads in reserve, warheads out of the military stockpiles.”

In 2001, the incoming Bush Administration also was determined to strike a balance among some important principles, but those principles differed greatly from Clinton’s.

Russia. Bush wanted to recognize–formally–the dramatic change in US relations with Russia. Almost from the beginning of his term in office, Bush has sought closer cooperation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. He insists that, today, Russia poses no threat to US security and vice versa. In the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “The US will no longer plan, size, or sustain its forces as though Russia presented merely a smaller version of the threat posed by the … Soviet Union.”

Treaties. The new Administration was determined to dispense with the formal and frequently Byzantine structure of strategic arms control between Washington and Moscow. As Administration officials saw things, signed treaties such as the START series may have made sense in the context of the Cold War but in today’s world would only constrain US options and limit its flexibility for years to come.

Defenses. Bush was prepared to deploy strategic defenses as fast as possible. The Bush team knew that any President’s time in office is limited, and they wanted to take concrete steps to put the nation on an irreversible path toward missile defense.

When the Bush Pentagon team combined these principles with the existing and planned nuclear force structure and doctrines, the result was a blueprint that it bills as a major change in US strategy. As stated by Rumsfeld in a letter to Congress, “This Nuclear Posture Review puts in motion a major change in our approach to the role of nuclear offensive forces in our deterrent strategy.”

The unclassified version of the NPR states anew the basic goal of reducing the nation’s nuclear holdings, over 10 years, to no more than 2,200 and perhaps as few as 1,700 operationally deployed warheads, as announced by Bush in his November summit with Putin.

Two Steps

At present, the US warhead stockpile hovers at START I levels–around 6,000–according to Defense Department officials who briefed reporters on the NPR. The Pentagon’s interim goal is to cut this number to 3,800 by 2007. A second cut-which would do away with 1,600 to 2,100 more warheads-would play out over the ensuing five years.

Much of the initial reduction will result from force structure decisions taken in the Clinton years. These include elimination of four Tridents, withdrawal from nuclear service of the B-1B, and retirement of the 10-warhead Peacekeeper ICBM, elimination of which was included in START II.

Pentagon officials were frank to say that they have not determined how to make the second round of reductions. “Beyond FY ’07,” said Crouch, “we’ll be making the force structure decisions on how we will be bringing down the force to 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed warheads.” In general terms, officials said, the reductions would stem from removing warheads from weapons such as the triple-warhead Minuteman III ICBM and the five-warhead D-5 submarine-based missile.

In the context of overall reductions, a key phrase is “operationally deployed.” The United States, for purposes of arms control discussions, diplomatic talks, and day-to-day planning, will focus only on weapons actually deployed on operational launchers. However, a second, nonoperational group of warheads will be maintained. An unknown percentage of warheads withdrawn from active service will not be destroyed but rather held in reserve.

DOD has made no final decisions about the makeup of this reserve stockpile, according to officials. They point out that most arms control treaties do not require warhead dismantlement-and that the Russians still maintain extra warheads, as well.

For years, the US has had both active and inactive warheads on its nuclear bench. The active stockpile is an intact weapon, fully ready to be deployed and used. An inactive warhead, in contrast, has been stripped of its limited-life components such as neutron generators.

“When the weapon is transitioned to the active stockpile from the inactive, those components are reinstalled in the weapon,” said John Harvey, director, Office of Policy, Planning, Assessment, and Analysis, Department of Energy.

Critics charge that the Bush Administration’s continuation of this “hedge” practice of saving decommissioned warheads somehow makes a mockery of its claim to be making deep nuclear force cuts and that its plan amounts to a shell game.

Levin’s Heartburn

Charged Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “It is quite a stretch, it seems to me, to be talking about major cuts in the number of nuclear weapons and to give the impression that you are making major reductions in nuclear weapons if you are simply deciding unilaterally we are going to take some weapons off planes and put them in a warehouse, ready to go back on planes in a matter of weeks or days.”

Administration officials point out that the process of warhead destruction entails more than just loosening bolts and screws and throwing old parts in the trash. Demilitarization is a difficult and expensive process, and in its current state, the US nuclear industrial infrastructure might not be able to handle large-scale dismantlement.

Nor is it right to imply that the Bush NPR is proposing fake reductions that will simply remove weapons from delivery vehicles and then hide them in secure warehouses somewhere. Crouch stated flatly, “There will be weapons that will be destroyed.”

He added, “This is what we might call truth in advertising. There are no phantom warheads here. This is the actual number of weapons that we will deploy on the force.”

The Bush review contained more than just specific force decisions. The underlying rationale is that the United States, in today’s chaotic world, faces a larger number of adversaries than it has in the past. Pentagon officials explain that the very term “strategic deterrent” needs to be broadened to include more than nuclear warheads.

During the Cold War the size of the US nuclear arsenal was determined by the size of the Soviet threat. All other strategic threats were “lesser included cases,” according to Crouch.

Today, Crouch continued, those once-subsidiary threats have become primary and dangerous. They are also less predictable. In this view, the old considerations of exchange ratios and throw weight will have little bearing on whether the US can deter Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction against America or its allies.

Nor can the US be sure it even knows the identities of all the world’s Saddams. The sudden emergence of the Taliban Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and al Qaeda terrorists throughout the world as major strategic threats only highlights this unpredictability.

“I think capabilities is a great way to go, because you can measure capabilities against anybody, whether he’s an enemy or not,” said one retired Air Force officer with long experience in nuclear matters. “Whether he’s an enemy or not is sort of what you think about him on that particular day.”

The bottom line, according to the latest NPR: The United States must stop measuring the value of its deterrent against the known, Soviet-built nuclear arsenal in Russia and instead focus on the weapons and policies that will be required to deal with the unknown threats and pressures of the new world. “A broader array of capability is needed to dissuade states from undertaking political, military, or technical courses of action that would threaten US and allied security,” said Rumsfeld.

Wash Out the Russians

One defense expert familiar with the nuclear planning process maintains that Bush must have made some dramatic changes to the US strategic guidance that long has determined nuclear force structure. The guidance, which is the province of the executive branch, tells military officers what they are to plan to achieve with nuclear weapons. For decades, the mission was to be able to attack and disable Russia’s offensive forces and capability for waging war.

“And with that guidance, you can’t get to 1,700 [total operational warheads],” said this defense expert. “You had to wash out the Russians, and I guess that’s what they did. I mean, they washed them completely out.”

The traditional US triad will exist into the foreseeable future, under Bush plans. The current force of land- and sea-based ICBMs and bombers will continue to play a vital role until at least 2020, the Pentagon explained.

To this end, the Administration plans to fully fund life extension programs for all systems that need them. In terms of a system’s average age, some strategic platforms are already quite elderly:

  • Minuteman III ICBM, 26 years.
  • B-52H strategic bomber, 40 years.
  • Trident submarine, 10 years.
  • D-5 submarine missile, nine years.

Bush Administration defense officials said they intend to study possible alternatives for follow-on systems. At this point, however, actual delivery of any such new platform wouldn’t take place until far in the future.

However, plans call for this old triad of nuclear weapons to form only one part of the first leg of a New Triad, according to the Bush nuclear review. The three points of the New Triad would be strike forces, strategic defenses, and a more responsive infrastructure.

The most innovative part of the New Triad concept is this: The strike force leg would comprise not only nuclear but also non-nuclear weapons. Improvements in miniaturization, explosives, and precision guidance in conventional weapons hold out a promise of greatly improved performance against hard and deeply buried targets, according to Bush officials. A more robust conventional strike capability could bolster deterrence of rogue states or terrorists who might believe the US would not respond with nuclear weapons to biological or chemical weapon attack and thus would not respond at all.

The proposed transformation of four Trident SSBNs into enormous, stealthy cruise missile carriers offers one example of non-nuclear strike development, said the Pentagon. Another: special conventional warheads that would burrow deeply below ground level to destroy leadership bunkers and weapons facilities.

Missile defenses–both active and passive–are similarly intended to reduce dependence on offensive nuclear forces to enforce deterrence, in the Bush strategic calculus. These will not be perfect, but they do not need to be perfect.

“By denying or reducing the effectiveness of limited attacks [on US territory or forces], defenses can discourage attacks, provide new capabilities for managing crises, and provide insurance against the failure of traditional deterrence,” according to Rumsfeld.

The Dissuasion Factor

In the view of some in the Administration, such defenses might dissuade nations even from attempting to acquire ballistic missile technology and nuclear weapons. Thus they might add to US security even if they are never tested in actual combat.

The Administration announced late last year that it would withdraw the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the better to develop and construct active defenses against ICBMs.

That step has not stirred up as much controversy as opponents predicted. Russia remains opposed to the move but does not “make a tragedy of this fact,” said Gen. Col. Yuri Baluyevskiy, first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian federation armed forces. In other words, Russia will learn to live with limited US missile defenses.

Despite Russia’s equanimity, some key members of Congress remain adamantly opposed to accelerated defense deployment. These critics claim defense technology remains unproved even after years of work and billions of dollars. It can be easily spoofed by balloons or other countermeasures, they assert. A rogue state would be much more likely to try and sneak a nuclear weapon into the US in a shipping container or truck than via missile, say critics. Plus, the effort costs money.

“There is a huge issue in missile defense separate and apart from the ABM Treaty issue,” said Levin. “That issue is whether or not it makes sense for us to spend huge resources to deploy a system against the least likely [nuclear] threat.”

The third aspect of the New Triad, a responsive infrastructure, is perhaps less self-explanatory than the others. In essence, it means improvement in the ability of the US to maintain and improve its nuclear weapons-or build new designs, if necessary.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US nuclear weapons infrastructure has atrophied, according to the new NPR. This was the result of both disuse and policy decisions. The United States, for example, has not conducted a nuclear test detonation in a decade. Since 1992, Washington has observed an informal moratorium on such testing.

The Bush Administration announced that it will continue to adhere to the moratorium. “The President is observing the moratorium and has said so,” noted Rumsfeld.

However, the new Administration opposes ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, unlike the Clinton Administration. It wants to rebuild the nation’s ability to carry out an underground nuclear test, if that is needed to ensure the safety and reliability of America’s nuclear weapons.

“We need to improve our readiness posture to test from its current two- to three-year period to something substantially better,” said Crouch.

“Serious Challenge”

This step seemed timely. On Jan. 2, the Department of Energy released a report, prepared by its inspector general, that called attention to continuing problems associated with the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons, which without nuclear testing, have become a “most serious challenge area.”

Improvement of the nuclear weapons infrastructure would permit the US to reduce its current arsenal more comfortably, according to the Bush NPR, secure in the knowledge that it could respond quickly to technological surprise or a change in geopolitics.

Knowledge that the US had not written off the ability to create and test new weapon designs might also dissuade any future adversary from starting a new competition in nuclear armaments, in that the US could respond simply by making a political decision to restart production.

New strategic arms control treaties (such as a signed, ratified, and in-force START III accord) clearly would inhibit Washington’s ability to pursue a future nuclear buildup. That, in fact, would be the point of such a treaty. But it is also the major reason that the Bush Administration is resisting Russia’s desire to codify deep reductions in a detailed, written form.

On a recent visit to the Pentagon, Baluyevskiy spoke to the press about this disconnect. Where the US wants flexibility, Moscow desires transparency and predictability, he said. “We are for irreversibility of the reduction of the nuclear forces,” said Baluyevskiy.

Not every expert agrees that the Bush nuclear program represents a true break with the Cold War past. The NPR’s planned force structure and warhead levels–and least those envisioned for 2007–are comparable to those planned by Clinton, they note. Even a level of 2,200 warheads might reflect a continued emphasis on counterforce targeting of Russian weapons, some maintain.

One skeptic is Jan M. Lodal, a National Security Council official during the Nixon and Ford Administrations who also held high Pentagon positions in the Clinton Administration.

“There is no need to keep American force levels as high as 2,200 offensive weapons,” he wrote in the New York Times. “That number comes out of war planning calculations that presuppose extended deterrence to protect Europe from a Soviet invasion-a mission no longer necessary in today’s world. If that mission were dropped, 1,000 nuclear weapons could meet our post-Cold War nuclear security needs.”

Those needs, he said, boil down to deterrence of Russia and China, deterrence of attacks by rogue states, and “the very unlikely (but not impossible) need to use a nuclear weapon to pre-empt chemical or biological attack on the United States.”

Bush officials insist that their plan adequately addresses the problems of today’s security environment. It reduces American reliance on nuclear forces with an approach that offers some non-nuclear deterrent options and provides synergies between all parts of defense, they say.

It is, said the Pentagon study, “the first step in military transformation” of United States forces.

“The Cold War is over,” said Crouch. “We have a nuclear capability that was built then. … We are transforming our forces in a way that … is much more appropriate to the security environment and the threats that we believe we will face in the future.”

Robert S. Dudney is the executive editor of Air Force Magazine. Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Turkey Stands Forward,” appeared in the February 2002 issue.