The Changing World of Nuclear Deterrence

Sept. 1, 2001

Adm. Richard W. Mies is the commander in chief of United States Strategic Command. On July 11, he gave extensive testimony on US strategic policy and forces to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic subcommittee. What follows are excerpts from his statement.

New World, New Strategy

“The post-Cold War world is a more chaotic place. Strategic deterrence, which worked well in the bipolar framework of the Cold War, may not work as well in a multipolar world of unpredictable, asymmetric threats, and in some cases, it may fail. How do you deter a threat that has no return address? How do you dissuade a threat that is faceless

“In recognition of this reality and as part of a comprehensive strategy to adapt our policies and forces to these emerging threats, the President and Secretary of Defense have articulated a need to move beyond classical, bipolar Cold War deterrence-the almost exclusive reliance on mutual vulnerability and assured response–to a more comprehensive framework that integrates other complementary elements of military strategy–elements including dissuasion, defense, and denial.

“We need an updated approach to deterrence that includes both offenses and defenses. Missile defense would not be a replacement for an assured response but rather an added dimension.”

Don’t Chuck the ICBMs

“Intercontinental ballistic missiles continue to provide a reliable, low cost, prompt response capability with a high readiness rate. They also promote stability by ensuring that a potential adversary takes their geographically dispersed capabilities into account if contemplating a disarming first strike. Without a capable ICBM force, the prospect of destroying a significant percentage of America’s strategic infrastructure with a handful of weapons might be tempting to a potential adversary in a crisis.”

No Risky Launch Strategies

“Our strategic plans provide a wide range of deliberative, preplanned options and adaptive planning capabilities to ensure our nation can respond appropriately to any provocation rather than an ‘all-or-nothing’ response. Additionally, our forces are postured such that we have the capability to respond promptly to any attack, while at the same time, not relying upon ‘launch on warning’ or ‘launch under attack.’ “

Down on De-Alerting

“With the end of the Cold War, we have dramatically transformed our strategic force posture. … We must be cautious, however, as we consider further changes in our force posture. Reducing the alert status of our forces, in isolation, can diminish their credibility and survivability. Many ‘de-alerting’ proposals jeopardize the existing stability against a pre-emptive first strike because they increase our vulnerability and create a premium for attacking first. As Albert Wohlstetter wrote many years ago: ‘Relaxation of tension, which everyone thinks is good, is not easily distinguished from relaxing one’s guard, which almost everyone thinks is bad.’ Most de-alerting proposals create an incentive to be the first to rearm.”

No “Hair-Trigger” Situation

“I would also like to challenge the perception that our forces are on ‘hair-trigger’ alert–a characterization routinely used to justify de-alerting proposals. Multiple, stringent procedural and technical safeguards have been in place, and will remain in place, to guard against accidental or inadvertent launch. Rigorous safeguards exist to ensure the highest levels of nuclear weapon safety, security, reliability, and command and control.

“Additionally, the policy of the United States is not to rely on ‘launch on warning.’ As I stated earlier, our forces are postured such that while we have the capability to respond promptly to any attack, we will never need to rely upon launch on warning. The diversity, flexibility, and survivability of our strategic forces and our command-and-control networks are designed to ensure we are never faced with a ‘use them or lose them’ dilemma and we are always capable of an assured response. … Our trigger is built so we can always wait-the hair-trigger characterization is inaccurate.”

Cuts for the Sake of Cuts

“Strategic force reductions must be viewed as means to an end-national security-not as an end in itself. … Deterrence ultimately depends not on our capability to strike first but on the assurance that we always have a capability to strike second. …

“We need to focus more on capabilities rather than numbers. There is a naive and mistaken belief that the ‘nuclear danger’ is directly proportional to the number of nuclear weapons and, accordingly, lower is inevitably better. As we reduce our strategic forces to lower levels, numerical parity or numbers alone become less and less important–issues such as transparency, irreversibility, production capacity, aggregate warhead inventories, and verifiability become more and more significant.

“It is ultimately the character and the posture of our strategic forces–characteristics like assured command and control, survivability, and reliability–more than their numbers alone that make the strategic environment stable or unstable. Additionally, there is a tyranny in very deep numerical reductions that inhibits flexibility and induces instability in certain situations.”

The Diagnosis

“Strategic deterrence will be a fundamental pillar of our national security for the foreseeable future. Short of universal brain surgery, the design of nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented or erased from memory.”

Strategic Force Reductions

Mies listed the changes in strategic forces since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The United States has:

  • Curtailed production of most modern bomber (B-2) and ICBM (Peacekeeper)
  • Stopped development of land-based mobile missiles-Peacekeeper rail-garrison and small ICBM road-mobile programs
  • Capped production of sea-launched ballistic missile warheads (W-88)
  • Removed all sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles from ships and submarines
  • Removed all bombers from day-to-day alert
  • Reduced the number of command-and-control aircraft from 59 to 20
  • Terminated the Ground Wave Emergency Network
  • Converted the B-1 bomber to conventional-only use
  • Eliminated the Minuteman II ICBM force
  • Eliminated all nuclear short-range attack missiles from the bomber force
  • Eliminated all ground-launched intermediate- and short-range nuclear weapons
  • Halted underground nuclear testingH Closed major portions of the nuclear weapons production complex.