A Wide-ranging Debate Over US Nuclear-weapons Policy Before the House Armed Services Committee

Frank N. von Hippel, Program on Science and Global Security Princeton University

When the Democrats took over the House, Representative Adam Smith from Washington State, took over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). One of the first hearings he scheduled, on 6 March 2019, was on the US “Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Posture” with non-governmental witnesses.

HASC, which authorizes more than half of the federal discretionary budget, has 57 members organized in six subcommittees. One of the subcommittees focuses on strategic [nuclear] forces but, because of his personal interest, Smith decided to have the hearing before the full committee.

Smith invited two outside witnesses:

  • Bruce Blair, currently my colleague at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. In the early 1970s, Blair served both as a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch-control officer and as a support officer for the Strategic Air Command’s Airborne Command Post. He became concerned about the danger of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch and has devoted much of his subsequent career researching and explaining the dangers. He also is a co-founder of Global Zero.
  • Joan Rohlfing, President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-governmental organization, previously worked in the Department of Energy as director of the office of nonproliferation and national security and senior advisor to the secretary on national security.

The minority on the committee got to choose only one witness and chose Frank Miller, of the Scowcroft Group. Most of Miller’s career was in the Pentagon, where he focused on nuclear strategy and targeting. During the Bush Jr. administration, he served on the National Security Council. His Wikipedia profile describes him as “a high priest of nuclear theology.”

The issues covered in the hearing included: ballistic-missile defense; the low-yield nuclear warheads the Trump Administration proposes to deploy on some submarine-launched ballistic missiles; “modernization” of US strategic forces; no-first-use of nuclear weapons; the future of US-Russian nuclear arms control; and the vulnerabilities of nuclear command and control.

The prepared statements and bios of the witnesses and a video of the full 2-hour hearing are available on the committee’s website.[1] Below I provide some excerpts, background and commentary that I hope will be useful to those interested in getting involved in helping to educate their Representatives, Senators and their staffs on these issues. Our Congress was relatively sophisticated on nuclear weapon policy in the 1980s but, with the end of the Cold War and the turnover of Congress, very few members focus on it anymore and big decisions are being made by a relatively small number of people, some of whom are zealots.[2]

Ballistic-missile defense. Blair was the only one to speak on this issue:

“We pulled out of the ABM Treaty [limiting strategic ballistic missile defense (BMD)] very abruptly in 2002. That was John Bolton's wrecking ball for arms control. And as a result, today, we're seeing appear on the scene, all these novel nuclear weapons systems that President Putin has been brandishing over the last several months. The hypersonic vehicles, the cruise missiles, the undersea autonomous nuclear submarine that can travel for 6,000 kilometers. All these systems were stimulated by Putin's desire to deal with the elimination of the ABM Treaty and develop weapons that could defeat [BMD], and it took them about 15 years.”

Low-yield nuclear weapons. The Trump Administration’s rationale for new low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-based ballistic and cruise missiles is a supposed Russian strategy to “escalate to de-escalate” a conventional war in Europe. The scenario Miller postulated was one in which Putin would “seize a piece of the Baltics” and then, if NATO assembled an overwhelming force to push his forces back into Russia, use a low-yield nuclear weapon to warn NATO to back off. The Trump Administration believes that the US needs more low-yield options than its bombs and air-launched cruise missiles provide. Freshman Representative Katie Hill of California pointed out that the Trump Administration’s “low”-yield warhead has a yield equivalent to 5,000 tons of conventional explosive, about one-third of that of the Hiroshima bomb, and with one half its potential area of blast destruction.[3]

Blair interpreted the Russian escalate to de-escalate policy as defensive rather than offensive,

“their escalate to de-escalate strategy's really emerged in the year 2000 under Putin in response to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999... And the Russians looked at that and said, ‘Wait a minute. What if this happens to us? We are inferior. We can't match NATO. What do we do?’ This was when Russia was on its knees, of course.

“And so they came up with a last-ditch approach to use nuclear weapons under this strategy that has been discussed…that … highlights … the weakness of their hand, and the fact that they would only resort to such use of weapons a … as a last resort, because … they're losing a conflict with…NATO.”

Modernization. The primary debate here was over whether the US should “modernize” (replace) the 400 Minuteman III ICBMs that are located in underground silos in the states of Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Blair and Rohlfing preferred to retire them because the Minuteman are postured to be launched on warning in case there appears to be an incoming missile attack. In their view, this creates an accident-prone hair-trigger situation. Blair argued,

“there's concern that the president, who has only about five minutes under current strategy, to make a decision on whether and how to retaliate to an attack may have to rely on information that has been corrupted.”

Miller argued that it is essential to keep the ICBMs because it would raise the threshold for any Russian attempt at a disarming first strike:

“If an enemy wants to neutralize those [400 ICBMs], that means putting at least 400 to 800 warheads in the air. There is no question that that is a massive attack on the United States which will draw a massive response, and that's an important indicator of what's going on in the world at that time.”

No-first use. Blair and Rohlfing argued that the US should raise the threshold for nuclear war by adopting a no-first-nuclear-use posture such as China has. Blair pointed out that, in fact, “the Chinese and the Russians have a no-first-use agreement with each other right now.”

The US had a first-use policy during the Cold War. At the time, the Soviet Union had a big numerical superiority in numbers of tanks along the inter-German border that NATO was unwilling to match. Instead, the US introduced thousands of “tactical” nuclear weapons into West Germany as a signal that any invasion would very quickly trigger a nuclear war. Hundreds of nuclear weapons were introduced into South Korea to send a similar signal to North Korea and China.

This policy was labeled “extended deterrence.” It extended the US “nuclear umbrella” to cover its allies from both nuclear and conventional attack and thereby served the nonproliferation objective of making it unnecessary for allies, such as Germany, Japan and South Korea, to acquire their own nuclear deterrents.

The balance of conventional forces in Europe changed, however, with the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union and the retirement of a great deal of Russian hardware under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. The Bush Sr. administration withdrew all but about 150 nuclear bombs in Europe and all US nuclear weapons from South Korea. President Obama tried to move the US to a no-first-use posture but his Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy all argued that, given Russian and North Korean threats to their neighbors, it was not a good time to do so.[4]

Miller argued that

“our allies have for decades depended on a U.S. policy that we would escalate to nuclear use to end a conventional war in Europe. If we were, in these very tumultuous transatlantic times, to remove that guarantee, we would cause allies to doubt the U.S. guarantee of their safety… if we remove that guarantee, we could well lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapon states in the world.”

Reductions. The US-Russian New START Treaty of 2011 limits Russia and the United States each to 1550 deployed and counted warheads. The limit is actually somewhat higher because the treaty counts long-range nuclear bombers as carrying only one nuclear warhead although they can carry up to 20 air-launched cruise missiles each.

US nuclear modernization plans are for:[5]

  • 12 new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines carrying 16 Trident II missiles each, with each missile being able to carry up to 8 warheads for a total of up to 1536 warheads.
  • 400 new silo-based ICBMs. The current Minuteman III once carried three warheads but today only carries one. Its successor is likely to have the same capabilities.
  • 100 new long-range B-21 bombers plus some of today’s 87 B-52H and 20 B-2A bombers. Not all of these bombers would be equipped with nuclear bombs and cruise missiles. Currently, only 60 of the B-52H and B-2As are believed to be nuclear capable. However, 1000 new nuclear-capable long-range standoff (LRSO) cruise missiles are being ordered for the bombers and hundreds of nuclear bombs are being refurbished.

About 3600 warheads are currently available for these systems – about twice as many as are deployed. The extras are available as potential replacements if deployed warheads develop problems. They also could be used to fully load up the strategic missiles and bombers in the absence of limits.

Blair argued[6] that the US could reduce to a much smaller force – even unilaterally:

“I think the number of primary aim points in our current nuclear planning is on the order of 1,000 … in Russia, China and North Korea, in total. And we have at sea, in our Ohio-class submarine force, enough warheads to cover all of those aim points…with … five [ballistic-missile submarines], if you could keep three at sea, that would be sufficient to cover the aim points that I have defined as constituting a fully adequate deterrent threat.”

Three Columbia-class submarines could carry up to 384 nuclear warheads, so Blair obviously does not think it necessary to cover all the aim points in the current US nuclear target list. The 1000 aim points is consistent with reports about an Obama Administration study that concluded in 2013 that the US could reduce to about 1000 deployed strategic warheads. Reductions to a “deterrence-only” target set with 500 aim points was reportedly also discussed but resisted by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as too large a reduction to accomplish in a single step.[7] President Obama hoped that bilateral reductions to 1000 might be possible but Putin was unwilling to consider further reductions without constraints on US BMD, which he sees as threatening the deterrent capabilities of the Russian nuclear forces that might survive a US first strike.[8]

Miller commented,

“A force of 12 [ballistic missile submarines] gives you 10 operational boats. That's enough to have a Pacific base and an Atlantic base. I think if that number came down much smaller, we would be driven to one base, which means we would lose an ocean's worth of patrol area.”

Indeed, Blair’s notional five-submarine deterrent would be a big step toward the British and French postures. Both have four ballistic missile submarines with 16 multi-warhead missiles each with at least one submarine on patrol at any time.

Nuclear arms control. Both Rohlfing and Blair called for extension of the New START Treaty which will otherwise expire in 2021, and a renewed dialogue with Russia on nuclear arms control. New START could be extended for five years by a simple executive agreement between Trump and Putin. Miller responded,

“The Russians have violated, are violating as we sit here, nine arms control agreements. I think that we need to proceed ahead to try to get our arms around their strategic weapons, their novel weapons and their non-strategic weapons.”

It is also the Trump Administration’s view that, rather than extend New START, the US should try for a broader treaty that would capture all of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has not engaged in serious nuclear arms control discussions with Russia. If it did, Russia too would want to broaden the agenda and include US BMD, which the Republican-controlled Senate ruled out of bounds for negotiation as a condition of ratification of the New START Treaty.

With less than two years before the New START Treaty expires, it looks increasingly as if it will expire without a successor. Given the Bush Administration’s 2002 decision to take the US out of the ABM Treaty and the Trump Administration’s February 2019 announcement that it was giving the required six-month notice of its decision to take the US out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,[9] the expiration of the New START Treaty would leave the US and Moscow without any bilateral nuclear arms control treaty for the first time since 1972.

Vulnerability of nuclear command and control. One thing all three witnesses could agree on was the need to invest in a more survivable command-and-control system for US nuclear weapons. Blair stated,

“every now and then, we conduct a study and we find new and worrisome vulnerabilities in this arena. The last study that I'm aware of happened after a squadron of 50 ICBMs went black in 2010 because of a breakdown in our obsolete command and control systems. No one could monitor those weapons, no one could launch them on authority or prevent their unauthorized launch.

“So when President Obama ordered a study of the possible cyber-vulnerability of Minuteman, it took a year and they came up with some pretty interesting findings, including the fact that we had actually wired our nuclear launch facilities -- our silo complexes -- with the internet, and created a vulnerability to outside hackers.”…

“I think we need to completely relook at the architecture of our command-and-control system. Airplanes don't last nearly as long as our forces. [Ballistic-missile] submarines can operate for months at sea, and our command system collapses in 24 hours.”

Miller agreed,

“The nuclear command-and-control system is the backbone of the Triad. If you can kill the nuclear command-and-control system, the forces don't work. The [airborne command posts] are old. The communication systems are old. The satellites are old and vulnerable. And so one of the key elements of the [Trump Administration’s 2018] Nuclear Posture Review is to modernize the nuclear command-and-control system.

They may have had different motivations for wanting to strengthen command and control, however. Blair would like the President or a successor to have time to consider a decision on how to respond to a warning of attack or an actual attack. Miller would like to preserve the ability of the US to fight a nuclear war to the end.

In any case, Representative Garamendi of California was happy that all three witnesses could agree on one thing, “command and control. Put the money there, put the emphasis there and get on with it.”

[1] https://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=109017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUm4qXTQFNs.

[2] Steve Fetter, Richard L. Garwin and Frank von Hippel, “Nuclear weapons dangers and policy options,” Physics Today, April 2018, 32-39.

[3] The blast area goes as the two-thirds power of the yield.

[4] David Sanger and William Broad, “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, 5 September 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/science/obama-unlikely-to-vow-no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons.html?searchResultPosition=1.

[5] “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” Arms Control Association, August 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USNuclearModernization. For current US nuclear forces see, Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “United States nuclear forces, 2019, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2019.1606503.

[6] See also Bruce Blair, The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-only Posture (Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, 2018) https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/ANPR-Final.pdf.

[7] Jeffrey Smith, “Obama Administration embraces major new nuclear weapon cuts,” 9 February 2013, updated 19 May 2014, https://publicintegrity.org/national-security/obama-administration-embraces-major-new-nuclear-weapons-cut/.

[8] See the Putin quote in Ref. 2.

[9] “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, February 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/INFtreaty.