Congressional Commission and Nuclear “Requirements”

The Congressional Commission on the strategic posture report released yesterday is what the Air Force calls a “target rich environment.” There is a lot to shoot at. This essay follows up on the post that Hans Kristensen and I published yesterday. I want to continue the theme I discussed yesterday that the recommendations of the report are based on assumptions about nuclear weapons characteristics, assumptions that are implicit, unexamined, and unsupportable.

For example, “Although nuclear weapons have existed for over sixty years, weapons science was largely an empirical science for much of that period. Nuclear weapons are exceptionally complex, involving temperatures as high as the sun and times measured in nanoseconds. Understanding these weapons from first principles requires a broad, diverse and deep set of scientific skills, along with complex experimental tools and some of the fastest and most powerful computers in the world.”

But didn’t we build nuclear weapons in 1945 while armed only with slide rules? The above statement about the science of nuclear weapons is partially true about our current nuclear weapons but that is because our current weapons are high performance, two-stage thermonuclear bombs with yields of up to fifty times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  As I have written elsewhere, these powerful bombs are needed to conduct first strike attacks against Soviet, and now Russian, hardened silos containing nuclear-armed missiles. The reason they must be of such sophisticated design is to make them small and light so many of them can fit atop one missile, to increase American strike power efficiently. The requirement for knowledge of plutonium behavior comes about because plutonium is a far better trigger than uranium for multi-hundred kiloton weapons. These were all important nuclear weapons requirements during the Cold War.

Do these “requirements” persist today?  In fact there is no new physics needed to understand nuclear weapons adequately;  they are, in principle, well understood, the challenges are technical, not scientific, and there is little to no technical challenge left for American and other advanced nuclear weapon states in just getting a bomb to explode and we could design bombs that do not require a complex supporting infrastructure.  There is, however, a challenge in getting a dozen warheads, each with several hundred kilotons of yield, on one missile and that was important at a time when the United States was planning a nation-crushing attack on the Soviet Union.  The stated need to maintain expertise in the labs rests, then, on an implicit endorsement of a nuclear mission that many of us think ought to be explicitly rejected.  This occurs at several points in the report; the commission is so comfortable with the nuclear status quo that they seem unaware of fundamental questions that are being widely discussed today about the future of nuclear weapons.

The report repeatedly makes implicit assumptions about nuclear weapon performance characteristics that depend on nuclear missions while never saying anything specific about the missions themselves.  For example, “So long as the nation continues to require a nuclear deterrent, these weapons should meet the highest standards of safety, security, and reliability.”  This is an open-ended requirement.  We are not given the faintest clue about how we will know when we will be done.  When will our nuclear weapons be safe, secure, and reliable enough?  The political answer is that they will never be safe enough, the weapon labs will make nuclear weapons as safe as they can with the biggest budget they can convince the Congress to send to them and if you send them more money the weapons will be more safe.  More safety is always better, right?  Apparently not, because we could dramatically increase the safely of nuclear weapons by storing them disassembled.  But since this would not allow them to be used quickly (in another place the report advocates ICBMs because they are “immediately responsive”) it is too far outside the box to be considered by the Commission. The Commission’s constraints on considering what is available to enhance safety implies, without examination, certain mission requirements and it is precisely these mission requirements that the Commission ought to have been focusing on. Instead, they talk about lab budgets.

An amusing comparison is the discussion of how the labs ought to be relieved of some of their safety and security burden. While nuclear weapons should meet the “highest standards” of safety and security, the Commission later writes,

“A significant new cost driver is security. Costs to protect nuclear weapons and material have dramatically increased over the past few years. Today, security costs at NNSA sites consume one out of every five dollars appropriated for the weapons program or approximately $1 billion per year. Some increase was inevitable in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. But in the view of the Commission, some of the increase is not warranted. Both the Congress and the Department of Energy have been reluctant to take actions that might be interpreted as a lessening of security. As a result, the security program has become unbalanced, with few incentives for reducing costs and a tendency to apply standard procedures even when illogical.”

And later, the report states,

“Costs for security are inordinately high in part because of the incentive structure. There are no incentives to do more than simply comply withexisting standards and, instead, to use good judgment in the service of innovation. Conditional probability metrics are not being used as the basis for defining the necessary security protection at the sites.”

Nor are “conditional probability metrics” being used to determine the required safety and security requirements for the warheads themselves.

Some others have written on the report. A brief piece is in Wired and Kingston Reif at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation did a good analysis.

5 thoughts on “Congressional Commission and Nuclear “Requirements”

  1. What a strange document. (And the full version has a formating hick-up). Somewhat out of focus, with a good number of contradictions, and by far not what it should be, as no analysis of alternatives is done, and everything is based on existing systems without even thinking about new ones that would perhaps enable the President’s ideas. Of course they arrive at the conclusion that nothing can/should be changed!

    All in all it’s too focused on Russia, plus written from a purely American perspective, without taking into account the Russian strategic situation in the next couple of decades. Because Russia’s strategic threats do not come from the U.S. (they are more demographics, the question of Siberia and China, the question of the Muslim south), nor is Russia a real strategic threat to the U.S. (that would be more China).

    Missile defence is mentioned, but basically just by name. No analysis of the effects done, no thought about using BMD/NMD as the defensive part of the deterrence arsenal. Nevertheless the report seems averse to strategic missile defense, and it seems the reason is Russia’s statement to pull out of INF in case strategic BMD is deployed. But that is also not explicitly stated.

    EMP gets an own chapter. Why? And if EMP why not cyber warfare as well? Also it is not clear what they exactly see in EMP – a strategic attack by non-nuclear means (HPM cruise missiles)? Or with the use of nuclear pulse generators (bombs – which would constitute a nuclear attack)? They write something like ‘an EMP attack might trigger nuclear retaliation’. Hm. I thought no first use? And what retaliation? Strat or tac? And against what? And again – what about cyber warfare? And why do they see this as a DHS job? It would obviously be a USNORTHCOM job, if directed against CONUS.

    The attitude towards strategic vs tactical waepons is generally unclear. In a couple of paragraphs it reads like the tacs are only here to soothe the allies. Well, but that can’t be all, can it? The position also does not clarify the character of the “nuclear umbrella” for the allies, but postulates that the size of the U.S. strategic arsenal is also determined by that umbrelly requirement. But what triggers the strategic umbrella button is left open, even though there are paragraphs that connect it with Russia’s tactical arsenal (which the Russians in turn connect with the U.S./NATO hightech-conventional dominance). Snake bites tail.
    The question of the qualitiy of deterrence of tactical nuclear weapons should have been looked into.

    If an non-NBC attack like EMP can trigger a “first use” by the U.S., and “pre-emptive” use is explicitly an option, the whole “no first use” posture evaporates anyway.

    The question of targeting was completly left out, but is of course essential. It is said that targeting population centres is against international law, even though it was done before CEP allowed targeting of specific enemy installations. But then strategic warfare might be immoral in its entirety, and everybody should reduce to tactical weapons? And can tactical weapons alone deter?
    When applying a strategy of targeting population centers China would be the determining factor, as they have about ten times the number of large(r) cities than Russia has.

    Then there was the open omission of C3, which is an essential part of survivability, which in turn critically influences the system/warhead numbers.
    Also left out was early warning and the whole issue of damage assessment & analysis, which is especially important in a terrorist/rogue state warhead delivery by non-ballistic means. Can’t just go and fire salvos at the usual suspects!

    And then of course the whole reason why the report concludes that everything should best be left unchanged: Real reductions are not possible with the current systems, since their survivability becomes questionable. The Minuteman silos are vulnerable – only a road/rail mobile Midgetman-like ICBM could correct that. Expensive, takes time. And then the huge first-strike optimized Ohio boats. Un-MIRV’d SSBN/SLBMs are pointless, the costs out of proportion to their deterrence value, so no un-MIRV’ing. Reduced number of boats? Also not an option, since less deployed boats become potentially easier to track (even though they say it’s never been done), diminishing their deterrence value. So any real arsenal reduction requires new SSBNs and new SLBMs. Very expensive, takes even more time.
    And as long as the option of new ICBMs and SSBNs/SLBMs is not part of an analysis, that analysis will always arrive at the conclusion that nothing can be changed.

    In the report there is one core issue, that will kill any real reduction: They clearly see the quality of deterrence as a function of the number of deployed warheads. That is simply fatal, and beyond a certain threshold fundamentally wrong. Why don’t they trust in what is usually out there? Do they really think “uploading” will increase deterrence? It only leads to a huge arsenal and signals the other side(s) that the U.S. sees its nuclear strike capability. And it also raises a huge questionmark over the “no first use” doctrine – as a potential enemy I would no belive in that as long as the upload option exists. If the U.S. is really commit to “no first use” (strategic, that is, to be honest) and trusts in its arsenal, then there is no need to keep the uploading option. But that might be the point: Thrust in the arsenal, or the lack therein.

    Kingston Reif writes in his analysis that the report fails to recommend the ratification of the CTBT. I was surprised that the report worries a good deal about the intellectual/technological/industrial base of the nuclear complex, but does not take a clear stance on the test ban issue. I think a healthy industrial base *needs* tests. Not many, but regulary.

  2. Distiller, good points however, I tend to disagree with this part;
    “And then of course the whole reason why the report concludes that everything should best be left unchanged: Real reductions are not possible with the current systems, since their survivability becomes questionable. ”

    The U.S. could scrap the triad for a dyad and still retain a viable nuclear deterrent. Eliminate the Minuteman missile force altogether while phasing in the next generation SSBN/SLBMs with an endstate of 18-20 boats. That would leave 10-12 on patrol at anytime while the rest were in refit/ shore duty. Phase in new bombers (B2 or next generation) while retiring B52s until the force is at about 100.

    Yeah it will be expensive, but at least this money benefits America more than pricey bonuses to AIG executive numbskulls.

  3. One option proposed for reducing the vunerability of land-based missile silos was to use mobile launchers. The Peace-maker missile was proposed during the Carter administration as a replacement for Minute-man missiles. Specially built train cars would carry missiles around the country. they would also act as launchers should the need arise. But given the state of todays satellite technology, real and potential adversaries could keep track of them with the click of a mouse.
    The nuclear war of the future will probably use a combination of nuclear and cyber attack. Cyber attacks will be conducted first to disrupt computer based systems (( including command and control), but this would cause only a temporary disruption. Nuclear weapons would then be used to permanently destroy those systems that might be used for counter-attack. Railroad systems rely heavily on computer systems to maintain order and prevent accidents. A cyber attack could be used to stop one of thes trains over even cause it to crash. If the train is stopped, a nuke exploded nearby would” blow it off the tracks”. In this respect, hardened silos have an advantage since more accurate missiles would be required to achieve pin-point accuracy.

  4. Sean,

    short intro: I see immunity from a sneak attack as a core element of deterrence. Hence I see survivability of the strategic deterrence complex as the dominant required characteristic.

    Flowing from there I say dropping the bomber leg (not the land-based leg) would be recommendable anyway. Its survivability in the current form is questionable.Certain aspects of START 1 (resulting from the available control & surveillance technology at the time) were not helpful here either. (Technology has advanced, and even though that is not in line with the idea of deterrence, a F-15E could be adapted to carry one or two AGM-86B in a short time if needed).

    The active nuclear Tomahawks are all piled up in North Dakota, Whiteman is just a single base – the survivability contribution of the airborne leg is less that optimal. And one has to remember that the only weapon that can not be countered with a high degree of probability so far is a fast ballistic missile (ICBM, long-range SLBM). A ALCM, even if (V)LO will always run the risk of intercept by datalinking bi-static MiG-31, S-400 and kin (if one takes Russia as the enemy).

    The critical part are the Ohios and the Tridents, since they are the big multipliers, but also the most survivable leg. And now is a good time to think of concepts and alternatives, since work on the Ohio replacement has already started. (Not on a Trident follow-up, though).

    If the U.S. would abjure their upload option – and only then any meaningful reduction – would be achieveable – the D-5 is an overkill designed to breed distrust and suspicion. A smaller, lighter 4-RV design without upload capability is needed.

    And to carry those lighter missiles with their fewer warheads new boats are needed, but more of them. You write 18 to 20, and I agree. 18 active, plus 2 or 3 for deep maintenance. (Whereby I would prefer 3, in line with 3 SSBN bases instead of two. That would give 6+1 for each base. A Gulf location on one of the big AFBs could be interesting). Each new SSBN, possibly Virginia class based, would carry only 12 or 14 of those new SLBMs. Real honest downgrading of the offensive capabilities while increasing survivability.

    The reason why I wouldn’t cancel the land-based ICBM capability is the surety of communication (if everything else fails, send a guy on a Harley), the selective response capability (would you want to give away a SSBN location just to glaze a launch silo in North Korea?), and technical things like single-point-of-failure. But to increase survivability of a limited land-based leg against an able enemy the Minutemen have to be replaced by a road-going small ICBM a la Midgetman.

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