Global Risk

Nonsense about New START and ICBMs

10.28.10 | 5 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Because of what appears to have been a computer glitch, a group of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was temporarily off-line last week and not ready to launch on a moment’s notice. According to an article in The Atlantic, some Republicans have suggested that this means that New START, the nuclear arms control treaty awaiting Senate ratification, is unwise and should be rejected. This assertion is nonsense but is a useful illustration of how much of current nuclear “thinking” is just a holdover from now irrelevant Cold War doctrine.

First, this episode was not the big deal it is suggested to be; at no time did it make any difference to the nation’s security. Some 50 missiles were offline, with 50 nuclear warheads, or about 3% of the nation’s ready arsenal. The missiles were never out of control. It is not as though they could have launched themselves. If needed, the missiles could have been launched through other means, such as airborne command centers. Because we were not in the middle of a nuclear war, those other means were not made ready. But they could have been.

By design, this temporary loss had no effect on the overall effectiveness of the nuclear arsenal. The primary Cold War justification (aside from inter-Service rivalry) for a “triad” of nuclear launch platforms, that is, the bombers, land-based ICBMs, and sea-based missiles, is that if one “leg” of the triad fails, the others were there to accomplish the mission regardless. Redundancy was intended. If losing 10% of the ICBM force means that we slipped into a dangerous state of vulnerability, while we have nuclear armed bombers and ballistic missile submarines at sea, this means that the current triad force structure has failed. The only possible response is that we need some fourth leg of a “quadad” so that, if one fails, or even stumbles, then we still have three legs left. (Of course, that will become the new norm and eventually there will be another problem and we will then need five legs so we will always have four available and so forth. Perhaps we would call it the millipede force.)

In any case, every time a Trident submarine sails into or out of port, the change in our ready-to-launch nuclear arsenal is greater than the temporary “loss” of these ICBMs.

We are told, over and over and over, that the purpose of our nuclear weapons is deterrence. In theory, deterrence is simple: I threaten to hurt you if you do something bad to me, therefore you don’t do that bad thing. So why do ICBMs have to be ready to launch on a moment’s notice? What difference does it make to the deterrent equation if we launch our retaliatory missiles a minute from now or an hour, or a day from now?

In the case of ICBMs, being able to launch quickly is part of a survival tactic. It is called “launch under attack.” If we see the Russian ICBM fleet headed over the North Pole, perhaps aimed at our ICBM fleet, we can launch ours before theirs arrive, so our missiles will not be destroyed on the ground. So, this recent loss of ICBM readiness would be significant if (1) it just happened to occur right when the Russians were thinking of launching a nuclear attack, (2) they knew the failure of our ICBMs had occurred, (3) they would decide, if faced with, say, 1550 U.S. nuclear warheads (the New START limit), not to launch their attack, but (4) when they learned we had only 1500 they would decide to go for it. No further explanation is needed. (Of course, the real reason we keep our ICBMs on high alert is so that we can launch a preemptive first strike against Russia and that mission is entirely momentum from the Cold War.)

The Atlantic article reports that, with these missiles offline, their targets could not be “covered” and other missiles would have to be programmed to take their targets. This is where we get much deeper into the Cold War time warp. If, as we are told, our nuclear weapons are for deterrence, we have to think about how deterrence works. Remember, if you can do something to hurt me, I have to threaten to hurt you back. But why might you hurt me? Because it is some advantage to you, militarily, economically, politically, whatever; there has to be some motivation. So how much pain do I have to threaten to make you think twice? Well, enough to outweigh the potential advantage. In other words, the retaliatory deterrent threat must be tied to the stakes involved.

During the Cold War, the stakes were ideological control of the future of the planet, that is, the stakes were infinite. So the threatened pain had to be infinite. And what are the stakes now? What is the potential dispute between the U.S. and Russia that can be deterred with 1550 weapons but not with 1500? It is impossible to create any potential, theoretical, imaginary scenario where it seems necessary and reasonable to explode hundreds or even dozens of nuclear weapons over Russia much less a thousand or more. (And make no mistake, we are talking about Russia still — the next tier of nuclear powers are tiny in comparison.)

The biggest challenge to getting common sense into the nuclear debate is that the discussion is allowed to stay at very high levels of abstraction. During the Cold War, our nuclear targeting doctrine included destroying the Soviet Union utterly, so we aimed at everything. Today, we don’t even ask what our weapons are aimed at. All the airy theoretical arguments for nuclear weapons fall apart as soon as we press for specifics. And you don’t need a high-level security clearance and access to the nuclear war plan. Just ask for common sense examples and see where it goes.

This temporary computer glitch was not critical to our security because having hundreds of nuclear bombs ready to launch at a moment’s notice is not critical to our security. These weapons, and more importantly, how they are deployed and kept ready, are a Cold War anachronism. (Far from undermining arguments for New START, this incident highlights one of the greatest shortcomings of the treaty — that it does nothing to reduce readiness levels on both sides.) There may be reasons to oppose the New START (although I can’t think of any) but this incident is not relevant to that debate, or at least should not be.