Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scrapping the nuclear triad

During the Cold War, United States nuclear deterrence rested upon a triad of delivery systems: land based missiles, bombers, and sea launched missiles. Strategists argued that the triad of delivery systems reduced the likelihood of a nuclear first strike against the U.S. because no foe (which, for all practical purposes meant the Soviet Union) could confidently eliminate all three delivery systems, leaving the foe vulnerable to retaliation.

Today, there is no longer any good justification for continuing to spend billions on the triad of delivery systems. The Soviet Union is gone; the Cold War has ended. Russia's military prowess is substantially less than that of the former Soviet Union. No other nation poses an existential nuclear threat, i.e., able to destroy the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Air Force missile officers suffer from low morale, poor career advancement in an organization dominated by pilots, and numerous, high visibility disciplinary problems. Recent scandals have included senior officers fired for excessive gambling about which they lied, drunkenness, and launch officers cheating on proficiency exams.

I wonder if bomber pilots and crews in the Strategic Air Command, the command responsible for nuclear deterrence, experience some of the same morale, career, and disciplinary problems as their peers in the missile command.

Any nuclear threat that the United States faces today is substantially less than it was in the 1960s. A massive, expensive triad of nuclear delivery systems will not deter a rogue state (e.g., North Korea, which, to date, has failed in its effort to develop a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the lower forty-eight states) or terrorist organization from initiating a nuclear strike. Furthermore, any one leg of the triad has more than enough capability to prevail against any rogue state; nuclear retaliation against a non-state terror group is highly problematic because most of these groups do not have a meaningful target to attack.

The right move, it seems painfully apparent in this age of huge federal deficits and crying social needs, is to eliminate two legs of the nuclear triad, the land based missiles and bombers. In fact, the U.S. Navy sometimes argued that only its submarine launched missiles were essential because the Soviet Union could not locate and destroy the subs (aka boomers) in a first strike. Conversely, land based missiles are more vulnerable to a first strike. The abortive program to launch these missiles from mobile railcars was an effort to eliminate or reduce that vulnerability. Bombers, which fly more slowly than missiles, are vulnerable before launch and subject after launch to intercept by both enemy aircraft and missiles. The Navy's argument for the invulnerability of submarine launch systems is even more persuasive today than twenty years ago.

The United States has legitimate self-defense requirements. A nuclear triad, no matter how important it once may have been, no longer has a military defensible role and is therefore bad policy and immoral. God calls us to beat our swords into plows. Starting with weapons and weapons systems that the collapse of the Soviet Union has made obsolete is an easy and imminently reasonable starting point.

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