Warrior Maven

What Does Oppenheimer Teach about Nuclear Deterrence?

US will build no more than the 700 allowed SNDVs or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles.

Christopher Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' movie poster is seen in Cinema City multiplex cinema in Bonarka shopping center in Krakow, Poland, on July 25, 2023. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The new movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the top scientists running the Manhattan project often credited with building the first atomic bomb, has spawned much commentary and analysis about the US current nuclear deterrent, the nuclear balance with Russia and China, and whether nuclear abolition should be seriously pursued.

One such essay (“The Long Shadow of Oppenheimer’s Trinity Test”) by Jack Detsch, the national security reporter at Foreign Policy and Anusha Rathi, also with Foreign Policy, published July 23, 2023, makes two central points. The first is that the massive use of nuclear weapons would devastate much of the world, trigger global winter and possibly killing five billion people. The second calls into question the credibility of the US deterrent to prevent nuclear war, and the need alternatively through a campaign of Global Zero to get Russia and China to join the US in “disarmament talks.”

Ironically, the current disarmament campaign actually makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely as funding cuts and delays pushed by global zero advocates often undermine the very US deterrent that for seventy-five years has avoided the Armageddon the disarmament groups fear will someday occur. And while a major nuclear war could indeed destroy much of civilization, the limited use of nuclear weapons under a strategy of “escalate to win” has been adopted by Russia and China, the leaders of which believe such a war can be waged and “won,” despite their “dezinformatsiya” to the contrary.

Detsch/Rathi contend the US spends far too much on nuclear deterrence, but then acknowledge that much of the nuclear industry that makes up the nuclear infrastructure, for example, is indeed “falling into despair,” what former CSIS/PONI Director Clark Murdock once described as “rusting to obsolescence.” Ironically, it has been the global zero advocates that for multiple decades refused to adequately fund a modernized nuclear deterrent, thus leading to the significant aging of US legacy nuclear systems and infrastructure that now costs so much to sustain.

Detsch and Rathi complain the Biden administration is unnecessarily pursuing an “arms race” with a planned more than $1 trillion nuclear modernization effort, which they blame on “Pentagon hawks” as if the Administration and Congress have no role in the current program of record now proceeding into its 14th year.

But far from starting an arms race, all of the US strategic nuclear modernization effort is entirely consistent with the 2010 New START arms control treaty, as the US will build no more than the 700 allowed SNDVs or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, and actually achieve a reduction in sub-launched nuclear armed missiles as we move from the Ohio class submarine carrying 20 missiles to the Columbia class submarine carrying 16 missiles.

There is thus no US led arms race or “buildup” as Detsch and Rathi claim. Even the authors concede the current US arsenal is “outdated” and thus is only being replaced, and thus not a “build-up.” On the other hand, there is an arms race being pursued by Russia, where 20+ new strategic (long-range) nuclear weapons types have been pursued since the 2010 New START treaty was signed, some not within the treaty’s framework, and by China which now has deployed more ICBM launchers than the United States while projecting by 2035 to increase its strategic arsenal by at least 400 percent, all of which is arms limits.

Detsch and Rathi also appear not to understand the entirety of the US nuclear deterrent is not designed to “destroy multiple Soviet Russian cities,” but to hold at risk the military and security and leadership assets of our nuclear armed enemies, so as to prevent them from having the capability to achieve their hegemonic objectives. The US does not hold populations at risk nor target them and began not to do so beginning with the flexible response posture of the Kennedy administration.

As noted earlier, the essay repeats the narrative that the cost of nuclear modernization is $1 trillion or higher. In fact, in FY2024, the total research, development and acquisition costs of the nuclear submarine, land-based missile and bomber platforms, plus the nuclear command and control and warhead life extension, was $18 billion in the combined DOD and NNSA budgets or 2% of the defense budget and 26th/100ths of the Federal budget. Even over a 30-year period, the cost would not approach $1 trillion.

Overall, however, current nuclear expenditures are roughly one-third modernization and two-thirds sustainment. The legacy systems will be between 42, 50 and 60 years old when replaced and cannot be confidently sustained longer than now planned. Delaying modernization just escalates sustainment costs. And even a Democrat controlled House in 2022 understood this reality and slam dunked the idea of keeping the legacy Minuteman III and killing the new Sentinel ICBM program by a vote of 309-118.

In short, there is no US led arms race; there is no $1 trillion nuclear modernization budget; and there is no Congressional support for dismantling the US nuclear Triad or deterrent.

Detsch et al also believes the US nuclear arsenal vastly exceeds in numbers “any reasonable degree of [needed] security” but then fails to inform the reader that the US strategic long-range nuclear arsenal is some 90% smaller than at its height before the collapse of the Soviet Union when the deployed (in the field) US long-range strategic nuclear arsenal exceeded some 12,000 allowable nuclear weapons.

The actual deployed number of warheads now varies but according to most sources is around 1350, with the number on alert day-to-day probably slightly less than 1000. Through START I, the Moscow Treaty and New START, over 95% of the overall US nuclear arsenal is under arms agreement limits, while 55% of Russian weapons are not under arms limits, to say nothing of the entirety of the Chinese nuclear forces under no limits whatsoever.

This trend toward lower US deployed strategic warheads is hardly descriptive of a country in “pursuit of nuclear superiority” as the authors claim. And our modernized deployed strategic long-range systems when deployed will be no more than allowed by the New START counting rules and thus consistent with “arms control” and are certainly no bigger than the Russian forces. However, the Russian upload capability is vastly greater than the US, Russia’s reserve stockpile is much bigger, and Russia’s theater or short-range nuclear forces are 10-20 times greater than the US as well. While the US did seek to deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by the end of the Soviet buildup in the era of détente and peaceful coexistence, the US was certainly not in any kind of superior nuclear position, nor is it today. While arms control has its place, it has not resolved the dangerous current Russian nuclear strategy nor its nuclear forces now approaching 7-8000 warheads.

As usual for disarmament advocates, the essay says those seeking global zero are gentle grassroots folks for peace, but that nuclear deterrent advocates are greedy companies coercing politicians to support nuclear spending in their Congressional districts. “Big bombs bring big dollars” Detsch claims, although the bomb megatonnage of US nuclear forces has dropped some 90% since the end of the Cold War and it has been nearly 30 years since the US deployed a single new, modern nuclear platform. It may not be until 2030 when the first new nuclear-armed modernized platform is put into the field.

Detsch et al also claim the US nuclear arsenal was reduced only in the two decades after the peak in the 1960’s. In fact, US strategic nuclear forces started declining with the START I treaty of 1991 and on the theater side with the 1987 INF Treaty. All US theater nuclear forces on US Navy ships were unilaterally withdrawn under the Bush 41 administration, as were theater land based deployed systems from the Pacific.

But where the authors fall completely off the rails is their subsequent strange even bizarre declaration of the post-Cold War, post 1989 decision by the United States to, according to the authors, “rethink the use of nuclear weapons” and come up with “modernization.”

Actually, after the initial nuclear deployments on US bombers, the US first modernized its nuclear force beginning under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, then subsequently modernized again primarily in the Reagan and Bush (41) administrations. Subsequently, in the post-Cold War period, the US stopped production of the Ohio class submarine, the Peacekeeper ICBM and the B2 bomber (1992, 1995 and 1997, respectively), primarily as a result of the START I and START II arms reduction agreements first put on the table by President Reagan in his November 1981 National Press Club speech, a result of the highly creative work of the administration’s OSD and NSC staff working to produce numerous NSDD’s creating an entire peace through strength framework for joint nuclear modernization and arms control.

If anything, the post USSR collapse period was characterized at the time by USAF General Garret Harencak as a “holiday from history” where the US for decades decided not to modernize its nuclear forces or establish a viable, updated framework for deterrence, both of which the US is now putting together some three decades late. Since primarily 2006-10, the US has put together a modernization plan, which will be completed roughly in 2042, and which indeed as the authors acknowledge, has been supported by a “remarkably bipartisan” Congress, but which is coming into the force some 40 years after the fall of Communism and the USSR.

For some reason, Detsch and Rathi think the balance between the US and China is not one of good vs evil, that the CCP is not communist and not godless, and there is no reason to have a mindset against China that reflects a “Cold War” mentality. But China murders its own people to harvest their organs, exports fentanyl to the US that kills over 70,000 Americans annually, steals $600 billon annually in US intellectual property, and unleashed a virus on the world that killed one million Americans. It imprisons millions in a 21st century gulag, while unleashing its brutal security forces routinely against its own people, and against Hong Kong, Tibet, Nepal, and other of its neighbors. One discovered document revealed China had military designs on some 17 neighboring nations. With respect to attacking Taiwan, the CCP threatened to bomb Japan, a non-nuclear state, with nuclear weapons should Japan come to the assistance of Taiwan, and in the words of the CCP, “make you surrender unconditionally just as you did in WWII.”

At the end, the authors appear to question the entirety of nuclear deterrence in favor of pursuing disarmament. Even the testing of a Minuteman missile was questioned when it is well understood such tests are not part of an arms race but part of demonstrating the credibility of a deterrent. Professor Sharon Weiner is quoted as questioning whether the US investment in nuclear deterrence actually causes more problems than it solves, raising the question whether a world in which the US has no nuclear deterrent is her preference.

She complains one problem is that ICBMs can only be used “quickly” or in a rushed environment. That is not in fact true-- in an environment when only a very limited number of nuclear weapons are used by our adversaries, which is what Putin’s “escalate to win” strategy implies, ICBMs would readily be available to respond. And given the multiplicity of technical means of determining whether our enemies have launched nuclear weapons at the United States, our ability to retaliate is what would give an adversary pause, including launching our ICBMs even after the US has confirmed a major missile attack has occurred against the United States.

Finally, the authors repeat the four-decade old narrative that the use of nuclear weapons would cause a nuclear winter, a drop of temperatures below freezing. When reviewed in 1983, I determined all scare stories about global freezing and nuclear winter were ultimately based on Carl Sagan’s original research on dust storms on Mars.

Sagan postulated the huge amount of soot and carbon from cities burning due to a nuclear war would blot out the sun’s rays from reaching the earth. However, the same principle was also claimed by other research to prevent the heat from the sun escaping back through the atmosphere because of the “blanket” effect of soot and carbon, and thus producing global warming and an earth with a “fever,” thus the repeatedly reference by Sagan to Mars dust storms.

Putin and now apparently Xi apparently both believe that the limited use of nuclear weapons does not imperil their survival or that of their nations. That is what matters because it is these totalitarians we must deter. Both of which are running an arms race, threatening aggression and building nuclear forces far beyond anything needed to defend their own countries. Neither has any interest in disarmament, let alone arms control.

Thankfully, there is widespread bi-partisan support for the necessary modernization of the US nuclear deterrent both for the United States and our extended deterrent for our allies in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. Oppenheimer said late in his life he had no regrets for his bomb work, that the nuclear bomb had to be deployed as the US needed its deterrent value. Now 78 years later, that deterrent truth remains.

Read in Warrior Maven.