Warrior Maven

Nuclear Deterrence Without ICBMs? Might Not Work

The extent to which the United States must hold at risk such weapons is an important function of deterrence.

Senior Fellow
Intercontinental ballistic missiles at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming on April 4, 2012. (R.J. Oriez via Getty Images)

Deterrence is holding at risk or targeting what the bad guy’s value. That includes the leadership of their country, their military assets including their nuclear weaponry, and their industrial capability to sustain and build weapons. Without weapons, the hegemonic ambitions of US enemies cannot be achieved, and thus if destroyed, deterrence holds.

The alternative is to bomb the cities of the bad guys and incinerate millions of people who have no role in the decision of their totalitarian nations to start wars and plan aggression, and whose destruction would have no impact on the weapons with which such nations go to war. Cities do not launch missiles at the United States—but submarines, bombers and ICBM launchers do. Not holding at risk or targeting such weapons leaves them in sanctuary where they can strike America and her allies with impunity.

The extent to which the United States must hold at risk such weapons is an important function of deterrence. Leaving large swaths of an adversary’s weaponry free from attack risks such a nation taking undue risks and launching attacks against the US and its allies pre-emptively. Thus, the proposal on April 28th by Gerald Marsh, a former physicist with the Argonne National Laboratory and consultant on nuclear weapons technology to eliminate the entirety of the US ICBM force—and to do so unilaterally—is highly puzzling.

The central argument made is that the high accuracy of the D-5 submarine launched ballistic missile makes the ICBM force superfluous. Marsh claims the Navy Ohio class subs have enough warheads to hold at risk all the Russian and Chinese forces necessary to preserve deterrence, despite the decision of every President since 1962 to deploy, sustain and modernize the US ICBM force, now consisting of 450 ICBM missiles and launch facilities. As Marsh claims, eliminating ICBMs can be done without “compromising US capability to destroy all current nuclear targets.

But Marsh goes even further and resurrects a common ghost story that since ICBMs are in fixed silos, the Russian can target the missiles for destruction. In a crisis, it is assumed Russian might launch early to take them out, and a US President, worrying about not having the ICBMs available, would launch even quicker and get in the first punch.

This would require a launch on warning posture, and to remedy such a situation, getting rid of the missiles no longer makes them a target. But Marsh admits the warning time for a sea-launched Russian missile could be as little as 5-10 minutes, so does he recommend the US launch its bombers and sea-launched ballistic missiles as well immediately upon an emerging crisis?

No Marsha does not. But using his strange logic, the US would have to get rid of all targets in the US capable of being struck quickly by Russian warheads. In short, that would require the US to disarm and eliminate its three bomber bases and the two submarine bases as well as all 400 ICBM silos because after all these targets are all vulnerable.

In reality, the US actually is not compelled to launch on warning. And any attacking force would know the likelihood of effectively wiping out all ICBMs simultaneously is close to zero. Why would the head of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces risk Armageddon and the destruction of Russian society as the US could retaliate with overwhelming nuclear force? Could anything be more reckless or stupid? Even without the entirety of the US ICBM force, the US would have a retaliatory force of some eight submarines in transit or on patrol, plus up to 60 strategic bombers carrying five hundred or more gravity bombs or cruise missiles as well.

With the ICBM force, an adversary does not know if the US would employ its ICBMs on warning, or after an attack. That uncertainty is a strong disincentive for any rogue state not to attack the United States,

However, if one assumes the head of the Russian rocket forces is unstable and able or wants to launch an attack on just the US ICBM force, as Marsh apparently thinks is the case, would it not just be prudent to not risk such a worse case scenario?

Actually, adopting such a posture would actually be highly imprudent. In fact, it would be downright reckless.

Here Marsh’s fuzzy math breaks down. Deterrence is not just holding at risk the weapons of the bad guys today but also tomorrow.

The tomorrow Russian and Chinese target set is easily 805 individual missile silos, on top of which one would have to also hold at risk all leadership, bomber and submarine bases, plus deployments of hundreds of Chinese nuclear armed theater or regional nuclear systems, particularly IRBMs and MRBMs and potentially an equal number of like Russian systems as well including Chinese and Russian mobile ICBMs and those stored in tunnels and caves.

Nuclear experts Rick Fisher of IASC and Mark Schnieder of NIPP have estimated that Russia and China both have or will have within the next decade some 1200 SNDVs or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, including nearly 800-900 silo-based and mobile and underground ICBMs, 300 theater ballistic missiles, and at least 20 ballistic missile submarines and 200 strategic bombers.

When combined, the target base is well in excess of 1000, and when factored in, the mobile ICBMs on rail in Russia and China, many of which are underground, brings the target environment to where multiple thousands of US warheads would be needed to effectively hold at risk such Russian and Chinese targets.

No matter how accurate 1000 warheads may be, they cannot take out targets requiring a multi—thousand warhead force. If just ten percent of the US warheads miss their targets, the US would be getting back in a counter punch some 100 missiles, and upwards of 1000 warheads on those missiles, or 20 nuclear bombs for every one of the 50 states in the US. How is that considered effective deterrence? To say nothing of having anything in reserve for deterring North Korea or Iran.

Generally speaking, the US strategy assumes the US has at least two warheads for all the targets we need to hold at risk if retaliating from a limited escalate to deterring all the way up to a pre-emptive disarming first-strike attempt.

The current American force of 1300-1800 deployed warheads is allowed by New START but was designed to deter the chief US adversary in Russia in 2010. A submarine only Ohio class fleet could build to nearly 2000 warheads plus additional bomber weapons but would be beyond the allowed New START numbers.

But China has emerged as an additional central strategic adversary and is nuclear armed. With 360 new ICBM silos filled with for example the DF-41, ten-warhead missile, China could deploy some 4000+ warheads, still dwarfing US deployed forces and exceeding the entire US nuclear stockpile, deployed or otherwise.

And Russia with 1900-2000 short and medium range, battlefield nuclear forces, must be added to the mix, making further future reliance upon just the current US nuclear deterrent the height of miscalculation, let alone a force at least one-third smaller.

Both Representative Lamborn and Senator Fischer have called for a senior review of the US hedge strategy as it was put together in 2010 when the Chinese threat had not materialized and the full extent of the Russian buildup was not yet visible. Senior US military leaders have echoed their points. A force of submarines and bombers only could not build an effective hedge let alone a currently required deterrent.

And when the US moves after 2032 to a fully Columbia class fleet of submarines, the total fast flying warhead deployment on alert would shrink further from near 1400 to near 1000, or actually no more than the current New START allowed level of submarine warheads, even though the US would still be facing the nuclear arsenals of our adversaries that is rapidly growing.

An ICBM force remains critical to US security. ICBMs ensure that no cheap, small strike can disarm the United States. A submarine and bomber only Dyad would reduce the US target base to some five CONUS targets, (two sub and three bomber bases), plus six submarines at sea. An ASW technology breakthrough would thus put our entire nuclear deterrent at risk, but an ICBM force we have now prevents that from happening as no technology upgrade can put the US ICBM force at risk any more than current technology. Only dizzy nuclear math supports an alternative to our Triad. 

Read in Warrior Maven.