Sustaining the Triad: The Enduring Requirements of Deterrence

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by Lt. Andy Freeman

In addition to having key Navy sea-based strategic deterrence stakeholders in attendance, this event was unique in that it featured many non-Navy speakers, including U.S. Representative Joe Courtney from Connecticut and Air Force Gen. C. Robert “Bob” Kehler, the recently relieved commander of United States Strategic Command, who spoke about the value of sea-based strategic deterrence. As Gen. Kehler said, “The SSBN force represents the most survivable leg of the triad. SSBNs that are underway in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans remain undetected and increasingly comprise the largest concentration of our deployed warheads.”

The conference featured engaging discussion that furthered the dialogue on strategic deterrence.

The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrence Triad
The Second Nuclear Age—The future international nuclear environment is likely to be more stressing than today. Although the Cold War is over and the threat posed by the Soviet Union is in the past, we in the United States still must secure ourselves and more than two dozen of our friends and allies from both nuclear attack and nuclear blackmail. Nations with weak or non-existent democratic traditions such as Russia, China, and North Korea hold us and our allies at risk of catastrophic nuclear attack. Iran is threatening to join this group of potentially hostile competitors. There is no realistic chance that any of these nations will voluntarily abandon their nuclear capabilities—indeed, each is aggressively modernizing its forces. They are in for the long haul.

Nuclear deterrence is about the “non-use” of nuclear weapons—Nuclear deterrence is about influencing the decision not to use nuclear weapons or deterring coercion through the threat to use nuclear weapons. Consistent with the past, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed that our “nuclear forces will continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world.”

However, the role of deterrence as a matter of national policy is often viewed only through the lens of the bi-polar world of the Cold War. As such, the continued existence of our nuclear forces is considered by many as a Cold War anachronism that is not relevant today. Terms such as “apocalypse,” “Armageddon,” “push the button,” and others are often bandied about that focus on deterrence failure, as if it is a certain thing, while the historical reality is the opposite.

The kind of thinking that focuses on nuclear warfighting completely misunderstands the role of our nuclear forces. These forces do not exist to “push the button”—they exist to prevent the button from being pushed. The purpose of our nuclear arsenal is not war, but deterrence; that is to say, dissuading any potential adversary from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against us, our friends, and allies.

The Need for Conservatism and Caution in Assessing Deterrence Margins—Deterrence is a matter of perceptions. It takes place in the head of an adversary who lives in another country, has different values, is under different pressures, and has different goals. We can tell, for the most part, what makes deterrence stronger or weaker, but we can’t really put a number on it. This means that, if we want effective deterrence, we need to include in our analysis generous safety margins to account for the degree of uncertainty that is inherently present in every aspect of deterrence strategy.

Because deterrence is subjective, it must be communicated clearly. If we want effective deterrence, we had better deal with bold colors, a large font, and single-syllable words. Subtle and nuanced deterrence messages have a long history of being misunderstood.

Also, deterrence takes place in the context of past behavior. Each event is not an isolated occurrence. Situations are understood in light of what has gone before. “Red lines” have to mean something. Promising action and then not delivering undermines credibility and may lead to misunderstood communications in later cases.

In today’s fiscal climate, the push in defense planning is to cut all “waste,” and for many that means shaving our nuclear deterrent to no more than exactly what is necessary. Treating deterrence matters as a precise science is dangerous and ignores the importance of other players, which is where deterrence really takes place.

Nuclear deterrence happens in the minds of those on the “other side”—Deterrence is about impacting the adversary’s decision-making, not ours. This sounds simple, yet it is easy to forget in practice. Effective deterrence is a multi-player game, even more so today in our multi-polar world than it was in the Cold War. A successful approach depends on what the other players do, in a manner similar to a chess match. The discriminating characteristic of a game of strategy like chess is that each player’s best approach is a function of what the other players do. We can’t devise our strategy in isolation. Imagine playing chess by choosing all of our moves in advance.

As we think about what investments are necessary for our own strategic future, we must be mindful that there are other players in the world, and we must adapt our approach to their existence and behavior—of both our friends and our potential adversaries.

Trends: Almost All in the Wrong Direction In the years immediately after the Cold War, the popular optimism was that liberal democracy, capitalism, and peace were irreversibly going to spread around the world. A global moratorium on nuclear testing was emerging. Russia was being liberalized by President Boris Yeltsin. The North Koreans and the Pakistanis did not have the bomb. India had only conducted one test in 1974. The attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) had not yet taken place.

In the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the United States formally adopted a “lead but hedge” strategy. The United States would take the initiative in nuclear cuts in the hope that others would be inspired to follow. The United States already had unilaterally shut down its weapon-production facilities and removed nukes from surface ships, ground forces, and aircraft-carrier aviation. We stopped enhancing our nuclear-weapon capabilities. We reduced our SSBN force from 18 to 14 Ohio-class submarines. However, we still reaffirmed the need to retain the three legs of our Nuclear Triad composed of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and SSBNs.

The world did not follow the path we hoped for in those heady days. Russia under Putin is now considered one of the most repressive areas on the globe, 9/11 occurred, and radical Islam is moving from being a “non-state actor” into the “nation-state” category. India and Pakistan have had several crises and “exchanged” nuclear tests in 1998. The Chinese economy has gone from eighth largest to second largest in the world, and China is growing its nuclear arsenal, unrestricted by any treaty and without the slightest transparency. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, tested three nuclear devices, and declared its intent to expand its nuclear arsenal. And, of course, there is Iran.
In virtually every major category, the world’s nuclear trajectory is less benign than it was only 20 years ago. With the important exceptions of a series of nuclear-force reduction treaties between the United States and Russia and the increased security of former Soviet nuclear forces as a result of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat-Reduction Program, the changes have almost all been in the wrong direction.

The conclusion is inescapable—Virtually every long-term trend suggests that the future international nuclear environment will be more stressing than it is today, not less.

Realism Requires that We Acknowledge the Need to Retain Our Triad—It is clear that the United States will face nuclear-capable adversaries for the foreseeable future. It is equally clear that U.S. allies will remain exposed to the threat of nuclear attack or nuclear coercion requiring the protection provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Taken together, these considerations make it evident that we in the United States must recapitalize our nuclear deterrent—including all three legs of the nuclear Triad.

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U.S. Ohio-class Missile Compartment             UK Vanguard-class Missile Compartment

Cost-Effectiveness of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent
Avoidance of Large-Scale Great Power Warfare—The most important way to think about the value of our nuclear deterrent is to realize the dramatic way it has fundamentally reduced the level of violence among great powers. Since World War II, great powers have not engaged in large-scale conflict, and there can be little question that the looming risk of escalation to nuclear weapons has played an important role in this change from past history. The savings in lives and dollars has been incalculable.

Small Share of Defense Budget and Gross Domestic Product—Nuclear weapons systems are expensive, and they represent a major investment by the American people. But their cost needs to be considered in comparison to both the nation’s wealth and the important role that nuclear deterrence plays in conflict avoidance, U.S. security, and allied security. For example, the annual maintenance and operation of our nuclear forces today consumes about 4 cents of every 10 dollars we produce as a country each year. Even when recapitalization costs are figured in, the cost is low. To build, man, and operate the full complement of 12 new SSBNs for their full 42-year service lives will cost $180 billion (in constant 2005 dollars). This is a lot of money, but it is less than 1 percent of what defense spending will be over those same 42 years.

Unprecedented Endurance and Cost- Efficiency—Each of the legs of the nuclear triad represents a critical piece of U.S. national security infrastructure, and maximum cost-efficiency has been pursued and achieved by operating these systems at a high tempo for an uprecedented number of years. Our allies and adversaries have all had to replace their corresponding systems, but ours continue to operate reliably, and we will be able to depend on them for years to come. Careful management of engineering margins has enabled this long service life for all three of our triad legs, delaying the need for replacements and saving the country literally tens of billions of dollars.

Replacement Can No Longer Be Deferred—Engineering margins can only be pushed so far before we eventually start to see reliability degradations. By careful analysis, we can foresee when those reliability degradations will reach a degree that cannot be accepted in nuclear weapons systems. We can see the time ahead when replacement is required. we have pushed it off as far as it can go.

We must be realistic and understand the critical role that nuclear weapons play in deterring aggression and coercion by authoritarian states against the United States and our friends and allies. It isn’t a pleasant thing to think about, but it is an unavoidable truth that there are bad actors in the world who will only respond to a strong deterrent posture. As the most survivable leg of the triad, SBSD has been the guarantor of a strong response.

Fifty years of success have allowed SBSD to evolve into a lean, optimized force. There is no further room to compromise on capability or force size and still provide required capability to the Combatant Commander. Ohio Replacement costs are well understood, and the Navy takes its fiscal responsibility to the taxpayer seriously; we are aggressively pursuing ways to reduce costs while ensuring delivery of a capable platform to the nation that will last to the end of the century. The US-UK cooperation on the Common Missile Compartment (CMC) builds on 50 years of success. On-time delivery of the CMC by the United States is critical to the UK’s ability to deliver its Successor-class SSBN on time and maintain a continuous at-sea deterrence presence.

A generation of Americans has benefitted from the investments of the previous generation in nuclear deterrence. Now, as the world’s most affluent nation, we need to have the national will to preserve the credibility of our strategic nuclear deterrence—the ultimate safeguard of global security.

The Strength of the Triad—Complimentary Capabilities
Although the Cold War is over, the basic lessons of effective nuclear deterrence remain in effect. The three legs of our triad each provide unique strengths that complement one another. It is no accident that all of the major nuclear powers have adopted the triad. Under the New START Treaty, although we have agreed to a smaller force, it is one that retains the strengths of the triad (both for us and for the Russians).ICBMs: Our ICBMs provide a unique contribution to stability. There is no cheap way to defeat the ICBM force—only a massive attack with high-quality nuclear weapons could seriously compromise ICBM force effectiveness. ICBMs also provide the President with rapid response capability should he require it.SSBNs: Our SSBN force provides the nation with a survivable second-strike capability. This provides assurance that no adversary can attack us and escape a devastating response. SSBNs also provide a unique and proven ability to change their operating areas and postures to reflect changes in the global geostrategic situation and the threat.Bombers: Bombers provide a degree of flexibility not available to missile forces. As we all saw in the spring of 2013, our bombers provide a unique ability to signal resolve in a way that is clearly evident to friend and foe alike. Images of American B2 bombers flying over Korea were carried as the lead story in virtually every major news organization in the world, demonstrating both our capability and our will.

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