By Jamshed Baruah
A new report by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) has come to a worrisome conclusion that the United States and Russia continue to maintain large numbers of nuclear forces on high levels of alert, ready to launch within minutes, as if the Cold War – which is believed to have ended more than two decades ago – was going on unabated.
Together with France and Britain, the four countries deploy approximately 2000 warheads ready for use on short notice – more nuclear warheads than held by all the other states in possession of nuclear weapons combined, finds the report titled Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons, co-authored by Hans M. Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Matthew McKinzie from the Natural Resources of Defense Council.
“These current alert levels – which are deeply rooted in Cold War thinking, vastly exceed current and foreseeable security needs, and undercut efforts to reduce the salience and role of nuclear weapons – are sustained by a circular (though flawed) logic, whereby U.S. nuclear forces are maintained on alert because Russian nuclear forces are on alert, and vice versa for Russian forces. Put in another way, if nuclear forces were not on alert, there would be no requirement to keep nuclear forces on alert,” says the report.
As the authors of the report point out, the international community favours reducing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons and many retired military officials argue that doing so is possible with proper care and planning.
“Yet the nuclear establishments of the four nuclear-alert countries oppose de-alerting nuclear forces and argue that doing so would create crisis instability and be difficult and expensive to verify. Their arguments have so far largely managed to hold proponents of nuclear de-alerting at bay from effecting changes to alert nuclear postures,” notes the report.
According to the study, the very name of the current U.S. strategic nuclear war plan – Strategic Deterrence and Global Strike (Operational Plan 8010-08 – reflects this dual mission of U.S. nuclear forces.
The strategic deterrence part of the U.S. plan is focused on deploying a secure retaliatory capability to deter an adversary from attacking the United States and its allies. The global strike part of the plan is focused on a myriad of war-fighting scenarios including the failure of deterrence.
The Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy on which this plan is based – NUWEP-04, signed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on April 19, 2004 – states in part: “U.S. nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world”.
According to the report, this dual mission is also reflected by the Obama administration’s ongoing post-NPR (Nuclear Posture Review), which is intended to ask, in the words of a senior Pentagon official: “What are the guiding concepts for employing nuclear weapons to deter adversaries, and what are the guiding concepts for ending a nuclear conflict on the least catastrophic terms if one has already started?”. The fact is that current U.S. nuclear weapons planning is based upon two interrelated but nonetheless different objectives: deterrence and war-fighting.
The report’s authors caution advocates of de-alerting to be clear about the distinctions between these two objectives, otherwise they will not address detractors’ concerns. “Crisis escalation control is central to the arguments of de-alerting opponents and evident in a series of limited-strike options embedded in the strategic war plan for selective and adaptive targeting of adversary forces and infrastructure to stop escalation and win the war. It is at this stage in a crisis, they argue, after non-nuclear hostilities have broken out, that a nuclear re-alerting race would be most dangerous because it could prompt a nuclear-weapon state to launch its nuclear weapons first.
As a hypothetical example, notes the report, as Russian ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) return to a state of alert, there would be a strong incentive for Russia to strike immediately at U.S. nuclear submarine bases, thereby potentially destroying large numbers of the adversary’s strategic nuclear weapons with only a few attacking warheads, as both sides desperately race to alert status.
There would certainly be risks of any crisis escalating – alert forces are no guarantee against that. But the re-alerting race argument is a “straw man”. First, it ignores that U.S. and Russian nuclear postures today already include plans to “generate” forces in a crisis, surging and dispersing forces, and increasing alert rates and warhead loading.
Although not re-alerting from a completely de-alerted state, those strategic force generation plans would, if executed, have a high probability of being interpreted by the opponent as preparations of strike and thus trigger nuclear force generation on the other side. Therefore, if a re-alerting race is destabilizing in future de- alerted nuclear postures, logically it is also destabilizing today.
Second, nuclear forces can be structured to prevent a re-alerting race, unlike in the previous example, which indeed is a less desirable situation. In fact the strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russ can be structured in such a way that a stable deterrent whole is built from vulnerable, de-alerted parts.
But the idea that nuclear conflict can somehow be managed once it starts is highly dubious, the report points out. For two large nuclear powers it is a fallacy to expect that either side would back down if the other side started using nuclear weapons in order to dictate its terms for ending hostilities.
“Maintaining alert forces against a smaller nuclear adversary that does not have nuclear forces on alert could push such an adversary toward adopting an alert posture or, as in the case of China, lead to development of more capable mobile nuclear systems in an attempt to reduce vulnerability to an opponent’s alert nuclear forces. A smaller adversary would not be able to ‘win’ but could still inflict considerable damage with a limited number of weapons,” states the report.