The Real Cost of Nuclear Deterrence by Peter Huessy

  • North Korea used both the Agreed Framework and the NPT as camouflage to cheat and proceed with its covert nuclear weapons program. Nuclear weapons are apparently an integral part of North Korea’s strategy eventually to reunify the Korean peninsula under North Korean communist rule.

  • According to Hwang Jang-Yop, highest-ranking North Korean defector in history, North Korea’s goal is to remove American military forces from South Korea. Once that withdrawal is achieved, the North would use its nuclear arsenal to deter Japan and the U.S. and prevent these two key South Korean allies from coming to the defense of the South once the North invades it.
  • Arms control, since the height of the Cold War, has cut both the U.S. and Russian strategic deployed arsenals by nearly 90% and thus can hardly be described as part of any “arms race” that might have compelled North Korea to build nuclear weapons.
  • The idea that the U.S. deciding to replace aging nuclear systems, some half-century after the last modernization, is somehow perpetuating an “arms race” is without foundation.

“Military critics” are already anticipating how to disembowel critical elements of the U.S. military — especially its aging nuclear deterrent — when the defense budget will be unveiled by the administration and sent to Congress February 9, 2016. In two recent essays, for instance, Gordon Adams, previously at the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration, and Lawrence Korb, at the Center for American Progress, are both calling for dismantling the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Korb has long claimed that nuclear deterrence itself is obsolete. He blames U.S. nuclear modernization plans for providing an excuse for North Korea to test and build nuclear weapons of their own. It is an echo of Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s 1984 warning that when things go wrong in the world, many critics of American policy will “always blame America first.”

Korb complains that twenty years ago the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. And that fifteen years ago, the U.S. withdrew from the ABM treaty with the former USSR. These two actions, claims Korb, were responsible for providing the North Korea regime an incentive to test and build nuclear weapons. Any further nuclear modernization by America, claims Korb, will similarly force North Korea into more testing of nuclear weapons and building a bigger nuclear arsenal.

Adams, on the other hand, simply calls for the U.S. unilaterally to dismantle most of its nuclear deterrent. He proposes that the U.S. eliminate all land-based Minuteman missiles, take the strategic bombers out of their nuclear role and build only eight of the projected twelve nuclear submarines the U.S. is planning to acquire.

The nuclear arsenal of the U.S. would then shrink then from more than 500 separate launch platforms to fewer than ten – a low number the U.S. arsenal has never before reached except at the very end of World War II when the U.S. had exclusive possession of such weapons.

Both Adams and Korb propose such massive cuts because they believe the United States is pursuing an aggressive nuclear “arms race”— in their view unnecessary and much too expensive.

What is wrong with this picture? Just about all of it.

Korb sounds as if he is living in a fantasy world if his own making. First of all, North Korea started to build its nuclear arsenal as far back as the early 1990s, when the U.S. was still a party to the ABM Treaty and had announced a ban on any further nuclear testing. The only nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Cold War are North Korean weapons.

As for the U.S. pursuing an “arms race” or “build-up,” in 1991, the U.S. and the USSR announced the START I treaty, which cut their deployed nuclear arsenals dramatically to no more than 6000 warheads. Ballistic missile warheads were cut as well by 50%.

At the same time, the United States made two key decisions: to delay–unfortunately– much needed nuclear modernization programs; and to accelerate the nuclear reductions required by the START I treaty.[1] In short, just as the United States was building down, North Korea was building up.

There is thus no basis to Korb’s charge that the North Koreans started building nukes in the 1990s to follow in the U.S.’s footsteps.

And even more surreal is Korb’s claim that North Korea can be excused for building offensive nuclear missiles in response to U.S. non-nuclear missile-defense interceptors. The U.S. first deployed these in 2004 — long after North Korea built its first nuclear weapons.

Just think: North Korea is building offensive nuclear missiles armed with real nuclear warheads. The United States is building—in response– non-nuclear ballistic missile interceptors to protect America and its allies from explicit North Korean nuclear missile threats. In Korb’s view, the U.S “arms control” credibility does not meet North Korea’s standards; as a result, North Korea is excused for its nuclear arms building.

Ironically, contrary to Korb’s assertion, the United States in the 1990s did all the things Korb now says should have caused North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons. The U.S. stopped nuclear testing; it largely put on hold the modernization of its nuclear forces, and it pursued nuclear weapons arms control and dramatically reduced its arsenal. Not until 2004, long after the North started building its nuclear arsenal, did the U.S. deploy a single missile defense interceptor to protect the continental United States.[2]

From the beginning, North Korea cheated on its 1994 Agreed Framework agreement with the U.S. in which it guaranteed not to build any nuclear weapons. In addition, North Korea was also a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) under which all non-nuclear states pledged not to build nuclear weapons. That makes two broken guarantees.

What Korb ignores is that North Korea used both the Agreed Framework and the NPT as camouflage to cheat and proceed with its covert nuclear weapons program all the while pretending to be nuclear weapons free. Nuclear weapons, apparently, are an integral part of North Korea’s strategy eventually to reunify the Korean peninsula under North Korean communist rule.

How do we know that?

Hwang Jang-Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector in history, was the personal tutor and assistant to North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-Il. He was also Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly. His defection in 1997 was a huge blow to the North. The South, upon his death in 2010 at the age of 87, made his birthday a national holiday.[3]

As he told retired USAF General Michael Dunn, the past President of the National Defense University and the Air Force Association, North Korea’s goal is to remove American military forces from South Korea. Once that withdrawal is achieved, the North would hold at risk Japan and the United States with its nuclear arsenal and prevent these two key South Korean allies from coming to the defense of the South once the North invaded militarily. In short, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal was to trump America’s conventional military capability, and had nothing to do with America’s nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong Un, the “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, supervises the April 22 test-launch of a missile from a submerged platform. (Image source: KCNA)

Though Adams does not blame America for North Korea’s nuclear recklessness, his proposed cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal would cause serious instabilities in the nuclear balance between the United States and its nuclear-armed adversaries. It would also signal to U.S. our allies–such as South Korea and Japan– that the U.S. extended nuclear umbrella under which they are protected may no longer be part of U.S. policy. This information, in turn, will probably propel U.S. allies to build their own nuclear arsenals — worsening even further nuclear tensions and instabilities.

A key part of both the arguments of Adams and Korb and is the assumption that the U.S. is planning to spend nearly $350 billion over the next decade and a trillion dollars over the next three decades on nuclear modernization. Given such huge planned expenditures, Adams proposes to save roughly $200 billion by eliminating two-thirds of America’s nuclear deterrent. Korb says the U.S. is spending too much, and has previously supported similar cuts.

Is the U.S. planning to spend $350 billion over the next decade and $1 trillion between now and 2045 on nuclear modernization? Currently the United States spends $25 billion on its nuclear enterprise, and by the middle of next decade this bill will rise to $30+ billion as the U.S. begins to build a new nuclear-capable bomber; new land-based missiles to modernize the Minuteman force of 400 land-silo-based missiles, and 12 replacement submarines for the 14 Trident submarines currently in the fleet.

A fair accounting of the costs of modernizing the nuclear enterprise would come to a total of roughly $270 billion for the next decade. If one excludes the non-nuclear bomber, the costs come down to $230 billion.

Included in the total is also the work of the Department of Energy. The U.S. has to refurbish its nuclear warheads and it is going to reduce the types of warheads it has have from twelve to five, and at the same time modernize and update its command and control system that communicates with its nuclear forces. Both are essential to maintaining deterrence.

No matter how you slice it, the entire nuclear enterprise—the platforms, the energy department and the command and control– will cost at its peak level—in 2025—no more than 4% of the Defense Budget or 1/2200ths of the overall Federal budget. At $25 billion now — rising to $30-2 billion by the middle of next decade — the nuclear accounts still cannot then average $35 billion a year.

A couple of factors lower this estimate compared to that of Adams and Korb. First, the conventional non-nuclear bomber force will be modernized irrespective of whether the new strategic aircraft is nuclear capable. The “nuclear related” costs of the bomber are in the 3% range of its total cost, according to former top Defense Department official James Miller. Thus, eliminating the nuclear role of the bomber as Adams proposes would save at best some $1.5 billion over the 15-year life of the bomber’s acquisition.

As for eliminating the Minuteman force of 400 missiles, the U.S. might at best save $300 million a year in research and development (R&D) costs that were scheduled to be spent to begin building a new ICBM during the next ten years. But closing the three related ICBM missile bases will have considerable costs of up to 40% of the imputed “savings” from cutting R&D for the next decade thus the savings are much lower than Adam’s estimates.[4]

What about eliminating four of the planned twelve submarines? This option saves no funding over at least the next three, five-year defense plans: the acquisition of a smaller number of submarines comes at the end of the purchase of submarines and in the 2034-5 time-frame. This means that whatever acquisition savings might be achieved would have to wait for nearly two decades to be realized. If one delays now the planned replacement of the old Trident submarines to save money in the short term, such a move would leave huge gaps in the U.S. nuclear deterrent today: the submarines would go out of service now and not be replaced.

What about other near term savings, such as in the research and development budgets for submarines and bombers? There will be little savings as the R&D costs of acquisition programs do not change with a smaller purchase of submarines, or if the bombers are not nuclear capable[5]: most R&D is all done prior to building the submarines, and almost all bomber-related R&D work is for the conventional force of bombers and not in support of their nuclear role.

Thus Adams’s proposals would save almost no money over the near term, but they would increase strategic dangers. For example, the hull life one expects from the current operating submarines when they are replaced will be greater than any other submarine in our nation’s history. With a longer deployment, the U.S. risks a catastrophic technical failure that might jeopardize the entire U.S. nuclear deterrent, resting as it would on the submarines alone.

What about the impact on the strategic balance and deterrence of going to a submarine-only nuclear deterrent, as Adams proposes?[6]

That would entail putting all of America’s nuclear eggs in one nuclear basket. The U.S. would be assuming that while the air and land have become increasingly transparent to surveillance, for some reason the oceans would remain opaque and thus U.S. submarines would remain undetectable for their entire four-decade deployment, an assumption Adams makes. That is a reckless bet to make, especially when the very survival of the United States is at stake.

Furthermore, the reduced submarine force would, for logistical reasons, be able to be deployed only in one ocean—either the Atlantic or Pacific, but not both.

This requires some further explanation. The Navy has repeatedly emphasized that the number of submarines—12— the U.S. is buying for the future is critical to ensure that enough submarines are at sea on alert, and are therefore available to provide sufficient deterrent capability against America’s principal nuclear adversaries.

But reducing the number of submarines to 8 as Adams proposes would also significantly reduce not only the number of submarines but also the number of missiles available to deliver a retaliatory strike.

For example, 12 boats with 192 missiles with nearly 800 warheads can hit far more targets than 8 boats with 124 missiles and 800 warheads. To hold at risk all important Russian and Chinese targets, the U.S. would have to keep submarines in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as it does today.

Limiting the submarine force to one ocean would eliminate our ability to cover significant targets in both countries thus lessening deterrence of both China and Russia and pushing us to concentrate on holding at risk targets either in one country or the other.

Thus, deterring either China or Russia would have to be taken off the table: the U.S. could not hold all the key military assets at risk for each country necessary to ensure that deterrence would work.

To avoid the problem inherent in so radically reducing the U.S. deterrent, Adams proposes simply to take some of the warheads from the submarines, ICBMs and bombers that would not be built, and add them to the submarines that would be built. This move would require putting the maximum number of 8 warheads possible on each of the 16 missiles aboard each submarine.

But even then the U.S. would not have the same deterrent capability as it does today.

The U.S. would still have roughly 500 fewer warheads overall — and other serious problems. According to two top former Pentagon nuclear experts with whom the author recently spoke, the extra warheads would so increase the weight of the submarine-launched missiles that it would markedly “cut down on the range of the missile and the patrol area in which each submarine could operate.”

As a result, each submarine at sea would have to operate closer to the countries needing to be deterred for the warheads to reach their targets. This limitation would, in turn, reduce the submarine patrol area, thereby making it easier for an adversary to find and destroy the submarines even if the oceans largely remain opaque.[7]

As the range of the missile is circumscribed by the position of the submarine at sea, the missile’s warhead load and missile range are tightly interconnected. Doubling the number of warheads as Adams proposes on each missile would be redundant, “only making the rubble bounce.” The missile range being compromised with fewer missiles and submarines could not cover as many targets as they can today. As a result, deterrence would be undermined even if one assumes that the submarines would remain survivable.

Adams also makes the additional mistake of assuming that because U.S. land-based missiles are in fixed silos—although spread out over five western states—they are vulnerable to being attacked. Certainly a number of silos could be attacked with incoming enemy warheads. But what would be the point in that all 400 would have to be eliminated to avoid an American retaliatory strike back at the attacker?

Nevertheless, Adams concludes that for the ICBM missiles to be of any use to the United States in a conflict, the missiles would have to be launched by the U.S. early in a crisis to avoid being eliminated by an enemy’s first strike. This is known as the “use them or lose them” dilemma.[8] Thus Adams recommends that to avoid that dilemma, just get rid of the ICBMs.

This ICBM vulnerability was a common Cold War assumption and held some validity during the height of the Cold War when the U.S. had roughly 1000 silo based missiles but the Russians had over 10,000 nuclear warheads. In that era, Russia had more than enough warheads to attack all U.S. nuclear assets many times over including America’s ICBM silos.

But today, under the New START Treaty signed between Russia and the U.S. in 2010, the Russians have fewer than 2000 deployed strategic warheads capable of reaching United States, one-sixth the number in 1991.

Today, therefore, to take out 400 Minuteman silos and their associated 50 launch-control centers, the Russians would have to launch some 900 missile warheads at the United States assuming they would direct two warheads on each ICBM-related target to ensure the silos’ destruction.

To what end would Russia launch such a strike, especially as the remaining U.S. bomber and sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) would allow the U.S. to launch back at Russia in a retaliatory strike?

Such a Russian first strike makes no sense strategically or tactically.

Russia would have to put its forces on alert to have that many warheads ready to strike the U.S. By doing so they would unavoidably warn the U.S. of a possible pending strike: U.S. satellites would see their platforms-weapons being moved into a position to launch. Their submarines would have to go to sea, bombers be put on alert and mobile missiles moved out of garrison. Otherwise the Russians would not have enough warheads in range of the U.S. even to consider a launch capable of taking out all 400 U.S. ICBM missiles and their affiliated launch control senders.

In other words, U.S. land-based missiles are not “vulnerable,” and neither are its current and planned nuclear Triad of submarines, land-based missiles, and air force bombers.

Thus cutting the Triad as Adams and Korb have supported would reduce U.S. nuclear assets to a handful, making it easier for adversaries preemptively to attack and get the U.S. out of the nuclear business.

The United States, if anything, has been on a nuclear weapons reductions tear. The Obama administration will cut nuclear warheads from 2200 deployed strategic warheads to 1550-1800 – a limit that also applies to the Russians, under the joint New Start Treaty of 2010. This is even a further reduction from the George W. Bush era when U.S. strategic deployed nuclear weapons were cut under the 2002 Moscow Treaty (just a few short months after the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty). In the 2002 Moscow Treaty between Russia and the U.S., deployed warheads were cut from 6000 to 2200, a 64% reduction. That was on top of the reduction from over 13,000 warheads to the 6000 warhead level under the 1991 START 1 treaty between the US and Russia.[9]

Furthermore, modernizing, sustaining and replacing the projected nuclear force stricture, as now planned, will not add any additional nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal. In short, arms control, since the height of the Cold War, has cut both the U.S. and Russian strategic deployed arsenals by nearly 90% and thus can hardly be described as part of any” arms race” that might have compelled North Korea to build nuclear weapons.

Modernization does, however, avoid what Dr. Clark Murdock — formerly a senior staff member of the House Armed Services Committee and the founder of the Program on Nuclear Initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — described as “rusting to obsolescence”.[10] This will be the result if the U.S. fails to replace its aging nuclear systems, and it would have a serious impact on America’s non-nuclear allies. It would also seriously undermine their confidence in the validity of America’s extended nuclear deterrent over them.

Moreover, it is not as if the U.S. had just completed an earlier modernization. The U.S. last started modernization under President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and President Ronald W. Reagan in 1981. America’s newest land based ICBMs were last built in 1971; its newest submarine was built in 1991; and its newest B52 was built in 1963. The idea that deciding some half-century after modernization to replace such aging systems is somehow perpetuating an “arms race” is without foundation.

In light of this history, one can thus come up with strong reasons to reject the counsel of Adams and Korb. First, causing strategic instabilities that could easily break down deterrence in order to save less than $1 billion a year for the next 5-10 years is clearly not a wise deal. Second, reducing American nuclear assets to a handful of targets in the face of multiple thousands of Russian nuclear warheads does not even pass the strategic stability smell test, especially given the resulting ratio of Russian warheads (2200) to remaining U.S. nuclear assets (8). The U.S. might as well paint a bulls-eye on our nuclear deterrent and post a sign that says “Come Get Me.”

And third, any nuclear strategy that rests on the notion of blaming the United States for starting some nuclear arms race when its deployed strategic nuclear weapons under the past five administrations—including the current one– have already been reduced nearly 90% is patent nonsense. Even worse, putting all of America’s nuclear missiles on nuclear submarines and maximizing their warhead loads would leave the U.S. with a zero near-term capability to upload, while according to a new study by defense expert James Howe Russia could technically expand its modernized nuclear arsenal to 5800 warheads.[11]

It is true, that, as USAF Major General Garret Harencak, formerly responsible for two-thirds of America’s nuclear Triad, warned, a Capitol Hill audience on May 13, 2015: The United States with the end of the Cold War went on a protracted “intellectual and procurement nuclear holiday.”[12]

The General explained that the U.S. failed to modernize its nuclear deterrent. The U.S. also forgot to update its nuclear policy doctrine.

The U.S. is now remedying the situation under the dual leadership of Secretary of Air Force Deborah James and USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh.

Despite many security disagreements in Washington, the USAF bomber and ICBM force modernizations—as well as the Navy’s submarine replacement program—are supported by both this administration and an overwhelming majority in the U.S. Congress. So are the warhead and command and control enhancements needed to upgrade and sustain the nuclear enterprise.

It is important to remember that such a political and military consensus is difficult to achieve on any subject– let alone the future nuclear deterrent of the United States.

But that consensus it is now in place.

The new deterrent would cost only 4% of the defense budget, a historically low figure and 1/2200th of the overall Federal budget.

Why would one jeopardize that?

Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland and Senior Defense Consultant to the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association and a guest lecture at the US Naval Academy on nuclear deterrent policy and the founder of the 36 year AFA-NDIA-ROA Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series on Nuclear Deterrence, Missile Defense, Arms Control, Proliferation and Defense Policy.

[1] Treaty Between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 31 July, 1994, at; Mark Schneider of the National Institute of Public Policy and a former top nuclear expert in the Department of Defense explained to the author in a number of messages that the U.S. could have deployed as many as 10,000 warheads under START I but adopted reductions way beyond that number, while the Russians, luckily it turned out, also sharply reduced their nuclear arsenal below the START I required levels because they could not afford the cost of the higher number of weapons. He also points out that the U.S., under both START I and the 2002 Moscow Treaty, accelerated and went below the reductions required by treaty law.

[2] See for example the transcripts from the NDUF Breakfast Seminar Series on Nuclear Deterrence for 1993-2000, and available from the author.

[3] Personal conversation with General Michael Dunn, President, National Defense University and President, The Air Force Association, for whom this author worked 2003-06 and 2011-12; Dunn was also Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, Joint Staff, Washington, D.C. in the Department of Defense.

[4] Congressional Studies have concluded that base closure costs consume some 40% of the imputed savings from the base being closed, not including the costs of personnel not finding work.

[5] Research and development costs precede a decision to acquire a weapons systems and generally are a fixed cost irrespective of the number of weapons systems one purchases. Thus stopping production of a defense weapon at say 100 units rather than 200 does not have any impact on the previous R&D expenditures as acquisition costs come after R&D is virtually completed;

[6] See especially Admiral Richard Mies, former Commander, US Strategic Command, in the Spring 2012, Issue No. 48, Undersea Warfare, “The Strategic Deterrence Mission: Ensuring a Strong Foundation for America’s Security.”

[7] It should be understood that when the D-5 missile leaves the submarine and goes toward its target, it releases its warheads virtually simultaneously. The warheads, when released from the missile “bus” or nose cone, each travel roughly the same distance from the missile. That is the missile “footprint.” Adding 4 more warheads to each missile would be superfluous unless there were more targets to be held at risk. But if the missile needed to cover more targets, it would carry that number of warheads to begin with, while the U.S. military commanders would adjust other missile loadings to keep total warheads within the 2010 New Start treaty limits.

[8] During the past 35 years, the author has hosted over 1000 seminars on Capitol Hill on nuclear deterrent issues and especially re the assumed vulnerability of the land-based missile-leg of the nuclear Triad. Many of the speakers, including seven USAF Chiefs of Staff, all former Strategic Air Command and Strategic Command heads, three Vice Presidents, and six Air Force Secretary’s as well as dozens of members of Congress all have discussed this critical issue and nearly without exception have explained that the flexibility of the nuclear Triad as a whole makes any large-scale attack on America’s three ICBM missile fields in the context of an arms control environment not credible.

[9] May 24, 2002, Treat Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions (The Moscow Treaty).

[10] Clark Murdock, May 12, 2015, Remarks “Defining US Nuclear Strategy and Posture in 2020-2050,” AFA-NDIA-ROA Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series, and Huessy’s Corner

[11] General Garret Harencak, Remarks at the AFA-NDIA-ROA Breakfast Seminar Series on Nuclear Deterrence; transcript available at

[12] “Exploring the Dichotomy Between New START Treaty Obligations and Russian Actions and Rhetoric”, James R. Howe, Vision Centric, Inc. Forthcoming, 17 February, 2016.

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