The Trump administration’s recently unveiled National Security Strategy is an excellent and overdue statement of intent. But unless it is ruthlessly prioritized, political and budgetary realities will make it little more than a wish list. And in regard to nuclear weapons, it hardly departs from the insufficient Obama-era policy of replacing old equipment rather than modifying each element of the nuclear triad to meet new challenges.
National survival depends on many factors: the economy, civil peace, constitutional fidelity, education, research, and military strength across the board. Each has a different timeline and resiliency. Nuclear forces, on the other hand, may have a catastrophically short timeline combined with by far the greatest immediate effect.
Alone of all crucial elements, the failure of America’s nuclear deterrent is capable of bringing instant destruction or unavoidable subjugation, as the deterrent’s unarrested decline will lead to either the opportunity for an enemy first strike or the surrender of the U.S. on every foreign front and eventually at home.
Believers in total nuclear abolition fail to recognize that if they are successful, covert possession of just a score of warheads could mean world mastery. And though they, like everyone else, are routinely deterred (from telling off the boss or driving against the flow of traffic), they fail to extend their understanding to nuclear deterrence. They seem as well not to grasp that whereas numerical reduction from tens of thousands of warheads would reduce the chances of accident, below a certain point it would tempt an aggressor by elevating the potential of a successful first strike. Nor do they allow that Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran — which have through their conduct of war and in suppressing their populations callously sacrificed more than 100 million of their own people — subscribe to permissive nuclear doctrines and thresholds radically different from our own.
The Obama administration understood nuclear rejuvenation to mean merely updating old systems rather than changing the architecture of the deterrent to match Russia’s and China’s programs, as well as advances in technology. Given that short of abject surrender the sole means of preventing nuclear war is maintaining the potential to inflict unacceptable damage upon an enemy and/or shield one’s country from such damage, what are our resources, and against what are they arrayed?
The “nuclear triad” commonly referred to is rather a pentad, its land, air, and sea legs joined by missile defense and the survivability of national infrastructure. America’s land leg comprises static, silo-based missiles, which (other than in the potentially catastrophic launch-on-warning posture) are vulnerable not only to nuclear strike, but, with soon-to-come millimeter accuracy, even to conventional warheads. Russia, China, and North Korea have road-mobile missiles (and Russia, additional rail-based ones), making their land legs more survivable and in the case of tunnel systems — of which we have none and China has 3,000 miles — unaddressable and uncountable.
The U.S. air leg consists of ancient bombers and outdated standoff cruise missiles, both vulnerable to Russian and Chinese air defense, along with only 20 penetrating bombers, the B-2. To boot, the planes are concentrated on only a handful of insufficiently hardened bases.
Our sea-based nuclear force, the least-vulnerable leg, for many years included 41 ballistic-missile submarines, SSBNs. These dwindled to 18, then 14, and, with the new Columbia class set to enter service beginning only in 2031, a planned 12. A maximum of six at sea at any one time will face 100 Russian and Chinese hunter-killer subs. At the same time, the oceans are surrendering their opacity to space surveillance and Russian nonacoustic tracking. Even a deeply running sub disturbs the chemical and sea-life balance in ways that via upwelling leave a track upon the surface.
Russia is moving to 13 SSBNs with high-capacity missiles that carry many maneuverable warheads; China, with 4 SSBNs, is only beginning to build. A possible new dimension is Russia’s announced, but as yet unseen, autonomous stealth undersea nuclear vehicle, capable of targeting the high percentage of U.S. population, industry, and infrastructure on the coasts. We have no such weapon and Russia presents no similar vulnerability.
American ballistic-missile defense is severely underdeveloped due to ideological opposition and the misunderstanding of its purpose, which is to protect population and infrastructure as much as possible but, because many warheads will get through, primarily to shield retaliatory capacity so as to make a successful enemy first strike impossible — thus increasing stability rather than decreasing it, as its critics wrongly believe. Starved of money and innovation, missile defense has been confined to midcourse interception, when boost-phase and terminal intercept are also needed. Merely intending this without sufficient funding is useless. As for national resilience, the U.S. long ago gave up any form of civil defense, while Russia and China have not. This reinforces their ideas of nuclear utility, weakens our deterrence, and makes the nuclear calculus that much more unstable.
Beyond these particulars are the erosion of the American nuclear-weapons complex and the larger defense-industrial base; the dangerous mismatch of nuclear doctrines and perceptions; the sulfurous fuse of North Korea and Iran; Russian “tactical” nuclear weapons that outnumber U.S. counterparts 10 to 1; Russian programs suggesting that it is working toward the capacity for nuclear “breakout”; 2,600 currently deployed Russian strategic warheads as opposed to America’s 1,590; and consistent and brazen Russian treaty violations.
The addition of China as a major nuclear power now presents an analogy to the three-body problem in physics, in which three variables acting upon one another create an unpredictable and unstable system. That is but one reason why China must either be brought into an arms-control regime with the U.S. and Russia or forced by its refusal to show its hand for all the world to see. It is inexplicable that the U.S. government and arms-control enthusiasts have both failed to address the fact that China, the third major nuclear power, is totally unconstrained.
All the above is only a precis of a long-developing peril that, though difficult to see upon the surface, day by day strengthens the chances of Armageddon or capitulation. The only way to face it is objectively and without fear, and the only solution (requiring just a tiny fraction of gross domestic product) is to correct the shortcomings and right the balances.
America’s powerful deterrent has kept the nuclear peace all these years. If it withers, it will keep the peace no longer. The nuclear problem has no adequate superlatives. As great as all other concerns may be, they must yield to it. For the force to be confronted is the breaker of nations and the destroyer of worlds.
The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2018
By Starlight Undiminished: How the American Landscape Shaped the Founding.
On behalf of the Second Continental Congress in declaring America’s independence, Jefferson in the first paragraph of the Declaration drew upon authority greater than the Crown, the British Empire, and the long traditions of English law and government. “With a firm Reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” he and those present staked “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” upon “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” [Continued at First Things, November 2017.
The North Korean nuclear crisis can be defused peacefully and to America’s advantage if its elements are perceived with strategic clarity, and if U.S. leaders recognize that diplomacy depends less upon signals than upon maneuver.
Kim Jong Un is not entirely irrational. The purpose of his nuclear program is not to court annihilation but to deter American military options on the Korean Peninsula and change the correlation of forces in his favor. North Korea created chemical and biological arsenals that effectively neutralized American tactical nuclear weapons and led to their withdrawal. What we see now is an amplification of that strategy, with the object of eventually driving American forces from Korea.
It is extremely unlikely that Mr. Kim would strike, if at all, before his nuclear forces have matured in numbers and reliability. Relatively few of his delivery systems or miniaturized warheads have been extensively tested. Nor have they been proven to work together. And the U.S. and Japan have multiple layers of midcourse and terminal-phase missile defenses.
Thus, time remains to set in motion options on the escalation ladder between the fatal extremes of either doing nothing or taking precipitous military action. The problem is that these opportunities have not been exploited, the focus having been too much on Pyongyang rather than on Beijing, which can both completely shut down the North Korean economy and credibly threaten military intervention.
To the extent that China is shifting, it is because it fears a war on its border, understands what such a war would do to its own and the world’s economy, fears even more that Japan and South Korea might develop nuclear deterrents, and sees that its nuclear calculus has been disrupted by the Thaad radar’s ability to enhance American missile defense via forwarding data on Chinese missile launches in boost phase.
But this is not enough. As the late U.S. ambassador to China James Lilley said: “You won’t get anything from them unless you squeeze them.” In view of America’s disappearing red lines, repeated nuclear capitulations to North Korea and Iran, the largely substanceless “pivot” to Asia, and our passivity in the South China Sea, China will wait to see if we fold.
To date, the Trump administration has failed to apply the kind of intermediate measures on the escalation ladder that are outlined below. It needs to understand that China is watching and waiting, and that absent either overwhelming military superiority or a vast store of credibility — neither of which we now possess — a diplomacy primarily of signals will not produce results. In addition, the Trump administration may think that Pyongyang is too important for Beijing to “abandon.” True, North Korea serves as a “fleet in being” for China, tying down U.S. forces and ready to supply another front to divide them in case of war elsewhere, but now conditions are sufficiently dangerous and different that China can be stimulated to reassess.
That is, if the U.S. takes previously neglected measures to respond to China’s military rise, protect our Asian allies, and guard international waters from maritime irredentism.
The president can switch from tough-guy talk to going before a joint session of Congress to ask for an emergency increase in funding to correct the longstanding degradation of American military power. He can say that the can has been kicked down the road far too long, and the buck stops with him. If Congress responds enthusiastically, as it should, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran will see that the giant has awakened, and the funding will make possible what follows:
— Given the immense distances across the Pacific, American conventional military leverage and deterrence vis-a-vis China depend entirely upon bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. These bases are insufficiently hardened against attack by China’s many intermediate-range ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and bombers. Munitions bunkers and aircraft are ranged in tight rows rather than scattered in deep, underground, highly fortified shelters. Given the wingspans and tail heights of B-52s and C-17s, these would be immensely expensive, but war is much more so in every respect.
— Now that the U.S. may soon be threatened by a rogue regime’s ICBMs, a vigorous acceleration of every aspect of ballistic-missile defense is warranted. This will protect against Iran and North Korea, promote uncertainty and hesitation in mature powers’ calculation of their nuclear thresholds, and reduce the chances of a first strike against the U.S. by protecting its retaliatory capacities.
— The F-22 — slated for 750 copies but reduced to 187; much faster than the F-35, with almost twice the range and more than twice the armament — is essential in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific. But it was taken out of production not that long ago when the Obama administration believed that security situations such as we now face were inconceivable. Restoring production lines, at a cost of one-tenth the AIG bailout, would exert priceless influence upon China.
— Nothing would rivet China’s attention more than if the U.S. formally announced that absent the abolition of North Korea’s nuclear capacity it would look with favor upon and assist with a Japanese and/or South Korean nuclear deterrent, and then established a commission for this purpose. So as to de-link North Korea from the South China Sea, the U.S. should at this point make clear to China that it is weighing supply of coastal anti-shipping missiles to the Philippines and Vietnam. Establishing such a gauntlet to preserve sovereign rights and freedom of navigation is long overdue.
These maneuvers well short of war can rebalance power, instill caution, and stabilize the increasingly volatile Western Pacific, as well as contribute to stability elsewhere. A cost-benefit analysis objectively applied will so depress the value to China of a rogue North Korea that China should find common ground with us in coordinating action and point of view. The choice need not be between capitulation and war, silence and bluster. But only if the United States decides upon carrying a bigger stick and speaking more softly.
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2017.