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The U.S. nuclear deterrent preserved peace during the Cold War by maintaining numerical and technological rough parity with the USSR, not allowing Moscow to gain any significant advantage that might tempt Russia to launch World War III.
Today, Russia has achieved many significant advantages over the aged U.S. nuclear deterrent, including an at least 10-to-1 superiority in tactical nuclear weapons; a largely modernized force of long-range strategic nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers; and perhaps most significantly a new generation of advanced technology nuclear warheads that have no U.S. equivalents.
Consequently, Washington faces a wide range of scenarios which U.S. nuclear forces are not designed to deter or defeat with equivalent and proportional response. Possible tomorrows:
—U.S. fighters and bombers are swept from the skies by Russian fighters firing long-range air-to-air missiles armed with mini-nuclear warheads.
—U.S. carriers, submarines, and other ships are sunk by nuclear-armed torpedoes, cruise and ballistic missiles, giving Russia mastery of the seas.
—The Russian Army blasts its way across European NATO using tanks, artillery, and aircraft armed with mini-neutron warheads that produce virtually no radioactive fallout.
—U.S. nuclear missiles retaliating against Russia are intercepted and destroyed by anti-ballistic missiles armed with nuclear X-ray warheads that are far more effective than the non-nuclear kinetic-kill weapons employed by the U.S. National Missile Defense.
—A Super-EMP warhead delivered by a Russian, Chinese, or North Korean missile or satellite blacks-out the North American electric grid, paralyzing the U.S. economy and military, including nuclear forces.
Today, the U.S. has no nuclear-armed air-to-air missiles; no nuclear-armed torpedoes or tactical anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles; no mini-neutron warheads, X-ray warheads, or Super-EMP warheads. Nor are there any U.S. plans to develop advanced nuclear warheads.
Instead, the Pentagon plans to spend an estimated $700 billion over the next decade modernizing strategic nuclear delivery systems, so the U.S. will have new missiles and bombers, upgrading command and control, and refurbishing the nuclear scientific and industrial base that maintains old-fashioned legacy nuclear weapons from the Cold War.
But no advanced technology, new generation nuclear warheads, will be designed or built.
The tip of the spear for the U.S. nuclear deterrent will continue to be Cold War era nuclear weapons, designed for high-yield blast and shock, not specialized nuclear effects. These may be as irrelevant to modern nuclear deterrence and war-fighting as the crossbow.
The Pentagon does plan to de-mothball an old-design nuclear weapon having low-yield, to deter Russian use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. But it is not a new generation warhead for specialized nuclear effects.
Worst — the decades-old legacy nuclear warheads that will continue to be used for the present and future U.S. nuclear deterrent may not even work.
John C. Hopkins and David H. Sharp in “The Scientific Foundation For Assessing The Nuclear Performance Of Weapons In The Stockpile Is Eroding” (Perspectives Winter 2019) are the latest in a long chorus of nuclear weapon scientists warning the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of America’s geriatric nuclear warheads is increasingly doubtful.
How did we get here? Why not arm our expensive new missiles and bombers with new advanced generation nuclear warheads?
23 years ago, the late great Congressman Floyd Spence, then Chairman of the House National Security Committee, warned the U.S. was moving toward unilateral nuclear disarmament through technological obsolescence in his report “The Clinton Administration and Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship: Erosion By Design” (HNSC October 30, 1996).
Chairman Spence warned the Clinton Administration’s strong anti-nuclear bias and ideological commitment to nuclear disarmament was behind:
—U.S. compliance with the unratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty despite Russian cheating;
—Replacing nuclear testing with controversial “science-based nuclear stockpile stewardship” that relies instead on computer models;
—The Spratt-Furse Amendment outlawing research on advanced new generation nuclear weapons;
—Replacing the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency, that focused on nuclear weapons for deterrence and war-fighting, with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, more about arms control of nuclear, chemical, biological and other weapons, and natural threats, like climate change.
Unfortunately, President George W. Bush, preoccupied with the war on terrorism, did little or nothing to reverse U.S. nuclear obsolescence. Matters worsened under President Obama.
Now in 2019, the nuclear weapon scientists who helped win the Cold War are mostly retired or dead, as are Pentagon strategists who gave highest priority to nuclear deterrence.
Rep. Adam Smith, the new Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a recent interview opposes modernizing U.S. nuclear forces, would constrain President Trump’s launch authority, constrain military planning to a “No First Use” policy, and drastically cut the number of U.S. nuclear weapons with the goal of their elimination.
Given the political and cultural opposition to nuclear weapons, it may be impossible for the U.S. to achieve their modernization. Russian nuclear superiority, and soon China’s, appears inevitable and permanent.
Accordingly, the U.S. Space Force, space-based missile defenses, and hardening U.S. critical infrastructures against EMP and cyber-attacks may be more realistic goals. Such a revolution in military technology — that renders nuclear missiles obsolete and makes strategic defenses dominant — may be only way for the U.S. to win the New Cold War.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the Congressional EMP Commission as chief of staff, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of "Blackout Wars." For more of his reports,
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