California Gov. Jerry Brown and former US Defense Secretary William Perry came to Washington on Thursday to warn "woefully uninformed" Americans of "looming nuclear dangers," particularly that the United States will lead a new arms race by unnecessarily modernizing its nuclear deterrent.
In particular, Perry said that the United States was in danger of mistakenly launching our intercontinental ballistic missiles against Russia because our current nuclear deterrent policy depends on launch on warning, although he admits the danger is very low.
Nonetheless, he concluded that a false alarm of a missile threat coming at us would cause nuclear war because the US would mistakenly react by launching our ICBMs. If this occurred during a crisis over a Russian attack against the Baltics — a real danger he warned — such a missile attack could reasonably be believed as in fact underway as opposed to during a normal day-to-day peaceful state of affairs.
Perry says we have enough weapons in our submarines and bombers alone and we don't need ICBMs. Brown echoed this idea, complaining the US needlessly deploys 5,000-10,000 nuclear weapons to "maintain deterrence," explaining "keeping two of the three" elements of the nuclear triad gives us far more than enough weapons.
The idea that US deterrent policy relies on launch on warning of our ICBMs is completely erroneous. In 1989, then-Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci told Congress "We have not spent billions of dollars to modernize and increase the capabilities of the bomber and sea-based legs of the triad only to leave the President with a single effective option with which to respond to a massive Soviet attack. …The United States does not rely on its capability for launch on warning or launch under attack to ensure the credibility of our deterrent. (Annual Report to the Congress, FY 1990, January 1989, p 37. Emphasis added.)
In short the US has no such launch-on-warning policy. Since 1981 senior nuclear commanders have told me no US ICBM will be launched without a presidential order as is the case for every leg of the triad. They have further declared in all the years in all the crises since America first put ICBMs on alert, we have never reacted in any way that risked a launch on false warning. Further, when the bombers were on alert and could be launched for survival (but not attack execution), we never even launched the bombers which of course are recallable.
In addition, even if a false alarm could lead to the US launching its ICBMs, then getting rid of them doesn't change the fact that Russian or Chinese ICBMs would implicitly have the same problem and their missiles if launched on warning would definitely be aimed at the US.
When asked what is Russia doing about this supposed scary launch-on-warning problem, Perry admitted the Russians have no interest in getting rid of their land-based missiles.
Ironically, in pursuing such a policy of zero ICBMs, their goal of further reducing nuclear weapons would be put in jeopardy. Further nuclear arms control would come to a screeching halt. Why? If the US maintained the New Start Treaty warhead limits, all the ICBM warheads would have to be loaded onto the submarine missiles. The missiles would then be maxed out. Then we would be unable to upload the sub-based missiles with more warheads in the case of a Russian breakout from the current arms control agreement. Try leveraging such a situation to get further reductions from Russia.
The resulting American nuclear deterrent would largely be resting on one technological capability in a world of rising nuclear dangers. A Russian or Chinese scientific breakthrough could put our entire security at risk, most notably being able to find our submarines at sea. That would virtually obviate our nuclear deterrent, hardly a move in the direction of "limiting" nuclear dangers.
Brown seems also oblivious to who is leading the current arms race which both he and Perry bemoan. First the US is maintaining a deterrent of 1,550 warheads, an assured retaliatory survivable deterrent of some hundreds of warheads, not the 10,000 claimed by Brown and some 90 percent less than at the height of the Cold War.
Furthermore it is the Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis and North Koreans who are fully modernizing their nuclear forces. In fact, Russia will have deployed an entire new force of submarines, long-range bombers and land-based missiles by 2022, nearly a decade prior to the United States fielding a single new bomber, ICBM or submarine.
When asked about the cooperative missile work between Iran and North Korea and how that might raise nuclear dangers, Brown and Perry again blame the United States first, concluding that the dangers of nuclear weapons in North Korea were largely due to failed US actions that we did not take some 15 to 16 years ago.
By blaming the Bush administration for what actually was a Clinton administration mistake in trusting the North Koreans under the 1994-5 Agreed Framework deal between Pyongyang and the United States, they needlessly turned nuclear dangers into a partisan issue. Further compounding the problem, Brown concluded by saying Perry told him missile defense doesn't work either in defending against North Korea.
As Perry lamented during his conclusion, he has gotten nowhere with his proposal to kill ICBMs.
Well, there is a reason. It doesn't make any sense.
In short, Perry and Brown continue to tell a sad, tired story that far from informing the American people of real nuclear dangers, actually creates new nuclear dangers that in the real world could get us all killed.
Peter Huessy is president of his own defense consulting firm, GeoStrategic Analysis, and senior defense consultant at the Air Force Association.