The Mathematics of Nuclear Deterrence

Posted: May 24, 2010 in Air University, Minimal Deterrence, New York Times, No-Nukes, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Russia, START
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Air University authors Gary Schaub and Jim Forsyth say the U.S. needs to unilaterally strip down to a nuclear arsenal of 311 weapons.

Not 312, not 310: 311.

The breakdown is 100 single-warhead ICBMs; 192 single-warhead sea-launched ballistic missiles, and 19 B-2s each carrying one single-warhead air-launched cruise missile.

As an area code, 311 sounds pretty reasonable.  As a weapons count, not so much.  Consider the following:

  • In the summer of 2009, Deputy Joint Chiefs Chairman General James Cartwright testified 860 nuclear launchers was the bare minimum.  ‘New’ START goes below that at 800 launchers with 1550 strategic nuclear weapons.  311 is obviously well below new START.
  • The U.S. provides a ‘nuclear umbrella’ to a number of other countries.  It isn’t clear how or if this is considered in the 311 weapons count.  For comparison, who falls under the Russian and Chinese ‘nuclear umbrella’?  That would be Russia and China.
  • What about tactical nuclear weapons?  The U.S. would go to zero based on the authors’ recommendations.  As such, any U.S. nuclear weapons provided to NATO would go away.  Could Russia’s 2000 or so tactical nukes place U.S. allies and interests at risk?

There is no mathematical solution to this issue; conditions change and we’re dealing with deterrence. Weapons system reliability, survivability, modernization, defenses, and the likes are in the details and the details matter greatly.  Deterrence isn’t science, it’s strategy and as a strategy, it is by nature less than completely precise.

Really all the U.S. needs is one weapon.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet exist, but to get things started, we’ll call it the “Assured Nuclear Weapon Defeat Weapon” (ANWDW, pronounced ah-new-we-do).  It is 100% reliable and 100% available.

Then we can go to zero nuclear weapons.

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