Spending More on Nukes: STRATCOM’s Nuclear Death Wish

Photograph Source: Sgt Samuel Rogers (USAF/Barksdale Air Force Base) – CC BY 2.0

Being sufficiently able at your job is a good thing.  But beware the trappings of zeal.  When it comes to the business of retaining an inventory for humanity’s annihilation, the zealous should be kept away.  But there Admiral Charles Richard was in April this year, with his siren calls, urging the US Senate to consider a simple proposition.  “Sustainment of modernization of our modern nuclear forces … has transitioned from something we should do, to something we must do.”  As Commander of the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), he was aching to impress the Senate Committee on Armed Services that the nuclear deterrent was there to be polished and improved.

Much of his address as part of the Posture Statement Review should be treated as the conventional lunacy that comes with that cretin-crusted field known as nuclear deterrence.  “Peace is our profession” remains the somewhat obscene motto of STRATCOM, and it is a peace kept by promising the potential extinction of the human species.

For the Admiral, strategic deterrence is the holy of holies.  If it fails, “we are prepared to deliver a decisive response, decisive in every possible way.”  This decisiveness will be achieved “with a modern resilient, equipped, and trained combatant-ready force.”  To avoid the failure of such deterrence also required revisiting “a critical forgotten lesson that deterrence operates continuously from peacetime, through the gray zone, worldwide, across all domains, and into conflict” [Richard’s emphasis].

The fate of the US (Richard humourlessly calls it safety and security) is indelibly linked to an “effective nuclear triad; a reliable and modern nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) architecture; and a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure.”

Deterrence is a fetish, an idol.  “Strategic deterrence,” he explained, “is the foundation of our national defense policy and enables every US military operation around the world.”  Linking the nuke to impunity and roguish behaviour (the Admiral would see this as preserving freedom, of course), he makes an ominous observation.  “If strategic deterrence fails, little else… no plan or capability, works as designed” [Richard’s emphasis].

According to the Admiral, the fundamentals of deterrence had not changed in this century.  Principles keeping terror in play remained.  Adversaries had to be assured they would suffer greater loss than any gain derived from their offensive actions.  “The spectrum of conflict today, however, is neither linear nor predictable” [Richard’s emphasis].  In a candid revelation, Richard showed his worldview with jaw dropping sharpness.  “We must account for the possibility of conflict leading to conditions which could very rapidly drive an adversary to consider nuclear use as their least bad option.”  The unanswered question here is what would make such an adversary behave in that way.

Part of the concern is a fear of old age in the weapons department and what Richard accusingly calls underinvestment.  The nuclear mechanisms that have been in place are suffering gout and rot, though the military-industrial complex is always bound to exaggerate the ills.  The presence of old computer systems is being frowned upon despite the obvious advantages these have in the face of misfiring or cyber security.

The message to lawmakers is clear: spend more on nuclear weapons.  If system capabilities are eroded such that ICBMs are cut from the triad, the commander recommends returning to that maniacally dangerous formula of keeping nuclear armed US Air Force bombers airborne and on permanent alert.  The world can look forward to more nuclear accidentsoccasioned by pilot error and technical fault.

Central to the latest update is the continuing concern shown towards Russia and China.  Russia slots into the role of old adversary, being the “pacing nuclear strategic threat,” given its aggressive modernisation drive, which was 80% complete.  China, however, was proving a menace.  The capabilities of both powers meant that the US was “facing two nuclear-capable peer adversaries at the same time” for the first time in its history.  Much in the spirit of the Cold War “missile gap” between the US and the USSR, Richard takes it upon himself to inflate Beijing’s credentials in order to woo the Senators.  China was “already capable of executing any plausible nuclear deployment strategy within their region and will soon be able to do so at intercontinental ranges as well.”

In his oral testimony, the Admiral was beside himself regarding weekly revelations about China’s capabilities.  The stock of current intelligence information on China’s nuclear arsenal, given a month’s lag, was probably dated by the time it reached STRATCOM.  He could only conclude that “China’s stated ‘No First Use’ policy declaration and implied minimum deterrent strategy” should be questioned.  Richard was also convinced that Beijing had moved a number “of its nuclear forces to a Launch on Warning (LOW) posture and are adopting a limited ‘high alert duty’ strategy.”

Richard is gloomy in warning, and duly italicises for his audience.  “If we find out we were wrong, decisions to divest or delay could take ten to fifteen years to recover and render the nation unable to respond to advancing threats.” He continues in italics.  “Any decision to delay or defer recapitalization requires us to be absolutely sure for the next 40 years, that we don’t need the capability to deter threats, many of which we can’t predict.”

Through social media, US Strategic Command proved laidback in discussing prospective Armageddon.  Richard’s words on war being neither linear, nor predictable, and the possibility that adversaries might consider nuclear use as their least bad option, was tweeted as a taster on April 20.  Newsweek considered it “bizarre”.  Those at STRATCOM evidently did not.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com