Former launch officer warns Trump strategy fuels nuclear arms race

A former nuclear launch officer is warning that President Donald Trump's nuclear weapons strategy is encoura...

Posted: Sep. 19, 2018 9:41 PM
Updated: Sep. 19, 2018 9:41 PM

A former nuclear launch officer is warning that President Donald Trump's nuclear weapons strategy is encouraging an arms race that could increase the chances of a catastrophic nuclear war.

He argues that the Pentagon should instead adopt a "deterrence-only" approach that phases out land-based missile systems that have served as one leg of the nuclear triad for decades.

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In a new report released on Tuesday, Global Zero's Dr. Bruce Blair, a former Air Force launch control officer who's a nuclear security expert at Princeton University, argues that the United States' nuclear stance is a "vestige of the Cold War" that creates instability with an unnecessarily hefty price tag.

His proposal is intended to reshape the Pentagon's thinking on nuclear weapons by promoting a "deterrence-only" strategy that supplements sweeping cuts to the US nuclear force with additional options involving conventional weapons that he says are better suited to hit specific targets.

"This alternate nuclear posture review is the first and only analysis in the public domain that uses credible estimates of existing US war plan target requirements and goes on to define the forces needed to meet them, and thus it challenges the Pentagon on its own terms," Blair told CNN.

"It starts from the same place as Pentagon officials and nuclear war planners, offering a different perspective -- one that questions the foundation of nuclear planning. The US shouldn't base decisions on a strategy of nuclear war fighting, it should make decisions based on a deterrence-only role for the nuclear arsenal," he said.

The report also dissects what Blair characterizes as the US nuclear posture's "Achilles' heel" -- the system's communication network.

"Having the ability to absorb an attack and retaliate is the essence of deterrence, and yet the United States has failed to ensure presidential survival and robust communications—both vital to executing a retaliatory attack," the report said.

The Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review released in February focuses primarily on countering threats posed by Russia, and military officials are adamant their plan walks the line between maintaining a nuclear deterrence and encouraging controls on nuclear weapons.

"It reaffirms that the fundamental role of US nuclear policy is deterrence and continues our clear commitment to nonproliferation and arms control," said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

However, Blair argues that the Trump administration's nuclear posture "promotes a nuclear arms race."

"The Trump administration's nuclear posture goes beyond legitimate goals of credible national security, and actually promotes a nuclear arms race and nuclear war fighting," he added.

Blair said some of the Pentagon's nuclear strategies are "dangerous" and contain unnecessary redundancies that may increase the chances of a full-scale nuclear conflict.

"Nuclear war fighting is destabilizing. ... Once it starts, escalation is likely," he told CNN, adding that he would argue against the Pentagon's current war fighting target set and recommend scaling down to a deterrence-only strategy that threatens key targets.

According to Blair, his report lays "out the steps needed to significantly reduce the risk of the use of nuclear weapons by design or accident and the risk of escalation to full-scale nuclear war if conflict happens."

One such recommendation is for the Trump administration to phase out its arsenal of silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles over the next 10 years and adopt a deterrence-only model by dramatically cutting its arsenal of nuclear weapons and bomber force.

Silo-based ICBMs are one leg of the US nuclear triad, which also consists of bombers and nuclear-armed submarines.

According to Blair's report, five US Columbia-class submarines, backed by a reserve force of 40 nuclear-capable bombers, would be capable of retaliating with enough force if necessary, also rendering the third arm of the triad "redundant and dispensable."

The Pentagon's current Nuclear Posture Review calls for at least 12 new Columbia-class submarines and 175 bombers.

"The almost exclusive mission of these missiles is to engage Russia, or Russia and China simultaneously, in large-scale nuclear conflict," the report said. "Such wartime scenarios have become unthinkable. Waging war against both countries simultaneously is a contingency so improbable that US planners can safely ignore it."

Blair also noted that silo locations are "fixed and known," creating vulnerabilities for the weapons.

However, Defense Secretary James Mattis has reiterated the administration's support for the nuclear triad. In September 2017, Mattis argued it is a crucial form of deterrence.

"I questioned the triad, and I cannot solve the deterrent problem reducing it from a triad," Mattis said, according to a report by Military Times. "If I want to send the most compelling message, I have been persuaded that the triad and its framework is the right way to go."

Mattis has stressed the importance of including more conventional options as part of nuclear war planning and has worked toward overhauling US nuclear communications, a priority listed in Blair's report.

For decades, the military plan for nuclear war has been known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan -- focusing entirely on a nuclear campaign. US Strategic Command, which oversees nuclear defense, is continuing the effort begun by the Obama administration to provide military plans that combine nuclear and conventional options, in order to be able to de-escalate a crisis, defense officials familiar with the effort told CNN in July.

The move to include conventional options as part of planning for nuclear war took on additional importance as tensions rose with North Korea, and the Pentagon leadership was looking for a wide range of military options to offer Trump, officials said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly attribute a quote to Bruce Blair rather than Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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