Nuclear Militancy or Insanity?

Last week Major Duncan D. Hunter, U.S. Marine Corps, made a startling statement:

“I don’t think it’s inevitable but I think if you have to hit Iran, you don’t put boots on the ground,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., a Republican member of the armed services committee, said in an C-Span interview. “You do it with tactical nuclear devices and you set them back a decade, or two, or three. I think that’s the way to do it with a massive aerial bombardment campaign.”

One might quibble with me.  Time Magazine misidentifies the California congressman as a former Marine:

Hunter is a former Marine representing the same part of California his father represented as a congressman from 1981 to 2009.

Hunter represents California’s 50th District, but he is not separated from the Corps.  He served on active duty from 2001 to 2007 before becoming a haughty reservist:

Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno were at the table defending the service’s 2014 budget proposal during the April 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing. California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, was questioning the Army leaders about the service’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS).

After criticizing an Army program, Hunter got up to leave the hearing without listening to a response from the witnesses, who took umbrage at the move.

“May we respond? I think I heard a question,” McHugh said.  “Well, I don’t want to respond if the gentleman’s going to leave. Would you care to hear a brief response?”

The back and forth between Odierno and Hunter begins around 3:30 in the video clip above.  The highlight is an exchange where Hunter, to summarize, tells Odierno that as a congressman he has the right to sit at the podium, criticize a program, and not allow the Army’s chief of staff to respond.

Ed Kilgore characterizes this as the Ghost of Curtis LeMay:

To those of us of a certain vintage, Hunter’s nuke-talk is reminiscent of a famous 1968 press conference by former SAC commander Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was being introduced as George Wallace’s American Independent Party running-mate, and who really wanted Americans to get over their silly taboos about using nuclear weapons. Here’s a contemporary account from the L.A. Times:

LeMay, joining Wallace’s campaign in Pittsburgh, said the world had a “phobia about nuclear weapons” destroying the world. To support his statement minimizing the effects of nuclear contamination, he talked extensively about a film made in Bikini [a U.S. nuclear testing site before the Test Ban Treaty] in 1964 by a University of Washington expedition.

LeMay said the film showed that except for land crabs which were “still a little bit hot” and rats that were “bigger, fatter and healthier than before,” conditions had returned to “about the same” on the ring of coral islands that were battered by 23 nuclear test explosions during the late 1940s and 1950s.

Having written about (and serially lambasted) the delusional Strategic Air Command general before, the statements LeMay made as a 1968 Vice Presidential candidate are far less chilling to me than what the man was willing to utter as chief of staff of the USAF:

At a Georgetown dinner party recently, the wife of a leading senator sat next to Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the Air Force.  He told her a nuclear war was inevitable.  It would begin in December and be all over by the first of the year.  In that interval, every major American city—Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles—would be reduced to rubble.  Similarly, the principal cities of the Soviet Union would be destroyed.  The lady, as she tells it, asked if there were any place where she could take her children and grandchildren to safety; the general would, of course, at the first alert be inside the top-secret underground hideout near Washington from which the retaliatory strike would be directed.  He told her that certain unpopulated areas in the far west would be safest—Marquis Childs, nationally syndicated columnist, Washington Post, 19 July 1961.

LeMay’s musings about the Cuban Missile Crisis do not burnish his image:

“The Kennedy administration thought that being as strong as we were was provocative to the Russians and likely to start a war,” the SAC general said with disgust in retirement.  “We in the Air Force, and I personally, believed the exact opposite…We could have not only gotten the missiles out of Cuba, we could have gotten the Communists out of Cuba at that time…During that very critical time, in my mind there wasn’t a chance that we would have gone to war with Russia because we had overwhelming strategic capability and the Russians knew it.”  Believing the crisis to be a poker game, LeMay imagined the US held the best cards.  “The Russian bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters,” he taunted during the crisis.  “Now we’ve got him in a trap, let’s take his leg off all the way to his testicles.  On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, LeMay in the 1980s was still distraught for not being permitted to massacre billions:

As LeMay’s castration imagery implies, he may have been goading Kennedy to attack Cuba as an excuse to launch full strategic preemption; discussing the missile crisis twenty years later with historian Ernest May, he said “that it was his belief that at any point the Soviet Union could have been obliterated without more than normal expectable SAC losses on our side…”

In response to this I can only point to this 2012 study that postulates 750 kilotons worth of detonations could trigger a nuclear winter, and this order of battle that shows that the American plan for nuclear war in October 1962, SIOP-63, would have unleashed against the U.S.S.R. nuclear weaponry with a yield of 7,800,000 kilotons.

Many probably dismissed Major Hunter’s remarks about nuclear weapons as the musings of a hot-headed conservative lawmaker, but I keep referring to him by his military rank because I wonder if most Americans realize that their country does not have a policy of ‘no-first-use’ (first strike) when it comes to nuclear weapons.  While the current presidential administration might have appeared set to commit against first strike, they released this last June:

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review established the Administration’s goal to set conditions that would allow the United States to safely adopt a policy of making deterrence of nuclear attack the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.  Although we cannot adopt such a policy today, the new guidance reiterates the intention to work toward that goal over time.  [(Italics mine.)]

Throughout the DOD report, the emphasis is on maintaining strategic parity with Russia and China.  This is deeply stupid:

Could it have anything to do with a Russian worry that two Ohio-class SSBNs might wipe out the entire Soviet silo-based ICBM fleet?

The current RVSN ICBM force presents for an interesting preemptive strike scenario. The most vulnerable assets are the fixed, silo-based weapons. A single US Navy Ohio-class SSBN is capable of launching 24 Trident II SLBMs. Given that each weapon typically carries 6 MIRV warheads, each submarine can strike 144 targets with a standard payload. Two Ohio SSBNs could therefore theoretically decimate the RVSN with a preemptive strike, eliminating the entire silo-based missile force, which currently stands at 222 ICBMs.

Mobile ICBMs are far more difficult targets. Mobile ICBMs are capable of being erected and fired while in garrison thanks to sliding roof assemblies on the single bay garages housing the TELs. During a time of increased international tensions, however, they are likely to be widely dispersed to deployment launch sites. In this environment they would be much harder to locate, and they are available in sufficient numbers to represent a crippling retaliatory strike capability for the RVSN, even if the silo-based weapons are eliminated or incapacitated.

Launching enough ICBMs to blanket likely mobile ICBM deployment areas would not be a likely option. Firstly, this would remove a significant number of available warheads from targeting plans, potentially resulting in a large number of possible military targets surviving the initial nuclear exchange. Secondly, the area which would need to be covered would be extensive. This would result in an extensive quantity of radioactive fallout being released into the atmosphere, likely resulting in as much devastation to the United States and the rest of the populated world as the nuclear exchange would cause to Russia. Given these issues, a decapitation strike would have to be planned as an extremely covert operation during peacetime, and initiated almost at random. This would help to ensure that the maximum number of mobile ICBMs could be caught in their garrisons and thus denied the opportunity to deploy to dispersed launch sites.

In practice, such a decapitation strike would be problematic. The RVSN would receive warning of inbound ICBMs and likely employ a Launch-On-Warning  (LOW) strategy to ensure that a retaliatory strike would succeed, effectively negating the ability of the American SSBN force to render the silo-based ICBM force unusable. Mobile ICBMs may be able to be targeted in such a scenario provided that they are in garrison, but it is likely that a portion of them are always deployed to field launch positions to prevent such an occurrence.

In the event of a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia, given that the initiating nation would only succeed in guaranteeing a retaliatory strike, what is likely to occur is as follows. American nuclear missiles would likely target critical military facilities, to include ICBM production and storage locations, national-level nuclear stockpile sites, ICBM support facilities, and ICBM silos. This would virtually guarantee that the RVSN would not be able to be reconstituted for a potential second round of missile firings. The unfortunate side effect, of course, is that the aftermath of the initial full-scale nuclear exchange would likely be crippling to both nations, and utterly devastating to the rest of the populated world. Such is the crux of the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD); neither nation would be likely to guarantee its destruction by initiating a nuclear exchange, but equivalent nuclear arsenals are maintained on both sides to prevent either side from encountering a scenario where a preemptive strike would be an attractive option.

The Russian civilian and military leadership to this very day still fear a United States first strike.  Can we really blame them?  But what really boggles the mind is how in 1995, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the idiotic fear of how “destabilizing” mobile nuclear launchers are remained.  The BDM conclusion that SS-20 IRBMs formed a “nuclear umbrella” is especially suspect considering the real, palpable fear the Soviets had toward nuclear explosions:

[Gen.-Col. Adrian] Danilevich witnessed a military exercise in 1972 at which Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev, Prime Minister Kosygin, and Defense Minister Grechko were presented with the results of a simulated U.S. first strike that killed 80 million Soviet citizens, destroyed 85 percent of the USSR’s industrial capacity, and decimated Soviet ground forces and non-strategic aviation.  Brezhnev was given an actual button and asked to push it to authorize a retaliatory strike.  Gen. Danilevich reported that the General Secretary was pale and perspiring and his hand was trembling visibly.  He asked Grechko several times for assurances would not set off real missile launches.  “Andrei Antonovich,” he repeatedly asked Grechko, “this is definitely an exercise?”  After 1972, the political leadership did not participate in even a single military exercise involving nuclear weapons.  The General Staff was left entirely on its own to develop scenarios for nuclear war.

Since 1972, the likelihood that the Russians would instigate a nuclear war has dropped well below 0%.  They obsess about the fear of an American first strike, and not without reason.  The Russians are aware the U.S. government refuses to meet the one condition China requires before conducting nuclear talks:

Anyone who has attended a nongovernmental U.S.-China dialogue on nuclear issues will recognize a familiar pattern. The Chinese usually note that until the United States joins China in promising not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons first, there isn’t much to say. The U.S. response is usually that such promises are worthless, and in any event, the Chinese are not transparent enough for us to believe their pledge. The Chinese response is to ask what sort of rocket scientist would be transparent when being threatened with nuclear weapons. Everyone breaks for tea, then has at it again. There is little reason for Panetta and Xi to waste everyone’s time re-enacting this particular scene.

Whether you like the phrase “no first use” or not, the Chinese have a point about starting this discussion without nuclear threats.

Let’s be clear—the U.S. does not have a policy of making deterrence of nuclear attack the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.  In fact, the DOD report makes clear the U.S. won’t even commit to abstaining from striking first with nuclear weapons certain non-nuclear states:

As stated in the 2010 NPR, the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

The DOD’s language points directly at one intended first-strike target—Iran.  Major Hunter isn’t going off into the weeds; he’s reiterating American stated nuclear policy.

I won’t ask why the United States of America has not abandoned the insanity of Presidential Directive 59—Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute took American nuclear policy over decades ago, and their grip hasn’t slipped a bit since.  The latest DOD report includes the phrases “the possibility that deterrence will fail” and “in the event deterrence fails;” offspring of the “if deterrence fails initially” from Carter’s PD-59 that was designed to terrorize Brezhnev—the very Soviet leader that went pale and broke down during the 1972 exercise with Defense Minister Grechko and the Soviet General Staff.  Well, you succeeded.

But this isn’t the end of the story.  Ultimately, this leads me to the American fixation with war:

As Carlin states, “we’re good at it!”  There is a reason for that–the Million Dollar Minute.



2 thoughts on “Nuclear Militancy or Insanity?

  1. As you can see by this link, the US is far ahead of any other country in it’s nuclear research. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9lquok4Pdk While I don’t necessarily condone the use of nuclear weapons, sometimes it might be necessary. There is only one time in history that a nuclear weapon was used in a war and that was more or less out of necessity. Making bombs big enough to cause a nuclear winter is insanity. The idea of mutually assured destruction is only effective if both parties are scared enough that they don’t want to use their weapons. But if one were to step back and look at the whole aspect, is it morally, ethically, naturally right to kill everything on the planet as a means to solve a war?

    • I should be more clear–I can never really decry the nuclear doctrine of second-strike: hitting back after being struck with a nuclear attack (especially an en-masse strike from the Russian ICBM force). The real issue is first-strike: the willingness for a nation to strike preemptively with nuclear weapons.

      Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the culmination of the B-29 campaign that first firebombed most of Japan’s cities; saying that Truman used nuclear weapons preemptively is a stretch in my view. In the Iran question, the fact that Israel has and retains a powerful second-strike capability seems conveniently overlooked by proponents of preemptively striking the Islamic Republic.

      My curiosity has arisen over the furor about Duncan Hunter’s comments. I wanted to call attention to the fact that the United States has a policy that doesn’t preclude conducting a nuclear first-strike (neither against nuclear-armed nor non-nuclear-armed adversaries), which might seem odd because we too have powerful second-strike capabilities. I would posit second-strike is the basis of mutually assured destruction. Question: is or is not second-strike enough?

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