20 Oct 2016

"Launch under Attack"

For all the stupidity of the current Presidential election, one interesting discussion that it has prompted is a resurrection of the old debate over nuclear strategy, and particularly the strategy of “launch under attack” (aka and better known as “Launch On Warning”). Jeffrey Lewis has an article, “Our Nuclear Procedures Are Crazier Than Trump”, in Foreign Policy which ties this into current events, prompted by recent statements by both candidates.

Much of the discussion in the last 24 hours has centered on whether Hillary Clinton inadvertently disclosed classified information when she mentioned, during the third debate, that the President would have only “four minutes” to decide on whether to respond in the event of a large-scale attack on the continental U.S. by an adversary. This is not, at least to me, a particularly interesting discussion; nothing Clinton said goes beyond what is in the open literature on the topic and has been available for decades.

What is interesting is that, in 2016, we’re talking about Launch On Warning at all. Clinton’s “four minutes” should be a thing of the past.

I mean: the other President Clinton supposedly moved the U.S. away from LOW in a 1997 Presidential Directive, instead putting U.S. forces on a stance of second-strike retaliation only after actually being on the receiving end of a successful attack. This is a reasonable posture, given that the U.S. SSBN force alone has enough destructive power to serve, independently of the rest of the ‘nuclear triad’, as a reasonable deterrent against a first strike by another global power.

What’s interesting is that, at the time, the Clinton administration downplayed the move and said that it was merely a continuation of existing policy dating from the Reagan years and expressed in previous PDDs. A Clinton spokesperson reportedly said at the time: “in this PDD we direct our military forces to continue to posture themselves in such a way as to not rely on launch on warning–to be able to absorb a nuclear strike and still have enough force surviving to constitute credible deterrence.” (Emphasis mine.)

The actual Presidential Directives are, as one might expect, still classified, so we don’t have a lot other than hearsay and the statements of various spokespeople to go off of. But it would appear safe to say that the U.S. has not depended on LOW since at least 1997, and probably since some point in the 80s. I think it’s likely that the original change was prompted by a combination of near-miss events in the 1970s (e.g. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s infamous 3 A.M. wakeup call on November 9, 1979), plus the maturation of the modern SSBN force into a viable second-strike weapon, which together caused U.S. leaders to question the wisdom of keeping the nuclear deterrent on a hair trigger. As well they probably should have, given the risks.

In fact, being able to lower the proverbial hammer and relax the national trigger finger somewhat is probably the biggest benefit of having an SSBN force. It’s why other nuclear powers, notably the U.K., have basically abandoned ground-based nuclear launch systems in favor of relying exclusively on submarines for deterrence. The U.K., famously, issues “Letters of Last Resort” to their submarine captains, potentially giving them launch authority even in the absence of any external command and control structure – ensuring a retaliatory capability even in the event of complete annihilation of the U.K. itself. While this places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of a handful of submarine captains, it also relieves the entire U.K. defense establishment from having to plan for and absorb a decapitation attack, and it certainly seems like a better overall plan than automated systems that might be designed to do the same thing.

In the U.S. we’ve never gone as far as the U.K. in terms of delegation of nuclear-launch authority (perhaps because the size of the U.S. nuclear deterrent would mean an unacceptable number of trusted individuals would be required), but it’s been a while since any President has necessarily needed to decide whether to end the world or face unilateral annihilation in a handful of minutes. They would need to potentially decide whether to authorize a U.S. ICBM launch in that very short window of time, but they wouldn’t lose all retailiatory capacity if they chose not to, and it is difficult to imagine – given the possibility and actual past experience with false alarms – that a sane president would authorize a launch before confirmation of an actual attack on U.S. soil.

So why did the “four minute” number resurface at all? That’s a bit of a mystery. It could have just been a debate gambit by Clinton, which is admittedly the simplest explanation, or perhaps the idea of Launch On Warning isn’t completely gone from U.S. strategic policy. This is not implausible, since we still maintain a land-based ICBM force, and the ICBMs are still subject to the first-strike advantage which produced Launch On Warning in the first place.

And rather than debating the debate, which will be a moot point in a very few weeks, the real question we ought to be asking is why we bother to maintain the land-based strategic nuclear ICBM force at all.

Here’s a modest proposal: retire the ICBM force’s strategic nuclear warheads, but retain the missile airframes and other launch infrastructure. Let other interested parties observe the nuclear decommissioning, if they want to, so that there’s no mistaking a future launch of those missiles as a nuclear one. And then use the missiles for non-nuclear Prompt Global Strike or a similar mission (e.g. non-nuclear FOBS, “rod from God” kinetic weapons, or whatever our hearts desire).

It ought to make everyone happy: it’s that many fewer fielded nuclear weapons in the world, it eliminates the most vulnerable part of the nuclear triad and moves us firmly away from LOW, it doesn’t take away any service branch’s sole nuclear capability (the Air Force would retain air-launched strategic capability, as a hedge against future developments making the SSBN force obsolete), and it would trade an expensive and not-especially-useful strategic capability for a much-more-useful tactical capability, and in the long term it could potentially allow the U.S. to draw down overseas-deployed personnel and vulnerable carrier strike groups while retaining rapid global reach.

It makes too much sense to ever actually occur, of course, at least not during an election season.

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