ICBMs: An Unnecessary Danger?

The Hafemeister reading focuses on different types of delivery systems for nuclear warheads. While most of the reading includes technical equations for these systems, Hafemeister does get mention policy considerations involving these capabilities, including how politicians will use some facts (correctly and incorrectly) when debating nuclear doctrine and planning. My reactions to this reading focused mostly on how such information would drive the discussion and planning for further reductions in the nuclear stockpile.

In class on Thursday, Professor Glaser mentioned that the US and Russia would commit multiple missiles and warheads to a strategic target. Through technical analysis Hafemeister concludes that committing three reliable warheads to a target is unnecessary because of the increased risk of fratricide and the limited benefits the third warhead could provide. With the increases in missile accuracy (within 90 m for US missiles in 1988), just how many ICBMs does a nation need for offensive purposes or to simply serve as a nuclear deterrent?

Hafemeister includes two stories where warning systems in either the USSR or US falsely indicated that the nation was under attack. Protocol would have led the threatened nation to launch their ICBMs preemptively as the incoming missiles would have likely destroyed them. As ICBMs are not recallable, nuclear war could have occurred in either of these instances. This led me to consider whether the Cuban missile crisis would have happened if the Soviets were introducing a system other than missiles. Could there have been a Cuban “strategic bomber” crisis, or would bombers not pose the same threat?

With the vulnerability of missile silos pressuring nations to “fire on warning”, I finished the Hafemeister reading believing that ICBMs were the most dangerous leg of the nuclear triad. As the two historical examples show us, they are perhaps the most likely to cause an accidental nuclear war and motivate nations to keep large stockpiles to compensate for their vulnerability and the possibility that a missile fails to destroy its target. While air defenses may cause military planner to hesitate to rely heavily on bombers, improvements in stealth technology, the ability to recall bombers and submarines, and the strong reliability and relative invulnerability of submarine launched missiles (according to GAO) lead me to believe that these two legs of the triad would provide sufficient options for military planners. Therefore, if I had to prioritize the reduction in the nuclear stockpile, I would be inclined to focus such efforts on ICBMs. I’d be interested to hear if others had similar or different conclusions, especially regarding the necessity of a nuclear “triad.” — Jameson

17 thoughts on “ICBMs: An Unnecessary Danger?

  1. I was also very interested in the question of how many ICBM’s a nation needs for offensive or deterrence purposes. Like Jameson said, the additional .009 kill probability you get with a 3rd warhead doesn’t seem worth it when you consider the possible interactions with the other warheads. So how many is enough? This is a pertinent question today as we try to diminish nuclear stockpiles around the world. I found the section on the CTBT interesting especially the fact that the US has signed, but not ratified the treaty. Proponents, like Obama, are eager for the US to ratify, but opponents believe it will be hard to enforce and easy to cheat at. In addition they think US nuclear stockpiles wont be as safe without testing. With my current state of knowledge I am more pro-ratification especially because the US’s position as a global power. US ratification could incentivize others to sign as well. Plus it could scare others into obeying the treaty. Anyone have different thoughts?

  2. With regards to your comment that the nuclear triad might be a bit outdated as a concept, could someone explain why bombers are still considered one of the main vectors for nuclear deployment? It seems to me that the whole point of using missiles is that you don’t need to risk additional resources (like a crew and aircraft) to escort the warhead to its target. Part of the thinking that equates bombers with subs and silos is probably derived from the fact that the only two nuclear strikes in history were both delivered by air, but anti-air defenses have advanced significantly since WWII with improved radar and satellite systems. B-52’s are much slower than an ICBM in flight and are also a larger and slower target for missile defense or enemy aircraft, so they are still vulnerable in transit. If shot down, we lose a trained bomber crew and an aircraft in addition to the payload. Moreover, B-52s are way too large to be deployed via carrier, and thus they have more significant limitations on their versatility than either subs or silos; whereas subs can be moved around and stationed in strategic locations, and silos are already scattered across the globe (and can strike at virtually any spot on earth), bombers have to be launched from air bases and can only stay deployed for as long as they have fuel before they eventually have to land, and so they are not as effective as an immediate and persistent threat to a target area. Subs and silos are also, in a sense, fire-and-forget deployment mechanisms, but with bombers you still have to retrieve the plane and crew after attacking. I suppose a B-52 with a fighter complement might have better weaponry and countermeasures to protect their payload, but at the same time I still don’t think they should be too difficult to take down with enough conventional missiles and fighters.

  3. In evaluating the seemingly excessive focus on improving the accuracy of nuclear warheads, we must also keep in mind the political and sociological aspects to nuclear development that MacKenzie proposes. For instance, great accuracy potentially implies a readiness to strike first and to use “counterforce,” which MacKenzie defines as the strategy of striking at an opponent’s nuclear forces. MacKenzie’s analysis suggests that the research on nuclear weapons historically shifted from the minimum amount needed for deterrence to more offensive purposes. In response to egelb’s question about if the U.S. ratifying disarmament and anti-nuclear proliferation treaties, I think that the Richardson Model–which claims that when a nation acquires more nuclear weapons, its neighbors are encouraged to do the same–applies, but that its reverse–when a nation reduces its nuclear weapons, its neighbors will be encouraged to reduce their stocks as well–is likely not to be true. Distrust and lack of information about nuclear programs between countries ultimately undermine progress and cooperation. Hafemeister discusses nations cheating at lower levels of warheads; in addition, countries can reduce their stocks, but still maintain a high quality of arms (such as weapons with great accuracy) in their remaining stock.

  4. With regard to the question about the number of ICBMs needed, it is also interesting to incorporate not just the number of actual missiles—we can incorporate the number of warheads that can be mounted on each missile (i.e., MIRVs, or multiple independent reentry vehicles). For example, the LGM-30 Minuteman can mount 3 individual MIRV warheads. Bringing MIRVs into the equation just multiplies the destructive power of any missile force or deterrent (coupled with increased accuracy).

    With regard to bombers, I think that having B-52s is part of a redundant system for the nuclear triad; this reminds me of the “fail-deadly” system that has multiple components (i.e., the triad) to threaten an overwhelming response to an attack, even one that neutralizes many first-strike systems or command structures. Having bombers, in addition to land-based and submarine-based missiles, provides more means to attack the enemy (and increases the number of targets to which an enemy would have to apply offensive force). Bombers in the air, coupled with submarines underwater and silos in the ground, increase the means for a nation to attack an enemy, thus increasing deterrence.

    Still, the question about bombers brings to mind a quote from the 1990 movie _By Dawn’s Early Light_. In the movie, “Soviet Capabilities Expert” Colonel Fargo quips, “Hell, most Soviet bombers are so old they still use propellers. The Minnesota Air National Guard could probably knock them down.” Presidential Advisor codename Harpoon replies, “Well, do you want to get on the phone and order them into the air, Colonel? Because every transistor in Minnesota is BURNED OUT!” [Referring to the electromagnetic pulse of a very high altitude nuclear detonation burning out the circuitry of non-hardened electronics].

  5. In line with the thoughts on the number of missiles a country ‘needs’ for offense or a nuclear deterrent, my thoughts turn to the Iran situation and how the US was extremely involved in attempting to rigorously curtail the necessary high levels of U235 purity to prevent the construction of nuclear weapons. I continue wondering with how much right the nuclear nations have to prevent the non-nuclear nations from achieving their own nuclear deterrent/offensive purpose nuclear weapons. Although it might explain the apprehension behind the North Korea rumors of nuclear testing, since if our political enemies gain the same advantage as we have now, they must be planning to use them on us or create another Cold War situation. It seems as if the US is worried about the policy conflicts with the development of the Richardson model driving the other countries to equal weaponry standing.

    On another topic, the one of fratricide, there was an example in the reading which looked at the diminishing returns of damage to US missile silos with a Soviet first attack. The fact that there would be any diminishing at all when such a strike occurs is what worries me. Would we have to worry about our own weapons going off as well as the one fired at us onto our soil? This made me recall the accuracy vs silo protection technology war that the US had going with the USSR mentioned in the reading. Would this imply that our current protections on our silos would be enough to defend against any violent newcomers to the nuclear arms world, or do we need to spend the nuclear arms budget increasing the silos defenses to withstand any of the newer nuclear attacks?

  6. I agree with Jameson that the ICBMs seem to be the riskiest and most dangerous leg of the triad. With SLBMs being more secure, equally as efficient, and harder to detect, these seem like a better option then the land leg of the triad, which are an easier target. In addition, with nations tending to launch-on-warning, the danger only increases, risking an accidental nuclear war that would destroy entire cities. However, it seems to me that nuclear stockpiles are not going to decrease with the amount of skepticism countries have toward each other. If anything, as others have mentioned, have the weapons acts as a warning/threat to other countries.

    On another note, while I agree with ckw that risking the loss of resources (including lives) seems like a waste, I also think that the benefit of having a crew on board is that they provide the “human factor”. Before dropping a bomb, it is important to have that ability to make a last minute judgment call if the bomb shouldn’t actually be dropped. For example, if there was misinformation and the bomb is about to kill innocent people. While there may only be a slight chance of this, I still think it is an important factor to keep in mind. It is a difficult decision to make, as the crew are also innocent lives put at risk.

  7. From a technical perspective it is probably true when Hafemeister concludes that even three warheads aimed at the same target would be unnecessary. Thus, the 1,000+ warheads that the U.S. and Soviet Union have created can be said to be pointless. At the same time however, given that the possession of nuclear weapons became a form of deterrence, we should also take psychological factors into account to understand the current
    situation. Even if two warheads are sufficient to ensure the destruction of a city, I feel that there is a huge psychological difference being told that one nuclear weapon is aimed at your city compared to being told that ten or twenty are aimed at your city. Hafemeister does not take into account interception attempts of the opponent to prevent the warhead from reaching its target. Therefore, optimists may think that it is possible to prevent one or two nuclear weapons from hitting its target, meaning that the nuclear weapons do not serve as deterrence. On the other hand, even an optimist would probably say that it is impossible to protect a city from ten incoming nuclear warheads.

    With regards to the nuclear triad, I am extremely skeptical of the probability that we can get rid of ICBMs. It is true that ICBMs have the risk of causing a nuclear war by accident. Yet given the huge difference in delivery speed and the independence of the delivery mechanism (like not needing a pilot driving the bomber or a fighter protecting the bomber), I believe that it will remain the primary method that nuclear nations will rely on. There is of course the possibility that all nations would come to an agreement that ICBMs should not be used but the costs if a nation broke the agreement is too high that it is unlikely to happen.

  8. As we look at the question of “necessary” stockpiles, potential risks, and weighted danger, I think it’s worth noting the context — particularly since it’s one at the very basis of this course. Scientists didn’t decide how many missiles the U.S. needed, or what the nuclear strategy was. Policy makers did. And, as we saw in the readings and see every day, policy makers can both be convinced and convince by calculated presentations of evidence. On smaller, technical levels, they might ignore (or not understand) fratricide, or the various levels of nuclear damage, or, as the reading stressed, the greater accuracy of US missiles as compared to Soviet ones. On larger levels, they might be convinced by false claims about opposing strength or domestic strength. All of this goes to say that if our nuclear calculations are back-of-the-envelope, those produced in policy debates are even more so. And that’s a key dynamic to remember when discussing every question raise here.

  9. Primarily, I’d like to respond to the idea that ICBMs are the most dangerous leg of the nuclear triad. I have a summary at the bottom for anyone who may not want to read my long post, and you can come back and see why I summarize how I do if you’re curious.

    It seems evident from the readings and from our comments that the overwhelming consensus is that no state really needs thousands of warheads if the objective is merely to destroy. Objectives, however, can vary. Having more missiles can actually make the balance of power more secure by defining more stable protocols. For example, the reason the United States would have ordinarily launched ICBMs without confirmation that they were under attack is that once the attack began, their ICBMs would be destroyed and they could no longer retaliate. If they had many ICBMs, though, it would not matter if some were destroyed, because there would be thousands in reserve in other locations, and thus the U.S. could afford to wait until they confirmed an enemy attack before firing back, without fear of defenselessness.

    If we look at it that way, then ICBMs aren’t as susceptible to “fire on warning” the more missiles we have. The second point that makes them dangerous is that they cannot be recalled. ICBMs, though, should not take more than 15 minutes to reach a target, even thousands of miles away. A fifteen-minute window is very short, and is not significantly different from the responsiveness of a bomber or submarine unless decisions are made completely on the spot. With a surplus of missile launch sites, decisions do not need to be made hastily enough to require real-time control.

    I will admit, however, that my reasoning assumes that the goal is to actually destroy, because “fire on warning” only applies when destruction is unavoidable and imminent. If the goal is to intimidate, bombers and submarines can be much more useful. Say a nation wants to threaten another nation into submission without killing anyone or destroying anything. It cannot simply launch an ICBM if it does not have the ability to deactivate it in-flight. What it can do, though, is deploy a bomber or a submarine armed with warheads. The nation under attack might surrender rather than face the nuclear attack, knowing that the attacker “means business.” Of course, the attacked nation could call the attacker’s bluff, but then no leg is better or worse than another.

    In summary, it seems that for a state with a small number of warheads in only several launch sites, ICBMs are the most dangerous leg of the nuclear triad for the reasons Jameson enumerated. For nations with a large number of warheads, however, it seems that no leg is more or less dangerous than another, but that bombers or submarines (to answer ckw’s question as well about why bombers might be useful) can be used strategically as indicators of the intention to attack without actually causing any destruction.

  10. In response to egelb’s question about the possible upsides and downsides of the US re-raising the CTBT for passage in the Senate, I believe that it is important to recognize the limitations of this treaty, and thus that ultimately, it is not in the interests of policymakers to expend political capital on this issue. The CTBT bans all nuclear testing, which would certainly be a positive development in the global quest to end the threat of nuclear destruction. However, given that there are around 17,300 nuclear weapons currently possessed by nations all over the world (Source: Ploughshares Fund World Nuclear Stockpile Report, January 7, 2014), this treaty would do little to solve the deeper issues. Investing political capital in an additional, even more comprehensive ‘New New START’ treaty that encompasses all of the world’s nations, following the ‘New Start treaty’ that went into effect in 2011, would be much wiser. The problem with nuclear capability today is not excessive testing or creation of new weapons by the world’s powers, but rather excessive completed nuclear weapons sitting in storage facilities, and excessive efforts by ‘upstart nuclear’ nations to build nuclear capability. While the path would be hard and long, I believe that pursuing such an effort is the only way to ensure long-term global security with regard to nuclear capability.

  11. As I understand it, the benefit of missiles is not the risk of additional resources but instead speed of delivery. According to the values Hafemeister uses and calculates, a missile travels at a speed on the order of 20,000mi/hr (range of about 10,000km achieved in about 30min). That is about 26 times the speed of sound, which is faster than most aircraft ever (spacecraft exceed this to achieve escape velocity and enter orbit, but these too use rockets in the style of nuclear missiles). I feel that discussing the risk of additional resources with respect to bombers is not the best way to approach the situation; we are, after all, talking about a nuclear war. Hundreds of dead airmen from shot-down planes would pale against the death toll resulting from one atomic weapon’s fallout (let alone the overpressure, thermal blast, and so on). Also, resources have not appeared to be much of a constraint on the US nuclear arsenal; Hafemeister describes how the US and USSR together spent $10 tn on making nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Planes are expensive to design and build, but missiles (and their associated subs, silos, etc.) are not a hands-down cost-effective technique if financial resources are a concern.

    You also focus on the B-52s, which are indeed less than brand new. However, I question your concern about them. First, the range of a B-52 is quite large (several thousand miles), which is more than enough to reach most conceivable targets from bases in the US. This means the B-52’s inability to take off from carriers has little significance. Of course, you could argue that an enemy would attack airfields with nuclear bombers, and I would agree with you. Still, such an attack would not necessarily neutralize bombers’ role. For one thing, bombers can be poised such that they take off when a nuclear warning is received (which would give somewhere around 20 minutes). In such a case, the planes could be in the air before bombs hit the base, allowing the bombers to proceed with their mission. Second, there have been times in US history (I am unsure if this is still true) when the US constantly had some bombers in the air just in case. That way, a plane would be able to carry out its mission regardless of danger to airfields. Second, you do not mention the B-1s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-1_Lancer) and B-2s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-2) that Hafemeister also mentions. These aircraft are better able to avoid anti-air measures, so the existence of such measures does not render bombers ineffective. It might even be argued that bombers are better than missiles with respect to anti-air; missiles follow roughly linear trajectories that may prove easier to intercept than a plane maneuvering in real-time and operated by several biological supercomputers located in the airmen’s skulls.

    In light of all of this, I would say the air component of the nuclear triad is a powerful asset to the US and should not be underestimated. There are several reasons why Kubrick & Co. designed the doomsday scenario of Dr. Strangelove using a bomber rather than a missile base; one of these was no doubt the feasibility of a bomber strike.

  12. Hey, thanks for replying, those are some good points. When I mentioned the part about bombers being less versatile I was thinking more along the lines that you can park a nuclear-powered sub off the coast of Russia for a very long time, but with a plane (especially a bomber carrying nuclear warheads) I assumed you would keep them grounded at an airfield until needed, but I guess they keep some airborne anyways. And I forgot about B-2’s, whose design seems to mitigate a lot of the problems that a B-52 might face.

  13. In answer to the question about the number of ICBMs needed by a nation for offensive or bargaining purposes, I think that the “ideal” number of missiles depends more on domestic and international policy issues than on military preferences. ICBM development introduces additional threats to nuclear war by shrinking transportation time and increasing accuracy of the location of detonation, so their inclusion in discussion by global leaders is important. The number of ICBMs built by a nation depends on treaties between nations and policies set internationally, not on necessity, because the need for these missiles is contingent on the number of possessed nuclear weapons. That being said, the excessive number of warheads built by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was a statement of authority for each nation. Weapon quantities rapidly increased as each country struggled to outnumber the other. The number of nuclear weapons and ICBMs here was dependent on the threat imposed by weapons owned by others, not on how many missiles were required to destroy a certain target, and treaties and discussions between the two nations are responsible for the disarming of nuclear weapon stocks. In addition, the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons in NNWSs, encourages nations to realize that the number of necessary nuclear weapons and ICBMs is, effectively, zero.

  14. I have to question the effectiveness of the START treaties. The argument typically goes that the United States and Russia, the two leaders in nuclear weaponry, have to set the example by reducing the number of warheads and missile launchers. This will hopefully discourage other nations from developing their own nuclear weaponry.

    While I agree that a reduction is necessary in the long road for preservation, 1) the process is costly, 2) we have already learned it does not require hundreds, let alone thousands, of warheads to completely destroy a country’s economy. That the United States can still have up to 700 missiles and 1.5k warheads does not seem to be sending a very strong political message. There also still remains the question of verifiability, and I have to question the extent countries can currently circumvent the exact limits.

    Instead, I’d argue that reintroducing limits on testing is a more crucial focus, given the effects of fallout on human welfare and the global environment. NAS has argued that testing does not play as large a role in ensuring stockpile reliability, and there are also questions on how much knowledge various types of testings actually provide. It would be in everyone’s interest if we could modify the PTBT and get the approval of countries such as China and France. Countries are going to develop nuclear weaponry, so we should at least encourage them to advance their technologies in a less harmful way.

  15. I agree with your criticism of the START treaties. I especially began to question their effectiveness when Hafemeister began describing how many START treaties there were. He mentioned up to START III, and in the first week of class we read about NEW START, which is happening under president Obama. The idea of the US and Russia setting an example for other nations is an important one. I think that a country having a nuclear weapon has the connotation that that country is technologically advanced and also militaristically relevant. I think that is the reason why so many developing countries are trying to create nuclear weapons. They’re not precise weapons, as we have seen the readings, but they are a status symbol.

  16. I also agree that ICBM’s are the most “dangerous” of the nuclear triad. In this current year, mutually assured destruction plus the lack of any current large global standoff between nuclear powers makes it very unlikely that nuclear bombs would be used as part of an escalating war. As you state correctly, accidents are the most likely cause of a weapon being used by a nation state, and ICBM’s are the most “accident-prone.” However, the issue of nuclear terror strikes my mind. We haven’t really discussed the use of nuclear warheads by terrorist groups. Of the nuclear triad, ICBM’s would seem to be theoretically the easiest for a terrorist group to launch, requiring neither submarines nor airspace and sufficient aircraft. I wonder, if a terrorist group were to get their hands on an ICBM, how easy would it be for them to launch this missile?

  17. Temporarily putting aside the debate as to whether or not ICBMs are the most “dangerous” of the nuclear triad (which I do agree with given the radius and extent of potential damage), I agree with many other of my peers in that it is important to look at the political and strategic effects of possessing ICBMs in the first place. As Hafemeister repeatedly emphasizes, “ultimately, the main purpose for nuclear weapons is deterrence.” It is quite unrealistic to assume that one state will reduce its ICBMs without an universal agreement that all other states would do so simultaneously (and even if such an agreement or treaty did exist, like the CTBT attempts to do, states are very reluctant to abide by it). Furthermore, it is ultimately not about the number of ICBMs that exist that matter, but rather, the psychological purpose they serve for policy and purposes of international security. The fact that ICBMs exist in the first place is something we cannot take back in today’s technological day and age, and as time passes, I don’t doubt that continuous innovation will trigger further technological advancement that improves the accuracy of nuclear weapons. Thus, we should not focus on the question of how many ICBMs are “necessary” in order to avoid nuclear war. From an international relations and domestic protectionist standpoint, it is to every powerful state’s advantage to possess ICBMs because of the problem of credible commitment. Given that the technology continues to improve, ICBMs serve as strategic leverage that states have over each other. It is not so much about how much domestic military planners have access to in terms of weapon options in order to be able to adequately prepare for and fight a war, but rather, what ICBMs do psychologically to protect a state and ensure that one state does not have more power than the other. We should turn our focus to discovering policy options that ensure no state feels disadvantaged if we are to universally reduce and limit the proliferation of ICBMs.

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