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Rebuttal of Benjamin Cooper’s attack on the nuclear deterrent

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The (until recently very respected) Proceedings magazine, run by the US Naval Institute (a private association) has recently published an utterly ridiculous, leftist garbage article by Benjamin Cooper, a contractor working for missile defense companies, which argues for deep further cuts in America’s nuclear deterrent and for completely phasing out the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet – by the most survivable leg of America’s nuclear triad.

Cooper bases his call on utterly false arguments, namely, that:

1) America doesn’t need SSBNs and a second-strike capability* at all, Russia is a friendly partner, relations with Moscow have improved significantly in recent years and there’s no reason to expect them to deteriorate, and China has only a few hundred warheads;

2) SSBNs are too expensive to develop and build.

What is wrong with his article?

To start with, EVERYTHING.

All of his claims are utterly false, and there are numerous reasons to utterly reject his proposal – and any other proposal to cut the US nuclear deterent any further, for that matter. Here’s why.

1) Contrary to Cooper’s, the Obama administration’s, and the NPR’s lies, Russo-American relations have NOT improved at all under Vladimir Putin, and in the last several years, they have deteriorated significantly, despite, or arguably BECAUSE OF, Obama’s “reset” (read: appeasement) policy. Russia continues to staunchly oppose the US on a very wide range of key issues, such as BMD, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Edward Snowden, Russia’s repeated violations of human rights, and more. Russia continues to support America’s enemies around the world – Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, China – with diplomatic protection, economic aid, and except Cuba (which can’t afford them) modern weapons. It has, on numerous occassions since 2012, flown nuclear-armed bombers close to American and INTO Japanese airspace. It continues to provide nuclear fuel for Iran’s nuclear program. In the last 6 years, it has repeatedly threatened to target or even use nuclear weapons against US allies. Not only that, but Vladimir Putin openly pokes the US time after time and never misses an opportunity to humiliate Obama.

Russia, judged by its behavior as well as by its anti-American rhetoric, IS an adversary of the US by every definition of the word. If a country behaving in such a manner is not an adversary, then this word has no meaning.

And the ignorant Mr Cooper doesn’t even know that BMD is – especially according to Russia – one of the BIGGEST sources of tension between Washington and Moscow.

“the United States has a minimum of 14 years to continue improving relations with Russia to the point where a guaranteed second-strike capability is no longer required” – What a joke! Relations with Russia have steadily DETERIORATED under Putin, especially during the last 5 years, and will, in all likelihood, worsen even further as Russia exploits America’s weakness and Obama’s appeasement mentality.

2) Russia is not a partner at all, much less in reducing nuclear arsenals. Under New START, Russia is not obliged to cut ANYTHING, and indeed, has not cut even one warhead or delivery system. On the contrary, since New START’s entry into force, Russia has significantly INCREASED its nuclear arsenal – exactly as its leaders said it would do – and intends to increase it further, as confirmed by both Russian officials and Russian (as well as American) analysts. Moreover, it has repeatedly VIOLATED the INF treaty by testing IRBMs (prohibited by INF), which means treaties signed with Russia are worthless pieces of paper.

Throughout the ENTIRE Obama administration tenure, the US has been the ONLY country cutting its nuclear arsenal. Russia and China have been steadily GROWING theirs.

But Russia goes even further and openly calls its nuclear arsenal “sacred” and, in its military doctrine, reserves to itself the right to use nuclear weapons first – against nuclear- and non-nuclear states alike, to win a war quickly.

3) China, contrary to the author’s lies, has between 1,600 (per General Viktor Yesin) and 3,000 (per Professor Philip Karber) nuclear warheads (deployed and nondeployed), NOT the few hundred that Cooper claims. It does not yet have a first-strike capability vs the US, but it DOES have a large arsenal and a credible second-strike capability. It IS a near-peer nuclear opponent.

Its 36 DF-5 heavy ICBMs can carry up to 10 warheads each; its fleet of over 30 DF-31/31A ICBMs, 3-4 warheads per missile; its submarine-launched JL-2 missiles, also 3-4 warheads each; and its newest ICBM, the DF-41, can carry 10 warheads per missile.

36*10 = 30*3 + 10 = 460 warheads deliverable to the US. More than enough to destroy all 450 US ICBMs, if one Chinese warhead is attributed to each US ICBM. And that’s without involving any of China’s SLBMs.

Moreover, China is currently developing a stealthy intercontinental bomber that will also be able to deliver nuclear weapons to the CONUS.

4) Despite the author’s claims that a Russo-American rivalry like the Cold War or a similar Sino-American rivalry are unlikely, the fact is that his claims have already been disproven by reality: both Moscow and Beiing have large nuclear arsenals and are hostile to the US.

5) On top of Russia and China, the US must also deter North Korea and Iran simoultaneously, and must provide a nuclear umbrella to OVER 30 allies and partners. Meanwhile, Russia and China are threats to many but protectors to nobody. America’s allies around the world have already warned the US over cutting its nuclear arsenal further, and if the US proceeds with further cuts anyway, they will very likely develop their own nuclear arsenals. Japan has facilities that could produce 3,600 warheads in a matter of 6 months if need be. Saudi Arabia is already preparing to “go nuclear” if need be.

Thus, contrary to the author’s blatant lies, a second-strike capability – and thus, the SSBNX program – is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Moreover, the 2010 NPR, which the author loves to quote (selectively), REAFFIRMED the nuclear triad. And while the author cites a few leftist studies arguing for a dyad, there are many other, much more credible, studies calling for the retention of the nuclear triad, such as those by the Heritage Foundation, the CSBA, CSIS,  and CNAS.

6) Despite the author’s claim that the SSBNX is unaffordable, it actually is quite affordable – its unit cost of $3.6 bn is not much more than the Virginia class’s $2.4 bn per boat cost or the Arleigh Burke’s $2 bn per ship cost. Once the SSBNX class goes into production, its cost will stabilize. And it could be reduced even further, to no more than $2.4 bn per boat, if the USN were to build a Virginia-class derivative instead of an entirely new class.

And the Missile Defense Agency’s budget – $9-10 bn per year – is not much value for taxpayers’ money. For that kind of money, I could buy at least 2 SSBNs per year, and build the entire required fleet of 12 boats in 6 years. If the cost of a single SSBNX were brought down to $2.4 bn, I could build the entire replacement fleet of 12 boats in 3 years!

Moreover, submarines – including SSBNs – sail underwater and are very stealthy – especially the US Navy’s SSBNs. They are not affected by the dangers that surface ships face (other than naval mines, which they can detect easily); they just can’t let the enemy to detect them acoustically – which, again, the US Navy’s SSBNs have successfully been doing for decades, and you can expect the next-gen SSBNX class to be even quieter.

Meanwhile, surface ships, including and especially the Burke class DDGs that the author hails as alternatives to the SSBNX, face a myriad of deadly threats against which they’re ill-equipped and ill-defended: anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, naval mines, suicide boats, and fast attack craft.

A suicide boat nearly sank the Burke-class destroyer USS Cole in 2000. The USN is ill-equipped (and Burkes are not equipped at all) to fight naval mines – the USN has only 14 aging minesweepers (the French Navy alone has almost that much, at 11). As for ballistic and cruise missiles, the Aegis combat system cannot intercept more than 4 missiles at once, and is hopelessly ineffective against fast, sea-skimming cruise missiles like the SS-N-27 Sizzler (possessed by Russia, China, and Iran among others). Heck, the Navy cannot even replicate the Sizzler – or China’s DF-21D ballistic missile – as a target!

Moreover, according to Winslow Wheeler, when he worked for the GAO in 1980s, the Aegis system performed poorly even against moderately difficult to intercept missiles; against those flying lower and faster, it was hopelessly ineffective.

Again, submarines face none of these threats, other than naval mines.

7) BMD, which the author claims is “the future of strategic deterrence”, is not a credible replacement for SSBNs at all. BMD is still a developmental technology in its infancy. BMD systems have shot down ballistic missiles only in carefully-scripted and timed exercises with advance information, and questions about their reliability abound. Moreover, the USN does not have dedicated, single-purpose BMD ships – it has DDGs and CGs which carry interceptor missiles as well as others – and their magazines of missiles can be easily and quickly exhausted. Indeed, any adversary, even NK and Iran, can always build more offensive missiles than the US can build interceptors, and interceptors are far more expensive than offensive missiles.

8) There is also another problem, namely that land-based ICBMs (or rather, their launch control systems, and for that matter all electrical devices in the US) could be instantly disabled by one EMP strike on the CONUS – for example, by detonating a single nuclear warhead – at a high altitude above the central US (e.g. Nebraska). This would disable all US ICBMs and instantly set the US back to the Stone Age. China (and probably Russia as well) is currently developing EMP weapons to do exactly that. Yet, the US is completely unprepared for the EMP threat.

By contrast, those SSBNs that would be at sea would not be affected at all, as they’d be submerged AND far away from the US. There’s a reason why the SSBN fleet is by far the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad.

In short, Benjamin Cooper’s article is completely wrong and utterly ridiculous. America’s nuclear arsenal and its SSBN fleet are NOT anachronisms, but vital instruments of deterrence in the 21st century; Russia and China both are hostile to the US and have large nuclear arsenals; missile defense is not, and can never be, a replacement for the nuclear deterrent; its effectiveness (and affordability) are dubious; and on top of that, the US has to provide a large nuclear umbrella to over 30 allies who rely on it for their very survival – and who will have to go nuclear themselves if the US cuts its arsenal further.

Cooper’s screed is arguably the dumbest and the worst article ever published in Proceedings, and the editors should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such a pathetic screed.

Cooper’s screed is cretinous and ridiculous. Shame on Proceedings for publishing it.

Postscriptum: I would be remiss if I also didn’t add that the South Korean Defense Ministry has now confirmed what I’ve been saying for many months: that North Korea IS capable of mating nuclear warheads to missiles and HAS mastered the requisite technology. See here.

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