Rebuttal of Friedman’s and Preble’s blatant lies about US nuclear weapons


On November 14th, the NY Slimes newspaper published a litany of blatant lies about the US nuclear arsenal,written by Cato’s Benjamin Friedman and Christopher Preble, two anti-defense hacks employed by CATO. In it, Friedman and Preble falsely claim that:

  1. The US nuclear arsenal is “bloated” and amounts to overkill;
  2. Nuclear weapons and the nuclear triad are relics of the Cold War and have been irrelevant in America’s recent wars;
  3. The US doesn’t need a nuclear triad; a monad, specifically a submarine fleet, would be enough;
  4. The number of targets for US nuclear weapons is growing scarcer; Russia allegedly can no longer afford nuclear parity, China has only a few long-range missiles, and NK struggles to deploy even as much (they completely omitted Iran);
  5. A nuclear triad was created and retained solely for bureaucratic reasons to keep both the USAF and the USN happy; and
  6. America retains conventional superiority which, together with missile defense, can substitute for nuclear weapons.

All of these claims are blatant lies. Not even one of them is true. Not even one. Here’s why.

Ad. 1. and 4. The US nuclear arsenal is not bloated nor an overkill at all; in fact, it is barely adequate. Why? Because America’s principal nuclear adversaries – Russia and China – both have large nuclear arsenals and would gladly use them in a first strike if they could get away with it. Surviving a possible Russian or Chinese nuclear first strike and thus providing a credible deterrent requires a LARGE nuclear arsenal; a small one will not suffice. Nuclear deterrence is above all a numbers game – and who has the most nuclear weapons wins. A small nuclear arsenal could be very easily destroyed by both Moscow and Beijing.

Russia currently has:

  • around 415-430 ICBMs collectively capable of delivering at least 1,684 nuclear warheads to the CONUS;
  • 251 strategic bombers, each capable of delivering 6-12 nuclear warheads (typically, 6 cruise missile warheads and one freefall bomb), i.e. 1,700 warheads between them;
  • 13 ballistic missile submarines collectively capable of delivering between 1,400 and 2,000 warheads to the US;
  • at least 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons and a wide variety of means to deliver them (short-range ballistic missiles, theater aircraft, artillery pieces, surface ships, submarines, submarine-launched cruise missiles, etc.).

Russia is now building up and rapidly modernizing its entire nuclear arsenal, including its strategic nuclear triad. It is developing, or already deploying:

  • a new strategic intercontinental bomber, the PAK DA, to replace the Tu-95 strategic bomber;
  • a new ballistic missile submarine class (the Borei class) with two new ballistic missile types (the R-29RMU2 Liner and the RSM-56 Bulava);
  • several new ICBM types (the RS-24 Yars, the “Avangard”, the “Rubezh”, a rail-mobile ICBM, and the “Son of Satan” missile to replace the SS-18 heavy ICBM that can carry 10 warheads and 38 penetration aids);
  • 400 new ICBMs in total, which will be complemented by keeping in service and modernizing some of Russia’s older ICBMs to keep the ICBM fleet above 400 missiles;
  • new warheads; and
  • a full panoply of new tactical delivery systems, including new nuclear-capable cruise and short-range ballistic missiles and theater nuclear strike aircraft (e.g. the Su-34 Fullback).

By 2016, 80%, and by 2021, all of Russia’s ICBMs will be new, post-Cold-War, 5th generation modern ICBMs – the Topol-M (deployed in 1997), the Yars (first deployed in 2010), and even newer missiles. Altogether, by the 2020s, Russia’s nuclear arsenal, especially its nuclear triad, will be even larger and much more lethal and survivable than they are today.

The claim that Russia can no longer retain nuclear parity is also utterly false. Russia is, as demonstrated above, fully modernizing its entire nuclear arsenal, replacing old missiles, submarines, and aircraft with new ones, and is expanding it. And according to CATO’s own Nikolas Gvosdef (backed up by United Press International), Russia will, by 2016, DOUBLE its spending on nuclear weapons from today’s levels.

Russia can easily afford to do so, thanks to high oil and gas prices (oil prices have been very high for years, are currently above $100/barrel and will stay there for a good period of time). Thanks to huge oil and gas revenues and its near-monopoly on gas deliveries to Europe, Russia has a virtually endless stream of revenue for its huge nuclear modernization and expansion program.

Not only that, but Russia is willing to use nuclear weapons first if Moscow thinks it get can away with it. In the last 6 years alone, Moscow has threatened to aim or even launch its nuclear weapons at the US or its allies at least 15 times. This year, it has twice conducted large-scale nuclear exercises simulating a Russian nuclear first strike. Not only that, but Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in its war doctrine and considers its nuclear arsenal “sacred.”

Also, Russia has, within the last 18 months, simulated a nuclear bomber strike on the US or its close ally Japan several times, including in May 2012 and July 2012 (the Fourth of July, to be precise). When asked in June 2012 by the world media about what they were doing simulating an attack on Alaska, the Russians said they were “practicing attacking the enemy.”

So the Russians consider America their enemy – and have simulated attacking it several times. And they have a huge nuclear arsenal to do so if they ever want to try. America’s nuclear deterrent is the ONLY thing that is preventing them from doing so.

China also has a large nuclear arsenal, though not as large as Russia’s. Nonetheless, it is large, contrary to the false claims of American arms reduction advocates. Former Russian Strategic Missile Force Chief of Staff Gen. Viktor Yesin estimates it at 1,600-1,800 warheads, while Georgetown University Professor Philip Karber (the DOD’s former chief nuclear strategist) puts the figure at up to 3,000 warheads. This analyst, for his part, did his own study on the subject last year and estimated that China has at the very least 1,274 warheads, not including the warheads for the 500 nuclear-armed ground-launched cruise missiles that the DOD warns about.

Specifically, China has:

  • ICBMs: 36 DF-5 heavy ICBMs capable of carrying up to 10 warheads each, over 30 DF-31/31A ICBMs (4 warheads each), at least one DF-41 missile (10 warheads each), 20 DF-4 missiles (3 warheads each), for a total of 550 warheads for ICBMs – all deliverable to the US, though DF-4s can only reach Alaska;
  • 120 medium range ballistic missiles: 100 DF-21s and 20 DF-3s (1 warhead each), for a total of 120 MRBM-attributed warheads;
  • 500 warheads for short-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles;
  • 440 nuclear bombs for the PLAAF’s delivery-capable aircraft (440 H-6s, JH-7s, and Q-5s);
  • an unknown number of warheads for the PLAAF’s cruise missiles carried on H-6K bombers;
  • six ballistic missile submarines: one Xia class boat carrying 12 single-warhead missiles and five Jin class boats each carrying 12 JL-2 missiles with 4 warheads each; note that future JL-2 missile variants will be capable of carrying 12 warheads each, over a distance of 14,000 kms.

The CATO anti-nuclear hacks’ claim that China has only a few long-range missiles is a blatant lie (like the rest of what they write); in fact, China has at least 87 (and probably many more, due to continuing DF-31A production) ICBMs and 72 SLBMs. And that number will only grow in the future.

In total, China, by this writer’s calculations based on Chinese ballistic missile, aircraft, and SSBN inventories and on DOD’s data on Chinese SRBMs and cruise missiles, has at least 1,862 warheads, including 802 deliverable to the US (though not all of them to the CONUS). Here’s a map of Chinese ICBM ranges.


Not only that, but Chinese state media have recently boasted of how many ICBMs they can launch at the US and how devastating a first strike they could conduct!

Note that China’s nuclear arsenal, like Russia’s, is not at a standstill and will only get larger, more survivable, and more lethal in the future. China is increasing its inventory of ballistic missile subs, ICBMs, MRBMs, SRBMs, cruise missiles, and is developing:

  • a rail-mobile ICBM;
  • a stealthy intercontinental bomber that will be capable of striking the CONUS with nuclear weapons;
  • new variants of the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile that will be capable of carrying 12 warheads over a distance of 14,000 kms (i.e. striking the CONUS from Chinese ports and territorial waters); and
  • a new ballistic missile submarine class, the Tang class.

And remember: the US needs to deter not only the nuclear-armed adversaries of today, but also those of tomorrow. And tomorrow, America’s adversaries will have more nuclear weapons and delivery systems than today.

On top of that, the US must provide a nuclear umbrella not only to itself, but to over 30 allies who depend on it for their security and their very existence. If it fails to do so – if it continues to cut its nuclear arsenal – they will develop their own atomic weapons, and thus, the nucler proliferation problem will become that much worse. This is not a theoretical concern: already 66.5% of South Koreans want their country to “go nuclear”, and Japan has recently opened a facility allowing it to produce enough material for 3,600 nuclear warheads in a matter of months if need be. Saudi Arabia has reportedly ordered nuclear weapons from Pakistan (to counter Iran), according to the BBC.

Thus, the US nuclear arsenal is by far the most valuable counter-proliferation tool the US has at its disposal. And a large, diverse, survivable nuclear umbrella is absolutely necessary to reassure those allies – and to protect America itself.

And the number of targets for US nuclear weapons is not becoming any scarcer; on the contrary, it is growing in number and striking difficulty.

Russia and China not only have all of the missiles, submarines, and bombers that I’ve listed, but also missile, submarine, and aircraft bases; nuclear warhead, material, and missile production facilities; all tactical nuclear warheads, facilities, and delivery systems (to prevent US allies and troops abroad from being nuked); and, in China’s case, numerous ports and caverns along its coast to hide submarines and 3,000 miles of tunnels to hide land-based missiles.

And as Russia’s and China’s nuclear arsenals grow, the number of targets for American nukes to destroy will grow even further.

All of these Russian and Chinese military assets would need to be destroyed if credible deterrence is to be provided; just destroying enemy missiles is not enough. Not even close.

Why? Because to provide credible deterrence, you have to be able to first survive the enemy’s first strike, then, in your retaliatory strike, destroy the vast majority (if not all) of his military, economic, and strategic assets, so that he can never repeat a strike against you and the consequences of attacking you will be way, way too devastating for him to contemplate such a preemptive strike on you in the first place. THAT is the definition of credible deterrence – and it can be provided for ONLY with a large nuclear arsenal; a small one will never suffice, for it will neither be survivable (too small to survive) nor will it have enough warheads to inflict sufficient punishment on the aggressor.

And if the US cuts its nuclear deterrent significantly further, it will become too small to survive a Russian or Chinese first strike, let alone to deliver a sufficiently painful retaliation against Russia or China, especially given the large number of targets to be hit. And as Russia’s and China’s nuclear arsenals and military establishments grow, the list of targets the US will need to wipe out will only grow over time.

So no, America’s nuclear arsenal is not bloated nor an overkill at all. On the contrary, it is barely adequate today.

Ad. 2. While US nuclear weapons have not been used in any wars since WW2, including America’s most recent wars, that doesn’t mean they’re useless or militarily irrelevant – far from it. They perform THE most important mission of the US military – deterring and thus preventing a catastrophic (nuclear, chemical, or biological) attack on the US and its allies. And they’ve performed that mission flawlessly, without failure, ever since 1945. That is by far the military’s most important mission – and contribution to national security.

The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, famously wrote that “to win one hundred battles is not the acme of skill; to subdue the enemy without fighting is.” The corrollary to Master Sun’s saying is that a weapon that deters and subdues the enemy without fighting is worth a hundred times more than a weapon that is actually used in war.

Nuclear weapons deter America’s adversaries without firing a shot. And have successfully done so continously since 1945. No other weapon in America’s inventory has a record that even comes close.

And regarding the wars which America has recently fought: what have these wars done to increase America’s national security or advance its national interests? Absolutely nothing – and they have cost a lot of money (over $100 bn per year) and over 6,000 US troops’ lives – all for no gain whatsoever.

By contrast, nuclear weapons have protected America against the gravest threats to its security, including Russia, China, and North Korea, throughout all that time and still do today, at a cost of just $31 bn per year (5% of the military budget and a fraction of the total federal budget). Far better would it be to continue investing in them than in useless wars.

The implication by Friedman and Preble that nuclear weapons are Cold War relics is also utterly false. The need for nuclear deterrence – and indeed, for a LARGE US nuclear arsenal, is only growing, not shrinking. The US now has to deter three hostile nuclear powers (Russia, China, North Korea, the first two wielding atomic arsenals), soon to be joined by Iran, and to reassure over 30 allies who depend on the American atomic umbrella for their survival. The need for, and the importance of, a large US nuclear arsenal is only growing, not shrinking.

Ad. 3 and 5. The claim that ballistic missile submarines alone would be enough, and that a nuclear triad of subs, ICBMs, and bombers is unneeded, is completely false. A nuclear triad is by far the most survivable deterrence arrangement and is based on rational thinking: never put all your eggs into one basked. No sane person does this; every sane person (not just savvy investors) diversifies their portfolios of assets.

Cutting down to a monad would leave America’s adversaries with only one, simple, one-dimensional problem: how to detect America’s SSBNs?

Should the US ever simplify this issue so much for its enemies, they’ll solve the problem – they’ll invest sufficient resources in solving it. According to recent news, China’s and Russia’s ASW capabilities are woefully underappreciated in the West, Admiral Greenert’s boasting that “we totally own the undersea domain” notwithstanding. And US intel has been taken completely by surprise by America’s enemies’ capabilities and actions so many times that it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t know China and/or Russia had potent ASW capabilities. US intel is ignorant of many things it should know.

In fact, as Canadian Professor Roger Thompson revealed in his article several years ago, during the Cold War Soviet submarines detected American SSBNs on numerous occassions. For example, in 1985, the Soviet submarine K-324 snuck up to and detected American ballistic missile subs on three different occassions! Meanwhile, another Soviet sub tailed another American SSBN for FIVE DAYS! And in the late 1980s, an obsolete, noisy USN attack submarine was able to sneek up to and hunt down yet another American SSBN; a Canadian submarine repeated that feat in 1992.

So much for Preble’s and Friedman’s myth that America’s ballistic missile subs are undetectable and no enemy could ever detect them. What a human hand has built, a human hand can built the equipment to detect and sink. One more time to remember NEVER to put all your eggs into one basket.

As Robert D. Kaplan rightly says, “never give your opponent too few problems to solve because if you do, he’ll solve them.” You can be sure as hell Moscow and Beijing would quickly solve the singular problem of how to hunt down American SSBNs if the question of attacking America were reduced just to that problem.

Friedman’s and Preble’s claim that the nuclear triad arose from bureaucratic politics (keeping both the USAF and the USN happy by giving both a nuclear role) is also a blatant lie, like the rest of what they write. If it were true, why hasn’t Washington also given the Army and the Marines a nuclear role? Answer: because Friedman’s and Preble’s claim is a lie.

In reality, Washington created a nuclear triad of ICBMs, bombers, and submarines because that is by far the most survivable arrangement – far more than relying on any one leg. It greatly complicates the enemy’s planning, for he would have to target not just the subs but also the bombers (and shoot down any that would be airborne) and all US ICBMs.

And for that reason – NOT because of interservice rivalry – every administration since the 1950s has reaffirmed the nuclear triad as the most survivable form of deterrence.

If a nuclear triad is an obsolete Cold War arrangement, why do the Russians, the Chinese, and the Israelis all retain, modernize, and expand their nuclear triads?

Answer: because they know it’s by far the most survivable deterrence arrangement.

Finally, Ad. 6.: the claim that alleged US conventional superiority and missile defense improvements can replace nuclear weapons.

In fact, US conventional superiority is history, thanks to successive administrations’ neglect of defense issues and especially conventional forces and weapons, due first to post-Cold-War defense cuts (1989-2001) and then to an opinion spurred by 9/11 that conventional forces and weapons were irrelevant. As a result, the US has already lost its conventional edge; to speak of any US conventional warfare advantage is utter idiocy.

For example, while the US has foolishly killed F-22 fighter production at just 187 aircraft, Russia’s and China’s 5th generation stealthy fighters are proceeding smoothly, and both countries will eventually field hundreds of such aircraft. China’s newest Type 052 destroyers are superior to all USN surface combatants except the USS Zumwalt. The US Navy’s anti-submarine warfare skills have atrophied so badly that in numerous exercises with foreign navies involving their diesel-electric subs it never succeeded in detecting these subs.

Had those exercises been real combat, ALL carriers of the US Navy would’ve been at the bottom of the ocean. So much for America’s much-vaunted carriers.

As for missile defense, it is still in its infancy, and questions abound about such systems’ ability to intercept targets and to discriminate real warheads from decoys. Moreover, missile defense can be easily overwhelmed by any enemy with sheer numbers of offensive missiles – which cost much less than the interceptors intended to shoot them down.

No, conventional weapons and missile defense can NEVER substitute for nuclear weapons – as Gen. Kevin Chilton warned in 2011 when he was commander of the Strategic Command.

In sum, all of Friedman’s and Preble’s claims are blatant lies. No, the US nuclear arsenal is not oversized, bloated, nor an “overkill.” A large nuclear deterrent is STILL needed, and will be for the foreseeable future – to deter Russia, China, and North Korea, and to reassure over 30 US allies to depend on it. A small nuclear arsenal will not suffice – it would be way too easy to destroy in a first strike.

And in nuclear deterrence, what matters is how many weapons you’d have AFTER an enemy first strike – not before.

Endnote: A nuclear triad is a Cold War relic? Oops, someone forgot to tell that to the Russians, the Chinese, and the Israelis! 🙂

UPDATE: Friedman and Preble will hold a pro-unilateral disarmament propaganda event on Capitol Hill on Monday, Nov. 25th.

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  1. Your whole premise about the rise of China is as a nuclear power is faulty at best and distorts history and economics. China wants to be seen as a superpower In order to do this they must achiev closer nuclear parity with the United States and Russia. The Communist Party running China wants their people to see that they can make a strong and prosperous country. In order to do that they believe that they have to have the military capabilities that other big powers.

    1. It is your claims that are faulty at best. China wants to have the same military capabilities as the other big powers have partially in order to be a superpower on par with the US, that is true, but it also wants such capabilities because it has aggressive designs for the Asia-Pacific, as its repeated threats against Taiwan, Japan, and other countries in the region, and its recent unilateral declaration of an ADIZ around the Senkakus, show abundantly.

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