October 11, 2021

NATO, the Russian threat, and Nuclear Deterrence


Joseph Cirincione, the president of the “Ploughshares Fund”, a group campaigning for America’s unilateral disarmament, has once again made an ass of himself.

In his latest anti-nuclear diatribe published on the leftist DefenseOne website, Cirincione falsely claims that missile defense and nuclear weapons are “irrelevant” to the security challenges NATO faces, and that US tactical nukes in Europe have slided into “irrelevancy”. “They don’t matter”, falsely claims Cirincione about missile defense and nuclear weapons:

“They don’t matter. Neither provides protection against the threats concerning NATO.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nuclear weapons (including US tactical nukes stationed in Europe) are of PARAMOUNT importance to countering the threats NATO faces.

Moreover, ONLY nuclear weapons can protect the US and its NATO allies against the gravest threats they face. NOTHING can substitute for these weapons in NATO’s defense.

The biggest foe NATO is facing right now is Russia. And the ONLY way Russia can threaten Europe, the US, and Canada (or anyone else for that matter) is with nuclear weapons – or by threatening to cut off oil and gas supplies to Europe.

Let me repeat that: other than oil and gas cutoffs, nuclear weapons are the ONLY things Russia can threaten anyone with. Its conventional force is a joke, relying mostly on obsolete Soviet-era tanks, APCs, and fighters.

Without its nuclear arsenal, Russia wouldn’t have been able to threaten anyone except, at worst, its most immediate neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia.

Yet this one threat is huge. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is huge, numbering anywhere between 6,800 (per the FAS) and 8,500 (per the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) nuclear weapons, deployed and nondeployed.

Russia’s nuclear triad numbers over 400 ICBMs (capable of delivering over 1,600 nukes to the continental US), 13 ballistic missile subs (boomers) capable of delivering over 2,000 warheads to America’s shores, and 251 strategic bombers capable of delivering another 1,400 nuclear warheads to the US.

On top of that, Russia’s attack and cruise missile submarines can deliver further over 1,000 atomic warheads to the US on their cruise missiles. The Tu-95 fleet alone can deliver over 700 such missiles.

And as Russia replaces older, single- or low-number-warhead missiles with newer ones (e.g. Yars, Bulava, and Liner), capable of carrying more warheads, Russia’s nuclear arsenal will only grow.

Moscow has just announced that three more missile regiments will, by this year’s end, swap their single-warhead Topol missiles for 4-warhead Yars ICBMs.

Putin has also stated Russia will develop new, “offensive” nuclear weapons.

So Russia’s nuclear arsenal will grow STILL FURTHER, with new, “offensive” nukes aimed against the US and NATO.

Even larger is Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal, estimated at 4,000 warheads and deliverable by a wide range of short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, surface ships, tactical aircraft, artillery pieces, and other systems.

Hardly surprising, then, that recently, three national security veterans – including two former presidential National Security Advisors – have spoken out strongly in favor of nuclear deterrence and especially US tactical nukes in Europe (emphasis mine):

Brent Scowcroft was national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Stephen J. Hadley was national security adviser to President George W. Bush. Franklin Miller was responsible for U.S. nuclear policy in the Defense Department for Presidents George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton and on the National Security Council staff for President George W. Bush.

When NATO’s leaders gather in Wales in early September, they will address several issues critical to the alliance, including Russian adventurism in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, members’ contribution to collective defense, the adequacy of individual national defense budgets and plans for supporting the people of Afghanistan. In the course of their deliberations on these issues, however, they also should reaffirm the value to the alliance of the continued presence of the modest number of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe. We believe this is necessary because we are again hearing calls for the United States to unilaterally withdraw its small arsenal of forward- deployed nuclear bombs. Those arguments are shopworn, familiar — and wrong.

The most common argument is that because the United States’ strategic forces have global capabilities, the NATO-based weapons “have no military value.” While that claim is false (NATO’s supreme allied commander recently attested to the weapons’ military utility), it also ignores the most central feature of nuclear weapons: They are, fundamentally, political weapons. A principal function of forward deployment has been, and remains, to be a visible symbol to friend and potential foe of the U.S. commitment to defend NATO with all of the military power it possesses. (…)

Of particular concern to NATO, Russia has embarked on an across-the-board modernization of its nuclear forces, a modernization judged so important by Moscow that it has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the process. As our NATO allies point out, nuclear weapons clearly matter to Russian leadership, and, as a result, our allies insist that the U.S. nuclear commitment to NATO cannot be called into question.”

(Source: http://missilethreat.com/nato-based-nuclear-weapons-advantage-dangerous-world/)

Hardly surprising, either, that America’s European allies – especially those most threatened by Russia – have also once again underlined the importance of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated: “The current situation reaffirms the importance of NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy.”

Nuclear weapons are also necessary to deter other potential opponents of the US, notably China and North Korea, but these are not threats to NATO.

America’s second most senior military officer, Adm. James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees wholeheartedly, saying:

“If we consider that at the top of our list of national security interests is probably the survival of our nation, then at the top of the list of threats to that interest is a massive nuclear attack from Russia.”

This is from Winnefeld’s May 28th speech at the Atlantic Council. Cirincione took a very short passage out of that speech, out of context to buttress his false claim that missile defense is supposedly useless and irrelevant to US security:

“we’ve told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterrence, because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try.”

But that short passage tells us nothing, because it has been taken out of the rest of the speech and out of context – for the purpose of misleading the public. Immediately after those words, Adm. Winnefeld said:

“Rather, we rely for deterrence of Russia on our ability to respond massively to an attack, and that has worked for a very long time. But we do have other interests, where what we call “limited missile defense” quickly comes sharply into focus as being very relevant, beginning with our determination to prevent catastrophic attacks on our nation.

This is about ensuring we can deny the objectives of any insecure authoritarian state that believes acquisition of deliverable weapons of mass destruction is key to the preservation of its regime.

The number of states trying to achieve that capability is growing, not shrinking . . . with our principal current concern being North Korea, because they are closest in terms of capability, followed by Iran.

Because we’re not betting on Dennis Rodman as our deterrent against a future North Korean ICBM threat . . .

. . . a robust and capable missile defense is our best bet to defend the United States from such an attack; and is, in my view, our number one missile defense priority.

Which is why the systems that provide this defense, such as our Ground Based Interceptor program, or GBI, are accorded much higher priority than other items in our shrinking missile defense budget.”

As one can see, Adm. Winnefeld has recently reaffirmed that a) nuclear deterrence is of paramount importance to US and allied security to protect against Russia; and b) missile defense is highly relevant to protecting America against other threats – specifically, rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.

Cirincione also falsely claims that America’s missile defense systems don’t work and can’t even intercept North Korean or Iranian missiles. He further falsely claims they have only a 50% success rate in “carefully controlled” tests and can be easily defeated by a wide range of countermeasures. These claims are also patently false. Again, Admiral Winnefeld himself (the same admiral whom Cirincione quoted out of context) has refuted them:

“Finally, I’d like to address several other misconceptions that are out there regarding ballistic missile defense.

First, and most obvious, is the claim that our missile defense systems don’t work, that we can’t “hit-to-kill.” Well, we have an excellent track record with regional systems comprised of operationally configured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptors and SM-3s.

As I mentioned, we’re working through the GBI issues and expect to raise the probability of intercept. But basically our test record using hit-to-kill has put this misconception to bed.

To date, for our operationally configured interceptors, not development prototypes mind you . . . THAAD is 11 for 11; Aegis BMD is 18 for 21; GMD is 3 for 6; and the Patriot PAC-3 is 21 for 25.

That’s not bad, but we’re determined to make it even better.

The second misconception is that it’s easy for an adversary to employ ballistic missile defense countermeasures.

To be sure, we will continue to do everything we can in order to improve our discrimination capability, but as hard as that job is, so is the challenge of deploying and employing countermeasures. If the enemy is confronting a layered defense system, whatever countermeasures work in midcourse might not work in terminal, or their terminal countermeasures may be destroyed in midcourse.

Test is critical to the success of any complex weapons system, and when it comes to missile defense countermeasures, our adversaries don’t do much of it, which means they can’t know how they perform. We’ve had our own extensive countermeasures program, and we learned just how difficult it is to get that right.

Countermeasures take up payload space and have weight considerations, so there’s also a tradeoff. Bottom line . . . it’s not as easy as it might look on paper.”

Adm. Winnefeld’s speech can be read in its entiretyhere. This website is linking to it so that Readers can read the ENTIRE speech, and not just a very short passage taken out of context.

Cirincione should be deeply ashamed of himself for taking such a short snippet completely out of context and out of the rest of the speech and using it to back his totally false claims. It only shows he will go to any lengths to spread blatant lies and mislead the public to advance his unilateral disarmament agenda.

Fortunately, he won’t have much success. Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, most Americans supported a robust national defense (including missile defense and nuclear deterrence), opposed defense cuts, and were highly skeptical of Russia. Today, the American people demand far tougher action against Russia than what Democrats or even some Republicans support.

Once again, Cirincione and other advocates of America’s unilateral disarmament have been proven dead wrong. Nuclear weapons – especially American tactical nukes in Europe – are needed now more than ever. They are of paramount importance. They are the ONLY thing that can protect NATO members from the biggest threat they face by far: Russian nuclear intimidation.