Published on Friday, June 16, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian
Number of US Nuclear Targets Has Grown Since 1993
by Bruce Blair
Senior American military officers insist that current nuclear policy prevents them shrinking the US nuclear arsenal to fewer than 2,000 to 2,500 strategic weapons - and that going lower would threaten national security. Their calculations are buried in the nation's strategic war plan and ultimately linked to presidential guidance.
Defence officials do not talk openly about the nuclear targets in the strategic plan. But my estimates lead inexorably to a conclusion that US leaders are clinging to outdated planning that helps keep an unnecessarily large number of American and Russian missiles pointed at one another on hair-trigger alert.
These estimates are based on 25 years of studying strategic policy and operations - beginning with a background in the Strategic Air Command - and extensive contacts with officials knowledgeable in these areas.
The US strategic war plan consists of a very long list of targets in Russia and a shorter list of targets in China. The Pentagon says the United States must be able to destroy these targets to meet current presidential guidance on nuclear war planning, a directive issued in late 1997 to get the number of warheads down from even higher levels required in earlier plans.
Oddly, the target list has been growing instead of contracting since the last strategic arms reduction treaty, Start II, was signed in 1993. The sites the Pentagon says the US must be ready to destroy has grown by 20% in the last five years alone - to 3,000 now from 2,500 in 1995 - according to top military and former administration officials.
The vast bulk of the targets are in Russia. My research and interviews indicate that there are about 2,260 so-called vital Russian targets on the list today, only 1,100 of them actual nuclear arms sites.
By this calculation, the US has nuclear weapons aimed at 500 "conventional" targets - the buildings and bases of a hollow Russian army on the verge of disintegration; 160 leadership targets, such as government offices and military command centres, in a country practically devoid of leadership; and 500 mostly crumbling factories that produced almost no arms last year.
American strategic planners have historically set the level of damage they wish to inflict on vital targets at 80%. To destroy 80% of the 2,260 Russian sites requires the ability to deliver nearly 1,800 warheads to their targets. It is no accident that the US has about 2,200 strategic warheads on alert, according to numbers from Strategic Command officers.
Almost all US missiles on land are ready for launch in two minutes, and those on four submarines (two in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific) are ready to launch on 15 minutes' notice, officers say.
If 1,800 warheads have to be delivered quickly, the Pentagon says, the US needs a larger arsenal to allow for maintenance. Typically six or seven of the 18 nuclear-armed submarines are port-bound at any time and cannot be counted on to survive if the US were attacked. So America needs one-third more sea-based strategic weapons.
And Russia is not the only target of US missiles. Responding to the 1997 presidential guidance, the Pentagon put China back into the strategic plan after 20 years.
For China, the US now has two so-called limited attack options - involving a handful of nuclear weapons on submarines and bombers - for striking nuclear targets, leadership sites and key industries.
There are also many hundreds of secondary targets in China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea that have weapons assigned to them, though not on immediate alert.
Add it all up, and at least 2,500 American warheads are deemed necessary to carry out nuclear war against Russia and China, countries which Vice-President Al Gore recently said represent vital US partners, not enemies.
Getting to fewer than 2,000 warheads [as part of any future treaty with Russia] will be difficult unless the target requirements are eased by new presidential guidance.
Of course they could be - almost without exception, US leaders regard the attack options that would unleash thousands of nuclear warheads as absurd and grotesque. They do not believe that a cold-blooded, nuclear strike by either Russia or the US is remotely plausible.
The only nuclear conflict they do consider plausible involves the use of one or a handful of non-strategic weapons - nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, for instance - against a country other than Russia.
Deterrence would remain robust with far smaller arsenals on far lower levels of alert.
The US and Russia should aim to cut their nuclear weapons to the low hundreds and to take all of them off hair-trigger alert, with a view to eventually eliminating them under existing treaty obligations.
Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman missile launch officer, is president of the Centre for Defence Information and a co-author of The Nuclear Turning Point
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000