war on the rocks

Prove It: Nuclear Posture and the Fear of Surprise Attack

June 22, 2018

Writing recently in this forum, Lieutenant Commander Frank Nuño and Dr. Vaughn Standley highlighted the significant departure that the new Nuclear Posture Review makes from past practice: The document explicitly addresses the threat of surprise nuclear attack — “bolts from the blue.” Specifically, as Nuño and Standley note, the Nuclear Posture Review states that the United States “will maintain a portion of its nuclear forces on alert day-to-day, and retain the option of launching those forces promptly” to maximize decision time, preserve options, and deter potential adversaries from attempting a surprise first strike. (For the record, I also wrote on this subject before the document’s publication.)

In light of this new policy guidance, Nuño and Standley argue that the United States should better train nuclear operators to respond promptly to surprise launch orders, reform the acquisition process, especially for nuclear detonation detection systems, and declassify space-based nuclear detonation telemetry. These recommendations (especially the first) are meant to facilitate what is called Launch On Warning or Launch Under Attack. The idea is to release U.S. nuclear weapons quickly during the chaotic minutes after an attack warning to prevent them from being destroyed when the enemy’s nuclear warheads arrive.

If we accept the conclusions of the Nuclear Posture Review, these prescriptions seem sensible. Nuño and Standley leverage their deep knowledge of U.S. nuclear operations and defense policy to propose thoughtful and creative solutions to what the report claims is a serious threat. However, Nuño, Standley and the authors of the Nuclear Posture Review elide four more fundamental questions. First, how great is the risk of a bolt from the blue? Second, how risky is it to keep a portion of the U.S. nuclear force poised for launch on warning or launch under attack? Third, how does the risk of a surprise attack compare to the risk of inappropriate nuclear release? Finally, how should U.S. policymakers balance these competing risks? By overlooking these fundamental questions, the Nuclear Posture Review may generate responses to poorly substantiated threats that cause more problems than they solve.

First, is the risk of a surprise nuclear attack significant? Probably not. The United States maintains a large nuclear arsenal that includes land-based, sea-based and air-delivered nuclear weapons. The sea-based leg of this triad is especially survivable, and large enough to obliterate any potential adversary even if the other two legs of the triad are destroyed. These forces are connected to the president or a successor by a redundant web of ground, air, and space-based communications systems built to ensure U.S. retaliation. Perhaps, as Nuño and Standley observe, cyber and information operations — the modern equivalent of throwing sand in the opponent’s eyes — could modestly delay or degrade a U.S. counter-attack. However, they would not prevent a devastating U.S. retaliatory strike. What hostile leader, facing this sophisticated deterrent machine, would gamble that they or their nation could survive — let alone benefit from — a peacetime surprise first strike?

Second, how risky is it to keep a portion of U.S. nuclear forces and their operators poised for prompt launch on a day-to-day basis, as the Nuclear Posture Review recommends? History suggests it is fairly risky. Throughout the Cold War a series of minor incidents within complex, tightly-coupled nuclear command and control systems caused brief but nevertheless alarming increases in the risk of inappropriate nuclear release. A bear on an airbase perimeter fence nearly scrambled nuclear armed interceptor aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A bomber crash in Greenland could have caused a nuclear detonation at an American base that would have looked like the start of a Soviet surprise attack. An improperly installed training tape caused then-undersecretary of defense William Perry to be woken in the middle of the night and told that the Soviets had launched 200 ICBMs at the United States. The failure of a $0.46 computer chip caused National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to be woken up with a similar warning — this time of 220 Soviet submarine-launched missiles. In all these cases, disaster was averted by good judgment and luck. While there is nothing wrong in principle with Nuño and Standley’s proposal that operators should “actually train for surprise,” we should note that such training might also overcorrect by biasing release procedures towards the “always” side of the classic always/never nuclear command and control dilemma. This increases the risk of unnecessary nuclear war.

Third, and related, how do the risks of a bolt from the blue compare with the elevated risk of inappropriate nuclear release that comes with intensive training for prompt launch in response to a surprise attack? Unfortunately, the Nuclear Posture Review does not attempt this comparison. The threat of a bolt from the blue is assumed, or asserted, rather than proven. Moreover, the document does not weigh this assumed risk against the increased risk of inappropriate release following a return to launch on warning or launch under attack. A more robust policy would explain how the risk of a bolt from the blue compared with the risks of the prescribed deterrent solution.

Nor is this an isolated problem. In fact, it is only one example of the contested or poorly substantiated threats that drive the Nuclear Posture Review’s conclusions. For example, much of the report’s analysis is premised on Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” strategy despite significant expert debate about the nature and existence of such a strategy. Similarly, a slippery discussion conflating Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization programs ignores the fact that the two countries’ efforts in this regard are in no way comparable in scale or purpose.

These analytic problems are not just academic. For instance, by suggesting that China’s small nuclear arsenal is a significant threat — implying that the United States plans to target it aggressively — the document provides valid reasons for China to increase the size and sophistication of its arsenal in the future. By incentivizing these kinds of potential adversary responses, the Nuclear Posture Review may generate more problems than it solves. The document displays a pattern of extreme threat sensitivity that could ultimately undermine, rather than advance, core U.S. interests.

These concerns are important, but in the end, America has no higher interest than avoiding an unnecessary nuclear war. Thus, the challenge for nuclear policymakers — my fourth question — is how should the United States balance the risk of an enemy bolt from the blue against the risk of inappropriate nuclear launch? If it is the case that the United States really does face a serious bolt from the blue threat, then advocates must produce their evidence and weigh the benefits of their proposed response against its dangers.

Nuño and Standley correctly observe that “[r]isk is the likelihood of an event times its impact. So even if the likelihood is small, the risk may be large.” But identifying risk is only part of the problem. The real challenge lies in making reasoned judgments about how to balance multiple competing risks. That is where the Nuclear Posture Review’s treatment of surprise attack comes up short.


Timothy P. McDonnell is a PhD candidate and a member of the security studies program at MIT. His dissertation is on the sources of U.S. nuclear posture. He also studies international politics, foreign and security policy and conventional warfare. He lives in Washington, DC.

Image: National Nuclear Security Administration