John Collins on Weapons of Mass Destruction

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Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of “Remembering the Warlord,” a series dedicated to the memory of John Collins. Read the introduction to the series here.

I was introduced to Col. (ret.) John Collins in 2012 when I joined the august ranks of the Warlord Loop, a unique national security debating forum. As the “warlord,” he actively participated in a wide range of strategic discussions, which included nuclear weapons and deterrence issues. I enjoyed talking with him on contemporary defense issues involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but I discovered that he had written more than a few articles on the topic over his career. He was kind enough to share some of his professional writings on the issues of nuclear weapons, deterrence principles, and counterproliferation. The value of his work was in the manner that he seamlessly connected the often lofty objectives in defense policy with operational plans and actual military capabilities, in ways that others who worked nuclear deterrence and counter-WMD issues could not. As a result, defense policy makers benefited tremendously from his straightforward, critical analysis, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when these topics were fresh and controversial. To contribute to this celebration of Collins’ legacy, I will attempt to synthesize these contributions to educating the national security community.

On Nuclear Weapons

Most defense analysts and military leaders today are familiar with the strategic nuclear triad of ballistic missiles in land-based silos, long-range bombers armed with nuclear cruise missiles and gravity bombs, and ballistic missile submarines. Largely speaking, the general defense community has only known the triad by these three major components, but during the Cold War, there was a much greater selection of nuclear delivery systems and a greater desire by the Air Force, Army, and Navy to develop new strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons. As a result, Congress required non-partisan advice on the issues of how many nuclear weapons were enough, what combination of systems was optimal, and how many of each served the best strategy. To answer those questions, John Collins, as a senior specialist of the Congressional Research Service, offered options in a 1981 report titled U.S. Strategic Nuclear Force Options.

Given the nuclear weapons debates of the time (including replacing the B-52 with the B-1 bomber), this was a vital topic that required analytic rigor. Of interest, his report endorsed a strategic triad as the optimal solution to meet U.S. security requirements but noted that “service politics shaped the structure as much as military missions.” This runs counter to the current arms control mantra that the Cold War triad was only about service politics. However, nuclear primacy was preferred over strategic stability, and, as a result, the services were always looking to add supplemental systems to reinforce the triad, to include air- and submarine-launched cruise missiles, semi-mobile and freely mobile ballistic missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles, ballistic missiles fired from surface ships, and a concept called “Hydra” that involved free-floating missile silos in the ocean during times of crisis.

Collins estimated that, from a purely mathematical perspective, there were 120 different triad concepts, but 90 percent of them were not viable due to various shortfalls or undesirable features such as using only ballistic missiles in each triad leg. He narrowed down the prospects to four ideal configurations, of which the one constant with the present triad was retaining submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The B-52 bombers were already on average 20-30 years old and the B-1A production had been cancelled. As a result, he saw the need to either develop a new bomber or arm another air platform (such as a large-frame transport) with cruise missiles. But given the technical challenges then faced with designing and producing a new cruise missile, that solution came with risks. In 1981, the air-launched cruise missile was plagued by operational and survivability problems and needed more testing prior to production and deployment. His most significant recommendation was to replace the missile fields with a new land-based delivery system, as Soviet ballistic missiles were increasingly more dangerous and silo hardness was reaching a point of diminishing returns. In particular, he emphasized that retaining fixed-site ballistic missiles as an option would require some convincing justification.

His four options included replacing the fixed-site missile silos with launchers that were semi-mobile (using transports moving around a closed-loop racetrack), freely mobile (using transports on public roads, rails, and waterways), on surface ships, or in Hydra sea canisters. In all four options, he recommended retaining the submarine-launched ballistic missiles and replacing B-52 bombers with an airborne platform carrying cruise missiles (interestingly enough, not necessarily a strategic bomber). Collins summarized this complex defense issue in 11 pages, not including supplemental material. While President Jimmy Carter approved the production and deployment of a semi-mobile ballistic missile system, Congress didn’t care for the high cost of the proposed system and negative public reaction from where the racetracks would be built. As a result, the MX “Peacekeeper” missile was relegated to 50 silo-based systems instead of a full replacement of the Minuteman missiles. The report still stands as a crisp, critical review of modernization options that could meet national security strategic requirements.

On Counter-Proliferation Theory

In 1994, Collins wrote a Congressional Research Service report titled Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapon Proliferation: Potential Military Countermeasures. At 30 pages, this report was somewhat longer than his nuclear force options report, probably due to the relative newness of the topic, which had only recently been revealed as a critical defense issue by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. At the time, no one in the military was focused on developing a new set of capabilities for the challenge of protecting U.S. forces and interests from adversaries armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Collins proposed six “military countermeasures” that we would today describe as offensive measures to counter the development and use of a nation-state’s nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. These counter-measures included interdicting raw materials or finished products associated with a WMD program, extracting key technical experts or program managers, using military force to disable production and storage facilities, using military strikes to confiscate or disarm weapon systems in storage areas, damaging or destroying weapon production facilities, and damaging or destroying associated delivery systems. All of these options relied on the development of intelligence data to detect, characterize, and track the progress of said WMD programs. He noted that all of these options were laden with risk but that inaction might lead to more adverse events if adversaries decided to use these weapons.

Collins’ report was an early look at counter-proliferation strategy, and obviously there has been a great deal of maturation in how the U.S. government addresses the WMD proliferation concerns since then. However, it is rare to see any contemporary discussion on offensive military counter-measures against nation-state or violent extremist groups that are interested in a WMD capability. The counter-WMD community doesn’t have these frank discussions today, preferring to focus on shortfalls in intelligence collection, arms control regimes, and infectious disease counter-measures.

The Congressional Research Service last reported on the general challenge of nation-states developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and associated implications for U.S. policy in 2008. There are focused reports on specific countries’ WMD programs (notably Syria, North Korea, India, and Pakistan), but there are no Congressional Research Service reports — or Government Accountability Office reports for that matter — that so clearly outline, as Collins’ report did, what the military ought to be considering as options to counter the potential development and use of these weapons.

On Deterrence Principles

Collins was a prolific writer, and of the 12 books he authored, his book Military Strategy, published in 2001, was an excellent primer for newcomers and seasoned professionals in the defense community. While it may be a little dated in light of the defense issues in today’s security environment, it remains a strong foundation for those seeking an understanding of the strategic challenges across the range of military operations. In this book, Collins discussed the fundamentals of deterrence relative to the demands of military strategists and national security policymakers. This should not be confused with the deep theoretical debates of Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn, or Robert Jervis. Collins’ book represents a more succinct and practical application of deterrent techniques in the context of specific conflict scenarios.

Military students at the war colleges are more familiar with strategic deterrence theory, including deterrence by denial and deterrence by pain, largely relegated to nuclear weapons strategy. Collins offers a more general deterrence discussion that applies to any form of military threats against adversary intentions. Given that there are many different interpretations of deterrence theory, to include whether deterrence really works, he does not offer one doctrinal approach to deterrence but rather 10 principles that guide the effective development and implementation of deterrence.

Purpose (having a specific political purpose) Preparedness (need for ready forces)
Credibility (demonstrating capability) Non-provocation (avoiding military posturing)
Uncertainty (allowing for greater punishment) Prudence (use of defensive means)
Pleasure (rewarding allies and associates) Publicity (the importance of communication)
Pain (promises to punish) Paradox (threatening war to achieve peace)


In Military Strategy, Collins elaborates on the potential deterrent techniques (under the general categories of threats, promises, and actions) that could apply to different causes of conflict. Using a construct of five general conflict scenarios — unprovoked aggression, provoked aggression, pre-emptive or preventive wars, regrettable blunders, and catalytic conflicts — he offers a framework by which operational planners could successfully apply deterrent actions in appropriate situations. For instance, how can confidence-building be an appropriate technique, as opposed to demonstrations of force or deception operations? There is no one tool that fits all conflict scenarios. Collins’ entire discussion on “fundamentals of deterrence” is only 10 pages long, but it offers a valuable tool to military planners who need a practical approach to applying deterrence theory to military operations.

Collins did not limit himself to general theory. In 2003, he wrote an article in the Army magazine on military options to deter North Korean aggression. These included blockading North Korea from shipments of incoming resources and outgoing WMD-related materials, preemptively destroying North Korea’s nuclear facilities to snuff out its nuclear weapons ambitions, invading North Korea if there were indications of a North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea, defending South Korea against invasion using conventional forces (the status quo), and, if all else failed, employing U.S. nuclear weapons against North Korea to offset unacceptable situations. He noted, however, that North Korea had the option to retaliate in the face of any U.S. attack. That might include sponsoring transnational terrorism, invading South Korea, initiating chemical warfare against U.S. and South Korean forces, and initiating nuclear warfare against U.S. bases in the Pacific theater. There are no good answers, unfortunately, but Collins offered a mature and critical discussion of the North Korean operational scenarios that showed a strong understanding of how to address the conventional and unconventional threats.

John Collins was a dynamic thinker, mentor, teacher, writer, and military veteran. After a long and productive military and government career, he continued his impact on U.S. national security by bringing together a diverse and extensive group of strategists to continue the discussion on contemporary national security strategy. His name will probably not be on most people’s lists of great strategic thinkers in the United States, but the impact of his efforts will live on.

Al Mauroni is the director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and author of the book, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Isaac Johnson