Response Is Assured

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas R. Bendel and Lieutenant Commander William S. Murray, U.S. Navy

The dissolution of the Soviet Union has reduced the probability of nuclear war, and this has allowed the emphasis of U.S. security strategy to shift to a broader, three pronged approach of enhancing national security, ensuring a healthy economy, and promoting democracy. Such diverse threats as information warfare, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the potential of "rogue" elements gaining control of them are gaining credence. Consequently, the rationale for and method of employment of nuclear weapons need to be reexamined. Long considered a weapon of last resort—an insurance policy against a potential aggressor—their military value is changing. The envisioned use of nuclear weapons may shift from the strategic to the operational or even tactical level, as the distinctions between the levels of warfare blur and the nature of future threats evolves.

Despite these changes, the continuing threat of nuclear war requires that deterrence remain the bedrock of U.S. security strategy. Maintaining deterrence is, however, an increasingly complex challenge.

Geopolitical Realities

Several systemic changes have not yet been incorporated fully into U.S. deterrent strategies and force postures. Most important among these are:

  • Arms reductions . We must recognize the impact of both recent and potential future cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear inventories. This smaller force no longer will be able to provide adequate coverage of the traditional target base. Deterrence will have to be achieved by other than sheer numbers.
  • New guidance on the military utility of nuclear weapons . A recent Presidential Decision Directive has removed "all previous references to being able to wage a nuclear war successfully or to prevail in a nuclear war.... The emphasis . . . is therefore on deterring nuclear wars or the use of nuclear weapons at any level, not fighting [with] them."
  • Increasing pressure to "de-alert" those nuclear forces that remain, to reduce nuclear tensions between the United States and Russia . Even as the likelihood of an intentional nuclear war fades, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and the possibility of criminal, terrorist, or rogue elements controlling them—has raised the specter of "nuclear anarchy," a breakdown in the control of such weapons. The current rapid-response posture of U.S. and Russian deterrent forces could lead to a nuclear exchange being triggered inadvertently by a single, unauthorized launch by a rogue element. Equally disturbing, forces in a "launch-on-warning" configuration could be triggered by incorrect or false warning data. Reducing the alert posture of some strategic forces would lower the probability of a such a nuclear exchange.

Changing Technology

Private investments in the world's communication infrastructure are improving dramatically the ability to share information and access data. Three commercially driven necessities shape these improvements:

  • Expansion of network bandwidth . Wider communication bandwidths (provided by such means as fiber optics and microwave internet connectivity) are allowing more and more data to be exchanged by larger numbers of users.
  • Mobile access . Radio-frequency access (satellite telephones, wireless local networks, and wireless modems) to global networks gives user access to information anywhere on the globe. The result is an exponential increase in the number of possible paths connecting sites. Increased computing power enhances this unprecedented access to data.
  • Widespread encryption . Historically, the value of data was proportional to its scarcity. In an environment of unrestricted access to vast amounts of data, quality will be the new reference for value judgments. Protecting the quality of data—whether it be political, financial, or personal—will be critical. Electronic encryption provides the quality assurances demanded by commercial as well as military users.

These three trends argue for a change in the nuclear command-and-control (NC2) system. In the future, NC2 must be part of the overall network-centric communications system, where multiple nodes provide guaranteed connectivity to a weapon system in almost any environment. It no longer can be a unique system independent of other command-and-control requirements.

Cost, as well as capability, will be a driving factor. Flatline or decreasing budgets appear to be here to stay, and developing and fielding a new stand-alone system is likely to be too costly, as may be maintaining the current system. NC2 must begin to integrate "industry norms." Through encryption, the military can leverage off the enormous private investment in the world info-structure. For the small charge for access to the networks, encrypted military data can flow in unprecedented volume and speed to anywhere on, over, or under the planet.

A Change in Strategy?

Deterrence remains the foundation of U.S. national defense strategy, but we must reassess the mechanisms used to achieve it. This is critical to developing a future vision for both nuclear force structure and nuclear command and control, because it provides the framework for current and future functional requirements.

According to Joint Publication 3-07, Joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War , deterrence "stems from the belief by a potential aggressor that a credible threat of retaliation exists, the contemplated action cannot succeed, or the costs outweigh any possible gains. Thus, a potential aggressor is reluctant to act for fear of failure, cost, or consequences." Note that, according to this definition, deterrence rests on three legs, damage to any of which is sufficient to produce the desired effect. It does not require that a response be immediate, just credible. In spite of this, U.S. nuclear forces, and their supporting communications systems, remain tied to short timelines. They were, of course, conceived and designed to provide rapid response—the magnitude of a possible first strike, coupled with the vulnerability of fixed ICBM sites, meant that the deterrent value of a missile was dependent on its being launched prior to the arrival of any inbound missiles. Short timelines were essential to ensure that a U.S. response to a large-scale attack was, in fact, credible.

But the need to provide a whole-force response within the short flight times of an adversary's ICBMs has been undermined by changing world events. A massive, "bolt out of the blue" first strike by an aggressor now has reduced credence, so the vulnerability of the ICBM is less important. The risk of a large-scale nuclear exchange being triggered inadvertently can be lessened. In a world of vastly reduced nuclear arsenals, the size and composition of a "credible" response can be reevaluated. All of these factors argue for replacing the current posture of rapid response with one of assured response as the primary method of deterring attack. In such a posture, deterrence will be accomplished by assuring any potential adversary that the United States will respond. It need not be instantaneous, but it must be certain.

Assured response removes the time variable from the nation's retaliatory action while retaining its certainty. This is provided not by a force postured for immediate reaction but by one that is survivable—able to come through an enemy's initial attack and be available to deliver a response some time in the near future. Deterrence still will be achieved, but should it ever fail, assured response will give decision makers more time to consider a wider scope of response options while retaining the capability to deliver a devastating nuclear retaliation.

A posture based on assured response will require a communications base supporting near-real-time data transfer, to enable rapid option development and flexible response timing. Nuclear responses can break away from the historically limited set of options and be much more tailored to a given situation. This is the flexibility desired and highlighted in "Joint Vision 2010" and other documents.

The Insurance Analogy

The U.S. nuclear arsenal often is described as an insurance policy. Much like a whole-life policy, current nuclear weapons, communications systems, and postures provide durable, broad, and expensive coverage. Assured response also could be described using life insurance terms—as a small whole-life policy supplemented by flexible term insurance.

The core of the assured response system, the "whole life" portion, is comprised of a select group of nuclear forces that can guarantee a response by virtue of their survivability. This package could be relatively small, and its primary function would be to deter a major attack by ensuring a retaliatory strike. A credible response could be achieved with weapons numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands, especially if one considers that the target base would be much reduced in the aftermath of a large scale launch by an adversary.

These forces would be connected to the decision makers by a nuclear command-and-control system that takes advantage of current communications technology to ensure a secure, survivable connection in any wartime environment. Although relatively expensive, this package, like whole-life insurance, provides security no matter what might happen.

The "term-life" portion of the system is represented by all other nuclear forces—those that can be postured day to day in a non-alert status. They are the flexible response package, offering a wide range of options to decision makers. They would be deployed when an immediate nuclear response is not required and national survival is not at stake. Immediate response still would be available with conventional forces, but some time—measuring perhaps hours or days—would be required to make a nuclear response ready. The "term life" nuclear forces, though not required for day-to-day deterrence under assured response, would remain available for generation under heightened tensions, and would augment "whole-life" forces in a such a scenario. Taking these forces off daily alert status would reduce nuclear tensions by reducing the immediacy of the "threat" they pose.

The Role of the SSBN

The need for some type of "ultimate" national insurance will endure for the foreseeable future. The paradigm eventually might shift from its exclusive focus on nuclear weapons—perhaps to include next-generation "smart" conventional weapons, other weapons of mass destruction, or new weapons not yet conceived—but for now, any strategy must recognize the significant, long-term capital investment the United States has made in the existing force structure. In particular, the current fleet of SSBNs is highly capable, and is expected to remain in service well into the 21st century. By taking advantage of advances in communications technology, the SSBN, the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad, could serve as the "whole-life" portion of the U.S. insurance policy. In addition, a policy of assured response could enhance its survivability, and hence its effectiveness.

Under assured response, SSBNs would be released from the requirement to respond quickly to a nuclear control order. Rather, their deterrent value would inhere in the certainty of their response. In effect, the SSBN force would be the ultimate U.S. trump card, to be played at any time after receiving a first strike. This new mode of operations would be a clear shift from the posture of launch on warning—a move that would enhance stability and safety.

Delaying the response would free the SSBN from the need to maintain constant communications. Today (and during the Cold War), SSBNs monitor the submarine broadcast continuously, and stand ready to receive and act on a nuclear control order should one ever be transmitted. This ability to act is well understood by potential adversaries, and when coupled with the submarine's survivability, provides an exceptionally strong deterrent against first strikes.

If continuous broadcast monitoring and low-data-rate transmissions were abandoned, other operational changes would be possible that would further enhance deterrence. SSBNs could gain additional operational security through the use of higher patrol speeds. If they had to check the broadcast only periodically, their ability to maneuver over great distances while on patrol would increase dramatically. This repositioning capability would offset any increased risk the submarines would incur by going to communications depth to verify the absence of, or to receive, a nuclear control order. Allowing SSBNs to operate deeper for greater lengths of time also would help to negate the effects of weapons employed against them. The reduced antisubmarine warfare presence of potential aggressors also permits this change in operations.

In addition, low-data-rate communications systems put unacceptable limits on the data carried over them, driving messages into brief, fixed formats. These, in turn, constrain options and mandate preplanning. And the mere existence of preplanned options tends to draw favor to their choice, whether or not they represent the best response to a given situation, because of the difficulties and time delays associated with developing new options.

Future nuclear command and control will be able to free itself from these restrictions by using encrypted plain-text messages. Out from under the tyranny of fixed formats, decision makers will be able to transmit any amount of data—from a simple execution or termination of a preplanned option up to and including an entirely new target package. The use of a commercial-style network-centric system will maintain the assurance of delivery provided by the previous systems.

The following scenario illustrates how some of these ideas might be applied:

The United States is under a no-warning, massive surprise attack by nuclear missiles. If the National Command Authorities have adequate time to decide on a response before being destroyed (a constraint under the current posture as well as any future one), and if this decision is made in time to allow for the preparation and transmission of the message, then the proposed nuclear command-and-control system can guarantee message receipt by the SSBN force. It also must be assumed that the communications system used for this transmission is survivable over the period needed for the SSBN to receive the message, say, 12 to 18 hours. If the SSBN force is procedurally prohibited from launching its weapons for some period after initial message transmission (say, 24 hours), there are some intriguing developments. For example, if the SSBNs receive a valid termination message during the waiting period prior to the strike, they would not launch their missiles. This possibility could provide an aggressor with tremendous incentive not to target our NC2 system: It would be in their best interest to allow for the possibility that the retaliatory SSBN strike could be called off or reduced in scale by subsequent direction.

This scenario also fits well with the "de-alert" concepts currently being discussed. If some or all ICBMs, following the lead of the long-range bombers, are taken off alert, the country still will require an effective deterrent against a devastating first strike—which the SSBNs can provide. In addition, the scenario dovetails with the possible future existence of a limited form of national ballistic missile defense. On tactical warning of a strike, whether major or limited, decision makers could transmit launch orders to the SSBNs (orders that may be obvious to our enemy). If our missile defense works, the decision makers then could choose to call off the strike. If the defenses do not work, the order could stand or could be modified to alter its objectives. Clearly this provides the National Command Authorities with tremendous flexibility and negotiating leverage, which in turn would increase deterrence.

The global political situation has changed, but deterrence remains a crucial element of U.S. security strategy. Assured response recognizes the reduced threat of an intentional, large-scale nuclear exchange, functions in an environment of reduced nuclear arsenals, and, by shifting from short decision/execution timelines, provides a safer posture for nuclear forces. In addition, assured response provides a means for the SSBN force—uniquely suited to fill this role—to remain a viable strategic deterrent in an uncertain fiscal and geopolitical future.

Commander Bendel , a naval flight officer, is participating in the doctoral studies program at Georgetown University. He has served as airborne communications officer and mission commander with Strategic Communications Wing One and, most recently, on the staff at the U.S. Strategic Commander, Operations and Logistics Directorate. Commander Murray is a research analyst at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. He has served in fast-attack submarines and recently completed a tour in the Operations and Logistics Directorate at the U.S. Strategic Command, as well.



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