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A former US missile-launch officer says Trump’s nuclear policy could get us all killed

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Fallout from the new order.
  • Justin Rohrlich
By Justin Rohrlich

Geopolitics reporter

Drastically reducing America’s nuclear arsenal will strengthen US national security, nonproliferation expert Bruce Blair, a former US Air Force nuclear launch officer, told Congress today (March 6).

The MacArthur “genius grant” recipient said Donald Trump’s plan to expand US nuclear capabilities (pdf) will make the world a more dangerous place—and leave America more vulnerable to attack. 

Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Blair called for the US to “return to the original, and generally accepted, basic premise of nuclear weapons”—using them solely for deterrence. Fighting war should be left to conventional forces, Blair insisted, according to prepared testimony he shared with Quartz.

“Our hair-trigger launch posture, which the Russians matched, continues to run the risk that fear, misperception, miscalculation, accident or false warning could trigger a nuclear exchange,” Blair said. “This risk of blundering into a nuclear war, rather than a cold-blooded sudden attack, presents what is by far the greatest immediate physical threat to the United States today.”

Trump’s proposed overhaul of nuclear forces would cost at least $1.7 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Blair lays out plans for a dramatically scaled-down version of current US capabilities, which he described in a phone interview as “massive overkill.”

Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, told Quartz he hopes his alternative gets traction in the Democrat-controlled House. It will face opposition from the Republican Senate, the White House, and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, whom Blair characterized as a “one-man wrecking ball when it comes to arms control.”

“We’re moving in the direction of having no formal regulation of US and Russian nuclear weapons in a couple of years and that represents a move in the wrong direction and a potential danger that we want to forestall,” he said, citing the realignment anticipated after both sides withdrew from the intermediate-range nuclear treaty, which restricted missiles with dangerously short flight times that could quickly trigger a war.

Fewer targets are more effective

The Pentagon should cut its current 900 primary nuclear “aimpoints” down to 450, eliminating altogether enemy missiles as targets, Blair told the House committee. Smaller-scale “assured retaliation” would “hold at risk Russia’s, China’s and North Korea’s key elements of state power, economy and leadership,” and would “easily meet any reasonable judgment of actual deterrent requirements.”

This would decouple the structure of America’s nuclear force from that of its adversaries, a connection Blair believes only leads to further proliferation. A deterrence-only posture could tamp down what Blair called “warfighting dynamics” and ultimately clear the way for other nations to follow suit.

Besides, Blair told Quartz, “You can attack and destroy 30% of those targets with conventional weapons. You don’t need a nuclear weapon to destroy a steel factory or an oil refinery.”

A smaller nuclear arsenal is safer

“Pivoting away from targeting opposing nuclear forces and from the fantasy of controlling escalation would allow us to eliminate most of the 4,000 weapons in the current active stockpile,” according to Blair’s testimony. “Only five or six of the planned fleet of 12 new Columbia-class SSBNs (submarines capable of launching nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles) would need to be built. That’s it. All other existing and planned US nuclear weapons could be scrapped.”

Blair said this should include missiles now housed in silos around the US—stationary targets are far more vulnerable than undersea ones—as well as “low-yield” nuclear warheads now under development. The new weapons are described by the US as essential to the doctrine of “escalation dominance”—standing ready to counter a first-strike and continuing to attack until the other side surrenders. Blair told Quartz there’s no “winning” a nuclear conflict—no one can predict what happens once it starts.

During the 100-odd times Blair said he participated in simulated war games while in the Air Force, the enemy (the Soviet Union, at that time) never once surrendered to continually escalating nuclear attacks from the US, leading to full-on nuclear armageddon with more than 100 million deaths on each side and both countries, plus much of Europe, completely destroyed.

Bring communications down to Earth

America’s post-nuclear-attack command-and-control system is an airborne one. Unlike nuclear-powered submarines, which can stay at sea for months at a time, aircraft—even those that can refuel while flying—can’t stay aloft that long.

Blair said the flying network would fail after about 24 hours, another reason why escalation dominance is unrealistic. “The most important project will be fixing our vulnerable and deficient Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence systems,” otherwise known as “C3I,” Blair told the lawmakers. “C3I has long been the Achilles’ heel of our nuclear posture. It would likely collapse within hours into a nuclear conflict.”

Pledging to not strike first is surest deterrent

“‘No First Use’ is axiomatic in true nuclear deterrence, which involves threatening to respond to a nuclear attack, not initiate one,” Blairs said in today’s testimony. This would have an overall stabilizing effect, “relieving pressure on the other side to launch first before the US does, and reducing the risk of the other side launching on false warning.”

Blair concluded: “As you consider funding a makeover of our nuclear forces, it is a good time to choose between these competing worldviews. Should dangerous and unrealistic notions of warfighting continue to shape our nuclear posture and drive our investments, or should we pivot to a secure second-strike deterrent posture and leave warfighting to other weapons?”

Read the full text of Blair’s remarks here:

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