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June 2, 2022
Outgoing Nuclear Chief Counsels Caution on Strategic Reductions

Philipp C. Bleek

As the Bush administration prepares to make significant changes to U.S. nuclear forces, the country’s most senior military official in charge of those forces counseled caution in implementing deep reductions and criticized de-alerting proposals.

In July 11 testimony to the Senate Armed Services strategic subcommittee, Admiral Richard Mies, outgoing commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, supported moves to reduce deployed strategic weapons but cautioned that strategic reductions must be viewed as “means to an end—national security—not as an end in itself.” The admiral highlighted a “naive and mistaken belief that the ‘nuclear danger’ is directly proportional to the number of nuclear weapons and accordingly, lower is inevitably better.”

Quoting an unnamed former national security adviser, Mies suggested that, “given present circumstances in Russia,” the United States should focus on “strengthening the safety and security of Russian weapons” and improving Moscow’s command and control rather than “spending our energies on radical cuts.” At lower levels, issues such as transparency, irreversibility, production capacity, aggregate warhead inventories, and verifiability become more important than numbers of deployed forces or numerical parity, Mies said.

Both during the campaign and from the White House, President George W. Bush has repeatedly said he would seek to reduce U.S. strategic forces to “the lowest possible number consistent with our national security.” More specifically, Bush said during the campaign that “it should be possible to reduce…significantly [below] START II,” under which the United States and Russia would be required to deploy 3,500 or fewer strategic warheads. Bush also said that “the United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status” and that “keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch.” (See ACT, September 2000.)

The admiral sharply criticized reductions in the alert status of forces. Mies warned that de-alerting nuclear forces “can diminish their credibility and survivability” by “jeopardizing the existing stability we have against a pre-emptive strike because they increase our vulnerability.” Contesting the notion that U.S. forces are on “hair-trigger” alert, Mies emphasized that “multiple, stringent procedural and technical safeguards have been in place and will remain in place to guard against accidental or inadvertent launch.” Finally, he reiterated longstanding U.S. policy not to rely on so-called launch-on-warning. “Our trigger is built so we can always wait,” the nuclear chief said.

Mies also touched on U.S. plans to sustain its current strategic forces, noting that the issue will become increasingly critical as systems age. Mies stated that the B-52 bomber is scheduled to remain in service until 2044, giving it a total service life approaching a century. He also said the Trident submarine has had its service life extended from 30 years to 44 years. Mies further noted that, because some of the warheads currently deployed on Minuteman III missiles are due to reach the end of their service lives around 2009, it is important to transfer newer warheads to the Minuteman from the Peacekeeper missile, which the administration recently decided to retire with congressional support. He indicated the Defense Department is “committed” to moving the warheads.

The Defense Department announced July 25 that Bush had nominated Admiral James Ellis, currently commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe, to replace Mies. The position is subject to Senate confirmation; a confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled.