STOCKPILE: THE STORY BEHIND 10,000 STRATEGIC NUCLEAR WEAPONS
By Jerry Miller
Naval Institute Press, $37.95, 250 pages
The publication of this slim and easily read book is timely, to say the least. As Congress and the nation debate yet again the size of our nuclear stockpile and the various treaties surrounding nuclear weapons, Jerry Miller’s work provides a history of how we amassed so many warheads - a ready reference to the plethora of treaties and agreements over the years.
Few authors come to such a task better qualified, having spent two tours of duty in nuclear planning in Omaha and having commanded two fleets with nuclear responsibilities. He earlier qualified as a nuclear-delivery pilot and, after retirement from active Navy service, participated at high national levels in organizations dealing with nuclear weapons and strategies.
As most of the world knows, the Atomic Age dawned in August 1945 with the detonation of two nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost simultaneously, it dawned on the leaders of the world that this was something that could not be allowed to get out of hand. President Truman offered to share nuclear technology with the Soviets. The offer was rejected out of hand, and the nuclear arms race was on.
In the United States, several schools of thought quickly developed regarding the use of atomic bombs. The new U.S. Air Force quickly saw atomic bombs as an extension of its long-held philosophy of strategic bombing. Scientists, philosophers and many politicians - especially the many non-elected politicians in think tanks - had their own views, not necessarily in alignment with the military. The military services themselves held differing outlooks.
The Air Force, fresh out of World War II and mass bombings in Europe, held that in total war, it was hitting “countervalue” targets, cities and industries that would pay off. The Navy tended to hold that “counterforce” targeting was the way to go - think submarine pens. The Army wanted more effective artillery in support of troops on the ground. The Air Force thought in terms of land-based forces. The Navy thought in terms of sea-based forces, and the Army wanted nuclear weapons forward in support of its ground operations.
All of these competing dynamics resulted in a program to build more and more weapons, with no obvious braking force extant. Thus, according to the author, there’s more than enough blame to go around. As he writes, “The military must share much of the responsibility for the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile, but the civilian authority has to assume some of the blame, as it usurped much of the authority of the military. Their bright ideas of how to ensure deterrence created some massive increases in stockpile numbers.”
In the end, he writes, “Nuclear strategy became almost completely political in nature - a method of sending political messages to the opposition, not a military strategy for actually winning a war.”
On the military side, one might think the advent of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), in 1961 would put some science and math into the number of nuclear weapons needed, but such was not the case. There arose at frequent intervals cases for assuring a certain level of destruction of a target and other cases for assurances of reliability. In the absence of any real constraints, a good argument was made for more warheads for assured levels of destruction and more warheads for assured reliability.
It was an onward-and-upward accumulation of nuclear warheads and their associated delivery systems. Worse, according to Mr. Miller, the number of weapons “was becoming a political game fought by politicians with policy papers, not a military capability.” The National Strategic Target List was overwhelmed, and targeteers in the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) were overridden by the politicians and resorted to doubling up and tripling up weapons on target.
Moreover, the development of weapons began to precede the establishment of requirements. One result was more and more weapons planned for more and more use, often on a single target of sometimes questionable value.
From time to time, efforts were made both nationally and internationally to establish agreements and treaties limiting the use of and establishing limits on strategic nuclear warheads, but in the end, the United States accumulated more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. The story of how this came to be and the history of those treaties and agreements make for a fascinating discourse, one ably presented in “Stockpile.”
Successive presidents tried their hands at personal negotiation with the Soviets, but all came to naught until Ronald Reagan achieved a breakthrough with Mikhail Gorbachev, followed up by George H.W. Bush. On the diplomatic level, there was an alphabet soup of treaties, both enacted and posed, including NPT, SALT I, SALT II, SALT III, SORT and START. The list is mind-boggling, but Mr. Miller does a good job of sorting it all out.
Along the way, he also clears up such things as ACDA, MAD, MIRV, MRV, SDI and more. To that end, his list of abbreviations is most helpful, but the book would have benefited from a chronology of efforts and developments over the past 65 years that kept the order and sequence straight.
The final pages of the book are dedicated to speculation about the future. Mr. Miller considers how the United States should deal with its nuclear stockpile and treaties in a world fraught with uncooperative nuclear powers, rogue states and terrorists. He is not an advocate for more nuclear weapons; however, he is an advocate for testing those weapons we have on hand.
As he notes, the longer they sit on the shelf without testing, the more likely the deterioration of critical components. This results in a purely computational lessening of reliability, prompting the need for more weapons on a single target.
Nuclear technology, strategies and negotiations are often complex matters. “Stockpile” goes a long way toward clearing up those complexities and is strongly recommended for the expert and the average person interested in our world alike.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is a former nuclear-weapons-delivery pilot and is president of the Naval Historical Foundation.