Cartwright Report Calls for Nuclear Reductions and Elimination of US Land-Based Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force

Gen. James Cartwright chaired a recently released report by the nuclear disarmament group Global Zero on “Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture.” General Cartwright is a retired vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of the US Strategic Command. In the latter capacity, he was in charge of all US nuclear weapons.

The Cartwright report argues for reducing the number of US nuclear weapons, taking deployed weapons off high alert and eliminating all land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The report proposes an illustrative nuclear force of 900 total nuclear weapons, half deployed and half in reserve. The report recommends that, of the 450 deployed weapons, 360 be submarine-based and 90 carried on bombers. The deployed weapons would be de-alerted so that they would require 24 to 72 hours to be made launch-ready.

This is a proposal based upon a thorough review of current US nuclear strategy and posture. It calls for reducing the number of deployed nuclear weapons to 450 by 2022 and reinforces the belief that current US nuclear policy, which the report critiques, remains stuck in the cold war era despite the world having moved on in the 21st century.

The report finds that, “ICBMs in fixed silos are inherently targetable and depend heavily upon launch on warning for survival under some scenarios of enemy attack.” It goes on to state that the current ICBM rapid reaction posture, “runs a real risk of accidental or mistaken launch.” Thus, the report calls for elimination of the US ICBM force and for reliance for deterrence upon the invulnerable submarine and bomber forces instead.

The report’s call for eliminating the US ICBM force elicited a bizarre response from the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who said that the plan “introduces the likelihood of instability in the deterrence equation, which is not healthy.” Schwartz continued: “Here’s the reality: Why do we have a land-based deterrent force? It’s so that an adversary has to strike the homeland.”

Why would any country need or want to maintain such land-based weapons, which provide an attractive target for an adversary in a time of high tension? It would make far more sense for US military leaders to be thinking about how to prevent potential adversaries from striking the US with nuclear weapons.

The dangers of General Schwartz’s convoluted concept of deterrence can best be understood by reference to the reflections of former commander of the US Strategic Command, Gen. George Lee Butler. In 1999, General Butler wrote, “Nuclear deterrence was and remains a slippery intellectual construct that translates very poorly into the real world of spontaneous crises, inexplicable motivations, incomplete intelligence and fragile human relationships.” In other words, the heavily flawed theory of nuclear deterrence is subject to failure in the real world. General Schwartz’s concept of deterrence “so that an adversary has to strike the homeland” shows how deterrence itself can be more focused on strategy than on people and can undermine security.

The Cartwright report gives backing to President Obama’s call for US leadership to achieve “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” It should be noted, though, that atmospheric scientists have modeled a “small” nuclear war between India and Pakistan, in which each side uses 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons on the other side’s cities. As a consequence of such a war, soot from the burning cities would rise into the stratosphere, where it would remain for a decade, blocking warming sunlight, shortening growing seasons and causing crop failures, leading to global famine and potentially 1 billion deaths from starvation worldwide.

This “nuclear famine” study suggests that even a reduction to 450 deployed nuclear weapons by both the United States and Russia would still leave too many nuclear weapons. Since these 450 thermonuclear weapons would be far more powerful than the Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons modeled in the nuclear-famine study, they could potentially do far more damage than a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, as terrible as that would be.

The Cartwright report provides a fresh look at US nuclear policy and is a valuable contribution to the debate on necessary next steps in moving toward the urgent goal of achieving zero nuclear weapons on the planet.