With a mysterious balloon making its way over the Hawaiian Islands, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) in March 2023 asked during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, “How will the [Department of Defense] assure Hawaii is defended from missile attack?” The question seems even more prescient now, since it is believed that the Chinese spy balloon was collecting intelligence on American intercontinental ballistic missile and bomber bases.
Senator Hirono’s question is a good one indeed, but a better question is, what is the Department doing to defend America from attack?
Many Americans probably believe this is a silly question, since the Department of Defense is looking at a possible $842B budget in FY24. Naturally, they assume the American homeland must be the most secure place on Earth. After all, the first priority in the National Defense Strategy is “defend the homeland.”
Why then did a Chinese spy balloon float from one side of the country to the other?
The Commander of US Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, stated that we have “a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.” So is the Department of Defense defending America or not? To understand the gap, you must understand why America chose deterrence over defense in the 1960s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear strategists argued over the most effective methods to combat the Soviet Union while preventing World War III. One group believed that to strengthen deterrence and prevent global conflict, the guarantee of an apocalypse if deterrence failed was needed. The theory was that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would start a war if the outcome was their own destruction.
To ensure that a war was unacceptable, citizens were left unprotected. By leaving the population unprotected, it did not matter who struck first or second. The Soviet Union and America would both suffer annihilation. Under this concept, defenses were considered destabilizing, especially the defense of major cities.
Others theorized that building the capability to fight a nuclear war and an accompanying capability to limit damage would save lives if deterrence failed. Damage-limitation capabilities are both offensive and defensive. On offense, there were counterforce weapons, which were designed to attack the offensive capabilities of the Soviets before these were launched. Defenses were either active or passive. Active defenses included anti-ballistic missile interceptors, fighter-interceptor aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Passive defenses were hardening, concealment, and civil defense programs.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, replaced President Dwight Eisenhower’s Massive Retaliation strategy with a policy called Flexible Response. McNamara believed America should focus on destroying the enemy’s military forces and avoid attacking the civilian population. He invested in counterforce capabilities, directed the military to avoid strikes on cities, and implemented a damage limitation and bargaining strategy, in which cities became hostages. This new strategy caused a huge expansion of military requirements. McNamara, looking to cut costs, next created the Mutual Assured Destruction strategy, which required a nuclear attack to destroy over one-fourth of the Soviet population and one-half of its industry.
Studies showed that building large-scale defensive capabilities like those described was considerably more expensive than building offensive weapons. McNamara reduced defensive capabilities because he saw defenses as cost-prohibitive and accepted societal vulnerability.
By 1972, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM, was signed. It was later amended to allow one site to protect a small area with 100 interceptors. The American system, Safeguard, was only active from April 1, 1975 to February 10, 1976. The Soviet and now Russian anti-ballistic missile system is still active today and protects Moscow.
In 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty. The United States went on to field 44 groundbBased interceptors between Fort Greenly, Alaska, and Vandenberg, California. These interceptors are meant to defend against a small North Korean nuclear missile attack. They are not enough to defend against a much larger Russian or Chinese nuclear attack.
Russia has approximately 800 warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles and 624 warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Gen. Anthony Cotton, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, notified Congress that as of October 2022, “China’s inventory of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers exceeds the number of ICBM launcher in the United States.”
It is worth noting that America does not defend against the threats posed by both Russia and China. Instead, the nation seeks to deter those threats with American strategic nuclear forces.
According to the 2022 Missile Defense Review, “The United States will continue to rely on strategic deterrence…to address and deter the large intercontinental-range, nuclear missile threat to the homeland from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation (Russia).” In plain English, the United States cannot defend against long-range, large-scale nuclear missile attack. Instead, the nation threatens a nuclear response designed to deter Russia and China from launching an attack. In other words, the only protection Americans have against Russian and Chinese nuclear attack is our threat to respond with our nuclear triad.
Some Americans ask, can we afford to spend 7% of the $842 billion defense budget on nuclear weapons? Given that the Department of Defense is really the Department of Deterrence, the real question we should be asking is, shouldn’t we spend more on nuclear weapons? Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis was right when he said, “America can afford survival.”
The 2022 Nuclear Posture review says nuclear weapons provide “unique deterrence effects.” We think it’s time to recognize the critical importance of nuclear weapons to America’s survival. The first step is to acknowledge that we have a Department of Deterrence, not a Department of Defense.
To answer Senator Hirono’s question, the Department of Defense will not protect Hawaii from missile attack. It cannot. But it will try to deter such an attack.
Dr. Adam Lowther is Vice President of Research at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies. He spent more than two decades in uniform and as an Air Force and Army civil servant working on nuclear issues. He is also the host of the NucleCast podcast. Lt. Col Derek Williams in a B-52 Weapons System Officer and graduate of Sandia National Laboratories’ Weapons Intern program.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense the United States Air Force or the United States Space Force.