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Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons

Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons by Jerry Miller. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 296 pp.

“Anything that can destroy society should be understood.” This simple statement by author Jerry Miller sums up the mission of his historical treatise on nuclear weapon development and deployment. The retired US Navy vice admiral writes from the perspective of a nuclear warfare practitioner at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. This experience and authorship of an earlier book, Nuclear Weapons and Aircraft Carriers, clearly establish his credibility. In Stockpile he examines the policies and personalities surrounding the evolution of US nuclear capability, its operational organization, and nuclear deterrence theory. His narrative, both fascinating and disturbing, is consistent in its implication that nuclear weapons are severe and unforgiving and must be studied objectively and respectfully. He cites the publicly acknowledged US stockpile at the time of writing at about 5,200 strategic nuclear weapons, of which approximately 2,200 were deployed.

Miller focuses his story through three fundamental questions: Why did the United States create a massive stockpile of strategic weapons? How did the buildup happen? And who were the individuals and groups that facilitated this process? He guides the reader from the fledgling inventory of nine atomic weapons in 1946 to the extraordinary Cold War peak of over 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads by using a top-down approach, starting with the executive visions of presidents Roosevelt to Obama. Miller then addresses the influences of policy architects in Congress and the Pentagon and describes the plans developed by military staffs, explains the technology and force structure that enabled all these efforts, and finally, outlines the consequences for the global community.

Stockpile provides insight into both the technical aspects of nuclear warfare and the personalities that shaped the force. Miller examines the influences of key players, such as Truman’s policy architect Paul Nitze and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, as well as the clout wielded by members of the Atomic Energy Commission, various think tanks, and academe. These forces ultimately expanded the stockpile well beyond Eisenhower’s vision of a limited inventory of thermonuclear weapons leveraged to reduce overall defense forces. The gamut of weapon designs eventually produced by “the military-industrial complex” reflected US strategies that, in the space of a few decades, evolved from preemption to retaliation to counterforce and countervalue schemes, eventually leading to the concept of mutually assured destruction. During this same time, nations pursued treaties to keep nuclear testing, deployment, and proliferation in check. In the end, one can argue that there was never sufficient executive and legislative oversight to properly manage growth of the Cold War stockpile.

Once the United States gained such massive nuclear power, what force structure and war plans were used to exploit it? Miller describes the rise of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, providing insight into the complexity of targeting processes and the concentration on mission assurance that drove planners to the preferred practice of “overkill”—placing multiple warheads on targets. Strategic weapon delivery systems were integrated into bomber aircraft as well as silo- and submarine-based missiles to form the nuclear triad. Miller describes interservice tensions resulting from triad force-mix studies such as the evaluation of the Navy’s Polaris fleet ballistic missile by Air Force staffers at Strategic Air Command.

While his focus is on the strategic stockpile, Miller also discusses tactical nuclear weapons once deployed to Army artillery units as well as Air Force and Navy “dual role” tactical aircraft. He points out that deterrence achieved by the United States extends a “nuclear umbrella” integral to other countries’ sovereign defenses. The author includes an overview of arms treaties and their roles in establishing some control over nuclear proliferation. He concludes with a look at future issues such as the maintenance of remaining weapons, possible new weapon designs (e.g., the reliable replacement warhead), and nonnuclear means of strategic strike (e.g., conventional prompt global strike). Miller predicts the elimination of silo-based missiles to transform the existing triad structure to a “dyad” of Navy submarine-launched ballistic missiles and Air Force bombers, a concept reportedly being considered at US Strategic Command.

At times, Miller uses personal accounts to effectively portray the human dimensions of nuclear warfare. Although he occasionally strays into parochial lanes when advocating submarines and criticizing intelligence officers, his biases are not masked and can be forgiven when read in context. His style is pragmatic—he hits the major issues but without detailed analysis. In fact, part of the book’s appeal is its concise length, relying on citations to provide credible references for further study. Still, the text misses several crucial topics—there is no discussion of the role of missile defense, the concept of the “new triad” formalized by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld during the G. W. Bush administration, or the elimination of nuclear topics from joint doctrine (Joint Publication 3-12, formally Joint Nuclear Operations, is now designated Cyberspace Operations).

Clearly, Admiral Miller seeks to educate readers that nuclear weapons have been a critical part of the global stability equation for over 60 years and will remain so for the foreseeable future. In Stockpile, he achieves this goal, providing an outstanding synopsis that can serve at least two audiences. First, it provides valuable background for those dealing with current nuclear force decisions linked to the Nuclear Posture Review and the New START in the face of looming federal budget cuts. Second, it benefits anyone studying deterrence theory by providing historical lessons learned (or perhaps, unlearned?) for possible new applications such as conflict in cyberspace.

H. G. Wells observed that “civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.” Within that context, Stockpile helps add reason to the often irrational dialogue surrounding nuclear weapons.

Col Jeff L. Caton, USAF, Retired

Army War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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