America’s top nuclear adversaries—Russia and China—are both markedly improving their nuclear forces at a pace not seen even during the height of the Cold War. Russian President Putin has called for continued such modernization, describing Russian nuclear forces as already sixty percent modernized and the strongest in the world. Russia also has a multi-thousand advantage in tactical or theater nuclear weapons (not subject to arms control limits) which further complicates US deterrent policy. China’s modernization involves all three elements of its nuclear forces, but especially both its new land based missiles and submarines.
What then should be the US response? One former Secretary of Defense has argued that the US should not seek to match the Russian modernization even though both countries are parties to the New Start treaty that caps strategic nuclear weapons at 1550. Other disarmers argue that despite the dramatic drop in casualties from conventional war in the Post World War II era, there is nothing definitive to conclude that nuclear deterrence has kept the nuclear armed superpowers from major war for the past seventy years, compared to the 1914-1945 period. Still others have concluded that nuclear deterrence actually plays a very minor role in today’s strategic stability and a fully modernized force is not needed.
Are these assertions true? My analysis points to the need for a full modernization of our nuclear enterprise. Nuclear weapons remain critical to deterrence, and as such, the new administration should definitely “greatly strengthen and expand” the capability of our nuclear deterrent forces as called for by the President-elect.
This is consistent with the current administration’s nuclear modernization plan as supported in the past few defense bills that have passed through Congress. And such a view is also reflected in the current full year’s defense appropriations bill pending in Congress which calls for fully modernizing our nuclear deterrent enterprise.
A modernized US deterrent—if completed in a timely manner, especially in the face of serious cumulative nuclear threats—will have more accurate ICBMs, a penetrating stealth strategic bomber and a more survivable ballistic missile submarine. All elements would thus be strengthened and their nuclear deterrent capability expanded, even while Russia and U.S. warheads remain capped at the 2010 US-Russian New Start treaty level of 1550 warheads.
These Triad improvements are necessary to enhance deterrence which I define as the ability of the United States to stop an adversary from seeking to use or credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons against the American homeland, our forces overseas and our allies. It also includes preventing major conventional conflict as well as deterring the use of chemical/biological weapons against the United States.
Unfortunately, for the past three decades the United States has delayed its own nuclear modernization efforts to the point that we now have the oldest nuclear inventory in the history of our nation. When replaced, our B-52 bombers will be over 70 years old; our submarine hulls will have 42 years in service (a record); and our land-based missiles will be approaching half a century since they were first deployed in 1970. Geriatric nuclear weapon systems undermine the credibility of our nuclear force and weakens deterrence.
While some nuclear critics support some modest modernization, we shouldn’t be fooled that such support is adequate to maintain deterrence. These critics are actually pushing a disarmament agenda including across the board unilateral curtailment of our nuclear deterrent. That agenda involves three stated objectives: 1) save money; 2) avoid the possible misuse of our nuclear weapons in a crisis; and 3) “stop the arms race.”
On the surface, each of these goals may appear unobjectionable.
However, when examined further, this disarmament narrative is largely without merit, and if implemented would cause the very geostrategic instability disarmament advocates seek to avoid, and increases—not decreases—the likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used against the United States and its allies.
By seeking to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in US deterrent policy, and markedly reduce their capability, the disarmament advocates would stimulate the heightened role of nuclear weapons in the strategy of our adversaries as the relative US deterrent force was weakened and diminished.
For example, the nuclear critics would stop building the new air launched cruise missile for the new B-21 Raider bomber, eliminate all ICBMs, and delay and reduce the construction of new submarines. US warhead service life extension programs would also be curtailed, and our overall deployed strategic nuclear arsenal would be commensurately reduced to more than one-third below the Russian deployed level.
Overall our nuclear assets would unilaterally shrink by ninety-seven percent. The Russians and Chinese, even the North Koreans, would have sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy each of our remaining targets, limited to our five nuclear bases and our submarines at sea. This factor would raise the likelihood that if the oceans became transparent and our submarines at sea could be located, the chances of disarming the United States would rise exponentially and with it the likelihood of an adversary seeking to do so and attacking the United States will grow commensurately.
Today the fear of nuclear conflict is rising as Russia repeatedly makes explicit nuclear threats at the US and its allies, North Korea tests nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missiles, and China expands its forces while militarizing the South China Sea.
Thus it is understandable that a push for lowering the level of arms and reducing nuclear arsenals is high on the agenda of disarmament groups—just as conventional weapons were after World War I.
After the carnage of World War I, a variety of treaties sought to outlaw war, cap the size of both battleships and the size of a nation’s military. The 1921 Washington Naval Conference, the seven 1925 Locarno Treaties, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand pact, as well as the 1932-34 World Disarmament Conference sought to regulate military power and normalize relations between Europe’s main powers, Russia and the United States.
Similarly, the anti-nuclear policies being pushed today for the US government to adopt will not bring peace. Like a century ago, the wrong-headed policies of disarmament will bring conflict. However, today, unlike after World War I, that conflict might very well trigger nuclear Armageddon from which there will not be