Why It’s Not The Time To Pull Back On Nuclear Weapons

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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Since 1991, arms control has been a driving force in our relationship with Russia. In that period the two countries agreed to three nuclear weapons agreements with arsenals on both sides reduced by over 90 percent.

But relations between Moscow and Washington are not good. Russia flatly rejects discussions of further reductions in nuclear weapons while simultaneously threatening to use nuclear weapons against the United States and our allies.

And Russian President Putin put on ice the Nunn-Lugar agreement, a program to safeguard and eliminate nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.

Steve Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council and Mark Schneider of the National Institute of Public Policy call for a “Refocus of our relationship with Russia” away from arms control and “Towards managing an increasingly dangerous relationship.”

They note that strategy must be the full modernization of our nuclear deterrent to counter Russia’s massive build-up of new nuclear weapons, which includes three classes of ICBMs, an SLBM, and a stealthy strategic bomber accompanied by an air launched cruise missile including a hypersonic variant. This build-up will be completed by 2022, prior to the U.S. fielding a single modern element of its strategic nuclear deterrent, now the oldest ever.

Our ICBMs became operational in 1970; our mainstay bomber, the B52H, was delivered in 1961; and the Ohio-class submarine was first deployed in 1981.

The plan is to replace these systems over the next three decades within the New START treaty limits. The initial nuclear armed bomber will be completed in the late 2020’s, followed by the first submarine in 2031 and a land based missile system in the decade after.

Opponents want to unilaterally eliminate all land based missiles, kill the bomber’s 1961 vintage air launched cruise missile, and cut in half the number of new submarines from 12 to 6.

To justify such appeasement critics say the U.S. is leading a nuclear arms race, what the New York Times calls “one-upmanship,” not to maintain deterrence but to “speed ahead” and build the latest nuclear technology that will “unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century.”


This analysis is wrong, and dangerous. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the U.S. went on an extended “holiday,” serially delayed the modernization of our aging nuclear deterrent, and stopping the analysis required to improve our deterrent strategy.

In 1992, in a series of prescient remarks, Les Aspin, soon to become Secretary of Defense, warned nuclear arms held by rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea could upset the deterrent balance by making U.S. cities vulnerable to a missile strike — especially one that would be launched surreptitiously — by rogue leaders unpersuaded that a retaliatory strike by the United States would be forthcoming.

But missed by his analysis was the continued problem of how to deter a nuclear armed Russia while at the same time acknowledging the end of the Cold War offered opportunities to lessen tensions and pursue arms control.

We did get arms control with START I, Moscow and the 2010 New START treaty.

But the United States mistook the relatively benign era following the end of the Soviet empire for an “end to history,” where totalitarian threats to the post World War II liberal order would be a thing of the past.

We now face a Russia that is increasingly hostile and which advertises even on YouTube — in English — Putin himself directing a simulated nuclear attack on the United States.

The New York Times and its allies are pushing the United States to a policy of appeasement, hoping by our example of not modernizing our nuclear arsenal others will follow suit.

Should we follow suit? History can be a useful guide. In February 1981, the Commander of the United States Strategic Command, General Richard Ellis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the strategic balance between the United States and then Soviet Union.

He made four points (all of which could also have been made this year by today’s military commanders with the change of a few words!):

  1. The United States had delayed modernization of its nuclear deterrent including submarines, land-based missiles and bombers to where the strategic balance had shifted markedly in the direction of the Soviet Union.
  2. While that shift in the balance could be redressed, it could only occur with the  modernization of the US nuclear deterrent as proposed by the incoming Reagan administration.
  3. The failure to modernize would mean the Soviet Union would continue to use intimidation, blackmail and coercion to prevent a US and allied response to Moscow’s military expansion and aggression as represented by its 1998 invasion of Afghanistan and major military support for wars in Africa and Latin America.
  4. Any future arms control, especially the reductions sought by the Reagan administration, would be a non-starter with the Soviets given their complete modernization of their own nuclear arsenal compared to a US arsenal “rusting toward obsolescence.”

In early 1981, just as General Ellis was urging the U.S. Senate to support a modern nuclear deterrent, many in the national media declared Reagan’s security strategy a reflection of a “right wing nut,” or “cold warrior” that would risk war with the Soviet Union.

President Ronald Reagan in 1977 told Richard Allen, his future national security adviser, “My strategy is to win the Cold War.”

As explained in detail by Sven Kramer, (“Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan,” 2015, American Foreign Policy Council), Reagan adopted such a winning strategy.  

The Reagan administration, along with a supporting Congress, overruled the “nuclear freeze” advocates, trumped Soviet deployments of SS-20 nuclear armed missiles in Europe and Asia, secured major reductions in nuclear weapons and to the amazement of many, ended the Soviet empire on December 26, 1991.