OPINION: Tough Choices Ahead For American Nuclear Policy

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Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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The United States is entering an uncertain future with respect to our nation’s strategic nuclear modernization effort and the future of arms control with the former Soviet Union and prospectively with other nuclear powers.

This uncertainty also extends to nuclear weapons and how they will be used by the United States’ adversaries in attempting to blackmail or coerce the country and its allies in international security affairs; and how the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and potentially Iran will affect U.S. security.

All of these dangers can be lessened if the American government— both the administration and Congress— continue the consensus of the past few years that has fully funded the nation’s core nuclear modernization effort. But that may be increasingly difficult because there is a serious split between disarmament and deterrent advocates.

The disarmament community has multiple objectives, many of which directly conflict with a robust commitment to U.S. nuclear modernization.

For example, the disarmament community wants to cut U.S. strategic long-range nuclear forces unilaterally between 33 and 50 percent by eliminating all 400 U.S. land-based missiles, up to six (of 12 planned) Columbia class nuclear-armed submarines and up to the entirety of the nuclear capability of 60 strategic bombers, all toward a goal of banning all nuclear weapons worldwide.

While no one would argue with the goal of banning nuclear weapons, there is no prospect China or Russia will agree to any such deal.

But proposing to unilaterally eliminate ninety percent of America’s distinct nuclear assets (bombers, submarines and land-based missiles) while securing zero concessions from the Russians makes no sense.

By contrast, the objectives of the nuclear deterrent community are far more modest and consistent with the U.S. deterrent policy of most past administrations during the entirety of the nuclear age.

For example, the deterrent community would secure the full modernization of our nuclear deterrent including 400 ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) land-based missiles, 12 Columbia class submarines, and arming 60 strategic bombers with the nuclear capability of both cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

Second, this community of nuclear deterrent professionals, while generally favoring continuing the New Start Nuclear treaty ceilings for our nuclear weapons and remaining open to the prospect of extending the treaty an additional five years, they would only do so under key conditions of strict Russian adherence to its nuclear treaty obligations under at least the 1987  Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and 2010 New Start agreements.

Unlike the disarmament community, the deterrent professionals are seriously concerned that the Russians are not only violating the 1987 INF treaty but also the 2010 New Start treaty, a pattern repeated by the Russians continued and blatant violation of at least seven additional security agreements and treaties they have signed with the United States.

These specific concerns of the deterrent community are well laid out in a recent letter to the president from 24 U.S. Senators. The letter identified key nuclear issues including the status of the modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons and associated infrastructure and the risk of instability created by Russia’s nuclear modernization program.

The senators also worried about the imbalance posed by Russia’s nuclear weapons capabilities that are limited by arms control with Russia and those that are not, including so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons (where Russia holds at least a ten-to-one advantage over the United States) and the systems Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in March of this year.

Equally unsettling, the senators write, are Russia’s systemic abuse of arms control and international norms and the likelihood of the United States having to deal with more than one peer competitor at a time.

In summary, key elements of nuclear policy remain unsettled particularly now that the Congress will be divided politically and subject to the growing divergence of views of the disarmament and deterrent communities.

Further complicating matters might be a Russia deciding not to be forthcoming in complying with either its 1987 INF treaty and  2010 New Start treaty obligations.

This would leave the United States facing the prospects of proceeding forward under self-imposed nuclear forces limits while Russia escapes such limits.

Added to that strategic dilemma will be the dangerous prospect due to possible Congressional inaction of gridlock preventing the further modernization of key elements of our nuclear deterrent forces. And to say nothing of building a larger force necessitated by matching growing Russian and Chinese nuclear forces, unrestrained by treaty or policy.

Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.