ASCF Report | 4.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

Reports abound that President Barack Obama is planning to slash the U.S. nuclear deterrent arsenal to just 1,000 active weapons, and perhaps as low as 300 weapons. To put those numbers in perspective, the last time the U.S. deterrent arsenal numbered just 1,000 nuclear warheads was 1952, when the U.S. had a 20-to-1 advantage over the Soviet Union; the last time it was in the 300 range was 1949, when the Soviets had but one atomic bomb. (The U.S. deploys 1,722 active strategic nuclear warheads today, down from 2,500 in 2010.) As China rises, Russia rearms, and rogues in Asia and the Middle East go nuclear, this is not the right time to dismantle America’s nuclear deterrent.

Indeed, if other governments were beating their swords into ploughshares, these dramatic cuts might make sense. But the very opposite is true:

·         Iran is racing to join the nuclear club. A nuclear Iran will trigger Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Turkey to go nuclear, touching off a nuclear arms race with ramifications far beyond the Middle East.

·         Nuclear-armed Pakistan—now possessing around 100 nukes—is dangerously unstable. In fact, militants have attacked facilities linked to command-and-control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons at least three times since 2009, and the U.S. has war-gamed how to neutralize or secure Pakistan’s nukes in the event of the government’s collapse.

·         North Korea is now routinely testing nuclear weapons and long-range missilery, and its foreign ministry recently warned of launching “a preemptive nuclear attack” against the U.S. and South Korea. “We’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

·        Russia has unveiled plans to deploy 400 new ICBMs and eight new nuclear subs—all in the next decade. In 2009, Russia simulated nuclear strikes on Poland. In 2011, Russia deployed a brand-new ICBM that can deliver up to 10 warheads. And late last year, Moscow conducted its largest, most comprehensive nuclear war games since the days of the USSR.

·        China is boosting military spending by 11 percent this year. In the past decade, China has engaged in an unparalleled arms buildup, mushrooming its military budget from $20 billion per annum in 2002 to somewhere near $180 billion per annum today. It pays to recall that the West has underestimated China’s nuclear arsenal for decades. Once thought to be a last-resort deterrent of 100 warheads, outside observers now believe the Chinese nuclear arsenal is much closer to 1,700 warheads.

The opposite trajectories of the U.S. and PRC nuclear arsenals raise an intriguing question: If Obama really wants to prevent nuclear proliferation, won’t dismantling America’s nuclear deterrent make Japan and South Korea—already in the crosshairs of North Korean and Chinese nukes—all the more likely to go nuclear? The short and simple answer is yes. Tokyo and Seoul are already contemplating their own nuclear deterrent and bracing for a nuclearized Pacific.

Yet the president and other well-meaning policymakers appear intent on pushing the U.S. down a steep glide path to an ever-smaller nuclear arsenal and ultimately to total nuclear disarmament.

It’s a noble goal. After all, these are hideous, terrifying weapons. They can erase entire cities. And in the event of the unthinkable—a full-fledged nuclear war between two or more of the nuclear heavyweights—they could erase mankind. That’s precisely why they have been so effective at preventing great-power conflict. It’s no coincidence that before the advent of the Bomb, some 76 million people died in two global wars between 1914 and 1945—or that there have been no global wars in the 68 years since. In other words, the Bomb has paradoxically promoted stability and kept the peace.

The president and his new national-security team do not share this view. Before he joined the administration, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel served on a commission connected to Global Zero—an organization committed to eliminating all nuclear weapons by 2030, with the onus on the U.S. and Russia to make the fastest, deepest cuts. (The organization’s action plan makes no mention of China, Pakistan, North Korea or would-be nuclear power Iran.)

Moreover, Hagel appears to embrace a mushy moral relativism when it comes to nuclear weapons. “How can we preach to other countries that you can’t have nuclear weapons but we can and our allies can?” he once asked. Similarly, Secretary of State John Kerry intoned in 2004, “We’re telling other people you can’t have nuclear weapons but we’re pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using.”

Of course, the obvious answer to this moral-equivalence confusion is that America is different than other countries—and has proven itself a much more responsible steward of these weapons than its enemies. It pays to recall that the United States is the only country that ever had a nuclear monopoly. And it pays to recall how Washington used that monopoly: with unmatched self-restraint.

Eleven days before the Bomb was dropped on Japan, President Harry Truman and America’s Pacific allies issued an ultimatum to Japan’s leaders warning of “prompt and utter destruction” and “inevitable and complete destruction.”Leaflets were dropped cautioning Japanese civilians, “We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man. A single one of our newly developed atomic bombs is actually the equivalent in explosive power to what 2,000 of our giant B-29s can carry on a single mission. This awful fact is one for you to ponder and we solemnly assure you it is grimly accurate.”

In the interval between Hiroshima and Nagasaki—an interval the United States offered in the hopes of persuading Tokyo to surrender—Truman warned the Japanese high command of “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

After the war, the U.S. enjoyed a total nuclear monopoly for almost five years. And given that the Soviets possessed only a handful of atomic weapons until 1952—and no ICBM capability until 1957—the only thing really deterring America from using nukes to roll back the Red Army or erase the USSR in the first decade of the Cold War was America’s conscience. That was enough.

That helps explain why Western Europe, the Americas, Japan, Korea and Australia have, by and large, deferred to the United States for their nuclear protection for almost 70 years. They understand that when it comes to nuclear weapons, it’s not the weapon that matters so much as who’s holding it.

Like Kerry and Hagel—like anyone with a shred of humanity—Winston Churchill admitted that he was “appalled” by the destructive power of the Bomb. However, after decades of dealing with dictators, he warned, “sentiment must not cloud our vision.” And so he called on freedom-loving nations to pursue “defense through deterrents,” adding, “but for American nuclear superiority, Europe would already have been reduced to satellite status and the Iron Curtain would have reached the Atlantic and the Channel.”

Although he longed “to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth,” President Ronald Reagan heeded Churchill’s counsel and would not allow sentiment to confuse or cloud his vision. Indeed, Reagan’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons is very different from Obama’s.

First, Reagan’s mantra was “Trust but verify.” He walked away from deals lesser presidents would have hailed as “peace in our time.” Because of his track record, the Soviets knew they could not fool him, and the American people knew they could trust him.

Second, Reagan pursued his goal of reducing nuclear weapons in the context of reviving America’s military strength and building a defense against nuclear weapons.

“Even when we destroy these missiles, we must have a defense against others” he said to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. “The genie is already out of the bottle. Offensive weapons can be built again.”

Reagan’s insurance policy would come to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative—a multi-layered, global shield against nuclear-missile attack.

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” he asked. “This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves.”

Note the sequence here: Reagan would not lower America’s nuclear sword until the shield was up. He knew robust missile defenses had to be in place before nuclear disarmament.

Obama is trying to do the very opposite. Not only is the U.S. conventional deterrent being eroded by shortsighted fiscal and budget policies, but America’s missile defenses are a skeleton of what they need to be to protect against accidental launches or the most likely possibility of all: that the United States and its allies abide by Global Zero but others do not.

Some observers will argue that the U.S. has a missile-defense system, which is technically true. However, a closer look at America’s defense against missile attack reveals two realities that call into question the system’s effectiveness:

·         As currently configured, America’s missile defenses are a hodgepodge of theater-focused, localized, surface-tethered elements that could never defend against the sort of sophisticated arsenal fielded by Russia or China, or even a nuclear-weapons state with an arsenal in the hundreds.

·         These defenses will remain limited because Obama has deprived missile defense of vital resources. Recall that the Obama administration’s initial budget cut overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent. The administration’s 2013 budget proposal hacked another $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency, cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent and reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities by seven. The administration shelved the airborne laser, reversed plans to plant permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland—ultimately failing even to deploy its own scaled-down alternative system—and capped the number of ground-based interceptors at 30 (instead of the planned 44). With Pyongyang rattling nuclear sabers, the administration is now scrambling to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska—interceptors that would have been up and running if Obama had simply followed the plans put in place by his predecessor.

To be sure, the world has changed in many ways since Reagan offered his roadmap to a day without nukes. But the nature of man, the behavior of aggressors and the value of the nuclear deterrent has not.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.