The American Legion Magazine | 8.1.15
By Alan W. Dowd and Adam Lowther
Post-Cold War history has not been kind
to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. After outlasting the Soviet Union—the only peer
state with the wherewithal to mount a challenge to American
economic-military-industrial-nuclear preeminence—the United States has spent nearly
a quarter-century waging a mix of conventional wars, police actions,
counterinsurgencies, and nation-building and stability operations. Some of
these interventions involve death-wish dictators seemingly immune from
deterrence; others involve non-state actors who don’t play by the rational
rules that governed the Cold War; and all of them highlight an asymmetry of
power. In short, the nuclear deterrent—so central to the security of the United
States and its allies in decades past—seems irrelevant to today’s threats, leaving
too many Americans to question the value of the most powerful weapon in the
For nuclear abolitionists, the decline in the visible threat posed by Moscow—and
in the day-to-day relevance of the nuclear deterrent—is proof that nuclear
weapons are a Cold War anachronism. Recent years have seen them ride a wave of political
momentum: In 2007, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn penned
an eyebrow-raising essay calling for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” In 2008, the Global
Zero movement was born, its organizers urging
nuclear powers to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2030. President Barack
Obama vowed in 2009 “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear
weapons”and signed the New START Treaty in 2010, whittling the U.S. strategic arsenal
down to 1,550 warheads.
These well-intentioned opponents of the
nuclear deterrent believe they are pointing the way to a better and safer
future. “So long as
nuclear weapons exist,” Obama argues, “we are not truly safe.” But
what if the opposite is true? What if the U.S. nuclear arsenal is the very thing
that has kept us safe? What if the path to a world without nukes carries us not
forward to a safer tomorrow, but backward to the ghastly great-power conflicts
Perhaps the least appreciated but most important fact about
the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is that Washington has, contrary to popular
belief, used nuclear weapons to defend American sovereignty every single day
since August 6, 1945. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons took over
the central role in deterring America’s adversaries from attacking America’s
homeland. To be sure, nuclear weapons have not prevented every adversary from
challenging the United States, but nuclear deterrence can be credited with
ensuring that the Cold War never turned into a third world war.
no coincidence that between 1914 and 1945, before the advent of the bomb, some
76 million people—including 522,000 American military
killed in two global wars, or that there have been no global wars in the 70
years since. In other words, nuclear weapons have
paradoxically kept the peace between great powers and between nuclear powers.
Along the way, they have promoted stability, enhanced American security and
bolstered American primacy.
If our understanding of American,
Russian, Chinese, British, French, Indian and Pakistani nuclear thinking—a
decidedly diverse group of nuclear-weapons states—tells us anything, it is the
continued relevance of nuclear weapons in giving adversaries pause when
contemplating acts of aggression. It is for good reason that none of these
countries have gone to general war with one another since developing nuclear
weapons, despite deep-seated animosities.
Even so, it’s increasingly common to
hear that America’s nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM),
nuclear-capable bombers and ballistic missile submarines (SSBN)—is no longer
required to deter nuclear-weapons states. Critics of the triad argue that
maintaining three nuclear-delivery platforms is expensive overkill.
The problem with this argument is that
it fails to appreciate the unique attributes of the triad. With their
distinctly different strengths and weaknesses, ICBMs, bombers and SSBNs combine
to create a nuclear force that provides stability, flexibility, visibility,
survivability, responsiveness and global reach.
Let’s start with the bedrock of U.S. strategic
stability, ICBMs. If the United States decommissioned its ICBMs tomorrow,
adversary nuclear targeting would decline from 504 possible targets to six.Such a reduction in targets would be provocative and would increase the
probability that an adversary would be tempted to launch a decapitating
preemptive strike aimed at eliminating the American nuclear arsenal. Related, ICBMs
dramatically increase the risk an adversary must be willing to accept in order
to attack the United States. Unlike bombers, which can be shot down, or
submarines, which can be sunk, ICBMs require an adversary to launch a nuclear
strike against 498 distinct, remote and hardened targets.
The fleet of B-52H and B-2 stealth
bombers also faces considerable criticism from nuclear abolitionists, who
suggest these warplanes are not only provocative but unneeded because of
nuclear submarines. What the abolitionists overlook is that these bombers
perform both nuclear-deterrence and conventional-strike operations. When it
comes to the attributes of the triad, they provide flexibility, because a
bomber can be recalled after launch, and visibility, because the bomber force
is the only leg of the triad that can be used to signal U.S. seriousness during
times of tension. Absent the strategic bomber’s unique ability to signal
Russia, China, North Korea, Iran or some future adversary of U.S. readiness to
use nuclear weapons, it would be much more difficult to convince such an adversary
to back down.
Many critics of the nuclear arsenal
view the ballistic-missile submarine as the only leg of the triad required for
maintaining credible nuclear deterrence.Correctly, they point out that the SSBN is currently the most survivable leg of
the triad. However, what they fail to appreciate is that space-based and
subsurface tracking and detection systems are advancing in their technological
the ICBM and bomber legs of the triad be eliminated, adversaries could focus
their efforts on exploiting these technologies, as well as air and seaborne
platforms, to track and target U.S. SSBNs. In addition, it pays to recall that
it’s possible to sink a ballistic-missile submarine with a conventional
torpedo, making it difficult to justify the use of nuclear weapons in response:
Imagine the dilemma a president would face if, after the triad was replaced by a
submarine-only nuclear force, an adversary eliminated the entire U.S. nuclear deterrent
with a handful of torpedoes.
What may be even more startling to many
Americans is just how badly the U.S. nuclear enterprise needs modernizing. A
2014 Pentagon review found the nuclear force “understaffed, under-resourced, and
reliant on an aging and fragile supporting infrastructure.”The B-52H was designed in the 1950s, rolled off the assembly line by 1961 and
has radar systems from the 1960s. The B-2 was developed in the 1980s and
recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The B-61 gravity bomb, which can be
dropped by the B-52H and the B-2, was manufactured in 1961.The nation’s ICBMs date from the 1970s, while the infrastructure supporting
their deployment and maintenance dates from the 1960s. The current SSBN fleet
entered service beginning in 1978.
Many nuclear-zero advocates cite the
cost of maintaining the nuclear deterrent to bolster their case against it.
Here’s what the numbers say: The departments of Defense and Energy spend
approximately $31.5 billion on nuclear-weapons programs annually.By way of comparison, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates
the federal government expends $65 billion on fraudulent, wasteful or improper
payments each year—more than twice the cost of the arsenal.In fact, the total cost of the nuclear arsenal is less than 5 percent of the Pentagon’s
budget.So when critics suggest that maintaining and modernizing the nuclear arsenal is
unaffordable, they are simply incorrect. For less than 0.1 percent of the federal
budget, the United States buys an enormous insurance policy—a level of security
that few nations possess.
However, the U.S. deterrent isn’t
solely about protecting the homeland. It is equally important that the United
States credibly assure its allies that it has the capability and will to employ
nuclear weapons in defense of any nation under America’s nuclear umbrella. With
Russian aggression on the rise and Chinese claims to the South and East China
Seas leading to small skirmishes and near-misses with U.S. treaty allies,
efforts to further reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal could lead one or more
long-time allies to pursue an independent nuclear-weapons program. This is not
mere conjecture. Allied military officials in Europe privately warn that if the
U.S. arsenal dips below a certain threshold of operationally deployed strategic
nuclear weapons, their governments would pursue independent nuclear-weapons
key lawmakers in Japan and South Korea have proposed fully independent nuclear forces.
As NATO declared in 2014, “The
strategic nuclear forces of the alliance, particularly those of the United
States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the allies.”
Indeed, America’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind
nuclear arsenal deters nuclear as well as conventional threats. Recall that when
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned President Dwight Eisenhower about the
Red Army’s overwhelming conventional edge in and around Germany, the steely
American commander-in-chief fired back, “If you attack us in Germany, there
will be nothing conventional about our response.”
Values and Interests
To be sure, the president and other nuclear-zero advocates
are in good company when it comes to their dreams of a nuclear-free world.
Winston Churchill said his preference
to a balance of terror was “bona fide disarmament all round.” Noting
that the world “lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles,” President John
Kennedy counseled that these weapons “must be abolished before they abolish
us.”President Ronald Reagan longed “to see the day when nuclear weapons will be
banished from the face of the earth.”
But Obama is different in that he is not talking about a nuclear-free world in
some far-off, theoretical future. As The
New York Times noted, “No previous American president has set out a step-by-step agenda
for the eventual elimination of nuclear arms.”
That agenda is ambitious. In the years since New START was signed, the Obama administration
has floated proposals to cut the U.S. deterrent arsenal to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, and even as low as 300 deployed warheads.
The last time the U.S.
strategic deterrent arsenal numbered 1,000 nuclear warheads was 1953-54; the
last time it was in the 300 range was 1950, when Moscow had five atomic devices.
A U.S. strategic arsenal of 1,000
warheads may be enough to deter a resurgent Russia, but is it enough to deter Russia
plus the growing number of other strategic threats?
military spending has mushroomed by 170 percent since 2004.The Pentagon reports Beijing is modernizing its silo-based ICBMs and mobile-delivery
systems.Once thought to be a last-resort deterrent of 100 warheads, China’s opaque nuclear
force is now assessed by some outside experts to number 600 or more warheads.The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concludes, “China’s nuclear force will rapidly expand and
modernize over the next five years…potentially weakening U.S. extended
Pakistan deploys about 100 nuclear weapons.Militants have attacked
facilities linked to command-and-control and/or storage of Pakistan’s nuclear
weapons at least four times since 2007, which
explains why the U.S. has war-gamed neutralizing or securing Pakistan’s nukes.
North Korea, which spasmodically tests nuclear weapons and
long-range missilery, warned in 2013 it was prepared to launch “a preemptive nuclear attack”
against the U.S. and South Korea. In 2015, Beijing
estimated that Pyongyang possesses 20 nuclear warheads—and could have 40 by
North Korea’s nuclear breakout serves as a cautionary tale. Iran
wants to crash the nuclear club. A nuclear Iran would trigger Saudi Arabia and
other Sunni states to go nuclear, touching off a nuclear arms race with widespread
cannot view today’s Russia in the same light
we viewed the Russia that signed New START in 2010. On the strength of a
108-percent military-spending binge since 2004, Vladimir Putin plans to
deploy 400 new ICBMs.He is sending long-range bombers toward Alaskan airspace on simulated nuclear
strikes,has violated the INF Treaty and withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear-reduction
program, conducts provocative war games on NATO’s borders (complete with mock
nuclear strikes), and
has invaded two sovereign neighbors.
Doubtless, many nuclear-zero advocates
would cite these items to advocate a worldwide nuclear-disarmament treaty. However,
treaties are only
as good as the character of the parties that sign them. And America’s nuclear
arsenal has a far better record securing and protecting America’s interests
than do treaties with regimes that don’t share America’s values or interests.
If there is a silver lining in the ominous storm clouds gathering, it may be
that the nuclear-zero wave has crashed hard into reality—Russian aggression,Chinese bullying, North Korean nuclear tests, determined Iranian efforts to go
nuclear—thus calling into question the prudence of further cuts to the U.S.
Prudence. That brings us back to
Churchill, Kennedy and Reagan. Each hoped for a day when these dreadful weapons
could be beaten into plowshares. But after decades of dealing with dictators,
Churchill concluded, “sentiment must not cloud our vision.” So he called on
freedom-loving nations to pursue “defense through deterrents,” noting, “but for
American nuclear superiority, Europe would already have been reduced to satellite
Kennedy was a realist. To deter Moscow, America’s nuclear arsenal grew 21
percent during his foreshortened presidency.
Because he believed, as Churchill once
said of the Soviets, “there is nothing they admire so much as strength,” Reagan
built up with the hope of one day building down. And because he knew “the genie
is already out of the bottle,” he wanted an insurance policy against nuclear-missile
attack. “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge 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: robust missile
defenses would be in place beforenuclear disarmament. Today, it seems Washington is trying to do the opposite.
To be sure, the world has changed since
Reagan offered his roadmap to a day without nukes. But the value of the nuclear
deterrent has not.
story is told that Khrushchev, during a round of war games, could not bring
himself to push the nuclear-launch button. Even pretending to fire a nuclear
salvo was unthinkable to the man in charge of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
American presidents have shared such an aversion to the use of nuclear weapons,
which is exactly why they remain so critical in a world where the United States
faces increased threats.
70 years of service, no other weapon has done more to protect America’s
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