U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting it Right

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This Briefing Book represents a collective effort to present important facts and analyses about nuclear deterrence at a very critical juncture.  Its publication comes as the Obama administration seeks to advance policies with respect to nuclear weapons that, for reasons described in the following pages, are potentially perilous for America and the many nations around the world that rely upon the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.

Some of these policies are rooted in the President’s stated ambition to rid the world of nuclear weapons.  As a matter of long-term idealism, once there is a fundamental transformation in the world’s politics (192 peace-loving democracies that recognize human rights and threaten no one), such a goal may be in order.  But as a near-term reason for us to forgo nuclear modernization while enemies and potential enemies busy themselves at such efforts, it is most unwise.

The effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons is sometimes stated as the equivalent of an effort by the nations of the world to reach, collectively, a base camp in order to organize for the final cooperative effort to reach the summit of nuclear abolition.  But there is a fundamental problem with this analogy.  Einstein once said “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist Er nicht.”  (God may be sophisticated, but he’s not plain mean.)  Since to Einstein God and Nature were much the same thing this is usually taken to mean that when one is contending against nature – discovering E=MC2 or climbing a mountain – the problem may be complex, but there is no enemy trying to defeat, even kill, you while you are at work.

But in the case of, for example, the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program, this is not the case.  We have enemies in the world who might profess to want to climb the mountain alongside us but who, in fact, are continually searching for a crevasse to shove us down.  We have to find them, protect ourselves, and defeat them or transform them before we can climb alongside them.

Thus, although the long-term dream of nuclear abolition is not, in and of itself, necessarily a danger to our security, it would indeed be damaging if it – or anything else – led us to sign on to, say, a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in which we were barred from testing of a sort that was permitted to other parties.

Long-term idealism is not our principal problem, inaction is.  But we must take care to ensure that our dreams do not lead us astray.

As the authors of this Briefing Book and the numerous experts, studies and commissions they cite make clear, among the world’s nations are a number that are either determinedly seeking to acquire their own nuclear weapons or upgrading the ones they already have.  The more secretive and despotic the regime, the more improbable are the prospects that they will permanently and reliably abandon such ambitions.

In the face of this reality, the United States cannot safely persist in the nearly two-decadeslong unilateral nuclear freeze documented by this analysis.  Neither can we responsibly believe that, by setting an example of restraint—if that is defined as neglecting the modernization and reliability improvements our nuclear forces require—we will create international conditions in which other nuclear powers or wannabes will follow our lead.

To take just one example:  As America refrains from modernizing its deterrent, Russia is demonstrably relying ever more heavily on its nuclear forces, which are being systematically built up.  One should not be deceived by Russian enthusiasm for some START Treaty reductions in strategic nuclear delivery vehicles – they are working hard on a range of nuclear improvements and also on consolidating their advantage in shortrange weapons in order to dominate their neighbors.  The Kremlin is simultaneously engaging in more and more direct nuclear threats against our allies, eroding confidence in the United States’ extended deterrent.  And Moscow is irrefutably doing hydronuclear and hydrodynamic experiments at Novaya Zemlya, underground nuclear testing of a sort the United States claims is impermissible under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and that it has, as a signatory (albeit not a state party to the treaty) forsworn.

These are conditions that seriously risk making the world a more dangerous place rather than a safer and more stable one.  It is, therefore, enormously valuable to have the arguments for a return to more prudent and time-tested deterrent policies laid out as clearly and authoritatively as has been done by the New Deterrent Working Group in this briefing book.  Whether or not one agrees with every statement or recommendation, it is a valuable contribution to the debate about the future of U.S. nuclear deterrence – a debate that will become even more necessary in the wake of President Obama’s meetings with Russian leaders at the beginning of July.

R. James Woolsey
Palo Alto, California
24 June 2009



This Briefing Book was prepared by members of the New Deterrent Working Group – an informal team of defense and arms control experts with a combined total of decades of experience in the U.S. government, military service and nuclear weapons policy and programs.  This report is the product of substantial study and discussion of the present state and future needs of America’s nuclear deterrent.  It draws extensively from a number of valuable resources, including the findings and recommendations of the U.S. Commission on the Strategic Posture Final Report of May, 2009.  It is a consensus document, reflecting the views of the undersigned authors and others.

Center for Security Policy

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