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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

C. How did we get into this fix?

Preeminent among the forces that brought the U.S. nuclear enterprise to such a dismal state has been a persistent and insidious theory cherished by proponents of nuclear arms control:  Modernization of the American deterrent, enhancement of the existing stockpile or other steps that would maintain its viability catalyze nuclear proliferation by others.  The corollary has been that, by exercising restraint, even if unilateral, the United States would set an example that would lead others to do the same.

Under the Obama administration, with its commitment to pursuing a “nuclear weapons-free world,” the U.S. government is taking this thesis to new extremes.  At this writing, it appears the President will eschew  any  measures that have proven essential to this country fielding an effective deterrent.

This behavior is all the more radical in light of the absence of evidence to support the underlying proposition.


1: Considerations Other  Than U.S. Nuclear Force  Levels Drive Proliferation

As  National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator D’Agostino told Congress last March: “In 2004, a Presidential Directive was issued to cut the entire U.S. [strategic] nuclear stockpile—both deployed and reserve warheads—in half by 2012.  This goal was later accelerated and, with the help of Congress, achieved 5 years ahead of schedule in 2007.”39 These cuts, of course, represent but the latest round of reductions in an American arsenal that had, at its peak, over 20,000 nuclear weapons.

Given this backdrop, something else besides the size and condition of America’s nuclear deterrent is clearly animating the nuclear build-ups being undertaken by Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, among others.  Indeed, the facts support a very different conclusion: A weak American nuclear posture in fact encourages proliferation more than a strong one.

The reality that other nations continue to expand and modernize their nuclear weapons capabilities despite substantial U.S. reductions over the years certainly should serve to dispel the notion that the United States is denied the moral “high-ground” in striving to counter proliferation unless it engages unwaveringly in unilateral denuclearization.  America has exhibited the sort of restraint to which others – be they peer competitors, rogue state adversaries or allies – routinely pay lip-service, even as other nations build and modernize their arsenals.

So, what are the forces that actually drive proliferation?  Among the most important are the following:


a. Domestic/Regional Factors

The White Paper on “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st  Century,” issued by the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Defense  in September 2008 reported that, “Russia and China continue to attach great significance to their nuclear forces and their modernization.  Regional dynamics lead other nations, such as India and Pakistan, to attach a similar significance to their nuclear forces.”40 It added that, “Nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and further proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology remain a serious concern.”41

For its part, the  Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture observed: “There is little likelihood of other nations eliminating their nuclear arsenals just because the United States does so.”  Perhaps as importantly, the Commissioners unanimously declared: “Potential proliferant nations may be drawn to consider acquiring nuclear capabilities not because of U.S. nuclear strength, but as a way for them to address our substantial conventional  force superiority to which they can feel vulnerable. Such nations believe their nuclear weapons serve as their ‘equalizer.’”42 (Emphasis added.)


b. The Decline of ‘Extended  Deterrence’

In fact, history suggests that, when the United States nuclear deterrent is perceived to be inadequate or otherwise without credibility by its foes or even by its friends, the result is actually increased  proliferation.  Such an outcome is particularly likely if America’s allies lose confidence in their coverage by the U.S. nuclear “umbrella” – i.e., protection they enjoy through their alliance with a well-armed and reliable superpower often described as “extended deterrence.”

In the words of STRATCOM Commander General Chilton, “Should these allies (many of whom have the resources and technical ability to develop their own nuclear weapons) come to believe the United States is unwilling or unable to protect their interests through the full use of our assets, I believe global nuclear proliferation could increase, a clearly unacceptable prospect for U.S. or global security interests.”43

In its analysis entitled “Towards a New Deterrent” (published in the Spring 2009 edition of  Air and Space Power Journal), the New Deterrent Working Group  depicted in the following way the impact of declining allied certitude about the reliability of extended deterrence:

“…The success of such rogue states is threatening…to trigger regional proliferation cascades which could soon become global.  Some of our allies and friends who formerly relied on the U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella’ for protection could feel constrained to join these proliferators, in part as a result of their loss of confidence in our outdated arsenal and ability and will to use it.”44

Center for Security Policy

Please Share: