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

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Cuts to just 1,500 operationally deployed weapons could, as a practical matter, preclude the United States from preserving all three legs of the Triad.  That would surely be the case were a ceiling of just 1,000 operationally deployed weapons to be adopted.  Any decisions to abandon the inherent flexibility, redundancy and survivability provided to our deterrent – qualities made possible by the strengths inherent in each leg that offset the others' respective shortcomings – should be taken only after the most rigorous analysis and thorough debate.

For example, at such low numbers, the United States might be compelled to abandon its ICBM force in favor of a relatively small number of submarines and an aging bomber force.  Given that a significant portion of those subs would be in port at any time – and therefore susceptible to preemptive attack, the survivability of the deterrent could rest on a handful of deployed vessels.  Technology breakthroughs or determined anti-submarine operations could jeopardize those at sea, as well.  And the effectiveness of manned bombers that lack the prompt strike capability of missiles can be degraded by continuing improvements in enemy air defenses.

Alternatively, a decision to sacrifice the Triad’s sea-based leg in favor of a Dyad comprised of ICBMs and bombers could leave the deterrent susceptible to system failure on the part of land-based missiles, as well as the aforementioned uncertainty of the effectiveness of the air-breathing leg.

Unfortunately, the process whereby the Obama administration is aggressively pursuing an accord with the Russians may result in a treaty before either the requisite analysis or informed debate can occur.


2: New Constraints on U.S.  Missile Defenses Would Be  Disastrous 

Russian leaders have declared that there can be no START follow-on treaty without a U.S. agreement to abandon the planned deployment of anti-missile radars and interceptors in Eastern Europe.  There are indications that they seek, in addition, constraints on other American missile defenses in future agreements.

The Obama administration has already signaled its willingness to cancel the European missile defense system whose deployment was approved twice by NATO.  And its 2010 defense budget calls for draconian cuts in most U.S. antimissile defense programs, grudgingly allowing work to proceed on tactical missile defense, but severely cutting back national missile defense.  So its willingness to accede to Russian demands with respect to strategic defensive as well as offensive forces cannot be discounted.

In addition, the Obama administration has said it intends to take the lead on space arms control initiatives.  An accord that would limit the U.S. military’s use of or access to space (including for missile defense purposes) would be wholly incompatible with American security interests.  This is especially true in light of the fact that – given the unverifiability of such limitations—Russia and presumably other space powers can be confidently expected to violate them, thereby obtaining possibly decisive strategic advantages.

The effect of an agreement that would extend once again to the Russians a say in whether and how the United States defends itself would be tantamount to reinstituting a relic of the Cold War the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.  That is clearly inappropriate in a world in which a large and growing number of nations are capable of posing ballistic missile-delivered threats to the United States and its allies.  Acceding to the Kremlin’s demands for the cancellation of the so-called “Third Site” in Europe will also serve to undermine alliance relations.


3:  U.S. Conventional Precise  Global Strike Options Could  Be Compromised

The United States needs the capability to attack targets around the world with highly accurate conventional explosives and within minutes of a decision to do so.  Toward that end, consideration has long been given to converting nuclear-armed strategic missiles to perform such missions.

The Kremlin has historically tried to use nuclear arms control agreements to restrict American conventional capabilities.  American arms controllers have generally shared this goal and it now appears that those populating senior ranks of the Obama administration are willing to agree to such restrictions as part of a START follow-on agreement.

It would be extremely shortsighted and ill-advised to accept limitations that could effectively preclude the United States from realizing the potential force-multiplying benefits of such a conventional precise global strike capability.

Center for Security Policy

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