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

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U.S. Strategic Force Reductions and Proliferation

We have already seen evidence that cuts in the American nuclear arsenal do not translate into lessened proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.  U.S. warhead levels have been dramatically reduced – from 12,000 deployed weapons in 1981 to roughly 2,200 in 2009.  Yet, concerns about nuclear  proliferation are, if anything, more acute than they were at the time of the signing of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

This disconnect has been particularly evident in the past decade.  According to Thomas P. D’Agostino, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration: “As of the end of 2007, the total [U.S.] stockpile was almost 50 percent below what it was at the start of this millennium… On December 18, 2007, a decision was announced to further reduce the nuclear weapons stockpile by another fifteen percent by 2012.  This means the U.S. nuclear stockpile will be less than one-quarter of its size at the end of the Cold War—the smallest stockpile in more than 50 years.”2

Nonetheless, more countries now have nuclear arsenals than ever, and still more are poised to acquire them.  Although Libya and Iraq are no longer pursuing nuclear arsenals, North Korea has a small stockpile of such weapons, Iran is striving to develop them, and the situation in Pakistan is unstable.  Given the nature of the latter regimes, it strains credulity to argue that a robust American nuclear deterrent has been the driving force behind their nuclear buildups. The trends suggest, to the contrary, that an American deterrent posture perceived as inadequate translates into greater proliferation than does a strong one.

As the Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report issued in May, 2009, as U.S. nuclear forces have declined in number and quality over the past decade, Russia has made numerous nuclear threats against our allies.  These direct threats have been made from the level of senior generals all the way up to that of the Russian president, and they have continued despite high-level protests from the Bush administration.  In addition to the numerous threats of direct targeting, Russia has also used the forward deployment of nuclear missiles, provocative “combat patrols” by its long-range bombers and an aggressive nuclear build-up as instruments of foreign policy.  Russia has also announced the lowest nuclear weapons-use threshold in the world.

Meantime, China, while officially professing a doctrine of “no first use”, is modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces.  Nuclear threats have also been periodically made by senior Chinese generals.

In recent years, even lesser powers have conducted themselves in ever more aggressive ways.  North Korea publically threatens to turn the cities of our ally South Korea into a “nuclear sea of fire.”  Although Iran is not yet believed to have acquired nuclear weapons, its leadership has repeatedly threatened to “wipe Israel off the map” and bring about “a world without America.”  These threats simply cannot be ignored.

In short, the available evidence suggests that an American nuclear deterrent that is either qualitatively or quantitatively insufficient will have the effect of encouraging the very proliferation of nuclear forces we seek to prevent.  The prospect of the continued emergence of grave new threats and perhaps ever-more-aggressive behavior on the part of newly empowered and emboldened adversaries obliges us to attend to the condition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its supporting industrial base.

Our Neglected Nuclear Enterprise

Given the importance of the American nuclear deterrent to our national security and to international stability, it is imperative that the Nation makes a sustained commitment to assuring the requisite technical talent, competent managers and financial resources to maintain both the strategic “Triad” of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles and the infrastructure upon which the nuclear enterprise rests.

Such a commitment is not in evidence at this time.  The key elements of a robust deterrent are under extreme stress today and will be imperiled further by a presidential determination to pursue a “world without nuclear weapons” and the attendant policy of not investing in modernization of the stockpile.  Although there are long-range plans to build a follow-on submarine to replace the current, aging Trident fleet, and while the servicelife of the Minuteman III has been extended to at least 2020, any decision to manufacture a new strategic bomber has been put on hold until completion of the Nuclear Posture Review.  To put a fine point on it, the United States has no active, let alone comprehensive, modernization program for its strategic Triad.

Even the adequacy of the maintenance program for our strategic forces is open to question.  Thanks to a lack of investment in the human and physical infrastructure on which the U.S. nuclear enterprise relies, the future viability of the deterrent will increasingly become problematic.

Of particular concern in this regard is our atrophying ability to test our nuclear weapons in order to ensure their future safety, reliability and credibility.  A continued failure to rectify this shortfall threatens to negate the effect of such other resources as might be applied to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent.  Banning all noncomputer testing has been a goal of denuclearizers for decades, for the simple reason that it ultimately assures the desired goal – namely, that without underground testing, a nation like ours, with an arsenal comprised of highly complex and obsolescing weapons, will inexorably be unable to assure the viability of its nuclear stockpile.  Others, however, may be inclined to cheat.

An open-ended moratorium on such testing therefore translates into unilateral denuclearization by default; it requires no negotiations or global consensus.  Even worse would be U.S. accession to a treaty like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would permanently prohibit American underground testing.  Consequently, the Senate should stand by its 1999 rejection of that accord, which was defeated then by a vote of 51-48.

Deterrence Capability is  Indispensible to START/SORT  Negotiations

The United States should commit itself to the principle of maintaining an effective, reliable, and credible nuclear deterrent as it negotiates any agreement that may follow the impending December, 2009 expiration of START.  Nuclear arms control should be pursued as an element of national security policy, not as an ideological crusade.  We should  not set unreasonable deadlines for the conclusion of a new agreement, lest those deadlines translate into artificial pressures to accede to Russian positions, to the detriment of our strategic posture and interests.  As a practical matter, nothing will happen on December 5, 2009, other than the expiration of the START verification regime.  The Moscow Treaty of 2002 will continue until December 2012.

It is only with an appreciation of – and attention to – the abiding requirements for the U.S. nuclear deterrent capability that we have any hope of achieving an agreement with Russia that actually is compatible with our goal of desire to strengthen our security and preserve global stability.  The alternative – an accord that either appears to or in fact does leave the United States without a nuclear arsenal sufficiently robust to deter attacks on us, our interests and our allies, and to discourage proliferation – will leave the world substantially worse  off, rather than more stable and secure.

Center for Security Policy

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