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

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Despite the end of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear weapons continue to perform multiple critical national security functions.  They serve as a deterrent to attacks on the United States from countries armed with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.  For example, U.S. nuclear forces provide a hedge against a resurgent Russia which deploys thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, has placed increasing emphasis on its nuclear forces in its military doctrine and continues to modernize its nuclear weaponry in concert with its pursuit of a more anti-American foreign policy.

In addition, American nuclear forces constitute a deterrent to China, which is pursuing its own extensive military modernization program.  They also help dissuade other nuclear and nonnuclear powers from adopting more belligerent policies that threaten U.S. interests.

Importantly, U.S. nuclear forces have long provided a “nuclear umbrella” to allies, serving as the ultimate guarantor of their security.  This “extended deterrent” has dampened impulses toward nuclear proliferation on the part of countries that rely on the credibility of U.S. security guarantees.  Specifically, not only has a robust U.S. nuclear arsenal proven to be effective in deterring attacks on the U.S. and its allies from adversaries using weapons of mass destruction, but this “extended deterrent” has allowed our allies and friends to forgo the development of their own nuclear arsenals.  It follows that, as uncertainty increases about the reliability and/or effectiveness of our deterrent, those under our “umbrella” will surely pursue independent nuclear arsenals.

These realities have important national security implications for the Obama Administration’s desire to negotiate further arms control reductions with Russia as a way-station toward the President’s ultimate goal of a worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.  The scheduled expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in December of 2009 and the Moscow Treaty of 2002 in late 2012 is impelling the Obama Administration to pursue new negotiations with Russia with regard to an agreement that would extend or possibly replace START and SORT.  Giving further impetus to these pursuits is the assumption that only with the United States and Russia leading a new round of nuclear weapons reductions will the international stage be properly set for successful efforts to rein in and eliminate the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran and to prevent a potential cascade of new nuclear weapons development.

To be both desirable and sound, such an agreement will need to be crafted with an eye towards assuring the continued effectiveness and credibility of the U.S. strategic posture sufficient to maintain America’s own security and that of its allies through extended nuclear deterrence.

As the parties address limitations on warheads and delivery systems, and contemplate revisions to the verification system in light of the changing security landscape, the U.S. negotiating team must ensure that the resulting accord allows the American deterrent to meet the required standards with respect to reliability, credibility, and effectiveness.

Negotiations that fail to take these requirements into account will risk an outcome that leaves the United States at a severe qualitative and quantitative security disadvantage, one that will invite – not prevent – nuclear proliferation, blackmail, and potential catastrophe.

Center for Security Policy

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