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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
America Mustn’t Overspend on its Nukes
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Arms Control NOW

In his Nov. 25 New York Times op-ed “America Mustn’t Neglect Its Nukes,” Elbridge Colby urges the nation to stop aspiring to eliminate nuclear weapons, stop worrying about nuclear deterrence, and willfully pay the trillion dollar price tag to replace the entire nuclear triad. Colby complains that apathy and even hostility toward the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy from prominent voices in and out of government is part of the problem.  In a similar vein, Robert Spalding complains in the Washington Post that “it erodes morale and encourages perpetually low funding when the Nuclear Posture Review adds “as long as nuclear weapons exist” to the phrase “safe, secure and effective,” as if it is a foregone conclusion that these weapons will be eliminated.

These views imply that Colby and Spalding believe current nuclear realities are an acceptable and implacable state of affairs.  If Americans would just keep funding the Pentagon’s nuclear wish list everything will be fine. Thankfully, many Americans do not share this view.  They view the potential use of nuclear weapons in the name of national defense as morally illegitimate and incompatible with basic human values. They recognize that an international security system based on the willingness of nations to commit mutual nuclear suicide poses constant risk to all the world’s nations and peoples.  These Americans hope for leadership towards more rational and humane ways to achieve security. They are not content with the notion of themselves, their children and grandchildren, living under the threat of nuclear war for another 70-100 years.

The American people are not alone. For more than 65 years, serious practitioners of international statecraft from around the world have pursued the elimination of nuclear weapons as a law-backed international goal because they see it as an essential step towards a safer and sustainable international order. At least 30 countries that could build nuclear weapons have chosen not to. The vast majority of nations, 189 out of 195, have pledged never to acquire nuclear weapons under the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

But Colby, Spalding, and others claim it is essential to keep funding our trillion dollar nuclear triad in perpetuity because the “world is dangerous.”  Hopefully our current defense policymakers require a bit more specificity when applying finite national security resources to the range of security challenges facing America. What world dangers do nuclear weapons – to say nothing about the U.S. arsenal of 4,800 nuclear weapons – address exactly? Certainly not Islamic State, Ebola, Al Qaida, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sluggish economic growth, vulnerability to cyberattacks, energy security or the consequences of environmental degradation. 

Defense budgets are not limitless.  History demonstrates that nations that squander resources on bad strategy over a prolonged period of time hasten their own demise. Nuclear weapons are effective at one core mission: deterring the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies.  To fulfill this mission, America needs to only have nuclear forces capable of delivering a devastating retaliation after being attacked by its most powerful potential adversaries. The most recent review of U.S. nuclear employment strategy, endorsed by the Pentagon in 2013, concluded that America’s nuclear deterrence needs could be met with a nuclear warhead arsenal of one-third less than the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) level of 1,550 operationally-deployed warhead force. This included the assessment that a future force of roughly 1,000 warheads could meet our security needs even as Russia and China continue their projected nuclear force modernizations that so trouble proponents of a massive nuclear re-build.

America needs to make reasoned decisions regarding defense investments.  It would be unwise to attempt to simultaneously modernize and replace the entire oversized Cold War arsenal of nuclear warheads, production facilities, and strategic delivery vehicles.  Doing so would risk the hollowing of conventional forces in order to re-create a bloated, ill-conceived nuclear force structure and backward-looking Cold War nuclear strategy that is unaffordable and unnecessary. 

Trim the Triad

The debate over these investment decisions must be resolved soon.  For example, the Pentagon has recently announced that it will spend $9 billion in emergency funds over the next five years to address critical defects in U.S. strategic nuclear forces.  A good portion of that spending is directed at severe and recurring problems in the land-based ICBM force that the Air Force wants to completely replace. This is a bad fiscal strategy and a bad national security policy.  America’s nuclear arsenal remains oversized and we need not replace the entire triad of nuclear weapons--submarines, missiles, and bombers.

The land-based leg of the nuclear triad should be retired.  It is dangerous, redundant, and unaffordable. Every dollar spent on the land-based ICBM force will be wasted and will short change other national defense priorities.  Retention of this system sends the message to other nations that America still clings to the obscene belief that it can fight and win a protracted nuclear war and claims the right to use nuclear weapons first.  In fact, silo-based ICBMs are simply a scattering of nuclear bulls-eyes across the heartland of America, poorly maintained and capable of causing a catastrophic nuclear error.  In addition, plans to replace the other legs of the U.S. nuclear triad--including strategic submarines and long-range aircraft--will be put at risk by the fiscal overstretch of trying to buy unnecessary ICBMs as well.

The Monterey Institute of International Studies recently concluded that the costs of rebuilding all three legs of the triad over the next 30 years would exceed $1 trillion. Jeffery Lewis, one of the study’s authors, recently observed, “I do not support unilateral nuclear disarmament, but if I did, [I'd recommend that we] just keep doing exactly what we're doing.  We might really end up with this tiny little denuded [nuclear] force that was developed with no particular strategic thought in mind.”

President Obama began his administration with the understanding that bold decisions were needed to correct America’s bloated and backward-looking nuclear strategy and make reasonable, balanced defense investments.  It is in America’s interest that he not abandon that conviction and support a phased reduction, and eventual retirement, of all land-based intercontinental nuclear missiles.  This decision would save more than $100 billion of scarce defense funds that would otherwise be squandered for an ill-conceived proposal to replace 400 ICBMs over the next 30 years. It is also the simplest and most cost-effective way to reduce the arsenal by a third, as recommended by the recent U.S. nuclear employment strategy, because it would remove the need for complete life-cycle costs of a new ICBM force.

During that same time the nation needs to replace the Ohio class strategic-missile submarines.  This nuclear weapons system alone provides well over 500 nuclear warheads ready for use at a moments notice and deployed at unknown locations under the world oceans. Together with strategic aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons, the submarine force guarantees that America retains a powerful nuclear deterrent with a diverse array of capabilities.  Silo-based ICBMs are a relic of the past. Replacing them is unwise, unaffordable and unnecessary. America will be sufficiently safe without them.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author.  They are not necessarily those of the Arms Control Association, its staff, or members of its Board of Directors. James E. Doyle is a former nuclear specialist at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation's three nuclear weapons labs.