"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months that I had in all three years at my college."
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre,
Intern, Fall 2016
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

The Complex and Increasingly Dangerous Nuclear Weapons Geometry of Asia


Asian states Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea comprise four of the world's nine nuclear-armed states. The interconnections of these countries must be considered to fully understand how nuclear nonproliferation can be influenced.


By Greg Thielmann
July 2016

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While much of the world’s attention is focused on efforts to halt the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, the nuclear arsenals and ambitions of India, Pakistan, and China also pose significant dangers and deserve more attention.

The complicated nuclear weapons geometry of Asia extends from the subcontinent to the other side of the world. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is designed to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces, New Delhi measures its own nuclear weapons program against that of China. Beijing, in turn, judges the adequacy of its nuclear arsenal against the threat it perceives from the United States’ strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. And in its efforts to mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and its allies in the region are expanding their strategic and theater missile defense capabilities.

In order to fully understand how the pace and direction of nuclear proliferation can be influenced, the interconnections of these countries must be considered, along with the kinds of nuclear weapons they have at their disposal.

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Inadequate to Meet Threats, New Study Finds



A new study suggests that President Obama, failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas during his second term.


For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—President Barack Obama failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas over the course of his second term, but did achieve important steps to improve nuclear materials security and strengthen nonproliferation norms, namely the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to a new study released by the Arms Control Association, which evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2013-2016," is the third in a series that measures the performance of 11 key states in 10 universally-recognized nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security categories over the past three years. The study evaluated the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possess nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern.

“The United States is investing enormous resources to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads and is keeping its deployed nuclear weapons on ‘launch-under-attack’ readiness posture. The lack of U.S. leadership in these areas contributes to the moribund pace of disarmament,” said Elizabeth Philipp, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, and a co-author of the report.

“Obama should use his remaining months in office to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategies and mitigate the risks of inadvertent use. Obama could consider declaring that Washington will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report.

“U.S. leadership could spur China and Russia to take positive actions and improve the prospects for further disarmament. Russia’s decision to develop a new missile in violation of its treaty commitments and Moscow’s rebuff of attempts by the United States to negotiate further nuclear reductions is very troublesome, as is the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s steps toward increasing the alert levels of its forces,” Philipp added.

“Several states did take significant steps over the past three years to strengthen nuclear security, including action by the United States and Pakistan to ratify key nuclear security treaties,” said Davenport.

“The July 2015 nuclear deal struck between six global powers and Iran was also a significant nonproliferation breakthrough that has significantly reduced Tehran’s nuclear capacity and subjected its activities to more intrusive international monitoring and verification. While the international community must remain vigilant in ensuring that the deal is fully implemented, blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons negates a serious nonproliferation concern and demonstrates the consequences of flouting the international norms and obligations,” Davenport said.

“For the third time, the United Kingdom received the highest grade of all the states assessed, while North Korea remained at the bottom of the list with the lowest overall grades. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its ballistic missile development require the next U.S. administration to pursue more robust engagement with Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities,” Philipp said.

“Our review of the record indicates that further action must be taken by all 11 states if they are to live up to their international disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. By tracking the progress, or lack thereof, of these states over time, we hope this report will serve as a tool to encourage policymakers to increase efforts to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons,” Davenport said.

A country-by-country summary can be viewed here.
The full report card can be downloaded here


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

"Perceptions of WMD in the Media" — Presentation by Kelsey Davenport at the 2016 James Timbie Forum



Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy, at the 2016 Timbie Forum on engaging emerging professionals in the field


Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy

Kelsey Davenport, Arm Control Association's director of nonproliferation policy, spoke on "Perceptions of WMD in the Media" and how to engage emerging young professionals in the field of arms control at the U.S. State Department's 2016 James Timbie Forum.

Video of her remarks is available via our Youtube channel, or below.


2016 Report Card on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Efforts

Download the full report here.

Table of Contents

Looking Back on the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion

On July 8, 1996, following a prolonged debate on the legality of nuclear weapons and their use, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a momentous advisory opinion that would influence the discussion of nuclear weapons use under the scope of international law for years to come. In the July/August edition of Arms Control Today , John Burroughs offers an in-depth look back on the 1996 advisory opinion . He describes the court’s discussion of the issue, the conclusions and context of the advisory opinion, and how the ruling has recently been invoked in a new nuclear disarmament case...

The Dangers of Using Cyberattacks to Counter Nuclear Threats

Officials are contemplating the use of cyberattack capabilities to counter missile and command-and-control systems. Doing so risks creating new competition and insecurity...

July/August 2016

By Andrew Futter

Top military and defense officials in the United States are currently contemplating plans to use cyberattack capabilities against enemy missile and command-and-control systems as part of a new push for full-spectrum missile defense.1

The idea is to augment the current suite of kinetic missile interceptors deployed within the United States, at sea, and on the territory of certain allies with new, nonkinetic capabilities designed to attack, compromise, or destroy enemy missiles before they can be launched. As Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, explained in a recent testimony to Congress, 

[W]e need to develop a wider range of tools and that includes the efforts underway to address such threats before they are launched, or “left of launch.” The development of left-of-launch capabilities will provide U.S. decision-makers additional tools and opportunities to defeat missiles. This will in turn reduce the burden on our “right-of-launch” ballistic missile defense capabilities. Taken together, left-of-launch and right-of-launch will lead to more effective and resilient capabilities to defeat adversary ballistic missile threats.2 

The end goal is a more robust, affordable, and holistic U.S. ballistic missile defense system,3 designed to protect against limited or perhaps undeterrable conventional and nuclear missile threats from certain states and nonstate actors around the globe. 

The concept is being driven by an increasing diversification in the types of missile threats facing the United States and by the growing acceptance that there will never be enough interceptors to address all of these missile threats or enough money to build them. Although the idea of using cyberattacks or other nonkinetic weapons for missile defense is not necessarily new and probably has been discussed in secret in the Pentagon for at least a decade, such options appear to have become increasingly viable for the United States today. In the words of Admiral Archer Macy, former director of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, “Ballistic missile defense cannot consist simply of defeating the launch, flight, targeting and arrival of all of the missiles an enemy could employ. We cannot simply play catch.”4

The desire to disable a missile before it can be launched rather than to intercept it after launch, however, represents a significant shift in mission and planning. This is because it amalgamates traditional protective ballistic missile defense concepts with a new offensive focus on pre-emptive prompt global-strike technologies. Although each of the systems under the prompt global-strike mission is likely to create problems, the use of cybercapabilities to disable missiles before launch is a move with particularly worrying implications for other nuclear-armed states for three key reasons. 

•   Kinetic missile interceptors are used only after a missile has been launched and the threat has materialized. Cyberattacks, on the other hand, would likely have to be used pre-emptively and be based on prior infiltration of enemy networks. It is therefore a notable transformation of strategy, and it will become more difficult to classify the mission as purely defensive. 

•   It will be even more difficult to identify the targets of such cybercapabilities and what the capabilities are intended to achieve. Although a limited U.S. ballistic missile defense system is not a serious threat to China and Russia, at least currently, due to their ability to overwhelm the limited number of U.S. interceptors, it is virtually impossible to prove what type of cybercapabilities have been deployed by the United States or other actors and in what quantity.

•   The adoption of cyberattack capabilities for missile defense opens up a Pandora’s box of future uncertainty for all nuclear-armed states given the likelihood that other states and potentially nonstate actors will follow suit in developing such options. 

Ultimately, such moves would appear detrimental to U.S. goals of strategic stability, arms control, nuclear security, and the safe management of the global nuclear order and may even drive renewed proliferation. The United States therefore needs to think long and hard before it opens up a whole new area of competition and insecurity that it may not win in the long run.

China and Russia 

Although the budding U.S. concept of full-spectrum missile defense has not specifically mentioned nuclear weapons systems or particular actors, it is virtually impossible to see how the incorporation of cyberattack capabilities will not be met with great alarm in Beijing and Moscow. Officials in both capitals have expressed concern about the deployment of kinetic missile interceptors in the past two decades, and moves to augment these deployments with a new suite of kinetic and nonkinetic offensive options are likely to magnify this distrust and lead to potentially greater nuclear instability.

Conventional prompt global-strike systems are clearly a major concern, but it is arguably the uncertainty associated with cyberattacks that will prove to be the most problematic aspect of this new approach. Conventional kinetic systems can be quantified, monitored, and perhaps even countered. In addition, they are limited by cost. Cybercapabilities, however, remain inherently nebulous, and it is impossible to estimate their quantity or the extent of the threat. The use of cybercapabilities will also almost certainly require that an adversary’s missile systems be penetrated and perhaps even compromised in advance. As scholar Greg Austin notes, “Strategic nuclear stability may be at risk because of uncertainty about innovations in cyber attack capability.”5

Russia already is acutely worried about the vulnerability of its strategic nuclear systems to cyberinterference and may even see cyberattacks as the greatest challenge at the strategic level, while China’s limited nuclear arsenal and posture make it particularly susceptible to disablement through cyber means or otherwise. The worst-case scenario is that “one state could hack into the nuclear command-and-control systems of another, render its weapons unusable, and use the temporary monopoly of power to coerce its target.”6 Although it is highly unlikely that the United States could or would want to hack into enemy systems as the precursor to a disarming first strike against an adversary’s nuclear forces, it will be difficult for China and Russia to get this worst-case thought out of their minds. The fact that the stated U.S. desire to be able to strike strategic assets anywhere in the world in either “30 minutes or 300 milliseconds” through conventionally armed missiles or cyberweapons could theoretically be directed toward any adversary seems unlikely to help build trust in the nuclear realm.7 For full-spectrum missile defense, these perceptions matter as much as capabilities or intent.

Utilizing cyberattack capabilities for full-spectrum missile defense will almost certainly further undermine strategic stability with Russia and place considerable pressure on the strategic balance with China. Tensions between Washington and Moscow are already high, and cooperation on nuclear security has been suspended. Although both parties continue to implement the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the prospects for further arms control or reduction measures appear bleak. The introduction of cybercapabilities that could undermine the Russian nuclear deterrent is highly unlikely to help ease these strains.8 In fact, the threat of cyber disablement, combined with the development of other U.S. capabilities as part of the full-spectrum missile defense mission, is likely to add to Russia’s desire to modernize and upgrade its nuclear forces and keep them on high alert.9 The direct result of the United States using cyberattacks in this way could be increased instability, creating another major impediment to the maintenance of nuclear arms control regimes between Russia and the United States and to the idea of further nuclear cuts. Keeping nuclear missile forces on high alert is also seen by some as a major cyber risk because this makes them vulnerable to a cyberattack that could directly or indirectly lead to a launch.10 

The potential implications of full-spectrum missile defense are perhaps even more acute for China, given its smaller and less sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Chinese planners are concerned about the possibility of a U.S. non-nuclear first strike involving precision missile attacks backed up with increasingly capable missile interceptor systems.11 The idea that China’s deterrent could be compromised through cyberattacks as well will be a major concern. As with Russia, it is difficult to see how adding new cyberattack options to the U.S. arsenal will help improve relations or engender greater trust with Beijing. The new U.S. capability is much more likely to force reconsideration of Beijing’s no-first-use policy and create another incentive for China to build up and diversify its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, China and Russia are looking at developing new high-tech capabilities for the nuclear deterrence mission in response to growing concerns about U.S. plans.12

The introduction of cyberattack capabilities also creates a whole range of worrying dynamics for crisis stability and management, given that it will likely never be possible to know whether nuclear weapons systems have been breached and compromised or whether they will work as planned when needed. This problem is magnified in Russia due to the degradation of its strategic forces, problems with early-warning systems, and recent moves to increase the role of nuclear weapons in Russian strategy. In China, Beijing’s rumored sharing of certain components of its command-and-control infrastructure between nuclear and conventional systems raises the prospect that a cyberattack on conventional systems might be interpreted as an attack on nuclear systems.13 Including cyberattacks as part of the full spectrum of missile defense may well lead to a compressed escalation ladder, a shortened time frame for nuclear decision-making during a crisis, and a greater incentive to “use them or lose them.” Commanders may incorrectly think they are under attack, fear that nuclear systems had been or could be compromised, or worry cyberattacks might be used to directly cause a nuclear launch. Each of these anxieties might increase the pressure to act first. As analyst Sydney Freedberg has pointed out, “The best defense may be a good offense, but that raises the unsettling possibility that the US might strike first.”14 It is not inconceivable to see this as the beginning of a possible transition to a condition of Mutually Unassured Destruction, or MUD.15 

In the quest to secure the United States against the threat of missile attack, the employment of cyber- and other new technological capabilities seems likely to create many of the problems it seeks to solve. The deployment of increasingly capable ballistic missile defense systems has become a major impediment in nuclear arms control discussions with Russia. Yet, although a full-spectrum missile defense approach by the United States may mean that the deployment of kinetic interceptors can be slowed or even capped, replacing interceptors with cyber- and other capabilities is unlikely to unblock the road to greater bilateral nuclear cuts or produce stability. The general idea behind U.S. plans to develop cyberwarfare capabilities is almost certain to target rogue actors and limited missile threats, but it will be very difficult to convince others, notably China and Russia, that these capabilities are not directed or at least usable against them. Convincing Beijing and Moscow that the nascent kinetic-based missile defense program is not directed against them has been difficult enough; the unknowns associated with cyberattacks intertwined with the clear possibility for pre-emptive strikes raise the stakes considerably. 

Challenges for the U.S. 

At the same time that it creates concerns for other states by pursuing cybercapabilities, the United States is highly likely to become vulnerable to the use of cybercapabilities to undermine its own nuclear weapons systems. Concerns in the United States about relying on computers for nuclear weapons management can be traced back as far as the 1960s and early 1970s,16 but anxieties have grown considerably in the past few years. In 2013 the U.S. Defense Science Board cautioned that U.S. nuclear weapons might be vulnerable to cyberattacks and that future cyberthreats to U.S. nuclear systems “might be impossible to fully defend against.”17 Two years later, retired General James Cartwright, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned that “[t]he sophistication of the cyber threat has increased exponentially…. It is reasonable to believe that the threat has extended itself into [our] nuclear command and control systems.”18 

Although U.S. nuclear weapons and associated command-and-control systems are well protected and “air gapped” where possible, and therefore physically separated from unsecured networks, they are by no means invulnerable to hackers seeking to disable these systems or at least stop them from working as planned. The increasing reliance of all aspects of the nuclear mission on complex software and endless lines of code and the requirement for ever greater connectivity among nodes mean that hackers have numerous potential points of entry. Indeed, a backdoor into naval broadcast systems used to transmit nuclear launch orders was discovered in the 1990s,19 and in 2012, Thomas D’Agostino, head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, revealed that U.S. nuclear weapons and associated systems “are under constant attack” from a “full spectrum of hackers.”20 Although recent moves to bolster the defense of U.S. nuclear systems against cyberattacks,21 as well as the establishment of in-house hacker teams at the Pentagon,22 should be welcomed, they are unlikely to be foolproof. This is particularly true in light of the ongoing development of technologies to “jump” the air gap and widespread attempts by U.S. adversaries to use cyberespionage to steal sensitive nuclear-related secrets about these systems from U.S. government agencies, research laboratories, and contractors, possibly as a precursor to future attack.

The problem is particularly pressing given the ongoing upgrade of the U.S. nuclear command-and-control infrastructure and possible plans to replace all three legs of the nuclear triad in the years ahead. The Pentagon has been clear that this involves a transition to relying on “internet like networks” for command and control, and all of these modernization programs almost certainly will entail a greater reliance on computers, software, and code.23 Although modernization may well allow for greater functionality, processing speed, control, and real-time management, it also makes U.S. nuclear weapons systems and missile defense systems much more vulnerable to hackers and those seeking to interfere with or gain access to sensitive nuclear infrastructure. It also makes the systems increasingly difficult to protect. As General C. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, put it, “The age of the [U.S.] command and control system might inadvertently offer some protection against the latest hacking techniques.”24 This is because some parts of the system are so old that current cyberattack techniques do not apply to them. 

The cyberthreat extends across the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise and will include all components that rely on networked computers and software, including weapons and delivery platforms, early-warning and command-and-control systems, and secret design and operational information produced and stored by defense contractors and research laboratories.25 The cybersecurity challenge will also include information about the humans that operate these systems. 

The threat is bifurcated between attacks designed to disable U.S. systems and prevent them from working and those designed to enable them by indirectly exacerbating a crisis or spoofing systems or directly seeking to cause an unauthorized launch or explosion. The disablement attacks are more likely to come from states, as discussed above; the enablement scenarios are more likely to be perpetrated by nonstate actors. As the Global Zero Commission warned, “Questions abound: could unauthorized actors—either state or non-state—spoof early warning networks into reporting attack indications that precipitate overreactions? Could such hackers breach the firewalls, the air gaps, and transmit launch orders to launch crews or even to the weapons themselves? What if an insider colluded with them to provide access and passwords to the launch circuitry? Might they acquire critical codes by hacking?”26

Protecting against these two different types of cyberthreats arguably requires different and to some extent antagonistic requirements. For example, greater security and protection against both state and nonstate threats might mean a reduction in usability. The problem is that the United States, as well as Russia and to a lesser extent China, appears determined to prioritize the threat of disablement and therefore the ability to ensure weapons can be used over measures that might be taken to guard against outside interference designed to enable nuclear use. This in turn means that there are more opportunities for nonstate actors to attack these nuclear systems, either directly or indirectly through manipulation of information or through so-called false-flag attacks, in which attacks by one party are designed to look like they are conducted by another.27 Bruce Blair, a former missileer and the co-founder of Global Zero, has argued it is at least possible that terrorist groups or other unauthorized actors might have taken advantage of the loss of control of 50 Minuteman missiles at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming in October 2010 and caused a nuclear launch.28 Moves to make the use of cybercapabilities against nuclear systems routine are a double-edged sword: using cyberattacks to undermine missile threats from U.S. adversaries might also expose significant vulnerabilities in U.S. systems to other states and other nonstate actors. 


The use of cybercapabilities to undermine missile threats to the United States by disabling the missiles before they are launched might seem at first like an attractive, cost-effective, and sensible way of bolstering protection against a serious and growing challenge. Yet, the idea is inherently problematic for a number of reasons, and thought needs to be given before the Pentagon turns this concept into reality. First, the use of cybercapabilities conspicuously transforms the ballistic missile defense mission from one of protection to one of pre-emption. Second, it will add further pressure for states to focus more on the credibility of using their nuclear forces rather than on safety and security against harmful interference by nonstate actors. Third, such moves appear antithetical to virtually all U.S. nuclear proliferation, arms control, and nuclear security objectives. Fourth, it sets a precedent and creates a norm that such attacks or at least planning for them, is acceptable. Finally, it is far from clear that the United States will retain a comparative advantage in this field in future years as capabilities spread, and the United States may find its own nuclear and missile systems vulnerable to cyberattack. 

A far better approach to the emerging cyber-nuclear nexus is to consider how an increasingly diverse nuclear environment can best be managed and how an array of new threats can be mitigated and perhaps overcome. The focus of U.S. policymakers should be on how nuclear forces and associated command-and-control systems of all states might be better protected against cyberinterference and how to ensure that hackers cannot cause a nuclear crisis or, in a worst-case scenario, facilitate a nuclear launch. Although better security, training, and understanding are a must for protecting against cyberattacks, the United States might also consider reaching out to other nuclear-armed states in the hope of building trust through various confidence-building measures, perhaps through sharing best practices or exchanging data and intelligence on nonstate threats. This approach also might conceivably lead to discussion of constraints on targeting each other’s weapons or command-and-control systems with cyberattacks and to formal discussion within broader nuclear arms control dialogues and within global forums such as the review conferences for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The goal of the discussions would be to reach agreement on a moratorium or other constraints on targeting each other’s weapons or command-and-control systems with cyberattacks. 

This is undoubtedly a difficult task, not least because of problems of verification, attribution, transparency, and trust. It is worth pursuing because it might help reduce some of the uncertainties and worst-case thinking that surround the cyber challenge. It might even provide a basis for moving toward a safer nuclear environment. 

Although it may be true that cyberthreats and nuclear strategy will become increasingly commingled in the future,29 this does not mean that such a nexus should be desired or sought. It is far from clear that the United States will remain immune from the myriad threats to its own nuclear systems posed by cyberattacks. At the same time, it is clearly in the national interest not to make other governments feel increasingly vulnerable and suspicious. The next U.S. president faces a big choice on the future shape of U.S. missile defense, the use of cybercapabilities for pre-emptive attacks on enemy systems, and the full-spectrum concept more generally. Although various techno-military developments undoubtedly will make the nuclear future more uncertain and potentially more complex, a strong decision now to forswear or at least limit the use of cyberattacks against nuclear assets would be an important benchmark for managing this challenge and minimizing the risks of nuclear weapons use in the longer term. 


1.   See Riki Ellison, “Left of Launch,” Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, March 16, 2015, http://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/alert/3132/; Bill Gertz, “Pentagon Developing Pre-launch Cyber Attacks on Missiles,” Washington Free Beacon, April 14, 2016, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/pentagon-developing-pre-launch-cyber-attacks-missiles/.

2.   Brian P. McKeon, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, April 13, 2016, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/McKeon_04-13-16.pdf

3.   Thomas Karako, remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C., April 12, 2015, http://csis.org/files/attachments/151204_full_spectrum_transcript.pdf.

4.   Admiral Archer Macy, remarks at CSIS, Washington, D.C., April 12, 2015, http://csis.org/files/attachments/151204_full_spectrum_transcript.pdf.

5.   Greg Austin, “Costs of American Cyber Superiority,” China-U.S. Focus, August 6, 2013, http://www.chinausfocus.com/peace-security/costs-of-american-cyber-superiority/.

6.   Martin Libicki, Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012), p. 128.

7.   See General James Cartwright, “Whither the Forward-Basing of U.S. Troops?” MP3 audio, 01:34:14, June 4, 2009, http://c689403.r3.cf2.rackcdn.com/090604_militaryforum.mp3.  

8.   See Andrew Korybko, “U.S. ‘Missile Defense’: Satellites, Lasers, and Electromagnetic Railguns,” Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, September 22, 2015, http://en.riss.ru/analysis/18912/.

9.   William Broad and David Sanger, “Race for the Latest Class of Nuclear Arms Threatens to Revive Cold War,” The New York Times, April 16, 2016.

10.   See Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, “De-alerting and Stabilizing the World’s Nuclear Force Postures,” April 2015, http://www.globalzero.org/files/global_zero_commission_on_nuclear_risk_reduction_report_0.pdf.

11.   Andrew Futter and Benjamin Zala, “Coordinating the Arm Swing With the Pivot: Nuclear Deterrence, Stability and U.S. Strategy in the Asia-Pacific,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 28, No. 3 (July 2015): 377.

12.   Martin Matishak, “The Next Arms Race for the U.S., China and Russia: Hypersonic Weapons,” The Fiscal Times, March 2, 2016, http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2016/03/02/Next-Arms-Race-US-China-and-Russia-Hypersonic-Weapons

13.    Joshua Pollack, “Emerging Strategic Dilemmas in U.S.-Chinese Relations,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 65, No. 4 (July-August 2009): 56.

14.   Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Joint Staff Studies New Options for Missile Defense,” Breaking Defense, September 16, 2015, http://breakingdefense.com/2015/09/joint-staff-studies-new-options-for-missile-defense/.

15.   Richard J. Danzig, “Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America’s Cyber Dependencies,” Center for a New American Security, July 2014, p. 6, http://www.cnas.org/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/CNAS_PoisonedFruit_Danzig_0.pdf.

16.   Gordon Corera, Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2015), pp. 71-72; James P. Anderson, “Computer Security Technology Planning Study,” ESD-TR-73-51, October 1972, http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/history/ande72.pdf.

17.   Defense Science Board, “Task Force Report: Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat,” January 2013, pp. 2, 6, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ResilientMilitarySystems.CyberThreat.pdf.

18.   Robert Burns, “Former U.S. Commander: Take Nuclear Missiles Off High Alert,” Associated Press, April 29, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/2ae0a33fa1c7402999afb6d55046e2cc/former-us-commander-take-nuclear-missiles-high-alert. When asked about the vulnerability of U.S. systems, retired General James Cartwright responded, “Have they been penetrated? I don’t know. Is it reasonable technically to assume they could? Yes.”

19.   Jason Fritz, “Hacking Nuclear Command and Control,” International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, July 2009, http://icnnd.org/documents/jason_fritz_hacking_nc2.pdf.

20.   Jason Koebler, “U.S. Nukes Face Up to 10 Million Cyber Attacks Daily,” U.S. News and World Report, March 20, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/03/20/us-nukes-face-up-to-10-million-cyber-attacks-daily.

21.   Benjamin D. Katz, “U.S. Beefs Up Cyber Defense to Thwart Hacks of Nuclear Arsenal,” Bloomberg, March 24, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-24/u-s-beefs-up-cyber-defenses-to-thwart-hacks-of-nuclear-arsenal.

22.   Colin Clark, “As GAO Finds DoD Wobbly on Cyber Policies, Carter Launches HackerOne,” Breaking Defense, April 7, 2016, http://breakingdefense.com/2016/04/as-gao-finds-dod-wobbly-on-cyber-policies-carter-launches-hackerone/.

23.   Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Command, Control and Communications System,” in Nuclear Matters Handbook, 2011, p. 53. 

24.   Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (London: Allen Lane, 2013), p. 475.

25.   For more information, see Andrew Futter, “Cyberthreats and Nuclear Weapons,” RUSI Occasional Paper (forthcoming) (copy on file with author).

26.   Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, “De-alerting and Stabilizing the World’s Nuclear Force Postures.” 

27.   See Andrew Futter, “War Games Redux? Cyber Threats, U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability and New Challenges for Nuclear Security and Arms Control,” European Security, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2016): 163-180.

28.   Bruce Blair, “Could Terrorists Launch America’s Nuclear Missiles?” Time, November 11, 2010, http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2030685,00.html.

29.   Stephen Cimbala and Roger McDermott, “A New Cold War? Missile Defenses, Nuclear Arms Reductions, and Cyber War,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2015): 103.

Andrew Futter is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Ballistic Missile Defence and US National Security Policy (2013) and editor of the forthcoming book The United Kingdom and the Future of Nuclear Weapons. His current work into cyberthreats and nuclear strategy is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

Obama Weighs Nuclear Options

President Barack Obama is reviewing a number of proposals to advance the nuclear weapons risk agenda he outlined in an April 2009 address in Prague. 

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

As his time in office winds down, President Barack Obama is reviewing a number of proposals to advance the nuclear weapons risk agenda he first outlined in an April 2009 address in Prague, a senior White House official said on June 6.

“[O]ur work is not done on this issue,” said Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington.

According to Rhodes, the different categories of options under consideration include further reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nondeployed, or reserve, nuclear warheads; “additional steps” to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear use; reaffirming “the international norm against” nuclear explosive testing; and putting “more nuclear material under appropriate monitoring.” 

In addition, Rhodes said the president would continue to evaluate current plans to ramp up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and also decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, May 2016.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate and House armed services committees in March that he “expects the total cost of nuclear modernization to be in the range of $350-450 billion.” 

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modern-ization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes said. 

He added that the modernization plans were “developed” early in the administration’s first term “when we...anticipated a different budgetary picture going forward, particularly with respect to our defense budget.” 

Congress in 2011 passed the Budget Control Act, which mandated reductions in projected spending in the Defense and Energy departments through the end of the decade. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to pursue any of the options under consideration and, if so, when he would announce such a decision.

Rhodes noted that the president would continue to speak publicly about nuclear weapons issues, as he did during his visit to Hiroshima on May 27. (See ACT, June 2016.)

Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address as president on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Prague on April 5, 2009. The speech outlined his vision for strengthening global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and moving forward on practical, immediate steps “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

In highlighting what the administration has accomplished since the speech, Rhodes touted “substantial progress in securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world” as a result of the nuclear security summit process, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, the negotiation and U.S. Senate approval of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Rhodes acknowledged “other areas...where more work needs to be done.” 

He said the administration has failed to stop “the advance of North Korea’s nuclear program,” achieve further nuclear weapons reductions beyond New START, and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Take Nuclear First Use Off the Table

A U.S. no-nuclear-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process.

By Daryl G. Kimball

The Cold War standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ended a quarter century ago, and U.S. and Russian deployed arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms control agreements.

Unfortunately, the risks of nuclear weapons use are still far too high, in part because the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.

President Obama in 2009 at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: White House)Early in his presidency, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

On June 6, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”

One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security.

Limiting the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons was a goal laid out by the “Nuclear Posture Review Report” in 2010, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

Nevertheless, current policy still leaves several dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons-use options on the table, including the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to pre-empt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against U.S. forces or allies.

Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Current U.S. strategy requires that there are enough nuclear forces available to destroy nearly 1,000 enemy targets, many in urban areas, and that these weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so.

Maintaining such a capability plays a large role in compelling Russia—and may soon help to lead China—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chance that nuclear weapons might be used or dispersed by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.

As Obama correctly said in 2008, the requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.

Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not, in any way, undermine the U.S. ability to deter nuclear attack by another state. It is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, and given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Given the overwhelming U.S. conventional military edge, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors.

A no-first-use policy would not undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments to key allies. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or elsewhere, the employment of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use. As a result, the threat of nuclear weapons first-use to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.

In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.

A U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process. It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option.

By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.

Examining the Flawed Rationale for a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile



A close examination of the proposed long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) reveals that it would be redundant, lack a unique mission, and could have a destabilizing effect with potential adversaries.


Volume 8, Issue 2, June 12, 2016

The debate about the necessity and affordability of the Obama administration’s half trillion dollar plan to modernize the nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers–and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure–continues to escalate.

The mammoth costs of nuclear modernization prompted Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ask on May 19 at the Brookings Institution: “it is very, very, very expensive... Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?”

President Barack Obama has acknowledged that existing U.S. and global nuclear weapons capabilities already provide more than enough nuclear killing power. Yet, his administration has to date pursued a costly, “all-of-the-above” plan to maintain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces at force levels that exceed nuclear deterrence requirements.

One of the most controversial pieces of this approach is the Air Force’s proposal to build a new fleet of roughly 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and refurbish the warhead for the weapon. The replacement is known as the long-range standoff cruise missile, or LRSO.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed an amendment to the fiscal year (FY) 2017 national defense authorization act that would delay development of the new cruise missile and warhead by one year to allow further consideration of the programs. While the Senate is unlikely to debate or vote on the amendment, the Senate and House of Representatives could consider amendments on the issue again later this month when each body takes up the FY 2017 defense appropriations bill.

For its part, the Obama administration appears content to pass on the growing fiscal challenge posed by its nuclear modernization project to its successor.

However, Ben Rhodes, the assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said at the Arms Control Association annual meeting on June 6, that the President recognizes the enormous budget challenge posed by the plans and will continue to review them “as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.”

Regardless of what happens during the remainder of the Obama administration, the next president will likely face a number of increasingly urgent questions about the modernization effort, including its need, affordability, opportunity costs, impact on global security, and more.

In other words, the debate about modernization, and in particular the new cruise missile, has just begun.

The Defense Department and supporters of replacing the nuclear ALCM in Congress and the think tank community have circulated a number of materials in response to Markey’s amendment and other efforts to raise doubts about the rationale for the new missile.

The following is a rebuttal to some of the top arguments made in favor of the program.

A closer examination of the issue makes it clear that the LRSO is redundant, lacks a unique mission, could have a destabilizing effect, and is not worth its estimated $20-$30 billion acquisition cost.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Maintain the Air-Leg of the Triad

Proponents argue that air-launched cruise missiles extend the range of strategic bombers and complicate an adversary’s air defense problem. The LRSO will ensure the country has an air-leg of the triad that can penetrate enemy airspace as adversaries enhance and expand their air defense capabilities, they say.

It is important to remember that the United States first fielded a nuclear ALCM in the early 1980s at a time when the country did not have stealth bombers or advanced conventional cruise missiles and sought an additional nuclear system with which to deter and impose costs on the Soviet Union. None of these conditions exist today.

According to Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological matters, had the United States procured even half of the 132 B-2 bombers it had originally planned to build during the late 1980s and early 1990s (the Air Force ultimately bought 21), the Pentagon would have retired the current ALCM and removed the B-52H from the nuclear mission years ago.

The range of America’s existing strategic bombers is being extended by increasingly advanced long-range conventionally-armed air-launched cruise missiles. The planned introduction of 80-100 B-21 strategic bombers, which will be armed with the modernized B61 mod 12 gravity bomb, conventionally armed cruise missiles such as the JASSM-ER, and electronic warfare capabilities for air defense suppression, will further enhance the range of the bomber leg.

Together these improvements will make the bomber leg of the triad much more formidable than it is today. The B-21 is projected to be able to penetrate enemy airspace for decades after its initial fielding in the mid-2020s, which begs the question of why a new ALCM is urgently needed now. Even if the survivability of the B-21 is called into question in the future, the Pentagon has yet to demonstrate that the LRSO, which is being procured at the same time as the B-21, will be inherently more survivable or that a B-21 armed with conventional air-launched cruise missiles won’t be able to blow holes in air defenses. If the Air Force believes the stealth of the B-21 could be compromised soon after it is deployed, the service shouldn’t procure it in the first place.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Deter Limited Nuclear Escalation, Nor Should We Want It for Waging Limited Nuclear War

Proponents argue that new air-launched cruise missiles would provide low-yield nuclear war-fighting options for responses to limited adversary attack, which is important for escalation control and maintaining a credible deterrent.

In reality, U.S. nuclear capabilities would remain highly credible and flexible even without a nuclear ALCM. The arsenal includes other weapons that can produce more “limited” effects, most notably the B61 gravity bomb. Moreover, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warheads could be configured to produce limited effects at a lower cost than the LRSO and its warhead, if necessary.

Regardless, has the U.S. intelligence community produced an assessment showing that failing to replace the current ALCM would increase the risk of limited adversarial nuclear use? Under what scenario has the intelligence community concluded that an adversary might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using a higher-yield ICBM or SLBM in response to limited nuclear use?

More importantly, the notion that the use of nuclear weapons can be fine-tuned to carefully control a nuclear war is very dangerous thinking. It is highly unlikely that an adversary on the receiving end of a U.S. nuclear strike would (or could) distinguish between a large warhead and a small warhead. The fog of war is thick. The fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Large or small, nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the taboo associated with the fact they have not been used in 70 years.

Finally, under what scenario could one ALCM or LRSO reliably circumvent the most sophisticated adversarial air defense capabilities and destroy a target that a B-21-borne gravity bomb or conventional cruise missile could not? If such a scenario does not exist, and the United States needed to launch more nuclear cruise missiles to ensure penetration, how would such a strategy not unavoidably escalate the conflict?

The LRSO Would Be a Costly “Hedge on a Hedge”

Proponents argue that ALCMs (and later the LRSO) complement the nuclear triad and will provide an important and rapidly uploadable hedge against technical problems with the sea and ground based legs of the triad. They also argue that the weapon allows the military to take advantage of the counting rules in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which counts each strategic bomber as one launcher and one warhead, regardless of the number of cruise missiles and gravity bombs they can carry.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But how much added deterrence value do air-launched cruise missiles actually provide in the minds of potential adversaries?

The weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–namely, SLBMs and ICBMs–can penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence. The United States possesses far more warheads for these missiles than does Russia and could upload hundreds of warheads to its deployed ballistic missiles and bombers. In addition, the Navy’s sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile is also a highly capable and continually improving conventional standoff weapon, and it has an even longer range than the JASSM-ER.

Has the military identified possible technical or other problems that could compromise the sea and ground based legs of the triad? What specific targets cannot be effectively and credibly held at risk by other nuclear and standoff weapons, together with gravity bombs, that could only be held at risk by the current ALCM and later, the LRSO force? How large and unique is that target set?

The Defense Department believes SLBMs, ICBMs and gravity bombs have different characteristics than ALCMs and are not perfect substitutes. At least a portion of the total ALCM force can also be more quickly uploaded to the deployed force than non-deployed ballistic missile warheads. (Note: nuclear ALCMs are not deployed on B-52H bombers on a day-to-day basis. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota armed with the W80-1 nuclear warhead.)

Yet as Hans Kristensen with the Federation of the American Scientists notes, “the bottom line for an effective nuclear deterrent is the credible capability to hold at risk the targets that an adversary values most.” On the issue of timing, how essential for deterrence is the quicker generation time for ALCMs? It is also important not to forget that B61 bombs can be rapidly uploaded to the B-2 and later the B-21.

Finally, regarding the New START bomber counting rule, it has been reported that the United States originally preferred an agreement that would count the actual number of nuclear bombs and ALCMs at air bases for use by bombers, but compromised and agreed to a discount rule that attributes each deployed bomber as one warhead. If such an agreement had been reached would reductions in the ALCM force have been required? There have also been reports that the United States was prepared to go lower than the 1,550 accountable warhead cap in the treaty.

Russia’s Actions Do Not Require Pursuit of a Costly New ALCM

Some LRSO advocates suggest that because Russia is fielding nuclear and conventional cruise missiles on aircraft, submarines, and surface ships, the United States must retain a nuclear cruise missile option.

Such arguments ignore the fact that the United States did not acquire the ALCM because the Soviet Union had such a capability, and it does not maintain or need to replace the ALCM because Russia has nuclear cruise missiles. It is not in the U.S. interest to engage in a new tit-for-tat arms race with the Russians to rebuild an excessively large nuclear force. This is especially true if it comes at the expense of needed conventional improvements that are more relevant to countering Russia and maintaining America’s military technological edge.

Questions about ALCM's Role in Current U.S. Strategy

Proponents consider a new ALCM necessary to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent because the current missile is losing its ability to penetrate increasingly sophisticated air and missile defenses.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the existing ALCM have stated that the reliability of the missile is not assured over the next ten years and that there are serious restrictions on the current use of the ALCM due to reliability issues. This suggests that the current ALCM could play more of a "backup" role in U.S. nuclear planning. Consequently, it would be imprudent to spend $20 billion or more to build a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile that could increase the role these weapons play in U.S. policy.

The Imaginary Strategic Bomber Gap

Some advocates of the LRSO erroneously claim that without the new weapon, a strategic bomber "capability gap" will emerge in the late 2020s and last for at least a decade. They argue that because the B-21 bomber will not be available in sufficient numbers for the nuclear mission until the 2040s, the U.S. military will need to continue to use B-52Hs armed with LRSOs until then.

It is important to keep in mind that LRSO production is slated to begin in 2026 and reach only initial operating capability by 2030. It will be several years later before full operating capability is achieved.

In contrast, the B-21 is slated to achieve an initial operating capability in 2025, with nuclear certification to follow two years later. The initial capability could include as many as 24 planes.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced a full production rate of 7-8 B-21s per year. Assuming the United States continues to deploy no more than 60 nuclear capable strategic bombers (as it currently plans to do under the New START treaty), the B-52 may need to be removed from the nuclear mission as soon as the early to mid-2030s in order to accommodate the B-21.

In sum, the current bomber force will provide a more than formidable capability and would become even more potent when the B-21 is fielded with the B61 mod 12 and advanced conventional cruise missiles. Fears of a "bomber capability gap" are misplaced.

The New LRSO Would Create New Military Capabilities and Could Prompt Countermeasures

Proponents of the LRSO claim that it would simply sustain an existing capability, not expand that capability. They claim the new missile will not be used for new military missions and air-launched cruise missiles would not pose a destabilizing first-strike threat to potential U.S. nuclear adversaries.

In reality, the president’s nuclear modernization program is vastly increasing the military capability of U.S. nuclear weapons, including the bomber leg, across key attributes such as stealth, accuracy, range, and speed. The LRSO is likely to have greatly enhanced capabilities relative to its predecessor, and will be mated to the B-52H, B-2 and B-21 bombers, whereas the current ALCM can only be delivered by the B-52H. U.S. nuclear stealth bombers have never carried stealthy nuclear cruise missiles.

The LRSO raises serious questions about stability that have yet to be fully explored. Some sources have revealed that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond "the original mission space" of the ALCM, namely in limited nuclear war-fighting contingencies involving China. Some supporters of the LRSO emphasize its utility for achieving tactical surprise in combat.

Furthermore, as stressed by William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Weber, "cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon" due to the fact that "they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants." The possible risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation posed by the LRSO requires far more scrutiny than blithe assertions from administration officials that the missile won’t upset stability.

Bottom Line

While it is uncertain what the military budget will look like a decade from now, there will likely be insufficient funding for the complete portfolio of proposed nuclear and conventional modernization goals. This will force the U.S. government to choose between the nuclear effort and other military priorities.

As senior White House officials have noted, the current "modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress and varied expectations about our future arms control efforts. Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades. And the President will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor."

The estimated $20-$30 billion cost to buy the LRSO and W80-4 would be much better spent on other parts of U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear mission areas.

The choice is clear: chart a more realistic path for the nuclear arsenal that doesn’t severely constrain the force-sizing options of future presidents and reduces the risk of doing serious damage to conventional capabilities and other national security programs.

As an early step in this course correction, the Pentagon should cancel its new cruise missile program and prioritize continued investments in the other legs of the nuclear triad and more relevant and usable non-nuclear capabilities, including longer-range conventional cruise missiles and other advanced air defense suppression tools.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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