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Strategic Policy

BOOK REVIEW: The Future of Nuclear Weapons

April 2016

Reviewed by Jan Lodal

The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century
By Brad Roberts, Stanford Security Studies, 2015, 352 pp.

My Journey at the Nuclear Brink
William J. Perry, Stanford Security Studies, 2015, 258 pp.

In the 25 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has faded from the headlines. Now, Brad Roberts and William J. Perry have written two important books pleading for our re-engagement with nuclear matters. Both are motivated to a significant degree by the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has embarked on a buildup of Russia’s nuclear capability, ending two decades of post-Cold War cooperative and negotiated nuclear reductions. Russian officials have asserted that their nuclear weapons are necessary to offset the conventional military strength of NATO and the United States, implying that this strength poses a direct threat and that, in a conflict, they are prepared to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

This comes just as the usable lifetime of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal is reaching its limits. With the need for an ongoing deterrent to Russian nuclear forces re-emerging, a serious effort to refurbish and even upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is underway. The Cold War nuclear arms race seems to be resuming only eight years after the hope and excitement generated by President Barack Obama’s stirring speech and declaration in Prague: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

In one sense, wider re-engagement with nuclear issues is a welcome development; it brings an end to growing complacency. Too many have forgotten or, if young enough, have never learned that nuclear weapons remain the most immediate existential threat to civilization. Roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons remain in military inventories worldwide, and 5,000 more are in storage. Even though these numbers are down by 70 percent or more from Cold War peaks, they are still huge. Some studies have argued that as few as 100 nuclear detonations could trigger nuclear winter, and a few hundred could destroy all the world’s major cities.  

The potential scenarios for nuclear catastrophe are uncountable. Perry describes one of the most frightening: If a terrorist organization were to gain control of just a single one of these 15,000 weapons, put it in an SUV or small van, and set it off halfway between the White House and the Capitol on a day when the president and Congress were present, the world would be changed forever. Even a “small” Hiroshima-sized weapon would destroy the White House and Capitol Hill, probably including the Supreme Court, along with the headquarters of most government departments. The federal government would be completely decapitated; its reconstitution would be drawn out and chaotic at best.

Arguing for a Robust Force

Roberts comes to the question of what to do about U.S. nuclear weapons after a long career of analyzing nuclear weapons programs, policy, posture, and plans. His book, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, covers the nuts and bolts of the nuclear issue. It provides an important contribution to understanding how government policy and programs actually have been constructed.

Roberts largely telegraphs his conclusions in the introduction to his book. He asserts that the United States “is entering a period of renewed debate about nuclear deterrence,” with the debate led by two “camps,” each with “fixed positions.” One camp “recoils from the horror of nuclear war” and demands unilateral U.S. steps toward nuclear disarmament. The other camp “accepts nuclear weapons as necessary and useful” and advocates retention and modernization of the nuclear arsenal. Roberts asserts that these two camps are generally contemptuous of the views of each other, leading to gridlock in Congress and disagreement within the “analytic community” on how to proceed.

Using an approach long followed by analysts, Roberts asserts his preference for the middle option—a “balanced approach” set between these two extremes. The essence of his recommendation is to implement fully the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, in which he played an important role. He would set aside as unrealistic the goal of nuclear abolition in favor of “working to create the conditions that would allow the United States and other states with nuclear weapons to take additional steps in the future to reduce the role and number of such weapons.” In other words, Roberts supports arms control, but only in the future when “conditions allow.” He very much wants to drop dreams of nuclear disarmament, which in his view have led to dangerous complacency about the safety, effectiveness, and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. To end the complacency, he calls for the United States to modernize and strengthen its nuclear forces along the lines that the Obama administration has proposed to Congress.

Roberts’ book is a thorough and carefully argued case for maintaining a robust U.S. nuclear force indefinitely into the future. His rationale starts with a proposition not disputed by Obama or even those who have supported the goal of eventual nuclear disarmament: so long as other states retain nuclear weapons, the United States must maintain a robust nuclear deterrent to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used. But Roberts goes further: he supports missions for nuclear weapons that go beyond that of preventing the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Roberts defines three “zones of deterrence” through which nuclear-related challenges might pass: a “gray zone” of coercion and provocation, a “red zone” in which combat is underway but the adversary attempts to keep its actions beneath the U.S. nuclear response threshold, and a “black and white zone” involving nuclear attack against U.S. assets, allies, or forces. Deterrence should work in all three zones. He also hypothesizes a “theory of victory” held by each potential adversary. He believes that a major aspect of U.S. strategy should be to ensure that each theory of victory can be effectively countered, even when doing so would require standing ready to use nuclear weapons as war-fighting instruments.

Roberts then turns to the nuclear-related security problems that he sees challenging the United States. He first analyzes two “new problems”—the emergence of nuclear-armed regional challenges, principally North Korea, and Putin’s Russia. He also analyzes four long-standing security issues: the evolving relationship with China, extended deterrence in Europe and Asia, strategic stability, and nuclear assurance.

Roberts’ first new-problem discussion focuses on Iran and North Korea, although he also sees some role for nuclear deterrence in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. His writing dates to 2014, so one can assume that the situation in the latter three countries has now changed to the point that nuclear issues are no longer terribly relevant. Much the same is true with regard to his discussion of how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran. That leaves North Korea as the new problem—something that has been high on the list of U.S. concerns since President Bill Clinton’s first term, so it is new only in the sense that it emerged after the Cold War. To deter North Korean threats in the gray zone or even the red zone, Roberts proposes a combination of robust conventional forces, ballistic missile defense, and flexible nuclear forces relevant to the region. There is little mention of diplomacy beyond maintaining alliances, and there is no mention of arms control.

Roberts implies that U.S. nuclear forces need to be the sum of what is required to separately deter or respond to each possible regional threat, plus what is needed to deter or respond to China and Russia. But long-standing U.S. government analysis has been that the force needed to deal with non-Russian threats is a “lesser included case” of what is needed to deal with Russia. In other words, the size of the U.S. nuclear force is determined entirely by the need to deter a potentially hostile Russia, not by the other problems Roberts cites. If the United States has enough for Russia, it does not need more for Roberts’ other problems, nor does it need more-flexible forces to fight nuclear wars.

The Putin Factor

With regard to Russia, Roberts asserts that 2014 was a “fundamental turning point” in U.S.-Russian relations. There is no question that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and de facto invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, blatantly disregarding its multiple commitments to respect existing borders, marked a significant turn for the worse. Yet, the relationship had been deteriorating steadily under Putin, except perhaps for his four years as prime minister when there was a partial thaw under the “tandem” leadership with President Dmitry Medvedev. During this period, Russia and the United States concluded the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which froze but did not significantly reduce strategic nuclear force numbers and left tactical and reserve weapons uncontrolled.

Roberts believes that Russia’s leadership feels genuinely threatened by NATO expansion, modest missile defenses oriented toward Iran, and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Steven Lee Myers in his definitive book, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, details the ways in which Putin has been motivated largely by a desire for power and wealth. Putin has sought to control every aspect of Russian government, news outlets, and major business. To do so, he needed all the public support he could get. So he has used the age-old tactic of scaring his citizens about an external enemy, in this case NATO led by the United States, to consolidate his power. This became more feasible as oil revenues enriched his kleptocracy and bloated Russia’s defense budget. Complaints about the “threat” of NATO or the United States were largely concocted for his domestic political reasons. This does not fit Roberts’ zones of deterrence model.

Back to the Cold War

Roberts’ approach is similar in many aspects to the “flexible response” strategy initiated by President John Kennedy. This strategy was a reaction to President Dwight Eisenhower’s strategy of “massive retaliation,” which was no longer credible after the Soviet Union developed a strategic missile and bomber force comparable to that of the United States. Yet, Roberts seems to forget that the main purpose of “flexible response,” which envisioned the United States being the first to use tactical battlefield nuclear weapons, was to deter a Soviet tank army invasion of Western Europe. Soviet control of the Warsaw Pact and its massive armored force meant that the West would have had a difficult time building an adequate deterrent consisting only of conventional weapons.

The Cold War strategy of using nuclear weapons to offset a conventional disadvantage was high risk even then, adopted only because it was the best of many bad options. Fortunately, there no longer is a Soviet invasion force requiring nuclear threats to deter its use. High-tech U.S. and European conventional forces, based on precision-guided munitions and dominant surveillance and communications, could defeat any Russian invasion or, for that matter, a conventional military threat to the United States or its allies anywhere in the world. So the only remaining purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Roberts’ book does not deal with a critical capability now missing from the U.S. nuclear force—the capability to assure that there will be no “prompt launch.” Present systems and war plans envision the possibility of the president having to make a decision to launch nuclear weapons under attack in a very short time frame. There have been many calls to de-alert U.S. nuclear weapons systems, which would automatically remove the capability for prompt launch. In many cases, however, keeping systems on alert is important to ensure their survivability. What the United States needs instead is a national command system that will better protect the safety of the president and his successors to be sure any decision to use nuclear weapons can be made deliberately.

A Very Different Perspective

Perry’s book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, is also an analysis of the nuclear challenge but from a very different perspective—that of a lifetime of insider involvement culminating at the very highest level as secretary of defense. Perry does not retrace the intricacies of nuclear strategy and doctrine. Rather, his book is devoted to explaining his urgent concern that although nuclear weapons remain the primary existential threat to humankind, the public’s focus, particularly that of young leaders, has moved elsewhere. He calls the book a “selective memoir” because its focus is the “nuclear brink” on which he believes the world remains perched, not his career as a whole.

Perry’s book has five important chapters on other aspects of his fascinating and rich career: the Bosnian war and his role in bringing it to an end, Haiti and other efforts to build a new mutual defense relationship with Latin America, the challenges of creating an efficient weapons development and procurement system, improving the life of military families, and his experience as a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley at the outset of the digital age. But the remaining 20 chapters focus on nuclear subjects.

Perry begins with a fascinating personal description of the defining moment of the early Cold War and of his career’s focus on nuclear war: the Cuban missile crisis. He had been exposed to the horrors of modern warfare as a young soldier posted to Okinawa just after allied bombs had destroyed the main cities there. But he had to confront the reality of possible nuclear war only many years later when he was serving as a young assistant to the chief intelligence officer in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Perry and one or two other young experts prepared the daily briefings on the status of the Soviet missiles in Cuba for Kennedy and his top advisers. The crisis management team was meeting nearly around the clock trying to figure out how to remove the nuclear threat from Cuba without triggering a catastrophic nuclear war. Each day, Perry thought war was imminent and that it might be his last day on earth. The knee-jerk reaction of the senior military officer present, General Curtis LeMay, was to start bombing the missiles in Cuba immediately, which probably would have triggered their launch against U.S. cities and an all-out nuclear exchange killing hundreds of millions. But LeMay was overruled by Kennedy, leaving room for the brilliant diplomacy, backed up by a naval blockade, that ended the crisis peacefully. A nuclear catastrophe was narrowly averted, and Perry learned that the only way to avoid nuclear war was to use a combination of military strength and smart diplomacy.

Soon afterward, Perry was to play a major role in developing the intelligence systems that allowed the United States to understand the growth of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. In the Carter administration, he became the Department of Defense’s chief technology officer, leading the development of stealth and other systems that increased the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force. He eloquently describes these efforts and how they helped to keep the peace. Finally, in the Clinton administration, Perry assumed what is perhaps the world’s most important position of responsibility for nuclear matters, U.S. defense secretary.

In that role, Perry accumulated even more intense experience with the challenge of avoiding nuclear war as second to the president in command of U.S. nuclear weapons. Any order to launch nuclear weapons, including the massive attacks that made up the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), would have to pass through him. He thus became intimately aware of how fragile the edifice of “mutual assured destruction” was and how catastrophic a failure of deterrence would be.

As a result, Perry immediately took advantage of the new relationship with Russia emerging after the breakup of the Soviet Union. One of his first steps, ably assisted by the current defense secretary, Ash Carter, was to take personal responsibility for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program with Russia. Perry adds new details to the history of this path-breaking effort. The CTR program led to the dismantlement of nuclear systems in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine and provided significant other assistance to Russia in dismantling the Cold War nuclear infrastructure it no longer needed. Cooperative disarmament such as this has not existed before or since.

Perry also documents the unprecedented military cooperation between Russia and NATO that peaked in the Bosnia peacekeeping mission. This cooperation was so deep that a Russian battalion participated in the Bosnia peacekeeping force under the overall command of a U.S. general. During Perry’s years as secretary, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a formal cooperation agreement with NATO that remains in effect (although little used). Again, Perry took home the lesson that military programs had to be complemented by capable diplomacy to manage the nuclear threat.

To document that nongovernmental efforts can play an important diplomatic role, Perry offers a fascinating account of how he continued his “journey at the nuclear brink” even after he left office. He resumed a position at Stanford University and passed up a comfortable retirement to travel the world, with several trips to Russia, to mentor next-generation leaders and to advocate for continued reductions in nuclear forces worldwide.

These efforts reached something of a peak when he joined three other distinguished statesmen to write the op-ed “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” in the January 4, 2007, Wall Street Journal. This article took the arms control and nuclear policy community by storm. The four men—Perry, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)—argued that a serious effort should be made to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the earth. Nuclear deterrence would have to be maintained during the process, but the risk to mankind of these weapons was too great to keep them indefinitely.

The four authors became known as the “Gang of Four.” They had come to their conclusion after years of responsibility for U.S. nuclear forces and policy at the highest level. In their initial op-ed and in subsequent articles and speeches, they argued that any use of nuclear weapons would trigger massive, unacceptable changes in the world, even if the first detonation did not lead to escalation. The states that emerged from the catastrophe would very likely band together to disarm any state or terrorist group that might still retain nuclear weapons or the capability to make them, no matter what the price in collateral damage. The cost of the dragnet would be huge, probably involving more war, an end to individual liberties, and perhaps even an end to the system of sovereign states that forms the basis of world governance. Reconstruction could take decades or perhaps never be possible because of residual radiation.

Perry emphasizes the importance of maintaining close working relations with Russia because significant reductions in the vast number of active nuclear weapons still remaining in the world are not possible without this cooperation. He attributes the current breakdown in relations with Russia in no small measure to mistakes made by successive U.S. presidents. While he was defense secretary, he argued for a slower and smaller expansion of NATO. He also disagreed with President George W. Bush’s decision to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order to deploy ABMs in central Europe directed at Iran, which then led Russia to renounce START II with its extensive verification procedures and ban on multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles. Perry saw these actions as unnecessary provocations and not worth stifling the growing U.S.-Russian cooperation that had led to dramatic reductions in nuclear arsenals.

Perry argues that it would be a terrible mistake to give up on nuclear diplomacy with Russia, but he does not directly address the challenge of making progress with Putin in power and his nuclear buildup underway. Perry’s implicit solution is to remain patient and not respond with a nuclear buildup in the United States, realizing that the aging but very powerful U.S. force will remain an adequate deterrent.  Over time, Russia will accept that NATO, limited missile defenses, and U.S. military actions against terrorists are not a threat and will return to cooperation. This probably will require a change in Russian leadership; Putin seems pleased at the success he has had using foreign threats to stoke nationalistic political support for his authoritarian regime.

Prospects for Reductions

Since the early days of the Cold War, calculations have shown that 400 nuclear weapons detonated on Russian targets could destroy Russia’s military and its economy. Accounting for alert rates and other failures, perhaps 1,000 weapons might be needed to guarantee that 400 hit their targets. Today’s deployed U.S. force is more than twice this size, implying that it should be reduced, rather than modernized and expanded in capability, as Roberts prefers. Yet, it always has been politically difficult to move away from nuclear parity with Russia, even if there is no military or strategic need for a nuclear force of the same numerical size as Russia’s.

Thus, further U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control reductions are likely to be the only path away from the nuclear brink. Notwithstanding Putin’s bellicosity, this is not as hopeless as one might think. An economically challenged Russia, with its energy revenues severely reduced, its businesses sanctioned, and its industry falling further behind the rest of the world, might just find it in its interest to resume nuclear cooperation with the United States. This would not usher in “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” but it would be a start in that direction.

Jan Lodal is a distinguished fellow and former president of the Atlantic Council. He has served in senior positions at the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, where he had major responsibilities for arms control and other defense-related matters. He is the author of more than 50 articles and The Price of Dominance: The New Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Challenge to American Leadership (2001).

Reviewer Jan Lodal contrasts the very different perspectives on nuclear arms articulated in two new books...

Back to the Nuclear Brink?

March 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In the years after, Russia and the United States began to wind down Cold War tensions and slash their nuclear arsenals. But today, the risks of nuclear brinkmanship and unbridled nuclear competition are on the rise once again.

Although the number of nuclear weapons is down from its Cold War peak, Russian and U.S. nuclear forces and postures still allow each country to launch more than 1,000 nuclear bombs within minutes if attacked. Each side depends on the restraint and good judgment of the other to avoid mutual annihilation.

Obama listens to Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit.

Distrust is deep, and the list of grievances is growing. Although Russian and U.S. forces still far exceed nuclear deterrence requirements, progress on further nuclear cuts is on hold. Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing concerns about U.S. regional missile interceptors and third-country arsenals, has rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 proposal for a further one-third reduction in each side’s nuclear forces without so much as a counterproposal.

Complicating matters, Russia also has tested ground-based cruise missiles in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and stiff-armed U.S. efforts to resolve the issue. Both countries continue to pursue fiscally unsustainable, multibillion-dollar schemes to replace and upgrade each major component of their strategic nuclear forces.

Worse still, Putin’s illegal annexation and destabilization of parts of Ukraine in violation of its 1994 pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons has put NATO members bordering Russia on edge. Unfortunately, the Ukraine crisis has halted most military-to-military contacts between East and West, making the increasingly frequent Russia-NATO close air encounters an even more dangerous potential flashpoint.

To date, the United States and Europe have responded to Putin’s meddling in Ukraine with targeted economic sanctions against Russia, plus additional conventional military training and support for allies and partners.

As Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, told a Senate committee last year, “The security situation in Europe is less stable, but it’s not based on the nuclear piece” of the equation.

Over the past year, however, Russian officials have begun to highlight their nuclear forces as a deterrent against what they see as increasingly threatening U.S. and NATO conventional military capabilities. Late last year, Russia “leaked” plans for a new nuclear-armed underwater torpedo, implying it is eyeing new types of nuclear weapons.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned, “No one should think it is possible to use nuclear weapons in a limited way as part of a conventional conflict.” He is right.

Now, in a troubling shift of rhetoric, the Defense Department has unwisely begun to frame its unaffordable, all-of-the-above plan for replacing and upgrading U.S. strategic bombers, nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and land- and sea-based strategic nuclear forces as part of its strategy to “counter Russia’s aggressive policies in Eastern Europe,” according its latest budget request.

In reality, U.S. nuclear weapons do nothing to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine or protect nervous NATO allies in the Baltics. This new Pentagon talking point only provides the Kremlin with a cynical excuse to accelerate its plans to improve Russia’s nuclear forces.

It makes no sense for either side to pursue a multidecade nuclear weapons spending binge that would perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era nuclear war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.               

Obama and his successor, along with Putin, have a responsibility to pull back from a nuclear action-reaction cycle that puts both countries at greater risk.

To start, the two presidents should issue a joint statement reaffirming their understanding that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and that as long as each side has nuclear weapons, strategic stability will remain central to their bilateral relations.

They should immediately resume active discussions on new, creative proposals to reduce the size and enormous cost of their excess strategic and tactical nuclear stockpiles and to resolve disagreements about missile defenses and INF Treaty compliance.

For instance, Obama could order a halt of the program to develop a new air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile, phase out the missile it is replacing, and pursue with Russia and other states a ban on nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Such systems are for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has argued, “[T]he old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.”

To avoid miscalculation in a crisis, U.S. and NATO officials should resume regular communications with their military and intelligence counterparts in Russia, including through the NATO-Russia Council. Dialogue is essential for security and should not be denied to show displeasure with Russian behavior.

Leaders in Moscow and Washington need to walk back from a new era of nuclear one-upmanship, or else the world will face even greater dangers in the months and years ahead. 

Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In the years after...

Statement by Daryl G. Kimball on Rightsizing the U.S. Nuclear Force and Budget



Rightsizing the U.S. Nuclear Force and Budget
Prepared Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association

2016 Nuclear Deterrence Summit
February 17, 2016, Arlington, V.A.

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.

The “fundamental purpose” of the weapons, the review states, is to deter nuclear attack, not wage a nuclear war.

At the same time, the strategy called for maintaining and modernizing the remaining U.S. nuclear forces on a smaller triad of delivery systems as mandated by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Current Pentagon plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed strategic submarines, 80 to 100 new penetrating strategic bombers (some or all of which will be nuclear capable), a fleet of new and stealthier nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and new land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reportedly be deployed on mobile launchers in the future, all at spending levels that exceed what was originally advertised.

In 2011 the Pentagon claimed that the cost for sustaining and modernizing nuclear delivery systems would be $126 billion and up to another $88 billion for warhead refurbishment and infrastructure modernization, for a total of about $214 billion.

In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost from fiscal years 2015 to 2024 would be about $348 billion, including upgrades to nuclear command and control.

Senior Pentagon leaders warn that there will not be enough money to fund all of the items on the military’s wish list.

By the mid-2020s, the cost of nuclear weapons will consume 7 percent of the entire defense budget, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

And it could consume an even bigger slice of the Pentagon’s overall weapons acquisition budget.

The coming nuclear and conventional weapons budgetary “bow wave” has been apparent for some time.

But rather than make common sense adjustments to the nuclear weapons modernization plan, Secretary of Defense Carter and his policy advisors including principal undersecretary for policy Brian McKeon, are pushing an all-of-the-above approach they know we can’t afford without making irrational cuts to other defense programs and they seem to be content to pass on the problem to their successors.

Frankly, that’s an embarrassing failure of leadership.

With one year left in his term, it is past time for Obama to chart a more realistic, affordable, and sustainable course.

We believe that in the near term, there are three important Defense Department programs that should be re-evaluated and adjusted.

First, the president could announce that U.S. deterrence requirements do not require spending at least $62 billion on 642 new land-based missiles to support a deployed force of 400 missiles with a mobile option.

Instead, he could direct the Pentagon to pursue the deployment of a smaller fleet of 300 new or refurbished fixed-silo ICBMs. 

Over the next decade, this approach could save up to $10 billion.

A 2014 RAND study estimated that the 39-year life cycle costs of sustaining the Minuteman III would cost $24-35 billion less than the current Air Force plan to procure a new missile with similar specifications.

Second, Obama also could announce that requirements for the sea-based leg of the triad can be met with a smaller fleet of strategic subs.

Under the current plans, the 12 new boats would carry 192 missiles with up to eight warheads each, at a cost of $140 billion to develop.

But with adjustments to the current launch-under-attack posture which require a larger number of subs on station and ready to fire their missiles at assigned targets quickly, that number of boats could be reduced to 8 boats and still meet current plans for 1,000 sea-based warheads.

As the most survivable of the three legs of the triad, the missiles sub force need not be maintained on a Cold War launch under nuclear attack to the mainland posture.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates such an approach would save approximately $20.9 billion over the next nine years, and more thereafter.

What is $20 billion? That is roughly one year of the Navy shipbuilding budget, or about the cost of an aircraft carrier, an attack submarine, a destroyer, three small surface combatant ships and four logistics ships.

Third, President Obama should order a halt of the program to develop a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a.k.a. the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO).

The Air Force wants 1,000 to 1,100 new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missiles at an acquisition cost of some $20 billion to $30 billion.

But, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry wrote last fall in The Washington Post: “The old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.”

In fact, the current AGM-86B missile only serves a minor “back-up” role in the current U.S. nuclear war plan. The new system, which would be more capable, is for escalation control and nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence.

Given that new nuclear-armed cruise missile would be redundant and destabilizing, why invest $20-30 billion in a completely new system?

Other strategic nuclear weapons delivery capabilities and conventional cruise missile capabilities make the weapon unnecessary.

The current ALCM will be in the arsenal for more than a decade, and the Air Force is poised to spend $100 billion on its stealthy new strategic bombers to penetrate enemy air defenses with newly refurbished B61 nuclear gravity bombs. A new, long-range, precision conventional cruise missile is now being introduced for delivery by existing and new bombers and fighter jets.

Without the LSRO, we would still have a formidable air-leg of the nuclear triad.

Halting the new cruise missile program would also open the way for a U.S.-led effort on a global ban on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles within a specified time frame, thus reducing current and future threats to the United States. This will not be easy but it is worth pursuing.

Before plunging forward with the LRSO, Secretary Carter, or his successor, should address a number of basic questions, including (but not limited to):

  • What are the specific targets/missions for the LRSO that cannot be fulfilled by either the Long-Range Strike Bomber and the B61-12 or conventional munitions, conventional cruise missiles from other platforms, or ICBMs or SLBMs?
  • If the current AGM-86B missile only serves a very limited role at best in the current war plan, why invest $20-30 billion in a completely new system?
  • Will the W80-4 warhead have more flexible selectable yield options?
  • What are the implications for strategic stability of a nuclear ALCM that is stealthier, faster, longer-range, more accurate, deployed on a larger number of more advanced bombers, and more flexible in terms of nuclear yield options?
  • How would other countries respond to a more capable U.S. LSRO?

Strategic Context

For now, efforts to negotiate further U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions are on hold – at least until New START expires in 2021.

Russia has rebuffed President Obama’s 2013 proposals for further nuclear cuts and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The danger of close encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft has increased tensions.

Russian Prime Minister Dimtry Medvedev suggested over the weekend in Munich that we are in a “new Cold War.”

Perhaps we are. 

But the proposals for a more affordable strategic nuclear force that I just outlined still would allow for a New START force for a decade beyond its expiration.

And today, U.S. and Russian forces still far exceed deterrence requirements.

A 2013 Pentagon follow-on study determined that deterrence requirements can be met with one-third fewer deployed strategic nuclear forces.

Today, Russia possesses some 1,780 nuclear warheads and the United States some 1,900 that can be delivered on several hundred strategic bombers and missiles. If used even in a “limited” way, the result would be a humanitarian catastrophe.              

It makes little sense for either side to pursue a multi-decade nuclear weapons spending binge that promises to perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.

That does not deter Russia’s meddling in Ukraine or protect nervous NATO allies in the Baltics.

President Obama and Secretary Carter can still use the time they have left in office to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons by trimming back and in some cases forgoing redundant and costly nuclear weapons systems.

By doing so, he would open the way to further reducing the role and size of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and to a safer and more secure future. 


President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would...

Hill Denies Money for Submarine Fund

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia on February 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy)Congress in December declined to provide funding for a special budget account it created in 2014 to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats and a debate about whether the fund would save money.

Lawmakers also voted to withhold 75 percent of the Army’s budget request for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) after part of the blimp-borne radar system crashed in northeastern Pennsylvania on Oct. 28.

Those provisions were part of the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, which passed the House and the Senate on Dec. 18. Fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1, 2015, and runs until Sept. 30.

Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the program to build the new submarines, known as the Ohio-class replacement program, and meet its needs for conventional ships. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Navy estimates that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035 and replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class subs, will cost $139 billion to develop and build.

In an attempt to address the Navy’s concerns, the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act created the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, a separate budget account outside the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account that would provide a mechanism for the Navy to buy the new boats without reducing funding for its other shipbuilding programs. The authorization bill for the current fiscal year, which President Barack Obama signed on Nov. 25, expands the purview of the fund and provides the Navy with special acquisition authorities, such as the ability to buy components for multiple boats in a single bulk purchase, which supporters say could reduce the cost of the new submarines.

But critics, including Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, maintain that the fund is a gimmick because extra monies will have to be found somewhere in the Pentagon’s budget with or without the fund. The critics also argue that Congress can authorize more-efficient acquisition practices in the absence of a separate account.

The actual transfer of money to the fund has to be approved by lawmakers through the appropriations process. The House defense appropriations subcommittee, which has been critical of the fund, attempted to prohibit the transfer of fiscal year 2016 monies to the account. But the full House overruled the subcommittee ban, which the full Appropriations Committee had accepted, in approving two amendments to the defense appropriations bill that removed the prohibition and made $3.5 billion available for transfer. The Senate Appropriations Committee version of the bill did not authorize the transfer of money to the fund.

The final omnibus bill reflects the Senate position and does not approve money for the fund.

The omnibus bill also takes a hard line on the JLENS program, slashing $30 million from the budget request of $40.6 million due to “test schedule delays.” In the Oct. 28 incident, one of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the system detached from its mooring station near Baltimore, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.) The system is designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Beth Smith, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said an Army investigation to determine the cause of the incident is “still ongoing” and could take 90 days to complete. A decision about whether to continue the planned three-year test of the system’s capability to contribute to cruise missile defense “will be made following the investigation’s conclusion,” she added.

In a Jan. 5 email to Arms Control Today, an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), vice chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, said that “after more than $2.7 billion invested in the program, continuing criticism of its reliability, and the near-tragedy in October when the aerostat broke free from its tether,” the omnibus bill “does not support continuation” of the test of the system in fiscal year 2016.

Signed by Obama on Dec. 18, the omnibus appropriations bill is a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills that had to be passed to keep the government operating. The bill was made possible by an Oct. 26 agreement between the White House and key congressional leaders on new spending levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

Nuclear Modernization

The omnibus bill largely supported the Obama administration’s proposed funding hike for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.)

The bill includes the requested amount of $1.4 billion for the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program, an increase of $100 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation, and $75.2 million for the Air Force’s effort to develop a replacement for Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), an increase of $68.3 million over last year’s appropriation.

The Pentagon’s Frank Kendall speaks at the Farnborough air show in the United Kingdom on July 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)The bill also provides the requested amount of $8.9 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an increase of $667 million, or 8 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation. The appropriation for weapons activities includes $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) warhead, an increase of $186 million above last year’s appropriation of $9.4 million.

The omnibus bill provides $16.1 million for the Air Force’s program to develop a new nuclear ALCM to deliver the refurbished warhead, a 56 percent reduction below the request of $36.6 million, and $736 million for the program to build up to 100 new long-range strategic bombers, a 41 percent reduction below the request of $1.3 billion. These reductions reflect schedule delays that decreased the budget requirements for both programs in fiscal year 2016 below the levels that were originally anticipated.

In addition, the bill includes a policy provision prohibiting the use of fiscal year 2016 funds “to reduce or to prepare to reduce” the number of deployed and nondeployed U.S. strategic nuclear delivery systems below the levels the Pentagon has said it will retain as it adjusts its forces to meet the requirements of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the treaty’s implementation deadline of 2018. (See ACT, May 2014.)

Missile Defense Gets Increase

The omnibus bill provides $15 million in unrequested funding “to expedite the construction and deployment of urgently needed missile defense assets in various locations within the Continental United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.”

The bill does not specify whether this money can be used to begin building a third missile defense interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast to augment existing defenses in Alaska and California against a limited ICBM attack.

The House version of the fiscal year 2016 military construction appropriations bill included $30 million to begin early planning and design activities for a third site. The Senate version of the bill did not include this funding.

In a Dec. 23 email, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman Richard Lehner said the agency is currently “assessing” its options for spending the additional $15 million. He added that “no construction [is] planned for an East Coast site” as there has been “no decision to construct a site.”

The Defense Department announced in January 2014 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress. (See ACT, March 2014.) Lehner said these studies are scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2016.

Overall, the omnibus bill provides approximately $8.1 billion for the MDA, an increase of $175 million above the administration request.

MOX and the Alternative

Lawmakers provided the NNSA with a small amount of money to begin work on an alternative to the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX fuel program is designed to turn surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors.

Of the $345 million the administration requested for construction of the MOX fuel plant, the omnibus bill provides $340 million for construction and $5 million to begin early planning and design activities for the “dilute and dispose” approach, which would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. The bill prohibits the NNSA from actually diluting plutonium.

The language on the MOX fuel plant represents the latest round of a long-running battle over the best way to handle the surplus weapons plutonium.

The omnibus bill includes $1.7 billion for the NNSA’s fissile material security and nonproliferation efforts, the same as the budget request and an increase of $90.7 million, or 5.6 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation

Congress in December declined to fund a special account to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats...

BOOK REVIEW: Nuclear Weapons and Nixon’s Madman Theory

December 2015

Reviewed by Michael Krepon

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War
By William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
University Press of Kansas, 2015, 448 pp.

One debating point in academic circles about nuclear weapons is whether they confer leverage in crises and in war.1 For those confused by or skeptical of the methodologies employed in these arguments, the best way to reach a conclusion is by delving deeply into case studies.

There will be no better book-length case study on coercive nuclear diplomacy than the one just written by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War. Burr is one of the keepers of the National Security Archive, an essential resource for researchers, writers, and diplomatic practitioners who wish to be informed by history. Kimball is a professor emeritus at Miami University in Ohio and the author of Nixon’s Vietnam War. (He also is the father of Arms Control Today’s publisher.) Burr and Kimball document in significant detail the story of how, in 1969, President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger sought to avoid a “long game” in Vietnam. In October 1969, they authorized coercive nuclear feints designed to incline North Vietnam to be more receptive to U.S. offers and the Kremlin to be more helpful in arranging an early settlement.

The modus operandi of Nixon and Kissinger for Vietnam was similar to the one they used for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union. They set in motion bureaucratic inquiries into policy options that they did not intend to pursue, operated through irregular channels, and tried to keep some key individuals out of the loop.

Burr and Kimball were not granted access to the Kissinger papers at the Library of Congress, which will remain closed to all but a privileged few until five years after his death—a constraint that the authors declare to be “the last standing abuse of power of the Nixon era.” They also did not gain access to archives in China, Russia, or Vietnam to offer greater insight into how these countries assessed the motives and intentions behind Nixon’s nuclear messaging.

They still managed to gather enough material to provide great detail on the veiled nuclear alert and to conclude that it was directed primarily against Moscow. They also provide compelling arguments for why these feints failed in their intended purpose. This book should put an end to academic debates over the diplomatic utility of nuclear weapons to leverage outcomes, but it probably will not.

During the Vietnam War, the United States possessed the largest and most capable nuclear arsenal in the world. It was bogged down in a brutal, extended war with a state that did not possess nuclear weapons. North Vietnam was helpless to stop U.S. aerial bombardment and could not be sure that its patron, the Soviet Union, would respond militarily to U.S. nuclear strikes on North Vietnam. Even under these circumstances, the Nixon administration’s attempts at coercive nuclear diplomacy failed miserably.

The Soviet Union failed to react in hoped-for ways, nor did it overreact. Evidence of the failure of veiled nuclear threats in the fall of 1969 can be found in the war’s prolongation until the armistice agreement signed in January 1973 and ultimately in the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, after what Nixon and Kissinger termed a “decent interval” of two years.

A case can be made that more conventional military means of suasion—for example, the stepped-up U.S. bombing and mining campaigns in 1972—had more influence on the North’s leadership than the veiled nuclear threats. Burr and Kimball argue otherwise. They conclude with reasonable evidence that these endgame measures were directed more at President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, who was balking at the terms that Kissinger was negotiating, rather than the North Vietnamese leadership.

Most of this book is about Vietnam. The portrayals of Nixon and Kissinger are by now familiar, with new flourishes recently added by Bob Woodward’s book The Last of the President’s Men, based on a trove of documents and the recollections of Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy chief of staff. In the Burr-Kimball book, Nixon and Kissinger sometimes egg each other on. Kissinger flatters Nixon while occasionally evading Nixon’s exasperated instructions. The tide of the Vietnam War and anti-war sentiment are working against them; escalation measures succeed more in inflaming domestic opposition than in bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion.

Those interested in whether nuclear weapons provide political utility can profit from reading the first chapter of Burr and Kimball’s book, which summarizes nuclear threats made prior to the Nixon administration, as well as the chapter providing particulars about the 1969 nuclear alert, which was characterized as a “readiness test” to avoid raising domestic and diplomatic hackles.

The record of senior U.S. officials believing that nuclear weapons could provide diplomatic leverage begins with President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson after World War II, when they initially considered the atomic bomb to be a “master card,” and Secretary of State James Byrnes, who believed that nuclear weapons would make the Soviet Union “more manageable.” Yet, Truman declined to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War, and Stimson soon had second thoughts and sought to eliminate these weapons.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke repeatedly about the utility of nuclear weapons, but they too backed away from use in Korea and Vietnam. Military figures argued for restraint because of the absence of suitable targets and the requirements for a large troop presence after using these weapons. Diplomats warned about the likelihood that such use would horrify U.S. allies in Europe and the prospective alienation and outrage in Asia. Other concerns related to the uncertainties of Soviet and Chinese responses. These arguments were persuasive.

The Eisenhower administration faced more crises with nuclear dimensions than any of its predecessors or successors. In September 1954, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) went on alert after the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu, two islands held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government off the coast of mainland China. In January 1955, the Eisenhower administration ostentatiously moved nuclear-capable aircraft closer to the Taiwan Strait. SAC readiness levels were raised again in July 1958 during a crisis in Lebanon and yet again in response to heightened threat levels in the Middle East and along the Taiwan Strait in early 1959. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev also used nuclear threats during the October 1956 crises sparked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

The absence of battlefield use during the Eisenhower administration was pivotal in establishing what international relations scholar Nina Tannenwald calls a taboo against using nuclear weapons.2 After two presidents, a Democrat and a Republican, managed to avoid using nuclear weapons during the Korean War and in multiple flash points in the Middle East and Asia, the bar was set extremely high for Nixon and Kissinger. The administration of Lyndon Johnson did not seriously consider using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Nixon brought to the White House the conviction that his predecessors acted wisely in making nuclear threats, and he was determined to use coercive nuclear diplomacy to shorten the Vietnam War. Kissinger was on Nixon’s wavelength, heartily endorsing the use of conventional force and nuclear threats to bring the excruciating and costly war to a close. The two men considered both tracks in 1969 and settled initially on nuclear feints. Left with the prospect of a long war when this failed, they then chose to raise the ante by conventional means.

Burr and Kimball present no evidence that Nixon and Kissinger were serious about nuclear weapons use but ample evidence that they were intent on nuclear coercion to help persuade Moscow to use its good offices in Hanoi to shorten the war. Both men were convinced that nuclear threats could be translated into leverage even though the track record of previous threats was ambiguous at best. It was as if the absence of horrific consequences when threats were conveyed equaled a successful application of influence even when, as in the cases cited above, outcomes were either indifferent to or immune from nuclear threat-making.

Nixon’s distinctive stamp on coercive nuclear diplomacy was to leave the impression that he might just be off his rocker, thereby lending credence to threats that seemed implausible to Hanoi and Moscow. Nixon apparently remained convinced of the utility of nuclear threat-making long after his resignation from the presidency. He told an interviewer at Time in 1985 that he considered Khrushchev to be a master of this art “because he scared the hell out of people.”

Nixon described this approach as the “Madman Theory,” a phrase he coined during his presidential campaign in 1968 when he spoke with his prospective chief of staff, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, whose notes of the conversation appeared in Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.’”3

Burr and Kimball define the Madman Theory as “[t]hreatening an adversary with the use of extreme or excessive force—force that normal people would consider disproportionate to the issues in dispute and, beyond that, senselessly dangerous because it risked a larger conflict that would also imperil the vital interests and security of the threatener. Adversaries would or might assume that the threatener was genuinely crazy—even though he was not—and therefore capable of irrational, imprudent, unpredictable acts.”

The alert, carried out between October 13 and 30, 1969, was termed the “JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Readiness Test,” or “Increased Readiness Posture.” The American public was not told about the alert, but some journalists and congressional staffers got wind of it. NATO allies were kept in the dark. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and his military assistant, Colonel Robert Pursley, were apprised of the plan. Secretary of State William Rogers was not directly informed of the reasons behind it, and even the JCS chairman, General Earle Wheeler, might not have been, although both men quickly learned the reasons for these feints. (Nixon and Kissinger executed similar maneuvers bypassing Rogers prior to and during negotiations on the SALT I treaty.)

Commanders in the field who received orders to increase readiness for the employment of nuclear weapons, such as raising the number of bombers and tankers on ground alert, were kept in the dark about the geostrategic game plan behind these moves. They raised objections to actions that would degrade pilot training and proficiency while worrying allies. Other particulars of the readiness test included radio silence, increased surveillance of Soviet shipping, higher alert rates for SAC aircraft, the dispersal of bombers, and increased U.S. reconnaissance flights.

These readiness measures were intended to get the Kremlin’s attention but not so much as to bring the superpowers to the precipice. The Pentagon’s orders to commanders in the field sought to draw a fine line between avoiding steps that might be deemed threatening and provocative while taking “unusual and significant” measures. The DEFCON—a formalized sequence of alert levels for crises with nuclear consequences—was not raised during the readiness test, as it was subsequently during the 1973 crisis in the Middle East.

The readiness test ended amid much puzzlement and ineffectuality less than three weeks after it began. It failed to mobilize the Kremlin to do the Nixon administration’s bidding with North Vietnam for several reasons. The means Nixon and Kissinger employed for coercive nuclear diplomacy were undercut by their concern over domestic and allied blowback. It proved impossible to scare the Kremlin sufficiently without scaring the U.S. public and European and Pacific allies. When Nixon met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, during the readiness test to underscore U.S. messaging, the wily envoy, having been through the crucible of the Cuban missile crisis, correctly interpreted the mixed messages he received as bluff.

Confusion and constraints were compounded because of Nixon and Kissinger’s habit of circumventing regular chains of command and cutting out those presumed to be skeptics of the White House’s methods. Burr and Kimball provide considerable evidence that these maneuvers were amateurish and would have been risky if the Kremlin had taken them more seriously. The Soviet Union noticed what the Nixon White House was trying to do and responded in a low-key way. The Kremlin liked its hand and was not persuaded to do Washington’s bidding. The coercive nuclear gambit ended with a whimper, after which Nixon and Kissinger ramped up bombing and mining campaigns. Despite being a nuclear superpower fighting a non-nuclear-weapon state, the United States was unable to restrain North Vietnam from seeking achievable and embarrassing gains.

U.S. leaders eventually figured out the limits of coercive nuclear diplomacy, but other states continue to ascribe enormous persuasive powers to weapons that have not been used in battle for seven decades. President Vladimir Putin reminds the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal while engaging in military expeditions in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems quite confident that he can keep adversaries at bay with nuclear threats. When breakdowns in deterrence do not lead to catastrophe in South Asia or when crises are successfully managed, national leaders in Pakistan give significant credit to their nuclear deterrent. Burr and Kimball have written a fine book that challenges these assumptions and tactics.


1.  For an argument that they do confer leverage, see Matthew Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 141­171. For the opposite argument, see Todd Secher and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 173-195.

2.  Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

3.  H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), pp. 82-83.

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center. He is the author or editor of 21 books, including Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. This year, he received the Thérèse Delpech Memorial Award from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for lifetime achievement in nongovernmental work to reduce nuclear dangers.

William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball’s new book on President Richard Nixon’s use of coercive nuclear feints during the Vietnam War should put an end to academic debates...

Bomber Contract Highlights Unrealistic Nuclear Modernization Strategy, Say Experts



For Immediate Release: October 27, 2015

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270, ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy, 202-463-8270, ext. 104

(Washington, D.C.)—Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber (or B3) program, which would cost in excess of $100 billion to design and build 80-100 of the planes.

The bomber buy is just one part of the Pentagon’s plan to spend at least $348 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.

“Given the B52H and B2A bombers are expected to remain in service through 2040 and 2060, respectively, there is no need to rush forward with the new strategic bomber, especially when it will compete with other high priority Air Force and Pentagon nuclear and conventional priorities,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association.

Current plans to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear "triad" and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range, nuclear-capable bombers, 642 new land-based ballistic missiles, and 1000 new, nuclear-capable long-range standoff cruise missiles.

"We believe the administration’s redundant, all-of-the-above approach to rebuilding all of the major U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems at levels beyond realistic deterrence requirements is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher national security priorities," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The Air Force wants a total 1,000 of the new nuclear-armed cruise missiles for use by all three bombers—the B52H, the B2A and the B3—at a development cost of some $20-30 billion.

"The Pentagon has failed to provide a compelling reason why it needs both a new penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the nuclear deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies," said Reif of the Arms Control Association. 

“The requirement that the air-leg of the U.S. triad have two means to assure mass destruction against the most advanced air-defenses constitutes excessive redundancy. Other weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can penetrate air defenses with high confidence,” Reif added.

In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, called on President Obama to cancel the nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles program.

Perry and Weber described nuclear-armed cruise missiles as “a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon.” Foregoing the development of a new version “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least" and "could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons” they wrote.

“Proponents of the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile say that it provides the president with flexible options in the event of a crisis and the ability to ‘control escalation’ in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state. In other words, the missiles would come in handy for nuclear war-fighting,” Reif said.

 “The thinking behind the new cruise missile is inconsistent with the stated goal of President Obama to reduce the role and number and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy,” Kimball charged.

“Future nuclear force planning needs to take into account the fact that the President's 2013 nuclear weapons employment guidance allows for a one-third reduction below New START levels, but even if the United States maintains New START warhead levels, it can do so at significantly lower cost," Kimball said.

"Despite warnings from senior officials that the current modernization plans are unaffordable, Secretary Carter and President Barack Obama have failed to make common-sense adjustments. They can and should trim back, and in some cases, forgo redundant and costly systems, such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and save taxpayer dollars," Kimball added.


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.


Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber...

CSBA Downplays Nuclear Effect on Budget, Potential Nuclear Savings

On August 4 the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a detailed estimate of the long-term costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure. The report, written by CSBA’s Todd Harrison and Evan Braden Montgomery, concludes that “Although the costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces are projected to grow in the years ahead…those costs will still account for a small fraction of total defense spending, even at their peak.” Moreover, they write, “cutting nuclear weapons is unlikely to provide enough savings to...

New Nuclear Cruise Missile Won’t Control Escalation, Will Erode Stability

Arms Control Today recently reported on emerging details of the Air Force’s plan for the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO). The LRSO is a replacement for the Air Force’s current, 1980s-vintage air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Air Force plans to build 1,000-1,100 of the new cruise missiles at a projected acquisition cost of about $9 billion. After adding the $7-9.5 billion cost of life-extension for the associated warheads (according to estimates of the National Nuclear Security Administration), the total cost of replacing the existing ALCM could be close to $20 billion. Producing a...

Air Force Drafts Plan for Follow-On ICBM

July/August 2015

Updated: July 8, 2015

By Kingston Reif

U.S. Air Force airmen install a cable raceway on an intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on February 3, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/RELEASED)An initial Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system calls for procuring 642 missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed, multiple sources told Arms Control Today in recent months. The remaining missiles would be used for flight tests and as spares to support the program’s anticipated 50-year lifespan, the sources said.

If the U.S. government moves ahead with the proposal, it will have a capability extending into the 2070s to deploy 400 ICBMs, the number that the United States will have in 2018 under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

To meet the treaty limits, the Defense Department has said it will reduce the U.S. arsenal from its current level—447 deployed missiles as of September 2014—while retaining 50 nondeployed missile launchers.

During interviews in May and June, the sources said the preliminary acquisition cost estimate for the Minuteman III replacement system—an option studied under the Pentagon’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program—is $62.3 billion, which covers a 30-year period between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2044.

In a subsequent e-mail exchange, Air Force representatives confirmed the estimated cost and the number of planned missiles to be purchased and deployed.

The $62.3 billion cost estimate was first reported on June 5 by Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor. The newsletter quoted Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman, as saying the draft estimate was completed in February by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s ICBM System Program Office and that it includes $48.5 billion for the missiles, $6.9 billion for command and control systems, and $6.9 billion to renovate the launch control centers and launch facilities.

In a June 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Gulick said that the cost estimate is in “then-year dollars,” meaning it includes inflationary increases expected to occur in the program over the 30-year time horizon of the estimate.

Options Studied

Last summer, the Air Force conducted an analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service life in 2030.

Gulick said the analysis initially examined five options, but after discussions with senior officials in the defense secretary’s office, the analysis narrowed its focus to three alternatives: a “baseline” option that would extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2075, a “replacement system capitalizing” on the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure, and a “hybrid” option that would “mix” the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure with new road-mobile ICBMs.

A request for information issued by the Air Force on Jan. 23 seeking information and feedback from defense industry companies said the United States “is preparing to acquire a replacement for” the Minuteman III system “that replaces the entire flight system” and “retains the silo basing modes.”

Maj. Melissa Milner, one of the Air Force representatives, said in a June 19 e-mail that the current program cost estimate of $62.3 billion is “focused on a replacement system that reflects a missile similar in size to the Minuteman III.” The Air Force has not provided a public cost estimate for the other options.

Milner did not indicate whether the GBSD missile would have a completely new design or would incorporate significant design features from the Minuteman III.

Deployment of the replacement missile system is scheduled to begin in 2027. 

In remarks at a June 16 event in Washington, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said the United States cannot “continue to sustain” the Minuteman III.

Questions Raised

One former government official said the cost estimate for the replacement system suggested a new ICBM, an approach that he questioned.

It’s “hard to believe” the Pentagon would choose to design and build a new missile because there is no military need to do so, retired Col. Mark Cancian, who recently left the U.S. Office of Management and Budget after seven years as director of its force structure and management division, said in June 15 interview.

Cancian, now a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added that there is “no way the Air Force can afford” a new fleet of ICBMs given the cost of plans to modernize other elements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, such as building new ballistic missile submarines and long-range bombers.

A 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The GBSD program is slated to face a key acquisition milestone early next year, when the defense secretary’s office will decide whether the program should proceed to the next stage of the acquisition process. This stage includes maturing the technology, refining requirements, and finalizing cost estimates for the program.

In the lead-up to this decision point, known as a milestone A decision, the Defense Department is reviewing the acquisition strategy for the program.

Cancian said that although the Air Force may be evaluating a new missile, this approach is not yet a formal Air Force plan or recommendation. “A lot could change” when the program “comes up for decision and has to compete with other programs,” he said.

ICBMs make up the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems, which also consists of submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers. Long-range bombers can carry air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

In a speech in Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Barack Obama said he would seek to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. (Photo by Mathias Krohn/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The deployed Minuteman III missiles are dispersed in underground silos at three U.S. bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Each missile is deployed with one nuclear warhead.

The Minuteman III, which has a range of more than 8,000 miles, was first fielded in 1970 with a planned service life of 10 years. Production of the missile ended in 1977. A total of 794 missiles were acquired at a cost of $41.4 billion, as measured in fiscal year 2012 dollars, according to the RAND report.

Several multibillion-dollar life extension programs have kept the Minuteman III in service for more than 40 years. Nearly the entire missile has been refurbished, including the propellant and guidance and propulsion systems.

President Barack Obama determined in 2013 that the United States could reduce “deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third,” but he conditioned further reductions on negotiations with Russia.

Greg Weaver, principal director for nuclear and missile defense policy in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told Inside the Air Force on Feb. 20 that given the uncertain prospects for a future arms control agreement with Russia after New START expires in 2021, the GBSD program “is budgeted based on the current policy” and “arms control limits.”

Weaver added that the approach could change if Russia and the United States agreed to further nuclear weapons reductions at some point in the future.

An initial Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile calls for procuring 
642 missiles.

Air Force Wants 1,000 New Cruise Missiles

UPDATED: May 7, 2015

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is planning to build about 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), several sources said last month.

The projected purchase wAn AGM-86B cruise missile is displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, in this undated photo. (U.S. Air Force)ould roughly double the size of the existing U.S. fleet of ALCMs. 

A knowledgeable source said in an April 7 e-mail that the plans called for 1,000-1,100 new missiles at a cost of roughly $9 billion. In a subsequent e-mail exchange, Maj. Kelley Jeter, an Air Force spokeswoman, confirmed the number of planned missiles, but declined to comment on the cost. 

“The draft acquisition strategy currently plans to procure approximately 1,000 missiles,” Jeter said. That number “provides enough weapons to meet the operational requirement” for U.S. Strategic Command, as well as spares and test missiles, she added. Jeter did not specify how many weapons the Air Force is planning to assign to each of these categories. 

Acquisition planning and development activities for the new missile are well under way, Jeter said. 

The Air Force is aiming to receive approval later this year from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to go to the next stage of the acquisition process, which includes maturing the technology, refining requirements, and finalizing cost estimates for the new missile. The first new missile is slated for completion in 2026. 

The Air Force does not currently plan to develop a conventional variant of the new missile, Jeter said. “There is currently no validated requirement” for a new conventional ALCM, “nor is there funding for such a variant,” she said.

President Barack Obama determined in 2013 that the United States has more deployed strategic nuclear weapons than it needs for its security. It is not clear how the addition of 1,000 new missiles would comport with that determination.

It is also unclear whether the Air Force can afford a new cruise missile given the budget constraints imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act and the costs of rebuilding other elements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Public remarks by top Pentagon officials have repeatedly acknowledged the limits that the act imposes on their plans.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said on April 14 that beginning in 2021, the Defense Department will have to secure an additional $10-12 billion annually above current funding levels for nuclear forces in order to afford the current nuclear weapons modernization plan. The department has “a huge affordability problem” with regard to nuclear modernization, Kendall said. 

Nuclear-armed ALCMs are part of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems consisting of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, which can carry ALCMs and gravity bombs. ALCMs are carried by the B-52 long-range bomber and can attack targets at great distances. 

In a June 2014 letter to the leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Kendall stated that long-range bombers armed with nuclear ALCMs “assure our allies and provide a unique and important dimension of U.S. nuclear deterrence in the face of increasingly sophisticated adversary air defenses.” 

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, shown above in a September 2014 photo, has said the Pentagon has “a huge affordability problem” with regard to nuclear modernization. (CSIS)A bomber force armed with the new missiles also would give the United States “uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation,” Kendall added.

But some current and former government officials have questioned the need for any new cruise missile. (See ACT, November 2014.)

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52 bomber. The missile, which has a range of more than 1,500 miles, was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years. Multiple life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030. 

The B-2 bomber is not equipped to carry ALCMs, but has the capability to deliver 16 nuclear gravity bombs at any given time.

According to Jeter, the Air Force currently retains 575 ALCMs. Those missiles, which would be retired, carry the W80-1 warhead, which is maintained by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department. In an April 17 e-mail, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, estimated that there are approximately 550 W80-1 operational warheads left in the military stockpile. 

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile to replace the AGM-86B. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned long-range strike bomber. 

Kristensen said the current plan to build another 1,000-1,100 missiles would “make sense” if one assumed the Air Force wanted enough missiles for a force in the 2030s of 16 operational B-2 bombers and 44 new long-range strike bombers, each carrying a maximum of 16 missiles, plus about 200 missiles for use as spares and test missiles. 

The United States is planning to maintain up to 60 nuclear-capable long-range bombers under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). But the treaty does not cap the number of weapons that can be carried on each bomber. Each bomber counts as only one warhead against the treaty cap of 1,550 deployed warheads even if capable of carrying more than one cruise missile or gravity bomb. 

As the Pentagon proceeds with its plans to build the new long-range cruise missile, the NNSA is to carry out a life extension program for the ALCM warhead. Production of the first of these modified warheads, known as the W80-4, is scheduled to be completed in 2025. 

In an April 21 e-mail, Energy Department spokesman Derrick J. Robinson said the NNSA has not yet decided how many of the modified warheads it would produce and that the number would be classified. According to Kristensen, the NNSA would have to bring previously retired ALCM warheads out of storage to provide the number of warheads needed to accommodate the draft 1,000-missile plan. 

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the long-range standoff missile and the modified warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years. (See ACT, March 2015.

If the knowledgeable source’s estimate of $9 billion for the missile is accurate, the total cost of replacing the existing ALCM and the associated warhead could be close to $20 billion. The NNSA has estimated that the cost of the life extension program will be between $7 billion and $9.5 billion. 

The Air Force’s draft acquisition plan for the long-range missile “makes a mockery” of New START “by blatantly taking advantage” of the treaty “loophole” that attributes only one weapon to each bomber, said Kristensen. The Air Force plan “sends the wrong message” about U.S. intentions “and should be rejected,” he said.

UPDATE: Air Force Official Responds

In response to this story, an Air Force official e-mailed the following statement on May 7:

The AF LRSO program is designed to replace current nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM).  Replacement of our current ALCM is necessary to ensure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective, in accordance with the President's guidance.

The number of LRSO missiles to be acquired includes a large number of spare and test missiles that will be required throughout the life of the program.  This means that the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than we plan to operationally arm and deploy in our nuclear force.  There is no plan to operationally arm and deploy 1,000 LRSO missiles - the requirements for these systems in our guidance have not increased and we intend to deploy only a fraction of those we purchase.

Nuclear-armed cruise missiles, including the LRSO, are accountable under New START's bomber counting rule.  The New START bomber counting rule is well understood and was fully debated during the Treaty's ratification.  In counting one warhead per bomber, the New START Treaty advances the legacy of bomber stability and flexibility initiated under the original START Treaty. The LRSO program is fully consistent with the approach to reductions and strategic stability negotiated by Washington and Moscow.

The U.S. Air Force is planning to build about 1,000 new nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles, several sources said last month.


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