Why America Still Needs Nukes

U.S. Allies View Nuclear Deterrence as Indispensable
Why America Still Needs Nukes
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In a highly anticipated report, a bipartisan group of former civilian and military leaders recently concluded that U.S. security could face grave dangers if Washington fails to quickly reverse a decade’s worth of deep cuts to defense spending.  Known as the National Defense Panel (NDP), they urge immediate and sustained investments to improve the readiness, capacity, and capability not only of America’s conventional forces, but also of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. 

Amid Russia’s violations of a key nuclear arms control pact, and China’s efforts to grow the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal, it’s critical that policymakers and lawmakers act on the NDP panel’s recommendations, especially on America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces.

The NDP panel predicts that the “the next two decades will pose a range of serious threats” to American security and global stability.  These rising threats—which include the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the resurgence of international terrorism, and the return of great power rivalry—are creating a world that is “more challenging than defense planners are accustomed to.”  The panel warns that, in the absence of more resources, the U.S. military “may not be robust enough to meet these challenges within an acceptable margin of risk.”

Since 1945, America has sustained a far-reaching system of alliances with its military power in order to deter major aggression.  In turn, this strategy of U.S. global engagement and leadership has yielded seven decades without another World War, as well as a new rules-based order that has governed many aspects of international relations.  Even now, the NDP panel notes, “American military strength remains central to an effective foreign policy.” 

In particular, the NDP report emphasizes that America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces “continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring U.S. allies and partners around the world.”  The report adds that our nuclear arsenal plays “a unique and crucial role”—not only as the “credible guarantor” of the sovereignty of the United States and our allies, but also as “a cornerstone” in “broader U.S. defense strategy.”

Moreover, the NDP concludes that “[n]uclear force modernization is essential,” given the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s “looming obsolescence.”  The report added that “America’s nuclear arsenal will need life extension programs and some modernization if its deterrent value is to be preserved.” For instance, the growth of more sophisticated air defense systems around the world will put America’s B-2 bomber, a stealthy long-range aircraft that can carry both nuclear and conventional weapons, “increasingly at risk” in the middle of the next decade.  The NDP panel urges the United States to field a new bomber that can sneak into heavily-defended airspace and deliver “a broad array of operationally useful payloads,” including nuclear payloads.

It is unfortunate, then, that while the Defense Department seeks to update and replace the “triad” of U.S. nuclear forces—intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and nuclear-armed bombers—it still lacks the funds to do so.  For example, the Navy’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan warns that the service can afford the costs of a next-generation ballistic missile submarine only “with significant increases in our top-line.”

As the U.S. nuclear arsenal atrophies, so may our allies’ confidence in the strength of America’s commitment to their security.

Amid an increasingly unstable world, many of America’s allies continue to view a strong U.S. nuclear arsenal as indispensable to collective security.  Indeed, the 2009 Strategic Posture Commission co-chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger noted that some allies “believe that their needs can only be met with very specific U.S. nuclear capabilities.”  The Perry-Schlesinger commission elaborated: 

“Some allies located near Russia believe that U.S. non-strategic forces [that is, short-range or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons] in Europe are essential to prevent nuclear coercion by Moscow and indeed that modernized U.S./NATO forces are essential for restoring a sense of balance in the face of Russia’s nuclear renewal. One particularly important ally has argued … that the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent depends on its specific capabilities to hold a wide variety of targets at risk.” 

Some may find it odd that nuclear weapons still play such a central role in U.S. strategy two decades after the Cold War’s end.  However, America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces are, in many respects, the binding tie of its system of alliances and partnerships.  As the U.S. nuclear arsenal atrophies, so may our allies’ confidence in the strength of America’s commitment to their security.  In turn, potential aggressors may become more willing to press the boundaries of what was once considered to be risky or unacceptable behavior.  As a result, the peaceful rules-based order that the United States has labored so hard to establish and maintain over many decades could come unraveled.

As the NDP report makes clear, the world of the 21st century is increasingly volatile.  The U.S. military, including America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces, could be called to decisively secure America’s vital interests across the globe.  That’s why the NDP panel strongly reaffirmed the Defense Department’s continuing emphasis on “a safe, secure and effective nuclear force,” and “regional and homeland missile defenses.”

America’s nuclear arsenal, along with its growing homeland and regional missile defense systems, play a central—and often overlooked—role in maintaining the peace.  If the United States is to continue upholding an international order that advances its security, interests and values, then it must devote sufficient resources to reverse and restore the military’s eroding readiness, capacity, and capabilities in all domains, including strategic forces.  That’s why policymakers and lawmakers in Washington must give the National Defense Panel’s call to action the attention that it deserves.

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