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Does the United States Need Nuclear Weapons?

by Peter Huessy

US-nuclear-missileDoes the United States need nuclear weapons? What role do they play? And if they are valuable, how much should we spend supporting such a nuclear deterrent? In addition, what level of nuclear weapons should we aim to achieve to maintain stability and deterrence? And finally, does the type of nuclear deterrent maintained by the United States bear a relationship to whether nuclear weapons proliferate in the world, especially in Iran and North Korea?

The Center for Strategic and International Studies held a day long conversation on these questions on May 5th. Joe Cirincione, the President of the Ploughshares Fund laid out a four part narrative that the US was (1) maintaining a vastly bloated nuclear deterrent, (2) unnecessary for our security, (3) unaffordable, and (4) in need of at least an immediate unilateral one-third reduction in American nuclear forces to jump start efforts to get to zero nuclear weapons world-wide.

Cirincione further claimed that such an initiative was perfectly sensible because President Ronald Reagan had supported in his second inaugural the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons and had put such a proposal on the table in negotiations with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986. The implication being of course that if such a proposal was made three decades ago by the leaders off the two nation’s with the largest nuclear arsenals during the height of the Cold War, then why not make it again especially in that President Barack Obama in his Prague speech in 2009 called for nuclear abolition as well.

Let first start with getting the history right. President Reagan repeatedly called for getting rid of “nuclear dangers” and considered that central to his defense policy. This was reflected in three areas: support for 50% reductions in ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads; building a missile defense against nuclear attacks; and keeping a strong nuclear deterrent that emphasized stability which was the basis for the proposal to eliminate multiple warheads from being deployed on land based missiles.

In Iceland, the American President did not support getting rid of all nuclear weapons. Reagan supported getting rid of ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads which were the most dangerous. They were termed “fast flyers” which because of their speed were considered the most destabilizing in a crisis. Soviet President Gorbachev countered with a proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons but also ban the deployment of missile defenses, which led to the collapse of the negotiations. In reality, Gorbachev had no intention of giving up all of Russia’s nuclear weapons especially the smaller tactical and shorter range nuclear weapons the Russian maintained by the many thousands which they have never agreed to limit or reduce in any arms control deal concluded with the United States.

Now reducing nuclear dangers can be a goal we all can support. {Reagan’s support for reducing nuclear dangers as a primary goal is critically and exhaustively examined by a new study “Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan” by Sven Kramer, who served six Presidents starting with John Kennedy in 1961 in the defense and arms control arena).
First, is our nuclear arsenal now bloated? Cirincione claims the US arsenal has 5000 operational warheads. It does not. We have less than 2000, consistent with the limits set by the 2010 US-Russia New Start Treaty.

What about compared to the past? Looked at historically, even Cirincione admits the arsenal is now some 90% smaller than it was at the height of the Cold War. He admits that successive Presidents primarily Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush each successfully reduced nuclear weapons by at least half. In fact Ambassador Ron Lehman, who was a top nuclear arms control official in the Reagan administration, explains in a new nuclear briefing that the total firepower of our deployed, in the field, nuclear deterrent today is less than our capability in 1954 and if assessed based on our secure retaliatory capability is half of even that level. So to answer the first question, the arsenal is not now bloated.

Next is our nuclear deterrent necessary? Cirincione says in the 70 years of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons have never been used. He concludes from that fact that obviously nuclear weapons are now “obsolete” because supposedly no American President throughout that period ever seriously considered using such weapons. Such an argument sounds like a homeowner who cancelled his fire insurance because having lived in his house for twenty years it has not yet burned down. In fact, the nuclear deterrent as our top cover security umbrella kept conflicts with totalitarian systems such as China and the Soviet Union manageable. In that sense nuclear weapons as a deterrent were used all the time. More specifically, in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and in October 1973 during the Mideast war between Israel and Egypt and Syria, the United States put its nuclear forces on heightened alert.

More importantly, since at least 1994, in multiple Administration reviews of our nuclear policy, all have been highly non-partisan and involving professionals from across the policy spectrum. Remarkably, the conclusions have actually been quite consistent and all have called for maintaining an effective, credible and capable nuclear deterrent. These reviews have involved both internal administration working groups and congressionally created Commissions. The problem over the past three decades has not been so much in the stated goals and principals but in the failure to adequately carry out the called for plans and objectives and to go on what former top nuclear official USAF General Garrett Harencak has described as an “intellectual and acquisition holiday”.

This administration, like its predecessors, has concluded—correctly– that a three-part nuclear “Triad” should continue to be maintained into the future and that our warhead laboratories should ensure that our weapons work, and that they also be safe and secure while being sharply reduced in the type and number of warheads. In short, through the past four administrations since the end of the Cold War, a bipartisan majority has concluded nuclear deterrence remains highly relevant and must be maintained.

What about our allies? From NATO to East Asia, our allies are also virtually unanimous. They want the US to main both a credible deterrent but also continue to seek stabilizing arms control limits, which is what each successive administration since the end of the Cold War have sought to achieve.

Calling into question the necessity of nuclear deterrence as Cirincione does, raises the issue of whether the United States should continue to extend our deterrent umbrella over our allies. This in turn can lead our allies to believe their security is at risk. In the republic of Korea, for example, a majority of the population now believe the US should return tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula as a means of both assuring our South Korean allies and deterring a nuclear armed North Korea. The poll also showed, ironically, that an overwhelming majority of South Koreans simultaneously still had top confidence in the United States keeping its deterrent word with the our current US based nuclear umbrella.

And before we can accurately evaluate whether our deterrent remains necessary, we need to address the situation poised by our nuclear armed adversaries. Russia and China are both modernizing and expanding their nuclear forces in dramatic fashion. Both nations have said repeatedly that they would use nuclear weapons to stop a conventional conflicts—“escalating in order to de-escalate” as NIPP President Keith Payne explained at the CSIS conference. To unilaterally “disarm down” as our enemies are simultaneously “arming up” seems a strange defense policy to support, as Cirincione does. It certainly has no successful precedent in all of American history. In short, the available evidence appears fairly clear: deterrence remains needed.

Now should the US decide as a policy question to maintain the deterrent called for by this administration and agreed to by the current Congress, is such a policy preference affordable? Cirincione claims that the nuclear budget over the next 30 years will be $1 trillion and as such cannot be implemented without a serious degradation of our conventional Army, Navy and USAF capabilities. This is one of the commonly assumed “fairy tales” that started with a number of distorted studies that in part “cooked the budget books”.

First the cost of the new conventional bomber—roughly $60 billion– was included in the estimates, as well as an arbitrary additional $50 billion in “unanticipated” inflation. Second, the numbers were inflated over a period of three decades with inflation estimates. Third, billions in savings recently found in the bomber program and the land based and sea based missile fuze programs are not included in these budget estimates. Nor are savings in the launch tube costs of our submarines taken into account nor the double counting of sustainment and modernization programs.

As Todd Harrison of the CSIS has explained in his own nuclear budget review, the United States is planning to spend $700 billion over 25 years (an average of $28 billion a year) for the entire nuclear deterrent (including the conventional bomber costs) some $200 billion less than Cirincione’s estimates. Harrison also concludes that the costs never exceed 5% of the projected total defense budget compared to upwards of one-third of the defense budget at the height of the Cold War. And as a portion of the Federal budget, the entire nuclear deterrent comes to around one-half of one-percent by 2025 and will remain at roughly that level throughout the modernization effort. And the modernization will last until 2080, some 40 years after it is completed. As current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, the nuclear deterrent costs are reasonable and by reasonable analysis “a bargain”.

Finally, Cirincione thinks we can eliminate a third of our nuclear warheads and 98% of our nuclear forces unilaterally. For example, he calls for the elimination of the 450 Minuteman missiles and their associated launch control facilities, up to half of the planned acquisition of 12 submarines and the elimination of the cruise missile for the bomber, in addition to stopping ALCM warhead production.

A reduction to 1000 warheads would be done unilaterally says Cirincione even though the Russians continue to reject all offers by the current administration to work together on further arms control. Apparently Cirincione believe such US action would encourage proliferating states such as North Korea and Iran to follow suit and seriously entertain getting rid of both their nuclear arsenals and their nuclear ambitions as well as spur Russia to join in future reductions together.

But as Professor Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University laid out in a new study at a March 2016 nuclear Triad conference at the US Naval base in Bangor, Washington, US nuclear reductions have had absolutely no historical connection to other nuclear powers (other than Russia) giving up their weapons or their nuclear ambitions. Our example of restraint has not served any demonstrable non-proliferation benefit.

Unfortunately, Cirincione’s proposal have a perhaps unintended grave and dangerous impact. He would reduce the number of American nuclear assets from over 500 (today) to less than 10 or by 98%. In so doing, his proposal would make it far easier for an adversary to pre-emptively and with no warning take out all US nuclear capability, and to do so largely surreptitiously and do so over time, as former USAF Chief of Staff and SAC Commander General Larry Welch warned last year. In so doing, Cirincione would make an attack on the US more not less likely, increase not decrease dramatically strategic instability, and give a significant advantage to our nuclear armed adversaries that could not be reversed for decades.

In summary, our nuclear deterrent is not bloated; it is not obsolete; it is not unaffordable; and it is not preventing the adoption of sound proliferation policies by either the United States or its allies. In fact, our nuclear deterrent is required for our own security and that of our allies, is relatively cheap as a percent of the defense and overall Federal budget, and in its planned configuration enhances strategic stability and the extended deterrence required to help reduce proliferation and maintain peace. The CSIS conference helped raise all these important issues and in so doing has done a great service to the country.