As world leaders gather in Europe to discuss in part the further lock-down of loose nuclear material as well as how NATO and its friends should move to protect Ukraine and eastern Europe from further Russian predation, we should understand a few important points.
The nuclear summit is looking to “cooperative” countries to secure nuclear material. Its efforts are important. But the bigger picture gives us an unsettled view of the nuclear landscape.
Let’s review where we are.
The US has moved from over 13,600 deployed strategic (delivered long distances) nuclear weapons in the late 1980s prior to START I taking effect to now around 1550. That is a 90+% reduction.
The Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement in 1987 eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons deployed by both the US and the Soviets throughout eastern Europe and in Asia.
At the time when President Reagan proposed zero intermediate nuclear weapons, the US had not even agreed to deploy in Europe its own Pershing and Ground Launched Cruise missiles, facing as we were nearly two thousands such Soviet warheads. Nuclear freeze advocates at the time–made up almost entirely of the left opposed Reagan’s proposal. Massive rallies–fueled with money from Moscow–demonstrated in Europe and the US against the American planned deployment of our INF missiles in Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
The eventual passage of the legislation funding the deployment of what were known as American INF missiles was a near thing in Congress, barely getting the majority of votes necessary to move ahead with acquiring and deploying the nuclear forces. If on the other hand the nuclear freeze campaign had prevailed, it would have set in stone a huge Soviet advantage in nuclear forces deployed in the European theater.
It is often said that unless the US continues to support zero nuclear weapons, we cannot ask others not to deploy their own nuclear weapons. Zero nuke advocates often refer to the provisions in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that call for disarmament. They assume nuclear disarmament is unrelated to conventional disarmament.
But remember we signed the NPT in the late 1960’s. Under no circumstances was the US going to abandon our nuclear weapons in the face of the extreme Soviet conventional military advantage in Europe. Our nuclear deterrent was primarily to deter a massive Soviet conventional invasion of western Europe. We know from material released from Soviet era files that Moscow had extensive plans for such an attack. Nuclear disarmament was not going to happen unless and until general conditions of conventional disarmament also prevailed as the NPT treaty required.
No such prospects exist for zero nuclear warheads to be agreed upon by the world’s nuclear powers. Despite rhetorical support from Great Britain, all other such powers have dismissed such proposals. They have all moved to materially and significantly modernize their own nuclear forces, especially Russia and China.
Former Senate majority leader Robert Dole explained in a June 2013 speech that at least 32 nations rely on our extended deterrent so they do not have to have their own secure nuclear deterrent. Since Iran started its nuclear weapons program circa 1988-9, the US and Russia have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear weapons by over 85%.Britain and France have reduced as well. But Pakistan, India, China and North Korea have expanded their arsenals.
A nuclear armed Iran will be a nuclear-armed terrorist sponsoring state–which the 9-11 Commission identified as a participant in the 9-11 attacks, to say nothing of the numerous other terror attacks we can identify where the Iranians or their terror proxies killed Americans. Not the least of which is the Iranian killing of American soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our nuclear deterrent does cost money. Today it costs $21 billion a year. This sustains and modernizes our silos based missiles, our strategic nuclear bombers and our submarines. We are also working to replace 8 warhead types with 5. This funding also includes the command, control and communications related to our nuclear forces. The force of 1550 deployed warheads allowed under the New Start treaty gives the US a secure retaliatory capability consistent with holding at risk the targets indentified by a 2002 Center for Strategic and International Studies report (“Revitalizing the US Nuclear Deterrent”).
Even with full modernization, the cost over the next 30 years would peak at around $30-35 billion, but average over that period less than a third of the level we supported during the Cold War. The force structure we would be buying now is going to last many decades and thus the average lifetime costs of our nuclear deterrent look very reasonable.
By contrast, for example, food stamps cost $89 billion a year and the forecast is $135 billion annually at the end of the decade. Six years of food stamps is the equivalent of a 75 year life cycle nuclear modernization effort. Means tested poverty programs number over eighty. The cost of such programs exceeds $1 trillion a year today and is climbing. The cost since 1965 in today’s dollars exceeds $17 trillion, coincidentally equivalent to our total national debt. Eighteen job training programs cost $19 billion a year–but GAO cannot find substantive reasons for the programs to continue. Consolidating our governments data centers would save $20 billion a year says the General Accountability Office, (GAO) equivalent to the current cost of our entire nuclear deterrent.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the per capita deaths worldwide from warfare has dropped from an average of 1% of the population of the entire world to less than 2/100ths of 1% according to former Strategic Commander Admiral Richard Mies.
Nuclear deterrence works. So why would we break something that is not broken? 310 million Americans each pay $69 a year to deter war with its nuclear deterrent. In perspective, nuclear deterrence costs $21 billion a year out of $3.9 trillion in Federal spending projected for the next fiscal year, or over $6 trillion for all Federal, state and local government costs. Or one-third of one percent.
The only two nuclear nations who have adopted a zero nuclear posture as a possible future outcome are the US and Great Britain. All the other nuclear powers have not. Pyongyang’s leader said in response to a question whether North Korea would go to global zero, “You first”.
Whatever role the nuclear strategic forces of the US and its allies play in the current crisis in Ukraine, we should remember the bad guys are seeking nuclear weapons and are not deterred by fanciful notions of “global zero”, while established nuclear adversaries see such weapons as instruments of power and coercion, both factors we should keep in mind as we determine our own nuclear deterrent future.
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Peter Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis.