The recent revelation that the Pentagon is considering reducing its nuclear arsenal by as much as 80 percent, to as few as 300 warheads, raises a critical question: Is the United States tempting fate with such drastic cuts?
Since President Barack Obama has made nuclear disarmament a cornerstone of his foreign policy, the answer for this administration is clearly: “No.” Unfortunately, the broader answer is that nuclear weapons will continue to serve critical foreign and defense policy objectives.
Such deep cuts create unacceptable risks, especially when such proposals are not accompanied by clear plans to modernize the aging nuclear enterprise. For this administration, it’s not cut and replace, it’s just cut, and that’s not good strategy.
For the United States, nuclear weapons matter for purposes of deterrence and coercion — two of the major tools in the U.S. toolbox to advance and protect its interests. To serve these important and complicated ends, the U.S. must not cut its nuclear arsenal.
For the purposes of deterrence, nuclear weapons matter for six reasons:
They help to deter war and maintain stability among the great powers.
They deter direct attacks on the U.S. homeland by other nuclear powers.
Nuclear weapons — both strategic and tactical — allow the United States to extend deterrence credibly, effectively and cheaply to allies such as Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia. This provides them with security and removes their incentive to acquire nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons can deter attacks against the U.S. military.
Nuclear weapons play a role in deterring escalation of conflict. For example, if China attacked Taiwan, U.S. nuclear weapons would deter escalation to a strategic exchange between the United States and China.
Nuclear weapons deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction, such as biological or chemical weapons, against the U.S homeland, allies or U.S. military.
Nuclear weapons also aid Uncle Sam’s ability to coerce opponents. In a crisis, nuclear weapons help convince a challenger not to escalate to a higher level of violence, or move up a rung in the escalation ladder.
Although laden with risks, they also provide the possibility of attacking first to limit the damage the United States or its allies would incur. Whether the U.S. would do so is another matter. But possessing the weapons provides the U.S. with coercive capabilities in crisis situations or war.
Nuclear weapons also give the United States the ability to threaten nuclear first use to stop a conventional attack or limited nuclear attack, and to signal the risk of escalation to a higher level of violence.
Slashing the current nuclear stockpile without an actionable plan to replace aging systems with newer systems will reduce the credibility of the stockpile, thus weakening the deterrent and coercive ability of Washington.
The real problem is not just the magnitude of the cuts but the lack of a plan to maintain an effective deterrence posture. All of the nuclear warheads and delivery systems in the U.S. stockpile entered service in the last century, and some legs of the system, including the long-range bomber, the B-52H, entered service in 1961.
The cold facts are the clock cannot be turned back; nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented”; and they remain key tools to advance the interests of the United States and international stability. The global deterrent and assuasive commitments of the United States do not permit additional cuts. They cannot be eliminated or dramatically reduced without a cost and penalty for the interests of the United States.
The Cold War changed much, but it did not change the need to be able to deter and coerce foes, a need as identifiable to the ancient Greeks as it is to us today. No state has given up key tools, certainly not China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, France or the United Kingdom, and the United States should not be first.
No superpower has contemplated such drastic muscle loss, such reductions in essential weapons that it and its allies need now and in the future.
Bradley Thayer, a professor of political science at Baylor University.