Despite high expectations at the start of the Obama administration for a “reset” of the relationship with Russia, relations today are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Moscow's increasingly belligerent, anti-American and dangerously provocative international behavior has again intruded on the administration’s hopeful narrative for a better US-Russia relationship.
In addition to its illegal annexation of Crimea, invasion of eastern Ukraine and actions in the Middle East, Moscow is engaged in a massive modernization effort to bolster all elements of its nuclear forces, including building systems that violate the START and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaties. Contrary to the US view that nuclear weapons have waning utility in the 21st century, Moscow sees them as valuable assets.
Russia has conducted unprecedented strategic force exercises against the West to include nuclear missile launches, bomber incursions into NATO and Japanese airspace, and simulated nuclear strikes as part of its provocative “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, which Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has characterized as “literally playing with fire.”
Clearly, Russia's actions are cause for alarm. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called Russia “the greatest threat” to the United States and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley says Russia is “the number one threat” we face. In response, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said the United States is “updating and advancing our operational plans for deterrence and defense” while military officials have called for adopting a defense posture that is both flexible and adaptable.
Despite these statements, the US continues to follow policies established early in the Obama administration. In short, despite Moscow's clear shift toward a more threatening nuclear posture, US policy remains stuck in the mud of unrealistic and outdated assumptions.
Though the administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) acknowledged the existing US nuclear arsenal is “poorly suited” to address contemporary threats, it ruled out the development of new nuclear weapons, missions or capabilities more appropriately tailored to today's deterrence realities. This hardly reflects a flexible and adaptable defense posture.
In an environment where deterrence is increasingly uncertain and the credibility of the US extended deterrent increasingly questioned, having nuclear capabilities that are flexible, adaptable and resilient should be a top priority.
The NPR also noted that US missile defenses are focused on “newly emerging regional threats, and are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia.” The administration's Ballistic Missile Defense Review emphasized this as well. And a more recent unclassified Defense Department report declared that the United States “seeks to maintain strategic stability with Russia ... by demonstrating that it is not our intent to negate Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent.”
In essence, this approach leaves Americans hostage to nuclear annihilation by Russia in the interest of “strategic stability.” This is a throwback to the Cold War notion that vulnerability is stabilizing and defenses are provocative.
Defending against ballistic missile attacks from regional threats like North Korea and Iran is certainly necessary, but it is Russia that possesses the world's largest nuclear arsenal, repeatedly threatens NATO with nuclear attack and actively practices carrying it out. Does it make sense to defend solely against the least robust threats while remaining vulnerable to the most robust? In the wake of Russia's actions, the administration may be singing a new tune, but it is dancing to the same old music.
The lack of a serious US response to Moscow’s challenges has not gone unnoticed in this election season. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, has called for strengthening America's nuclear deterrent and improving missile defenses. His approach is exactly on point.
All three legs of the US strategic nuclear Triad need to be upgraded. This means replacing our current Minuteman ICBMs, Ohio-class strategic submarines and aging bomber force. As a recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report pointed out, the costs of nuclear modernization are certainly affordable and represent a small percentage of the overall defense budget; those who seek to cut these programs to save money, the report concludes, are on a “hunt for small potatoes.”
In the area of missile defense, it is time to reconsider space-based defenses, deploy an additional interceptor site in the United States, and capitalize on innovative technologies like directed energy for boost-phase defense. It is also imperative to overhaul the business-as-usual approach that has led to minimal improvements and extended test delays that reflect a lack of serious commitment.
In the most critical areas of nuclear deterrence and defense, it's time to square the circle between Russia's actions and America's response. Bolstering our nuclear offensive and defensive capabilities is long overdue. Let's get on with it.