A New Defense Strategy: A New Nuclear Strategy?

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Obama administration today presented a new defense strategy that it says is needed to realign U.S. military forces and doctrine with the reductions in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the new fiscal constraints created by the financial crisis.

There are few details in the new strategy for how this will be done but more will come in the Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget request expected in early February.

On nuclear forces the new strategy reaffirms the commitment to maintain a “safe, secure, and effective” nuclear arsenal as long as nuclear weapons exist. “We will field nuclear forces that can under any circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.” The strategy appears heavily focused on the Pacific region and the Middle East. China and Iran, more so than North Korea, appear to be the primary potential adversaries, although Russian is by far the largest potential nuclear adversary.

In Prague in 2009, President Obama forcefully committed the United States “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” that it was necessary to “ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change,” that the “United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons,” and that “To put and end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy….” The New START treaty requires some reductions in deployed strategic forces, and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) reaffirmed the commitment to nuclear disarmament and further reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

The new defense strategy language comes across as somewhat timid, stating only: “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” This language presumably reflects the preliminary findings of the administration’s so-called Post-NPR Analysis, an ongoing effort within the administration to make “preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions” with Russia through “potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures.”

FAS has long argued that U.S. nuclear forces can and should be reduced further and that a sufficient nuclear deterrent can be maintained with far fewer weapons, lower operational readiness, and by changing the presidential guidance for how the military is required to plan for the potential use of nuclear weapons.

In Europe, which was the focus of U.S. strategy during the Cold War, FAS has argued that the demise of the Soviet threat and the fundamentally different security challenges requiring NATO’s attention today permit the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. The new U.S. defense strategy concludes that the changed security landscape allows changes in the European posture that, while maintaining the US security commitment to NATO, require development of a smarter posture that is better suited to meet the challenges of today’s world. Whether this language envisions a withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe remains to be seen, but it appears to make make it harder to justify continued deployment.

It is important that the commitment in the new defense strategy to maintaining a nuclear deterrent does not overshadow the equally important commitment to reducing the size and role of nuclear forces. The clear message to other nuclear weapons states must be that the emphasis of U.S. policy is the nuclear disarmament trajectory described in Prague and that it is in their interest to follow the lead. Billions of dollars can be saved over the next decade by reducing the nuclear forces and removing nuclear doctrine further from the warfighting thinking that characterized the Cold War and which is still prevalent in today’s planning. That, not indefinite nuclear modernizations, ought to be the priority for the 21st century.

Further reading: “Reviewing Nuclear Guidance: Putting Obama’s Words Into Action,” Arms Control Today, November 2011

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

7 thoughts on “A New Defense Strategy: A New Nuclear Strategy?

  1. Hans Kristensen

    Did we ever get clarification on the New START B-52Gs at Minot Air Force Base? Just curious.

    It seems every new Administration, Democratic or Republican, after President Dwight David Eisenhower is incapable of embracing change in the role or means of nuclear weapons. If the United States has less nuclear weapons in the future, it will because we have fewer silo Minuteman III ICBMs or Trident missile submarines. It seems Washington can’t ever have that meaningful discussion leading to a new policy some of us feel is so necessary. Do we really need silo ICBMs after Minuteman III? Do we really need a Trident replacement? How many? Do tactical nuclear weapons really have a mission? How many nuclear weapons does the United States really need to create deterrence? Nuclear deterrence is the goal of the US nuclear arsenal, isn’t it? American nuclear policy seems stuck in the post-1958 world. For that reason, both Trident and Minuteman will be replaced in fewer numbers and there will be a new strategic bomber procured at such a frightful cost to make the B-2 look like a bargain. The maxim in Washington is that these weapons have “kept the peace” since the end of World War II; why try to fix something that ain’t broken?

    Frank Shuler

  2. If anything Mr Shuler I would hope for an elimination of all land based strategic weapons if for no other reason then they are highly vulnerable targets in the middle of the American heartlands. Targets that require large number of surface bursts that would kick up awful amounts fallout which could kill more Americans in a limited exchange then the actual blasts.

    As I understand it the main reasons for bomber delivery was their high level of accuracy. Well to be honest the main reason is political, congress wants their pork and the AF wants their slice of the pie. But anyways,.. The accuracy issue seems dead, sea launch missiles are pretty accurate these days. The only good reason I can think of to maintain bombers is the old tactic of under scoring a threat by orbiting a few atomic bombers just inside of a nations detection range.

    As for tactical they like MOP gear are a deterrent. There are people who like to think that a nation would not risk a full blown armageddon over a nerve gas strike or a atomic strike on a carrier. Tactical bombs give you a foil against those sort of attacks. That said I think that scaling our tactical arsenal back would be a good idea, and it might also open the way for Russia and China to do the same.

  3. Eron

    Respectfully disagree.

    The land based nuclear deterrent, currently the Minuteman III ICBM, is the most secure and least vulnerable nuclear system in the American arsenal. In fact, the silo MMIII is the only US nuclear delivery system that must be attacked and destroyed by a nuclear weapon. Both Trident submarines and bombers, and their associated bases, could be attacked with only conventional weapons. The American Minuteman III fleet is what Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890 would have called a “fleet in being”. To win a nuclear war against the United States, you must destroy the Minuteman; yet, by attacking America’s land based ICBMs, any nation on earth invites their own destruction at the hands of Trident. Hence, the term “deterrence”. Why start a war that in victory results in the destruction of your country; your civilization ? Where is the gain?

    Bombers today are really all about the “limited nuclear option”. The ability to hold a non-peer nuclear rival at risk to avoid war or to keep a “small nuclear war” from becoming larger. This is a myth. Once the “dogs of war” are released and the battlefield become nuclear, there are no guarantees; no limits. That is the nature of all wars.

    Today, it’s really all about the numbers. For the United States, 2500 nuclear weapons with 300 land based ICBMs and 10 strategic submarines with 160 SLBM is just as good a deterrence as the present inventory. (5000 warheads with 450 ICBMs and 288 SLBMs)

    The question is, can we do better? Could the United States have “deterrence” with 1000 nuclear weapons? 500?

    Frank Shuler

  4. i want to comment here on the economic side effects of nuclear deterrence and what is referred to in central banking speak as “moral hazard”.

    Organizing market or planned economies in preparation for nuclear war has clearly failed with the collapse of the soviet economy, the russian bond default in 1998, and with the Lehman crisis of 2008.

    Taxpayers and private borrowers are unable to keep pace with civilian and military sector growth rates. The magnitude of nuclear weapons allows for the problem to compound over time.

    Consider a reverse engineering perspective of the problem and ask yourself if the reason for organizing an industrialized economy at all is not to just support an ever larger more complex military. If the cost of supporting a nuclear defense burdens competing societies over time becuase of accelerating developments in defense technology and the need to keep pace with each other’s capabilities, then we are, as taxpayers, borrowers, and ordinary people alive to only to support these weapons systems. Biological life in general has been overtaken by military hardware that governs our choices and creates circumstances that could not have been planned for or thought of by ancient theologians or thinkers.

    A forced standardization of government operations, and of taxing and spending policies in particular, by competing hostile governments is needed. Tax payers and borrowers must be identically socialized and educated in a uniform manner to circulate money in a specific pattern that permits the presence of dangerous nuclear weapons to remain without being used for reasons of poor economic planning.

    Corporate borrowing rates float off of government borrowing rates, who are implicitly indicating the use of nuclear war to borrow more money. More nuclear armed states will breed larger institutional borrowers who will overburden their socieites with delinquent taxpayers and borrowers, and occasion the economic imperative to use of their weapons.

    the space programs of competing nuclear powers allows for hardware to pass overhead several times a day, every day, year in and year out. And yet civilians are divided against each other geographically as if we were still getting around on horseback.

    How much longer can we afford to aim at each other from space? Who can get away with borrowing more money today based on the certainty of nuclear posturing tomorrow? Who will be in the control room when that time comes?

    The burn rates of civilian and institutional borrowers who are supposed to be supporting these weapons systems and governments is nothing short of alarming. Corporate treasuries stand by idle, and the political process goes on in a state of denial because of a telegenic communications policy that has clearly lost pace with the lowered cost barriers of consumer electronics.

    Civilian and institutional taxpayers are disoriented and alienated from the cost of supporting a nuclear armed force, and as time goes on and these economic problems create larger burn rates because of rampant moral hazard in the capital markets, ordinary people will be less likely to reach an equitable balance of trade with each other without the involvement of nuclear weapons in the future.

    The compulsory education systems of developed nation states around the world do little to transition future taxpayers and borrowers to computer platforms for cooperation between each other. Technical analysis of price charts is clearly a superior medium of communication between foreign cultures who share the same values of basic survival. the television, by contrast, has very high, preventive cost barriers, that permit a handful of people to form the message of many. Perhaps there could be a future generation of price chart technical analysts who could openly trade information with each other about economic planning without the need for nuclear posturing.

    until then, as von klauswitz said, its a mutual understanding, as to a dual

  5. chris peters

    I must confess. I got lost in your argument. American government spending on defense is much different that, say, Russia’s. When the United States spends public tax dollars with public owned corporations, such as Boeing or Lockheed, not only does capital move from public consumption to private investment but it’s taxable on both the corporate ledger and also with the individual stockowner. In other words, the United States always buy weapons at cost plus a taxable corporate & stockowner profit while Russia always buys weapons only at cost. Neither approach is right or wrong. The American approach only artificially inflates the cost of weapon systems bought. For example, the United States planned to order 132 B-2 bombers and contracted the supplier Northrop-Grumman to build such. When the order was reduced to only 21 aircraft, Northrop had to cover its total fixed cost and corporate profit for the entire program in only those 21 airplanes. The simple truth is the US could have had 132 B-2 bombers for marginally the same cost, plus direct labor & materials of course, as the final inventory of only 21 bombers. As a stock holder of Northrop-Grumman, I didn’t care either way. I got my profit and paid my tax when I sold my NG stock at a significant profit. Public dollars really didn’t “leave the system”.

    Little of this has to do with deterrence or nuclear warheads. In fact, nuclear warheads are very cost effective weapon systems compared to the cost of maintaining vast conventional capabilities. President Eisenhower reached that conclusion in 1958.

    Frank Shuler

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *