The presidential candidates’ debates will soon occur, and the voters must know where the candidates stand on protecting the United States against catastrophic nuclear attacks. While debating foreign policy and national security issues, the Democratic and Republican candidates could reach an apparent agreement about the greatest threat facing the United States, similar to what happened on September 30, 2004. During that first debate between then President George W. Bush and then Senator John Kerry (now Secretary of State), they appeared to agree when posed the question: ”What is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?” Kerry replied, “Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.” He went on to critique what he perceived as the Bush administration’s slow rate of securing hundreds of tons of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.
When Bush’s turn came, he said, “First of all, I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network. And that’s why proliferation is one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer.” President Bush also mentioned that his administration had devoted considerable resources toward securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Despite this stated agreement, the two candidates disagreed considerably on how to deal with nuclear threats. Today, the leading Democratic and Republican candidates appear to be in even further disagreement on this issue than Bush and Kerry, while nuclear dangers arguably look even more dangerous. I will not analyze each candidate’s views, especially because their views could change between the time of writing this president’s message in late June and the start of the debates in September. I think it is more useful here to outline several of the major themes on nuclear policy that should be addressed in the campaign and during the debates.
The most fundamental theme is: what is the role or roles of U.S. nuclear weapons? Deterrence is the easy answer, but against what or whom? That is, should nuclear weapons only be used when another nuclear-armed state uses them against the United States or U.S. allies or should the mission be expanded to include deterrence against massive biological attacks, for instance? Assuming the next president wants his policy team to elucidate that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is solely for deterring others’ use of nuclear weapons, the next question is: should the United States have a no-first-use policy of not launching nuclear weapons before others launch nuclear weapons?
Such a policy would emphasize having nuclear weapons that would be secure against a nuclear attack that would come first from an enemy. For example, deployed submarines underneath the surface of the oceans would provide this type of secure force, whereas land-based nuclear-armed missiles and bombers could be more vulnerable to an incoming attack. Would the next president want to reduce the nuclear triad to a single leg of ballistic missile submarines? This decision would require considerable political courage and would have to withstand opposition from proponents who would want to keep the Air Force’s legs of the triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. However, the Air Force could transform its nuclear forces to have solely conventionally-armed missiles and bombers and in effect, it could have more militarily usable weapons that would not have to cross the high threshold of nuclear use.
Another argument for shifting to having just submarines deploy nuclear weapons is the cost savings from having to maintain nuclear arms for land-based missiles and bombers. This leads to the debate topic of whether the United States should spend up to $1 trillion in the coming decades on “modernizing” its nuclear forces. All three legs of the triad are showing their age. Each leg will require $100 billion or more to upgrade the launching platforms of missiles, bombers, and submarines, and in addition, there would be several $100 billion more in refurbishing and maintaining the half dozen types of nuclear warheads plus the related infrastructure costs. Would a presidential candidate seize the opportunity to save hundreds of billions of dollars by smartly downsizing U.S. nuclear forces?
The candidates would have to confront the promises made by the Obama administration to key Republican senators to “modernization” of the nuclear arsenal. This commitment was a crucial part of the bargain to convince enough Republican senators to vote in favor of the New START agreement with Russia in 2010. On June 17, 2016, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) sent a letter to President Obama to remind him of this commitment. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher have called for Congress not to fund the proposed nuclear-armed cruise missile, known as the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), because: there is no compelling military need; it could lower the threshold of nuclear use; and it is too costly at an estimate of up to $30 billion.
New START was a relatively modest reduction in strategic nuclear forces. The tough challenge for the next president is whether further reductions with Russia are even possible given the heightened tensions over Ukraine and other sticking points between Russia and NATO, as well as between Russia and the United States. Going much lower in numbers of strategic nuclear arms might require a rethinking of the nuclear weapons configurations in both nuclear superpowers. Thus, the next president will need a highly capable team who will understand U.S.-Russia relations, the concerns of certain NATO allies, the concerns of East Asian allies, namely Japan and South Korea, as well as the effect on China.
China has remained apart from nuclear arms reductions, although Chinese leaders have made their views clear that they want to ensure that China has a secure nuclear deterrent. While China has for decades been content to have a relatively small nuclear force, there have been signs in recent years of a buildup and modernization of Chinese nuclear weapons and associated delivery platforms, particularly the ballistic missile submarines that have recently demonstrated (after years of technical setbacks) the capability to deploy further out to sea and within striking range of the United States. The next president will have to wrestle with a host of political and military challenges from China, and in the nuclear area, he or she will have to determine how best to deter China without having China further buildup its nuclear arms.
A major issue of concern to China is the potential buildup of U.S. missile defense beyond just a relatively small number of missile interceptors. The ostensible purpose of this very limited U.S. missile defense system is to counter North Korean missiles and Iranian missiles, which are still relatively few in number in terms of longer range missiles. China has been concerned that even a limited or “small” missile defense system could threaten China’s capability to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the United States.
In recent weeks, some senators have opened up a debate about whether to remove the word “limited” in the Missile Defense Authorization Act. In particular, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) have taken such action in the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has sought to restore the word “limited.” Over the past 20 years, the debate in Congress has shifted, such that there is really no debate about whether the United States should have some strategic missile defense system; instead the debate has been about how much the United States should spend on a limited system and how limited it should be. The next president has an opportunity to renew this debate on first principles: that is, whether a strategic missile system provides some crisis stability, whether this system would impede further nuclear arms reductions, and whether this system could achieve adequate technical effectiveness.
I will save (until a future president’s message) the challenges of Iran and North Korea. For this message, I will close by noting that both the George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration made significant progress in securing and reducing nuclear materials that could be vulnerable to theft by terrorists. Preventing nuclear terrorism is very much a bipartisan issue, as is reducing any and all nuclear dangers. How will the next president build on the tremendous legacies of the two previous presidents in keeping the world’s leaders focused on achieving much better security over nuclear materials? Should the Nuclear Security Summit process be continued? What other cooperative international mechanisms can and should be implemented? As the leader of the world’s superpower, the next president must lead and must cooperate with other leaders in the shared endeavor of making the world safer against nuclear threats. As citizens, let’s encourage the candidates to debate seriously these issues and provide practical plans for reducing nuclear dangers.
I am grateful to all the supporters of FAS and readers of the PIR.
 Transcript of September 30, 2014, presidential candidates’ debate at http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=september-30-2004-debate-transcript