The United States should cut its nuclear weapons capabilities to contribute to deficit reduction, writes Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. O’Hanlon qualifies this opinion by stating that “our strategic forces should remain as large as Russia’s.” Yet these two statements are mutually exclusive, as the United States is already below Russia’s numbers—considering Russia’s advantage in nuclear short-range systems.
Cutting funding for the nuclear weapons complex would only make the situation worse, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as the Russians are vigorously modernizing their nuclear weapons while the United States is just sustaining its supply.
U.S. strategic forces should remain on par with the Russians “to avoid giving Moscow any more reason to push its weight around with its neighbors,” according to O’Hanlon. This is wrong, because the global obligations of the two countries are fundamentally different. While Russia is a threat to many and the protector of none, the United States provides nuclear security guarantees to more than 30 countries all over the world. These guarantees contributed to nonproliferation more than any arms control treaty signed during the Cold War.
In addition, Russia is vigorously modernizing its bombers, submarines, long-range missiles, and warheads. Moscow plans to develop a new Bulava 30 SLBM, eight new Borey class submarines, a fifth-generation missile submarine, an improved Sineva, the Liner, and the Arbalet submarine-launched ballistic missile. The United States is the only nuclear country without substantial modernization plans underway. Eventually, the qualitative difference between Russian and U.S. weapons will shift to Russia’s favor.
The situation gets even worse if the “super committee” does not agree on the deficit-reduction package, and automatic sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011 kicks in. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated in his November 14 letter to Senators John McCain (R–AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R–SC), sequestration would force the Department of Defense to terminate the bomber modernization program, further delay next-generation submarine-launched ballistic missiles, cut the force to 10 submarines (from the current level of 12), and eliminate all U.S. intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This would mean abandoning a longstanding U.S. policy of maintaining nuclear triad and moving to a dyad.
In the age of a multipolar proliferated environment where other actors are quickly obtaining capabilities to threaten the U.S., forward-deployed troops, and allies, such a policy would be ill-advised. As the bipartisan, congressionally mandated Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States (also known as the Schlesinger–Perry Commission) wrote, “The triad of strategic delivery systems continues to have value. Each leg of the nuclear triad provides unique contributions to stability. As the overall force shrinks, their unique values become more prominent.” General Kevin Chilton, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, stated that the current stockpile is sized so that the United States can hedge against both technical failures in the currently deployed arsenal and any geopolitical concerns that might cause it to need more deployed weapons. To cut the stockpile means to accept a larger strategic risk.
Each leg of the triad has unique features and attributes that are essential for keeping the U.S. nuclear deterrent credible in the view of U.S. allies and adversaries alike. Heavy bombers can signal the leadership’s policy intent and be dispersed between military bases to enhance survivability. Submarines provide for survivability, and ICBMs are the most responsive leg and, operationally, the cheapest leg of the strategic triad. It is imperative that the United States maintains this capability to hedge against the uncertainties of the future, deter threats against its territory and troops, and assure allies.