“There are very solid grounds for re-evaluating our nuclear force structure,” writes Major General Paul Monroe (Ret.) in his recent Politico op-ed. He comes out in support of the recent nuclear reductions announced by the White House, which is contemplating options to go to as low as 300 operationally deployed warheads.
While Monroe is right that “defense assessments are quite common and have been going on since President Dwight D. Eisenhower held office,” President Obama’s guidance starts with setting an arbitrary number rather than a sound strategic assessment of the current strategic environment.
The basis of the Obama Administration’s thinking is rooted in its desire to get the world rid of nuclear weapons. It assumes that by giving up U.S. nuclear weapons, other nations will follow. This is not going to happen, because countries have their own reasons why they acquire nuclear weapons that are not primarily derived from the number of U.S. weapons.
Paradoxically, as the U.S. reduces its nuclear arsenal, it increases the value not only of its remaining weapons but also of nuclear weapons for U.S. adversaries. The perceptions of parity with the U.S. would be a powerful enabler for aspiring regional powers and potential strategic adversaries. In addition, the U.S. provides guarantees to more than 30 countries all over the world. No other country has such global obligations.
Monroe contemplates “whether some of the hundreds of billions spent on that large arsenal would be better spent on other defense priorities.” Nuclear weapons, however, consume only a small portion of the overall defense budget. In addition, they allow the U.S. to maintain smaller conventional forces and a forward-deployed presence to assure allies around the world.
The U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure is already under-funded, a fact recognized by the Administration itself during the New START ratification, when it deemed these investments “essential to facilitating reductions while sustaining deterrence under New START and beyond.” So far, the Administration has fallen short of its funding promises, and therefore conditions for further reductions are not present.
The U.S. is the only country in the world without a substantial modernization program. At the same time, the targeting list is evolving more rapidly than at any point in history as new nuclear weapon states and actors emerge. Arbitrarily lowering the number of weapons could reduce the President’s options when deciding what would be an appropriate response in the case of an enemy strike.
A sound nuclear posture review would look at the strategic environment and determine what capabilities would serve the U.S. and allied interests the most. Heritage research shows that a shift toward the “protect and defend” strategy combining offensive, defensive, conventional, and nuclear weapons is the best response for the current multi-proliferated environment.