“Nuclear weapons will continue to serve critical foreign- and defense-policy objectives,” write Bradley Thayer and Thomas Skypek in their recent op-ed.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear weapons have contributed to global stability and prevented attacks on U.S. homeland and its allies. The White House now thinks it is possible to achieve the same objectives without nuclear weapons. It assumes that once the United States gets rid of its nuclear arsenal, other countries will follow.
This proposition is fundamentally at odds with historical evidence. States have their own reasons for obtaining nuclear weapons, and these reasons have very little to do with whether the U.S. increases or decreases its nuclear weapons arsenal. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons amid the U.S. nuclear buildup and nuclear weapons testing. North Korea and Pakistan joined the nuclear club after the U.S. decreased its nuclear arsenal and stopped testing.
According to recent reports, the Administration is planning on further reducing U.S. nuclear forces. How many nuclear weapons the U.S. maintains should be determined by the current developments of the strategic environment. Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces and increasing the number of its operationally deployed warheads. China, India, Pakistan, France, and the U.K. have substantial nuclear modernization programs. North Korea has the capability to develop six to eight nuclear weapons. Iran is getting closer to developing a nuclear weapon of its own. This is clearly not the time for the U.S. to reduce its nuclear weapons.
Even more troublesome is President Obama’s lack of commitment to nuclear modernization. The Administration recognized that the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure is under-funded during the Senate’s consideration of the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty and committed to increased funding. This commitment, however, has barely survived the first year after the treaty entered into force. In his fiscal year 2013 budget request, President Obama asked for $372 million less than what the Administration pledged to provide. In addition, the Administration proposed to defer the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which would replace a nuclear production facility that is over 60 years old.
In addition, a significant lowering of the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons would require a shift in U.S. targeting strategy—from counterforce (e.g., military posts, nuclear weapons, nuclear production capabilities) to countervalue (e.g., populations and cities). A country that values freedom—for itself and others—above anything else should not divest itself of weapons that allow it to destroy enemy forces instead of civilian populations.
Instead, the U.S. should move toward a “protect and defend” strategy combining offensive, defensive, conventional, and nuclear weapons. This is the best way the U.S. could respond to the current multi-proliferated environment.