General Robert Kehler, the current commander of the Strategic Command, offered only tepid support for the existing U.S. nuclear triad during a July 12 speech on Capitol Hill.
General Kehler said that the traditional U.S. nuclear triad—comprised of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bomber aircraft—remains “the best arrangement that we have today.” Strategic Command would, according to General Kehler, consider eliminating this structure if the President’s requirements change.
While it is entirely appropriate for a senior military commander to follow the policies of the President, this approach is wrongheaded for policymakers. The triad continues to serve vital security interests, and its maintenance should be derived from a sound evaluation of the strategic environment.
Kehler’s speech also serves as another reminder of the dangers inherent in the “nuclear zero” policy, which envisions a world without nuclear weapons. It is a guiding philosophy of the Obama Administration, and it should be changed.
The “nuclear zero” concept undermines world stability and security for at least one very fundamental reason: It assumes that U.S. nuclear weapons reductions will generate goodwill on behalf of our adversaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Countries pursue nuclear weapons programs because of their own perceptions of security, and that is not directly related to the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons. In addition, nuclear weapons have deterred conflict between major world powers since they were created.
The nuclear triad remains essential for preserving U.S. national security and that of its allies. Each of the three components has complementary strengths that offer the most credible strategic deterrent force. In 2030, when the U.S. plans to start replacing its systems, it will have 60-year-old ICBMs, 40-year-old SLBMs, and 35- to 70-year-old bombers. The current Administration has thus far only demonstrated its willingness to pledge to pursue those efforts—with numerous strings attached.
The current fiscal environment means that only dedicated political leadership from the White House will result in the funding necessary to accomplish the needed modernization, despite nuclear weapons presenting only a minor investment in the context of the federal budget.
Eliminating “legs” of the nuclear triad would result in the U.S. falling short in preserving national security, fulfilling its nuclear deterrent guarantees to allies, and helping to preserve international stability. Instead, the U.S. should commit the resources necessary to modernize the nuclear triad and revitalize its nuclear weapons complex.
The overall objective that the Obama Administration should pursue is to calibrate national defenses according to the nature of the strategic environment and in light of existing and emerging threats—not solely budget pressures or arbitrarily determined political goals.
Bryan DeWinter is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.