The Global Zero Nuclear Policy Commission Report, endorsed by retired Marine Corps General James Cartwright, is calling for dramatic reductions in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.
Since its publication in May, it has stirred discussions about perceptions of today’s strategic environment and competing visions regarding U.S. strategic posture. Mark Schneider, senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy, offers a compelling argument countering the report’s assertions that the U.S. will be safer if it unilaterally lowers its numbers of nuclear weapons.
While the U.S. is the only country in the world without a substantial nuclear weapons modernization program, Russia and China are expanding their nuclear arsenals. Russia under President Vladimir Putin has started the most robust nuclear weapons modernization program since the end of the Cold War.
In addition, as Schneider points out, “Russian Presidents, Chiefs of the General Staff, commanders of the Strategic Missile Forces, and generals representing the Defense Ministry have made about 15 separate threats to either target missile defense facilities or make a pre-emptive nuclear attack.” While U.S. and foreign audiences tend to dismiss these threats as domestic rhetoric, it is imprudent to disregard the hard line the Russians have taken.
There also are significant inconsistencies between the targeting plans that the commission’s report proposes and numbers of weapons to destroy these targets that the report recommends to maintain. While it identifies 945 targets around the world, it advocated to retain only 450 de-alerted warheads (i.e., they would require 24–72 hours to get ready).
The plan ignores Russia’s and China’s intentions to deploy missile defenses and expand their nuclear capabilities. At lower numbers of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be forced to adopt counter-value strategy: destroying populations. The problem with this approach is that potential adversaries such as North Korea or Iran do not value human life; they value means of internal oppression and external attack.
A nuclear weapons reduction plan based on hope and idealistic assumptions does not make sense in the realities of the current strategic environment. Reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal should be driven by an effort to maximize the deterrent value of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, not by disarmament policy as an end in itself.
Instead of unilaterally disarming, 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 challenges of today’s environment.