how low can we go

August 2011


Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about ‘getting to zero’ at U.S. Strategic Command’s Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, Nebraska (from which, I might point out, the extensive trade show exhibit floor was completely — and refreshingly — absent; the event was entirely panel discussions and keynote addresses). But some interesting points were made by panelists on the subject of what happens next now that the New START treaty has been signed, ratified and gone into effect. One of the most salient points made by the panel was that the focus on numerical parity with the Russians might be becoming increasingly anachronistic in terms of the global strategic balance.

Certainly, the continued maintenance of strategic stability with Moscow is important. The arms control model of verifiable reductions, transparency and confidence building has proven to be productive and fruitful over the years. But as one panelist observed, what is important about the strategic balance is its stability, its transparency and the confidence building it affords — the comfort each side has that its nuclear arsenal is sufficient to guarantee its national interests. Yet those interests are very different. The Russians have come to rely increasingly heavily on tactical nuclear weapons for territorial defense scenarios and will necessarily and not without cause remain deeply uneasy with the maturation and fielding of more advanced and mobile American ballistic missile defenses. The United States, meanwhile, not only guarantees its own national interest with its nuclear arsenal but has extended that nuclear guarantee to some 30 other countries — and while the cartel war in Mexico is concerning, has few of the territorial integrity concerns of Moscow.

The decisions we make now about the size and composition of our nuclear arsenal will have direct bearing on our strategic posture and strategic options later in this century. There is broad agreement that investment in the intellectual capital and infrastructure that underlies our nuclear enterprise is warranted. But as the operationally deployed size of the American — and particularly Russian — arsenals fall, the reality that almost every other nuclear arsenal in the world (the legacy arsenals of the United Kingdom and France excepted) is actually growing changes the equation. For a long time, combined U.S.-Soviet and then U.S.-Russian arsenals left the rest of the world’s nuclear arms effectively “a rounding error,” as one panelist observed. But the panel also observed that this is increasingly untrue. China in particular is stuck with the problem that what constitutes a “minimal means of reprisal” will change as BMD capabilities expand and improve. Its arsenal continues to grow and improve. The proliferation of ballistic missile technology in the past several decades and the failure of the international community to prevent the proliferation of nuclear means that while the bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear balance remains perhaps the foremost question, it also remains the most settled and stable balance. Enormous unknowns and other potential nuclear-armed competitors — or, perhaps more problematically, combinations thereof — must also be considered.

These days in the U.S., the discussion about nuclear weapons is usually about economy: what is the minimum sufficient arsenal and how cheaply can we maintain it? Nuclear weapons have proven to be more of a political and diplomatic tool than a military one in any operational sense, and there are certainly more operationally useful investments that we can and should be making. But the inputs of the current fiscal climate, the inertia of the arms control agenda and the continued political lip service paid to the fantasy of ‘getting to zero’ all push the American arsenal in the same direction. The affordability of the SSBN(X) of paramount concern and the idea of a compromise modified Virginia SSN-based design gaining traction, there are also questions of how much capacity we will actually have to expand the size of the arsenal as the global nuclear balance continues to evolve.

The U.S. has moved towards more flexible and politically viable means of deterrence to supplement the nuclear arsenal. And certainly, capabilities like a viable and affordable Conventional Prompt Global Strike system that can be fielded in numbers would factor into the equation. But is concern about the size of the arsenal also dated? The limitations of nuclear deterrence have certainly been manifest since the advent of the atomic bomb. Is the arsenal at or about its current size worth the cost? Or will the nuclear-armed challenges of the 21st century be better met by other means?

Posted by nhughes in Air Force, Hard Power, Navy

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  • We are entering uncharted waters — in the very near future there will exist a China at or very near “breakthrough” in nuclear weapons; India with its own sizeable inventory of nuclear armed LACM and IRBM class missiles, bordered by two states it has gone to war with at least once in the past half-century. Traditional notions of deterrence and game-theory concepts like escalation dominance that drove our thinking during the Cold War fall are found wanting in such an environment. More so, lacking a national security strategy that is more than a string of bumper-stickers pasted together and facing a fiscal reality whose ramifications in the wake of “the Deal” are only just now being realized within DoD, I think there is legitimate concern as regards the characterization our nuclear forces will assume not in the out years, but within the FYDP itself – e.g., will deficit reduction measures ultimately lead to the mothballing of either the land- or sea-based leg of the current nuclear force?
    w/r, SJS

  • Mike M.

    It may be time to go whole-hog into strategic defense rather than retaliation.

    The old nuclear strategic equation was bipolar. We and They…and you could total up the number of missiles on each side. The new world is multipolar. Do we adopt a two-power standard, fielding a force equal to the Russians and Chinese in order to match a hostile alliance? Or do we adopt a one-power standard, on the basis that a two-power standard would make us too much of a threat to any one power and force an alliance of potential rivals?

    Strategic defense avoids this. It becomes possible to adopt a standard of a two-power defense, but a one-power retaliatory force. It’s a more stable configuration suited to a multi-polar world.

  • Derrick

    Don’t think strategic defense is feasible without space-based interceptors and directed energy weapons…only way to respond quick enough to intercept ICBMs in the boost phase, right? Plus it’s very cheap to build up missiles to overwhelm the defenses…

    Is anyone suggesting the US military was not proactive and did not forsee this changing strategic landscape?

  • Dean

    The SM-3 is actually a fairly inexpensive missile in terms of the budget for BMD. They could buy 100 of them a year (maybe even some economy of scale could kick in) for the next five years and load out most Pacific military facilities and capable surface vessels (my impression is that the current plan is a limited version of this). Considering that the US is spending around 10 billion a year (though this might not be sustainable with the current madness in Washington), they could build up a reserve of hundreds of these missiles as one leg of a defensive shield. Much as the current US nuclear arsenal utilizes a variety of platforms, BMD should (and likely will) use multiple systems.

    I think the real game changer is going to be directed energy weapons. Thankfully, the USN seems to be aware of this and is investing a bit in this area. Hopefully the FEL doesn’t get the chop in the current spending debate. Even if it can’t be fit on to ships immediately, it could still be quite useful in defending military facilities in the Pacific from conventional and perhaps nuclear short and intermediate ranged missiles.

  • Derrick

    In my opinion, it may be a worthwhile expenditure to buy these SM-3 missiles. If China builds up its ICBMs, we know they intend to compete with the US for the coveted spot of most giant phallic symbols.

    If China throws a diplomatic hissy fit and continues modernizing it’s military and the current pace, we know they are just trying to modernize their deterrent and not really trying to become a global power.