July 15, 2011


Obama's Nuclear Upgrade: The Case for Modernizing America's Nukes (Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, July 6, 2011, Foreign Affairs)

Does nuclear modernization contribute to deterrence, which the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review called "the fundamental role" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

In "The Nukes We Need" (November/December 2009), we described the deterrence challenges that the United States will likely face in the coming years and the nuclear capabilities that might mitigate them. First, we argued that the United States is likely to face tougher deterrence problems in the coming years than it did during the Cold War. Specifically, as nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes increasingly likely that the United States will find itself in conventional conflicts with nuclear-armed adversaries. Those adversaries have witnessed the catastrophic consequences of losing a war to the United States -- regime change, with prison or death the frequent fate of enemy leaders. Coercive nuclear escalation is one of the only trump cards that countries fighting the United States hold, offering the prospect of a battlefield stalemate and keeping existing regimes in power. For the United States, deterring weak, desperate adversaries from using their nuclear trump card will be a major challenge -- especially as these weapons spread.

Second, we argued that retaining the right mix of capabilities in the U.S. nuclear arsenal is vital for deterring -- or responding to -- an adversary engaging in coercive nuclear escalation. The foundation of a credible deterrent is maintaining the capability and the will to carry out one's threats. But most of the nuclear weapons in the current U.S. arsenal, including all the land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, have such enormous explosive yields that using them would spread radioactive fallout across vast regions and almost certainly kill large numbers of noncombatants. Threatening to use such indiscriminate weapons would simply not be credible, at least in any scenario short of a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland. To retain a credible deterrent, the United States must possess nuclear weapons that a president might actually use if U.S. allies, military forces, or territory suffered a nuclear attack. We therefore argued that Washington, as it reduces the size of its nuclear arsenal, must retain and modernize its lowest-yield and most accurate weapons.

So what has happened in the past 18 months? After substantial internal deliberation and input from Congress, the Obama administration has settled on a pragmatic approach to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That approach balances the administration's two principal goals: reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and retaining a robust deterrent for the foreseeable future. Toward the first goal, the administration successfully negotiated and secured the ratification of New START, which caps U.S. and Russian deployed strategic forces at roughly 1,550 warheads -- about 20 percent lower than the previous cap. (All told, the number of deployed U.S. strategic weapons has now been reduced by 85 percent since the end of the Cold War.) The administration is seeking a new round of cuts to further reduce the arsenal.

At the same time, the White House has proposed a major nuclear modernization effort to revitalize the remaining force. Those proposals include funding nuclear infrastructure (that is, the complex of national laboratories, production facilities, and personnel), extending the life of aging warheads, and replacing old delivery systems. Fortunately, the administration's modernization plans seek to preserve the exact capabilities we advocated in "The Nukes We Need."

For example, the administration wants to retain and modernize the lowest-yield nuclear options in the force --the bombs and cruise missiles delivered by aircraft. The White House is seeking funding for a nuclear-capable version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a nuclear-capable long-range bomber to replace the B-52 and B-2 bombers. Most noteworthy, the administration supports a modernization plan that would convert all remaining B-61 nuclear bombs into a single, low-yield version with increased accuracy. The plan also calls for a new air-launched cruise missile that will probably combine lower weapon yield with higher accuracy.

In addition to preserving the low-yield options in the current force, the modernization plan also calls for building a new generation of ballistic missile submarines to replace the Ohio-class fleet -- a step that is essential for retaining the smaller U.S. arsenal's survivability. There also appear to be plans to increase the accuracy of the missiles that these submarines will carry. If so, the missiles could eventually be armed with much lower-yield warheads than those on current submarines.

All these proposals are welcome since they help ensure that the U.S. nuclear force remains usable -- which is the foundation of a credible deterrent.

We have made the threat uncredible by our failure to use the weapons.

Posted by at July 15, 2011 6:00 AM

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