Time To Change America's Atomic Arsenal
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Time To Change America's Atomic Arsenal


Nuclear weapons in 2013 have been pushed yet again into the policy background as more pressing matters – the appalling collapse of the U.S. budget process among them – have absorbed all of Washington’s intellectual bandwidth. President Obama’s reelection means that the United States will remain publicly committed to nuclear reductions, but the studies that were supposed to detail those further reductions are now languishing in bureaucratic limbo and are unlikely to be a high priority. If nothing changes, the U.S. strategic deterrent will stay right where it has been since the early 1990s: merely a smaller version of the force we once arrayed against the Soviet Union.

This is largely the product of a long spell of inertia in American strategic planning. The Cold War mission of deterring another nuclear superpower by preparing for global nuclear combat, insofar as that idea ever made sense, is now a part of history and should be left behind. The new mission for U.S. nuclear weapons for at least for the next two decades, if not longer, should be one of minimum deterrence, meaning the prevention of a major nuclear attack on America with a small nuclear force — perhaps as low as 300 strategic weapons — targeted only for retaliation for the attempted destruction of the United States and nothing else.

This is not a radical proposal: some American military and civilian leaders gravitated to the idea of a minimum deterrent as early as the 1950s. Unfortunately, the rapid construction of nuclear arsenals during the Cold War overwhelmed any such possibility as both superpowers rushed to develop large nuclear forces divided among bombers, submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Advocates of this traditional “triad” argue that this force helped to win the Cold War. They are only partially correct; the more we find out about the Cold War, the more the evidence points to a more refined conclusion. U.S. and Soviet leaders, as it turns out, weren’t deterred by the massive use of nuclear weapons: they were deterred by the thought of almost any use of nuclear weapons. If the objective is to deter an attack on the United States, then a triad of thousands of strategic weapons is, literally, overkill. During the Cold War, we fell into the trap of devising strategies to serve weapons systems, rather than the other way around. To think about tomorrow’s nuclear force, we need to abandon the tradition of simply remolding our existing nuclear deterrent into smaller versions of itself every few years. The strategic deterrent should do one thing, and one thing only: prevent the nuclear destruction of the United States by a peer like China or Russia.

What about the rogues, who can inflict great harm but not existential destruction on the U.S. or its allies? The mission of deterring WMD attacks from rogue states is not, and in reality has never been, a nuclear mission. After the Cold War, we are no longer confronting a fellow nuclear Goliath; instead, we now face a coterie of smaller Davids, each armed with various kinds of weapons of mass destruction. Threats of brute nuclear force against these smaller nations are not only useless, they are immoral. Policy wonks and armchair generals speak casually about nuclear retaliation against countries like North Korea or Iran, but the fact of the matter is that no responsible democracy like the United States would drop nuclear weapons in the crowded regions of East Asia or the Middle East any more than it would order its police to clear a street riot with a bazooka. Moreover, keeping the full panoply of nuclear forces only serves to undermine political efforts to restrain rogues like Iran and North Korea.

Whether the United States will choose to maintain conventional forces that can deliver a violent reckoning to rogue states, and thus to deter their leaders, is a separate question. It is a mission that the U.S. and its allies have already proven they can execute, as deposed autocrats like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein could attest if they were still alive. The successful hunt for Osama Bin Laden likewise should confirm that a U.S. promise to exact justice, no matter how long it takes, should not be treated lightly.

Where strategic nuclear weapons are concerned, however, it is time to end the incoherence that has plagued debates about the U.S. deterrent since the end of the Cold War.


The“triad” of air, sea, and land-based strategic nuclear forces is a glittering example of how weapons can drive strategy instead of the other way around. The nuclear triad was once indispensable, because its original purpose was survivability. For much of the Cold War, both sides feared a decapitating first strike that would destroy their ability to respond. With three strategic systems in place, however, it was functionally impossible to execute such a strike: a sneak attack might catch the bombers on the ground, some of the land-based force in its silos, and part of the submarine fleet in its pens. Nothing, however, would be able to smother all three nuclear systems fast enough to evade retaliation.


[...] answer, in my view, is deterrence through conventional retaliation. I wrote about this in a short piece for The Diplomat last [...]

[...] know many in the Ari Force who DO strongly disagree), the piece is well worth a read.  Read it all here.  What do you [...]

[...] at 7:15 on March 20, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan Tom Nichols urges the US to think small: The Cold War mission of deterring another nuclear superpower by preparing [...]

Dave Barnes
March 21, 2013 at 08:13

300 is way too low.

1. Submarines

a. Boomers – 12 subs means only 4 on duty at any one time as 1/3 are at sea, 1/3 getting ready, 1/3 undergoing maintenance. 12 x 64 warheads = 768

b. Attack – 20 subs with 2 nuke torpeados each = 40

2. Land based missiles – "The current US force consists of 450 Minuteman-III missiles" each with 3 warheads = 1350

3. Bombers – B52s and B2s let's say 100

A total of 2200. That is the minimum.

Leonard R.
March 19, 2013 at 23:58

I think Matt's referring to Strauss-Howe generational theory. And I pray your math for nukes is better than your math for generational crises. A nation 237 years old could yield at least two crises, if one assumed a crisis occurred every 80 years. 

[...] Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols argues the U.S. should adopt a minimal deterrent—albeit in a piece that mentions “China” only once and “extended [...]

Leonard R.
March 19, 2013 at 10:32

Actually, you've mischaracterized my little point. I didn't say "Chinese aren't like us,". I said Chinese are not like Russians. Even if you were on-point, you undermine your own argument by expressing your belief North Korea's leaders are different by virtue of their being crazy. If North Korean leadeers are different – why not Chinese leaders? 

I'd love to see you address the actuarial question Matt raised when he wrote: 

 "The correct question is: When would be in anyone's best interest to nuke the US? When the other options are worse. When might the other options be worse?"


An interesting angle to consider would be the tunnel network the CPC has been building. If the great powers followed your advice and disarmed to your recommended minimum deterrent, then survivability becomes very important. Russians are well-situated by virtue of their huge land mass. Chinese appear to be working hard to build facilities that can survive a nuclear exchange.  I don't see much happening on the US side. So that may yet be one more reason that unilaterally disarming may not be such a good idea. 


March 17, 2013 at 23:21

@ Tom Nichols

Way to totally ignore everything else I said & focus on Australia & a perceived threat from China, my above comments focus on the larger region & not just on us , but since you want scenarios, read on.

Taking the inevitable reaction from the Chinese readers into account, I’ll start by saying, ALL nations look at each other & evaluate that nations potential to threaten their security, for example, for decades Australia’s main “potential” threat was considered to be Indonesia, due to its proximity to us, the fact it was ruled by a military dictatorship, had a large army & various other reasons, the possibility of attack by them has diminished as they have become a democracy & a trustworthy nation, this has allowed relations between us to be normalized & is slowly strengthening.

With that preface said we turn our attention to the question at hand, yes, China is a threat to the Asia/Pacific region; unfortunately they have been getting more aggressive with their neighbours of late, which destabilizes the whole region, the clam against Japan is somewhat understandable due to the islands proximity to the Chinese coast (thought China should respect the fact that Japan is the LEGAL administrator of the islands & use peaceful/legal methods to dispute ownership) , the claim over most of the South China Sea (SCS) however is absurd (no nation can be allowed to claim ownership of an entire sea used by everyone as a shipping lane), both of these claims by China could lead to conflict, either of which could bring the USA into the conflict & as such force Australia (due to our alliance) to get involved, you also have to remember that Malaysia is one of the SCS claimants, & since they & Australia are members of the “Five Powers Defence Arrangements” group that could also suck Australia into conflict with China, whether the USA gets involved or not, thus placing us in harms way (though unlikely, it is still possible).

The “China Threat” issue is more of a problem for South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India & the ASEAN countries then it is for Australia (though it is still of concern to us), if we are attacked by China (Conventionally or with Nukes) it will more likely be because Australia has several important facilities that support US military & Intelligence organizations which China would have to deal with as part of a larger act of aggression against the USA.

Another concern is with North Korea (whose last “missile test” came rather close to us) & Iran; since you brought up John Howard, he’s also remembered for his statement that Aus was the Deputy to the US Sheriff (a stupid analogy), which is unfortunately how a lot of the Asian countries see us, this could led North Korea or Iran (any Missile that can reach the USA in the west, can also reach Aus in the east), to use us as a surrogate to “teach the US a lesson”, since Aus doesn’t have the ability to intercept the missile or to retaliate after the fact (this is also not likely but has to be considered).

Finally there’s Pakistan, a nuclear power with Ballistic missiles (though they can’t reach us yet, it’s only a matter of time until they develop one that can), a nation in danger of becoming a failed state, a nation riddled with actual terrorists & Religious extremists that could become terrorists, this is the greater concern, a “Taliban Afghanistan” style Pakistan armed with nukes & long range missiles.

Drum Point
March 17, 2013 at 09:44

How confident are you that the U.S. doesn't already have such a nuclear capability?

Tom Nichols
March 17, 2013 at 07:43

Matt: I'm not sure who you're reading, but "a crisis every 80 to 100 years" in a country that's only 237 years old that means it's happened at most once. That's called an "n = 1" case and it's usually not the basis for generalization. Of course, since you're an actuary, you know that. :)

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