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 END OF THE TRIAD
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.