The Return of Dr. Strangelove

The Return of Dr. Strangelove


With the prospect of sequestration looming, the United States may find itself increasingly relying on nuclear and cyber deterrence as an affordable means of guaranteeing national sovereignty and preventing major conflict between the U.S. and potential adversaries in the Asia-Pacific. While  earlier defense planning and  acquisition were based on economic conditions that no longer  exist, Congress’s options to balance  the  budget  by cutting defense spending are politically palatable because far fewer American are “defense voters” relative to “social welfare voters,” according to a number of recent  public opinion surveys.

The simple fact is China’s rise has yet to present a clear danger to American interests in the minds of most Americans.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The first steps in this process are already underway and exemplified by the administration’s new strategy – published in January 2012. When the official requirement that  the Department of Defense  (DoD) be able  to fight two major wars  simultaneously disappeared,  an opportunity to downsize the armed  forces presented  itself.  From Congress’s viewpoint, the budget crisis must be solved without unseating its members. Ironically, austerity may cause Americans to stop worrying about a hypothetical rogue detonation and learn to love the bomb. Dr. Strangelove may return with a vengeance, but this time with a cyber doomsday device under one arm and its nuclear counterpart under the other. After all, dollar for dollar, nuclear weapons—in particular—provide American taxpayers the greatest level of security and stability of any weapon the nation has ever fielded. The fact that at an estimated $30 billion per  year—5%  of the  defense  budget—the nuclear arsenal  is cheap,  may  spur Congress to take a pragmatic position toward the nation’s most powerful military capabilities (as the federal budget is increasingly engulfed by social welfare programs) and support an effective nuclear deterrent along with the  development of devastating cyber capabilities.

It is important to keep in mind that both areas—nuclear and cyber—are a primary focus of Chinese military developments. Failing to maintain an advantage in both may prove unwise for the United States.

Some in the scientific community argue that this perspective is unrealistic. Politics, being what they are, is all about getting elected; complex strategic calculations in the Asia-Pacific offer little comfort during a tough reelection fight that is focused on the domestic economy. With Congress having a number of incumbents whose constituencies loathe the thought of cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans’ benefits, and Social Security, taking greater risks in national security is a more tangible option. As the nation borrows over $1 trillion per year, the quest to balance the budget is impossible without dramatic spending cuts given the unacceptability of tax increases.

The nation’s deficit crisis may soon turn the United States’ geopolitical posture from one that is ideologically based on global interventionism—popular with both Republicans and Democrats—to one  more  akin to defense non-intervention. While international trade will continue and expand, the United States may cease to be a shining city upon a hill and the global policeman. It is somewhat paradoxical that after the country demonstrated overwhelming conventional superiority in the last two wars—Afghanistan and Iraq—the cost of that capability may lead to a renaissance of nuclear deterrence and  the development of cyber deterrence as a strategic policy, a move that may be more useful in an “Asia-Pacific century” than many realize.  In comparison to large conventional forces and the decades of veteran’s benefits that follow, the nuclear arsenal is far more affordable over the long term. Cyber is also more cost effective when it comes to R&D and expensive acquisition programs.

With a per-unit price estimated at about $4 billion, a new Ohio-class-replacing nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN-X) can produce strategic deterrence for less than an army division of 10,000 career soldiers whose compensation―with pensions and benefits―continues for an additional 40 years after these soldiers have served. A key policy driver in coming years may prove to be the limited costs of upgrading and maintaining existing nuclear weapons when a cash-strapped federal government seeks to reduce the deficit. Maintaining and upgrading existing nuclear weapon systems is inexpensive by comparison. Even if nuclear weapons are bound―as Kenneth N. Waltz states―to make people uneasy because of their immense destructive power, nuclear arms may prove to be a budgetary emergency exit.

For many Americans, Peter Sellers’s portrayal of nuclear deterrence policies in the 1950s and 1960s remains a reality. While Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an iconic film, its black comedy addressed the dangers of nuclear weapons, doomsday devices, missile gaps, and the intricate webs of deterrence and geopolitics of a bygone era where the world was still coming to grips with the destructive  power of  “the bomb.” In one scene, Dr. Strangelove carefully explains for the president deterrence and the doomsday device saying, “Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know.  Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.”

Admittedly, this psychological aspect has not changed, but technology and operational experience have made nuclear weapons a safe and secure means of deterring conventional and nuclear attack, which may prove critically important in deterring an increasingly assertive China. It is cyber deterrence that is in a similar position to where nuclear deterrence was at the time of Dr. Strangelove.

After a generation of neglect, deterrence, in its broadest meaning, is experiencing an overdue renaissance among scholars and policy wonks. For those advocates of nuclear zero who thought conventional precision attack would serve as a panacea for the nation’s security challenges, the past twenty years were a disappointment. They failed to deter a number of adversaries America has fought over the last two decades. Most importantly, they have proven all too expensive and are not deterring a rising China, a resurgent Russia, or an unpredictable North Korea.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief