Time To Change America’s Atomic Arsenal

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Time To Change America’s Atomic Arsenal

The new mission for U.S. nuclear weapons — minimum deterrence: The prevention of a major nuclear attack on America with a small force — perhaps as low as 300 strategic weapons.

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.

Over time, as the size of nuclear arsenals on both sides grew, the survivability issue became irrelevant: the sheer number of weapons on both sides meant that neither could muster enough force to destroy the other without being annihilated in turn. Once MAD, or mutual assured destruction, was a reality, the argument for the triad morphed from survivability to flexibility. As the superpowers developed more weapons, their strategists developed more elaborate plans for their use, and soon the question of whether nuclear weapons were meant to deter a nuclear war or fight one was lost in muddled arguments that posited a need to do both, even though civilian leaders had no inclination to use nuclear arms on any scale. From the 1960s to the 1990s, U.S. presidents and their secretaries of defense entered office only to be shocked by the immense size of the American nuclear arsenal and the complexity of the strategies for its use. Each in turn demanded changes and reforms that were rarely heeded by an entrenched nuclear bureaucracy that continued almost mechanically to match weapons to an ever growing number of targets.

If the United States chooses to pursue a minimum deterrent, it no longer needs a triad. The nuclear mission can be removed safely from at least one system, and maybe two, if the remaining U.S. deterrent is based on land and at sea.


Bombers are attractive weapons for nuclear delivery for many reasons, not least because they have the ultimate fail-safe mechanism on board: a human being. They can be sent to the very edge of their targets and still be recalled. They can change their collective minds once en route and proceed to other objectives. And they’re slow, which might be a virtue; unless they’re attacking Canada or Mexico, they provide precious hours in which the Americans and their enemies might negotiate.

These scenarios, however, are the kind of thing that might have sounded good in a Tom Clancy novel a quarter century ago but make less sense today. Indeed, if the goal of U.S. security policy is to avoid the use of nuclear weapons – as it should be – then this kind of flexibility might be counterproductive, especially if it tempts a President to rattle a nuclear sabre, perhaps by ordering the takeoff of a flight of stealth bombers during a tense moment. This is an idea that always sounds attractive at first but is far more complicated on closer examination. Once the bombers are up, when do they come down? Does ordering their return mean the crisis is over? Does their flight time create an artificial clock that would make a crisis even worse? Would an enemy who cannot detect stealth bombers wait to find out whether their launch is a bluff? This kind of flexibility seems to offer little to U.S. policymakers besides the ability to paint themselves into a corner.

The irony here is that the focus on nuclear bombers obscures the crucial role that long-range conventional bombers will play in the 21st century. Every argument about the utility of bombers is correct – so long as they are armed with conventional weapons that are actually usable in crowded regions. The current supply of B-1, B-2 and the venerable B-52 bombers (planes old enough to have been flown by their pilots’ grandfathers) can stay in service until at least 2040. The Pentagon wants a next-generation bomber, but again, the rationale for a nuclear version seems to boil down to little more than that we need them because we’ve always had them.


Submarines, like bombers, can begin their journey to their targets and be recalled at leisure. Indeed, because they can travel but still launch ballistic missiles, they are more flexible than bombers. They can be put to sea for long periods of time, they are difficult to detect, and their weapons are highly accurate. Whatever the final form of the American strategic deterrent in the coming decades, submarines will remain its backbone.

The main question is how many submarines are required to serve a minimum U.S. deterrent. The current U.S. fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines is due to be replaced starting in 2027; the Navy wants a dozen new boats, while critics contend (correctly) that the number could be lower.The important point is that even one of these new submarines could carry up to 64 warheads, more than enough to lay waste to an entire country. If that’s not enough firepower to deter an attack on the United States, it is doubtful that two hundred or two thousand more bombs – which would destroy the attacker and most of the Northern Hemisphere – would make any greater difference.

There has been a fair amount of discussion about eliminating land-based ICBMs, an idea supported by organizations like Global Zero. There is a logic behind eliminating the ICBM force: if the nation’s deterrent is located far from the American population, there would be less anxiety during a crisis and less impulse to preempt the enemy’s nuclear forces.

This is nonetheless a dangerous proposal. Some portion of the U.S. deterrent should remain in the continental United States precisely because an attack on the American retaliatory force would mean an attack on North America and its people. No potential enemy should ever think it can engage in the risky math of eliminating the American nuclear deterrent without having to contemplate a full-scale nuclear war with the United States. Even if only a hundred or fewer silos remain on American soil, they should stay there until global nuclear stocks drop enough so that they can be safely removed.

The important thing to remember in considering all of these proposals is that the use of nuclear weapons is not a game. It is not an intellectual exercise, or a thought experiment. It is an unfortunate legacy of the Cold War that policy analysts and scholars became accustomed to talking about huge numbers of nuclear arms and immense casualties, but as McGeorge Bundy wrote in 1969, real policymakers don’t think that way. The U.S. strategic deterrent should be the threat of last resort in almost unimaginable circumstances, rather than one tool of statecraft among many. A corresponding reform of the strategic arsenal is not only a good idea, but it is one well within reach.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a professor of government at the Harvard Extension School. His new book on nuclear strategy, No Use: Nuclear Weapons and the Reform of American Security Strategy, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2013. He also blogs at "The War Room." The views expressed are solely those of the author.