Why America must not cut its nuclear arsenal any further
Russia and China are rapidly growing and modernizing their nuclear arsenals, North Korea is perfecting its warheads and missiles, Iran is racing towards nuclear weapons, and what do Western arms control advocacy organizations advocate? That the US disarm itself unilaterally, starting with deep unilateral cuts in its nuclear warhead stockpile and ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet.
But any further cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal or any component of its nuclear triad would be reckless, irresponsible, and very dangerous for national security by significantly weakening America’s only deterrent against nuclear threats. Weakening that deterrent (by cutting or neglecting it) is always dangerous for America, but it’s especially dangerous when hostile countries are building up their nuclear arsenals and other hostile countries are developing atomic weapons. So here are additional reasons why America must not cut its nuclear deterrent any further.
1) Russia is rapidly building up its nuclear arsenal, as it is allowed to do under the New START treaty. When that treaty was ratified, Russia was well below its ceilings on strategic nuclear warheads and their carriers. Now, it’s just 58 warheads below the limit and intends to continue building up to it. It also threatens to withdraw from the treaty if the US deploys any missile defense systems in Europe. It has also violated the treaty by holding bomber exercises without sending prior notification to the US.
It currently has 400-472 ICBMs, most of them multiple-warhead missiles (including some, such as SS-18 Satan ICBMs, that can carry 10 warheads and many decoys each), 141 Tu-95 and 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers, and over 200 Tu-22M and Su-34 bombers. Each Tupolev bomber can carry multiple nuclear-tipped missiles as well as nuclear free-fall bombs.
Moreover, Russia has 12-13 SSBNs and plans to have, in the next few decades, at least 12 SSBNs, most of which will carry 16 SLBMs but some (starting with the 4th Borei class SSBN) will carry 20 missiles – 4 more than what the American SSBN replacement class is planned to carry, thus outgunning the planned future SSBN fleet of the Navy, which will consist of only 12 boats. Cutting the SSBN fleet (or any other component of the nuclear triad) any further would weaken that fleet (and consequently, the US nuclear arsenal at large) vis-a-vis Russia’s boomer fleet further and give Moscow a nuclear advantage over the US, thus allowing Russia to blackmail the US and its allies with nuclear weapons. And why would Russia not exploit such advantage over the US mercilessly if it gains it? Of course it would.
On top of that, Russia has a much larger tactical nuclear arsenal than the US, with thousands (and potentially over 10,000) tactical nuclear warheads deployed on a wide range of delivery systems: cruise missiles (air- and sea-launched), SRBMs, aircraft dropping nuclear bombs, torpedoes, etc. The US has only a few hundred (400-500) tactical nuclear weapons, of which only about 200 are deployed in Europe.
In short, Russia enjoys approximate strategic nuclear parity with the US, has a huge advantage over the US in tactical nuclear weapons, and thus, any cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal or any element of the strategic triad would weaken the US vis-a-vis Russia and give Moscow a nuclear advantage over the US.
2) China is also quickly building up its arsenals. According to credible studies – unlike the guesstimates of the US intelligence community, which are almost 3 decades out of date, and the false claims of pro-disarmament groups – China has at least 1,800, and up to 3,000, nuclear warheads – and the means to deliver them, including over 70 ICBMs, at least 72 (and up to 132) SLBMs, 120-130 MRBMs and IRBMs, and over 1,600 SRBMs, not to mention hundreds of LACMs and 440 nuclear-armed bombers.
China is now producing and deploying three new types of ICBMs (DF-31A, DF-41, JL-2) and MIRVing these missiles as well as its older DF-5 ICBMs and DF-4 IRBMs. Cutting the US nuclear arsenal (or any component of the nuclear triad) deeply would leave America with a much smaller nuclear arsenal than China’s (which consists of 1,800 – 3,000 warheads), thus enabling Beijing to blackmail and even attack America and its Asian allies, all of whom depend on the US umbrella.
Even bilateral cuts with Russia would thus gravely undermine US security, as they would deeply reduce America’s nuclear deterrent vis-a-vis China.
3) Other countries are also increasing their nuclear arsenals, despite, or perhaps because of, continous cuts to America’s deterrent. These countries include Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. Pyongyang and Islamabad cannot be deterred with a small number of nuclear weapons. Pakistan alone has over 100 nuclear warheads.
4) Last but certainly not least, the US needs a large nuclear deterrent to protect its 30 treaty allies and other friends who depend on the American nuclear umbrella. This cannot be done with a small arsenal; it would be woefully insufficient to reassure allies about that arsenal’s credibility – and the credibility of America’s guarantees.
Unlike Russia and China, which are threats to many and protectors to nobody except North Korea, the US is responsible for providing a nuclear deterrent not just for itself but for over 30 allies in Europe and Asia, who are threatened by Russia and China.
Any further cuts will cause these allies to doubt America’s nuclear deterrent and, at some point, develop their own nuclear weapons, thus making the proliferation problem much worse. And who could blame them? They cannot afford to bet their own security and national insistence on America sobering up from its “world without nuclear weapons” fantasy in 2016.
If nuclear proliferation is the concern, cutting or eliminating America’s own nuclear deterrent is the worst way to handle it. It would only make matters worse.
As three distinguished CSBA analysts observed in December 2010′s edition of Foreign Affairs, America’s nuclear arsenal is shrinking just as its deterrence commitments are expanding substantially, and if the US cuts its nuclear arsenal below New START levels, “Washington will have fewer weapons to support these commitments, which will raise questions about its ability and its willingness to defend its allies and its partners if they are threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran.” The same must be applied to those allies threatened by Russia, China, or North Korea.
Deep cuts in America’s nuclear deterrent would also encourage America’s enemies to develop their own arsenals, since any idiot can build a paltry 300 warheads, if that’s all that’s required to match the US. Many of America’s adversaries would gladly do so, if 300 warheads were enough to match the US.
So we would see many new nuclear powers – America’s allies as well as adversaries. Thus, further cuts in America’s arsenal, far from “setting an example” and “showing leadership”, would be a huge blunder and would gravely exacerbate, rather than solve or ameliorate, the problem of nuclear proliferation.
America’s nuclear deterrent is a crucial ASSET in curbing nuclear proliferation, rather than an obstacle. Cutting or eliminating it would do nothing to solve the proliferation problem. It would only exacerbate it.
Disarmament advocates sometimes falsely claim that the nuclear deterrent and its delivery systems are siphoning money away from higher defense priorities. This is a blatant lie.
Firstly, there is NO higher priority than nuclear deterrence, which protects America and its allies against the most catastrophic threats. Secondly, as demonstrated above, 450 ICBMs and ~90 nuclear bombers combined cost only $3.6 bn per year to maintain, a tiny rounding error (0.6%) in the DOD’s $531 bn annual base budget. Maintaining nuclear warheads costs barely $7.589 bn per year, again a rounding error in America’s total defense budget (which includes the DOE’s defense programs, including warhead maintenance). Combined, these tiny numbers add up to only $11.189 bn, i.e. a paltry 1.73% of the total military budget ($645 bn in FY2012).
Even eliminating the entire nuclear arsenal immediately wouldn’t produce any real savings.
As for replacement delivery systems, a single Next Gen Bomber will only cost, at most, $550 mn; a new ICBM, only ca. $70 mn (same as a Minuteman-III); and a new SSBN will cost only $2.4 bn if the DOD chooses a modified Virginia class design.
No, the nuclear deterrent is not siphoning dollars away from anything – it is other DOD programs, especially the egregiously expensive F-35 program (whose price tag is $396 bn), that are consuming money that could otherwise be invested in the overdue modernization of the nuclear deterrent – the only weapon system that has never failed America in the last 67 years.
Don’t be fooled by their claims. They don’t care about America’s defense or about defense priorities; all they want is America’s unilateral disarmament. Falsely claiming that the nuclear deterrent somehow siphons money away from other defense programs is just their latest excuse.
The record of the last 22 years is undeniable: decades of “arms reduction” and deeply cutting the US nuclear arsenal have only made America and its allies less secure and have utterly failed to stop nuclear proliferation, or to prevent China from significantly building up its nuclear arsenal.
Those who believe that America can safely cut its nuclear arsenal further are living in a kumbayah world of make-believe, a fantasy world which has nothing to do with the real Planet Earth.
No, America’s arsenal is not “oversized” nor “ripe for cuts”, nor is it expensive to maintain. It must not be cut. It must be retained at its current size (if not grown) and fully modernized along with the supporting infrastructure.
 Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich, Evan Braden Montgomery, The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010, pp. 76-77.