Reason over relics: Restructuring our nuclear force

The AP story is likely to send the most ardent defenders of nuclear arms into a tizzy. They will no doubt trot out all of the usual, cliché language about appeasement and unilateral disarmament.

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Before proceeding, however, it is appropriate to ask “what is wrong with evaluating the potential for nuclear arms reductions?” Weighing the relevant options and making informed decisions is responsible leadership.

The most important duty of the president is to ensure America's national security. That means making informed and intelligent decisions about which investments produce the greatest benefit to our security. At a time when our most serious threats are terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyber attack, and when our troops require the most advanced equipment, it is increasingly clear that pouring billions of dollars year after year into maintaining a nuclear arsenal far larger than needed for deterrence and security has expensive opportunity costs, especially in a time of fiscal austerity.

With the end of the cold war, the world has changed, and those who ardently defend massive spending on nuclear weapons are either unaware of, or unwilling to consider, the changed strategic landscape. Our current nuclear force structure is a holdover from an era where the overarching goal was deterring a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States or an invasion of Europe. Every submarine in our fleet today can single-handedly destroy every major city in either China or Russia and completely obliterate smaller nations. If the essence of deterrence is a credible threat, then it’s safe to say we can make significant reductions with no impact whatsoever on our deterrent or security capacity.

While it seems likely that the pending review will be portrayed by some as evidence of the president’s alleged idealism, a 2010 study by three Air Force analysts in Strategic Studies Quarterly concluded that the United States could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." They argue that such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons. Given that no country other than Russia deploys more than 300 nuclear weapons, and given that China mounts no more than 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles, the justification for our deploying more than 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons with another 3,500 in reserve appears flimsy.

In a time of limited budgets and scarce resources, it would be irresponsible not to consider reductions in weapons that most national security experts see as of marginal strategic value. Those scarce funds certainly can be better directed toward addressing 21st century national security threats, not those of the 20th century. The mere consideration of that possibility, however, will mean overcoming the passionate objections of the defenders of the last century’s Cold War thinking.

The Associated Press story appears to be the result of a leak aimed at embarrassing the president and preemptively limiting the range of possible actions he may consider, but that kind of approach to policy making is profoundly irresponsible. What should be embarrassing is attempting to block the president and the Pentagon from considering all options. Seeking to derail deliberative policy-making and play national security for political points is hardly the stuff of responsible leadership.

Many things happen in Washington because of an entrenched status quo. Maintaining a hugely expensive and colossally redundant nuclear force of declining strategic significance shouldn't be one of them. History is rich with examples of nations that failed to adapt to changing times: they fought for the status quo instead of meeting the needs of their people. America cannot afford to become that example.

Lt. Gen. Gard (USA, Ret.) is currently the chairman and senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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