The call for a revised nuclear strategy

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General James Cartwright oversaw the nation’s nuclear arsenal for three years as STRATCOM Commander, but he has never shown a bias towards nuclear weapons. In fact, his stance on U.S. nuclear posture is purely strategy-driven, reflecting a practical analysis of today’s security threats and the tools needed to address those threats.

“The current U.S. nuclear force remains sized and organized operationally for fighting the “last war” – the Cold War – even though threats from that era posed by the Soviet Union and China have greatly diminished or disappeared,” reads Gen. Cartwright’s joint testimony with Ambassador Thomas Pickering before the Senate Appropriations Committeelast week.  

“The U.S. (and Russian) arsenal is thus over-stocked. Ample latitude exists for further nuclear cuts,” the testimony concludes, reflecting the analysis of a panel Gen. Cartwright chaired, which included former Senator Chuck Hagel and General Jack Shaheen.

Gen. Cartwright is not the only STRATCOM commander to determine that the U.S. nuclear force, which numbers some 8,000 warheads, is unsuited to today’s strategic environment. General Eugene Habiger, STRATCOM commander from 1996 to 1998, also recommends scaling back the massive arsenal.
“In my view, 20 years after the Cold War, we could be at much lower levels. We’ve made good progress, but there’s much progress left to be made,” General Habiger said in an interview last fall.

Gen. Habiger’s recommended force level is even lower than the 900 warheads recommended by the Cartwright Commission. “600 nuclear weapons in our arsenal should be enough to do what we need to do,” Gen. Habiger said.

These two former STRATCOM Commanders are part of a growing consensus of U.S. leaders who recognize that the current nuclear posture isoutdated and unaffordable.

Plans to update the massive nuclear arsenal will cost hundreds of billions over the coming years. These plans include buying 12 new nuclear submarines (at a total cost of $100 billion, potentially crowding conventional ships out of the Navy’s budget), building a $4 billion facility that can produce new nuclear warhead components, and extending the service life of the B-61 bomb nuclear bomb – current cost estimate: $10 billion, significantly higher than last year’s estimate of $4 billion.

This level of spending reflects an arsenal geared towards Cold War threats. U.S. leaders policymakers from LtGen. Dirk Jameson, former deputy commander in chief of STRATCOM, to former Secretary of State Colin Powell agree that maintaining excess nuclear capabilities is not just fiscally irresponsible – it’s bad strategy.  Buying more nuclear capabilities that we do not need means buying less of the capabilities that we do need.  

An effective national security strategy is having the right amount of the right tools to address real threats. Generals Cartwright and Habiger may have been in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons, but that has not stopped them from concluding that the arsenal is a relic of the Cold War, unsuited to today’s threats.

What a new nuclear posture should look like unclear.  As General Cartwright testified, “The extent of such [nuclear] cuts, thecomposition of the reduced arsenals, and the number of weapons held in reserve as a geopolitical hedge against a downturn in relations are matters worthy of public debate, and of congressional hearings.”
 
There may not be agreement on the size or shape of the future force, but there is a growing consensus that revising the outdated nuclear posture will not only save billions of dollars, but also make for a more effective national security strategy.
 
Kaszynski Is a policy analyst at the non-partisan American Security Project