We need to talk about the “N” word

Contrary to what most Americans believe, the “N” word saves lives, ensures our national security and is the backbone of the very American power that allows us to deter revisionist powers like Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Yet no one on Capitol Hill wants to take about it. While many Americans are willing to talk about the other “N” word, they are not willing to talk about the “N” word, as in nuclear weapons.

For too long it has been taboo to speak of the benefits nuclear weapons offer within the halls of Congress. However, avoiding a robust debate concerning the future utility of the American nuclear arsenal is not good strategy, it is neglect. The nation’s nuclear arsenal and enterprise are in need of immediate and sustained modernization, but the unwillingness of our political leaders to broach the issue with constituents, intellectually relegating nuclear weapons to a bygone era, puts the country at greater risk at a time in history when Russia is invading its neighbor, China is acting aggressively in the South China Sea, and the Middle East threatens to explode.

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While nuclear abolitionists daydream of a “world without nuclear weapons,” have been tempered recently by the Obama administration’s willingness to support funding for some nuclear weapons life extension programs, absent a vigorous debate in which the American public is persuaded of the long term necessity of nuclear weapons, the nation may find itself with an arsenal that is no longer credible in the eyes of our adversaries.

Currently, the United States’ nuclear armed adversaries and allies are modernizing their arsenals in a manner not seen since the height of the Cold War. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and France continue to develop new weapons, even at great cost to their economies. This occurs while Congress stands by and refuses to engage in a debate on the issue. 

This lack of a debate, for example, has left the nation with an inventory of nuclear warheads that were fielded, and remain largely the same, in 1961 (the B-61), 1978 (W-76), and 1986-1988 (W-86 and W-88). In contrast, the US military’s conventional weapon systems undergo regular and significant system upgrades throughout their operational life. The US even undertakes significant procurement programs to develop and field replacement weapon systems and new capabilities such as the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. However, none of these weapon systems are likely to ever create the relative peace and security that nuclear weapons create. 

In advocating for a national debate, led by Congress, on the role of nuclear weapons, it is important to highlight the facts that since 1945 there have been no great power wars. This is the result of nuclear weapons.

Because of World War I and II 97 million people lost their lives. Since the atomic weapon, conflict related casualties are down 89%. This does not suggest that wars are no longer brutal. However, absent great power wars, far fewer innocents die because of war.  

When considering the enhanced security nuclear weapons create, it only makes sense that the US should modernize and reinvigorate its nuclear arsenal and nuclear infrastructure, but absent a willingness on the part of Congress, the president, scholars, the military and other thought leaders to have a dialogue with the American people, it is no wonder too few Americans appreciate its role in promoting stability.

The sad reality is that many companies responsible for supporting the nuclear enterprise, those that make critical and unique parts, are no longer in business. A senior military officer with extensive nuclear experience acknowledged that the “US has taken a 30 year procurement holiday within the nuclear enterprise.” This is a serious challenge that will require a long term solution and broad congressional support.

The problem with treating the nuclear weapons complex as the proverbial “redheaded stepchild,” which we fund just enough to keep it limping along, is that Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are watching, as are our allies. When the day comes that our adversaries no longer take American deterrence seriously or our allies no longer see our extended deterrence guarantees as credible, both adversaries and allies are likely to pursue a course Americans find unacceptable.

In order for the United States to ensure its security, it must maintain a credible nuclear arsenal. But to ensure a credible arsenal, the United States must modernize its nuclear warheads and delivery platforms. This will require broad congressional support, which will only occur if there is a widespread consensus among the American people that nuclear weapons remain central to our national security. It is time we had that debate.   

Lowther is a research professor and director of Academic and Professional Journals at the Air Force Research Institute. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the position of any government agency.