A reckless gamble

Few Americans realize that the United States is the only nuclear power incapable of actually manufacturing nuclear warheads. After the end of the Cold War, environmental contamination and obsolescence prompted Washington to shutter key nuclear weapons production facilities. The budgetary, legal and environmental obstacles to restarting these facilities are insurmountable. If world conditions worsen, and our reductions turn out to have been a mistake, the United States will not be able to reverse course to rebuild its nuclear forces quickly.
 
The United States is not even modernizing its current nuclear arsenal. The administration’s latest budget submission ignored its pledge to fund the U.S. nuclear modernization program — the key promise that won ratification of New START by Senate Republicans.

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The world might already be more dangerous than we realize. Lacking a verification agreement with China that would ensure transparency, the United States cannot be certain of the size of China’s arsenal — or how China’s modernization plans may grow its arsenal. Beijing is not disposed to share any information beyond white papers that blandly assert it is committed to a strategy of “minimum deterrence.” It is impossible to know what the world will look like in twenty years, with Iran’s steady march toward nuclear status, North Korea’s nascent nuclear capabilities, and Pakistan’s rapidly growing nuclear forces.

Further reductions would probably cut one leg of the U.S. strategic Triad. A likely target for reduction is the U.S. Air Force’s 450 Minuteman III ICBMs. This system keeps us safe because any attacker would have to launch two or more incoming warheads to eliminate each of our single-warhead ICBMs, forcing a first-striker to expend more weapons than he could potentially destroy. Because U.S. ICBMs are widely dispersed across the North American interior, it is impossible for a first striker to eliminate them with anything short of a massive, all-out nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland. Degrading this stabilizing ICBM force is irresponsible.

The U.S. nuclear umbrella protects more than 30 allies. How capable will that umbrella be if the U.S. nuclear deterrent shrinks and starts to look more like the French “force de dissuasion” — large enough to deter an attack on the U.S. homeland, but not large enough to credibly protect allies from Japan to Poland?

Given that a large nuclear force is a primary dimension of superpower status, a smaller U.S. force might drive nuclear proliferation by inspiring even poor countries to win prestige by trying to match our arsenal.

The investment U.S. policymakers once made in studying how deterrence works has lapsed since the end of the Cold War. There is currently no deep investment in research to investigate the new rules of deterrence in a world brimming with nuclear powers.

The “reset” era is over. Russia’s nuclear force is under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, who spews venomous rhetoric and paranoid theories about the United States, while lacking a Soviet-style politburo to hold him in check.
 
A wise man once said to us: “Deterrence is a funny thing. It’s hard to tell when you have too much deterrence, but you know immediately when you have too little.”

We are still made of atoms. While some see nuclear deterrence as a Cold War relic, the threat of a nuclear response remains the ultimate lever of coercion and psychological terror.
 
Recent reactions to the administration’s plans from Congressional leaders have been confused and muddled. Senate and House policy committees need to ensure Members are fully briefed. With the retirement of Sen. Jon Kyle (R-AZ), there will soon be a vacancy for an informed leader who has the skill and knowledge to challenge the administration’s dangerous posturing on nuclear weapons.

Until world conditions stabilize, the safest course of action is a pause and a plateau—a pause in further reductions, and a plateau at current force levels.
 
Mark Davis drafted START I addresses as a White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. G. Philip Hughes, former executive secretary of the National Security Council, has held appointments in the departments of Defense, State and Commerce. Both are senior directors of the White House Writers Group.