Time to fix our seriously misaligned nuclear strategy

In anticipation of the G8 summit next month, we can expect serious discussion to be held about how to address today’s nuclear threats, including proliferation, the risks posed by the Iranian nuclear program and North Korean provocations.

As we have seen over the past 12 years, should a military response be deemed necessary to meet these threats, the U.S. has demonstrated itself to be the most effective practitioner of symmetric warfare the world has ever seen — but addressing asymmetric challenges has proven significantly more difficult.

Our experiences have shown that the biggest threats to our warriors have not been other armies, but IEDs; the biggest threats to our ships have not been big navies, but small boats and missiles. And today, the biggest threats to our nuclear security are asymmetric as well.

Despite this, and more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, we still maintain a vastly oversized nuclear arsenal designed to destroy a country 185 times the size of North Korea. This strategic misalignment leaves an enormous gap in our ability to counter modern nuclear threats. The more than 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons currently in our arsenal may have been historically effective in deterring a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, but this arsenal has done nothing to deter the ongoing proliferation of such weapons.

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While we continue to have political disagreements with Russia, we both agree that maintaining massive nuclear arsenals no longer holds the strategic utility it did decades ago. The situation is ripe for change.

We should therefore seize this prime opportunity and realign our nuclear strategy to counter adversaries that pose real nuclear threats. Thus far we are making the grave mistake of not adapting, for example, this year, the administration’s budget request oddly increases funding for nuclear weapons by 17 percent — a choice that does nothing to neutralize the actual capabilities of our adversaries.

So what should a properly aligned nuclear strategy look like?

First, one of America’s strongest advantages in this field is the number of allies and partnerships it maintains overseas. To strengthen this significant advantage over nations like Iran and North Korea, we should make efforts to establish a binding agreement for a nuclear umbrella over countries at risk of a North Korean or Iranian nuclear strike. Doing so not only serves as a stern warning to our adversaries, but may prevent those countries threatened from seeing the need to build their own nuclear arsenals, thereby decreasing the overall risk of proliferation.

Second, we should build on the significant advantage we hold in the relationships we have built with scientists and intelligence communities overseas. Through programs like Cooperative Threat Reduction, our government has invested in personal relationships with scientists and others in countries at risk of proliferation, helping to keep them employed and less likely to become proliferation risks themselves. Furthermore, our relationships with foreign intelligence communities and security forces increase the number of eyes on the lookout for acts of proliferation. These efforts are preventative measures that decrease long-term costs and keep the scientific know-how and necessary materials out of the hands of nefarious actors.

Third, investing in our system of National Laboratories and private industry to generate the security and detection technologies needed for foreign shipping ports and U.S. points of entry will help better secure America from the risk of loose nuclear material. This also means ensuring our scientific expertise and leadership remain strong; the National Research Council noted in 2010 that nuclear forensics skills are on the decline, and efforts must be made to reverse the fall of this valuable anti-nuclear terrorism tool so that we can continue to determine the source of a potential nuclear terror incident.

Fourth, we must strengthen our contingency options. For instance, U.S. Special Operations Forces units are comprised of some of the most effective, well-trained and talented individuals in the world. In case of a nuclear showdown, these forces could be instrumental in securing, disabling or otherwise destroying a rogue nation’s nuclear arsenal. We must make sure they are trained, equipped, and capable of doing so.

And finally, we must continue to work with Russia and other countries in order to reduce the enormous size and expense of our nuclear arsenals, thereby allowing us to redistribute those funds to the tools and programs designed to address real and potential threats. It certainly makes more sense than throwing money away to counter a security challenge that no longer exists.
 
By strengthening these four assets and reforming our arsenal, America’s nuclear strategy will be better aligned to address the threats we actually face.
 

Cheney is the CEO and Wallin is a fellow at the nonpartisan American Security Project
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