Cost of modernizing America's nuclear arsenal is less than the alternative
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“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” President-elect Trump tweeted last week. The social media storm that followed would make you think he is proposing harm to Santa’s reindeer.

But the president-elect is right. As the world continues to get more dangerous, the United States must modernize and expand its nuclear capability.

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U.S. nuclear weapons are old -- decades old, in fact. They were developed and designed when the United States worried mainly about one adversary: the Soviet Union and its massive nuclear and conventional forces. This world dictated prioritization of destructive power. In the dynamic competition of the Cold War, these weapons were not built to last many decades.

 

Their designers assumed that the United States would design, develop, and test a new nuclear warhead and sometimes a corresponding delivery system every few years. The oldest nuclear bombers were developed and deployed in 1950s, the newest ones in 1980s and 1990s.  Our intercontinental-range ballistic missiles have been on a continuous alert since 1970s and the first Ohio-class strategic submarine was commissioned in 1980s.

The world today is different, and it’s unlikely it will come to its senses anytime soon. Nuclear weapons went forgotten after the end of the Cold War. Modernization programs were delayed and cancelled. Nuclear theory and strategy were deemed outdated and less important than the non-state actor challenges of the brave new world. The United States embarked on policies meant to convince others to decrease the prominence of their nuclear arsenals, such as lowering the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security strategy, significantly reducing funding for the nuclear enterprise, banning all yield producing experiments or new weapons designs.

These efforts had the effect of limiting U.S. nuclear modernization options and largely failed to achieve their stated objectives. New nuclear powers emerged. Nuclear arms races were started; except this time, the United States decided it did not need to compete. As a result, our nuclear force that is intended prevent the worst-case scenario from happening has become dangerously outdated.

U.S. nuclear weapons, both the warheads and delivery platforms, must be modernized.  They are critical for U.S. security and for allied assurance. New intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines will be cheap relative to the security benefits they provide to the nation. After all, nuclear weapons are the only existential threat to the United States. If you think nuclear weapons modernization is costly, just wait until you see costs of failed deterrence.

As to the president-elect’s claim that the nation needs to expand its nuclear arsenal, the next administration should re-evaluate U.S. nuclear posture. The current policy does not consider Russia a threat and judges the potential for conflict to be “low.” The assumption is seriously flawed and also likely resulted in a lower number of deployed nuclear warheads. Getting serious about the Russian threat likely means that the United States needs more nuclear warheads than it currently deploys.

Trump should prioritize nuclear modernization and also work to re-evaluate a number of outdated nuclear policies currently in effect. U.S. and allied security depend on sound policies in an increasingly volatile and dangerous world.

Michaela Dodge is a senior policy analyst in defense and strategic policy at The Heritage Foundation.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.