As defense spending comes under fire, don't make nuclear war more likely

As defense spending comes under fire, don't make nuclear war more likely
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Defense spending will come under pressure in an era of trillion-dollar COVID-19 deficits. As a result, the Defense Department will need to make trade-offs that it previously could avoid.

In the past, Pentagon leaders have prioritized spending for nuclear weapons programs. That would mean taking any budget hit out of funding for conventional forces and readiness. 

But that carries a risk. It could well increase the prospect that the president would have to order the use of nuclear weapons.

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Defense spending for the coming years will be stagnant or cut, forcing the Pentagon to reconsider its expensive wish list. Defenders of the nuclear arms programs argue that they cost “only” 6-7 percent of the annual defense budget. True, but so? The F-35 fighter will cost an estimated $1 trillion to build and operate over its lifetime. Amortized over 50 years, that is “only” about 3 percent of the annual budget. These percentages plus personnel and readiness costs will add up and exceed 100 percent of what Congress will appropriate for defense.

Nuclear forces are critical to U.S. security, and some modernization programs, such as the Columbia ballistic missile submarine, are absolutely essential. Protecting funding for all nuclear arms programs, however, will mean not buying lots of fighters, warships and other equipment needed for the conventional force operations that military leaders spend most of their time planning and directing.

The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2021 “unfunded priorities list” totaled $18 billion, almost all conventional weapons. At a time when the Navy wants to procure three Virginia-class attack submarines per year, it had to scale its planned buy of two back to one due to a plus-up in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget for nuclear weapons. 

During the Cold War, a Soviet “bolt from the blue” – a massive nuclear first strike aimed at destroying the bulk of U.S. strategic forces before they could launch – was a major driver of U.S. nuclear force planning. Today, the most likely scenario for a U.S. nuclear conflict with Russia (or China) begins with a regional conventional war. The fewer fighters, warships and tanks that the U.S. military has, the weaker its ability to deter that conventional conflict from breaking out.  

Once conventional war with a nuclear-armed adversary begins, nuclear arms can come into play in two ways. In the first scenario, U.S. and allied forces begin to lose, and the president must face the agonizing choice of using nuclear weapons first. U.S. first use of nuclear arms would open a Pandora’s box of unpredictable and catastrophic consequences. The other side could well retaliate at the nuclear level, raising the possibility of an escalatory cycle leading to disaster.

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During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, NATO had little confidence in its ability to defeat a Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack at the conventional level. It thus planned explicitly for deliberate escalation to the nuclear level, but no one was comfortable with that prospect. 

In the second scenario, U.S. and allied conventional forces hold out, and the other side attempts to upset the chessboard by escalating to the nuclear level. The president then would face the choice of whether to retaliate with nuclear weapons.

The best answer to these potential dilemmas is to have sufficiently robust conventional forces such that the adversary is dissuaded from attacking in the first place.  Fortunately, conventional force balances today differ greatly from during the Cold War.  NATO’s overall conventional military strength compares well with that of Russia, though the Russian military enjoys a regional advantage in the Baltic Sea region. Russia is modernizing its conventional capabilities, so the United States and NATO need to ensure that they are not caught short, just as Washington and its Asian allies have to ensure that China does not out-pace them. 

Supporters of the nuclear weapons programs argue that nukes deter adversaries from beginning a conventional war as well as a nuclear conflict. Perhaps, but perhaps not.  Russian and Chinese investments in capabilities for large-scale conventional military operations suggest that the U.S. nuclear arsenal may not deter them from launching a conventional conflict.

As the Pentagon considers a grim budget future, it cannot fence off all nuclear programs from cuts. It needs to make careful choices that avoid reducing U.S. conventional force capabilities in a way that would make conventional war – and nuclear war – more likely.

Steven Pifer is a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. The views reflected here are his own.