A Rational Approach to Nuclear Weapons Policy


Over the past several years, the U.S. nuclear enterprise has taken an increasing number of shots from public advocates proposing further defense budget cuts and continued reductions in force.  These critics suggest that further nuclear arms reductions beyond the New START levels are possible and should be instituted prior to the 2018 deadline for meeting those limits.  There are two popular assumptions for this: either because the United States doesn’t “use” nuclear weapons in what some have called the “Second Nuclear Age” or because there is a perception that the cost of sustaining and modernizing nuclear weapons is no longer affordable in a climate of reduced defense budgets.  Based on these two assumptions, there have been calls to eliminate one or two legs of the nuclear triad – most focusing on the Air Force’s strategic bombers and ICBM force.  These calls come from people who would rather focus on the numbers of nuclear weapons and not the policies and strategies that underlie the desired characteristics of a nuclear enterprise.

The latest of the anti-nuclear screeds is from Dr. Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky who teaches on national security policy and defense statecraft.  I know Dr. Farley and I respect his interests in defense policy and strategy, but I do not understand his article suggesting that it is “Time for America to Rethink the Way We Nuke People.”  Let’s look past the flamboyant title that incorrectly suggests that the U.S. government approach to nuclear deterrence consists of thinking of ways to “nuke people.”  His actual thesis, which is that the U.S. government maintains a “Cold War” approach to developing its nuclear forces, is not original. His solution, which is to eliminate ICBMs, delay the Long Range Strike Bomber, and rely on the U.S. Navy’s submarine force to provide a minimum nuclear deterrent capability is not a new idea.  He does get one thing right, however: America’s nuclear weapons are getting old.

As a result of many contributing factors, the U.S. government has delayed the modernization of its nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems for at least two decades.  The point has come at which if significant modernization efforts are not advanced, the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent will be at risk.  Because of this 20-year procurement holiday, the cost of modernization is significant.  It will take hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad – and this effort will take decades, given the breadth of the effort.  The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies recently published a report on the “trillion-dollar nuclear triad” to cast doubt on the wisdom of this modernization effort.  A trillion-dollar investment into nuclear weapons certainly sounds ominous, but it’s a disingenuous notion, one that combines numerous disparate costs over a thirty-year period (really, who seriously counts up R&D and acquisition costs over a thirty-year period?).  But this meme that “we can’t afford this cost” permeates the internet and is also prominent in Dr. Farley’s article.

Dr. Farley does not have any confidence in the government’s current approach to develop and sustain a modern nuclear deterrent capability.  He suggests that the reason the nuclear triad still exists is that there’s a “lot of money to a lot of people” involved in retaining all three legs of the triad.  He believes that the defense community has not yet taken into account that the world has changed since the 1950s, and that the Air Force “no longer places any great value on the atomic mission.”  This leads to his recommendations, echoing a naval analyst’s idea of eliminating ballistic missile submarines and redesigning nuclear missiles for Virginia-class submarines.  However, Congress has a very dim view on developing new nuclear weapons, and the Navy does not want nuclear weapons on its fast attack submarines.  Farley advocates going with “small nukes on small jet fighters,” similar to the approaches of other nations, delaying the replacement to the B2 bomber, and of course, eliminating ICBMs.  These initiatives would all save significant defense costs.

And he is right – this proposal would be less expensive than the current proposed nuclear modernization program.  But is it effective in meeting U.S. policy objectives? All we hear these days is that the “Cold War deterrence model is no longer effective” and that the U.S. government should adopt a minimal deterrent capability as an interim stop on the way to the ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.  What is consistently lost in these myopic analytics on nuclear operations is what the national security strategy calls for and what our policymakers will accept as operational risks.

Remember Clausewitz’s basic theme, that “war is a continuation of policy by other means”?  The problem with most of the critical reviews of nuclear operations is that they never start with the underlying policy on which the U.S. government bases its nuclear weapons employment.  It’s not as if actors in a shadowy military-industrial-political complex are saying “more of the same next year for nuclear weapons. We need to keep the companies prosperous.”  The 2010 National Security Strategy calls for reducing the nuclear arsenal and reliance on nuclear weapons, while “ensuring the reliability and effectiveness of our deterrent.”  In the same place where the strategy identifies a goal of a “world without nuclear weapons,” it also calls for a nuclear arsenal that both deters potential adversaries and assures U.S. allies and security partners.

I have no doubt that the Army, Air Force, and Navy developed nuclear weapons during the Cold War without considering potential redundancies, without considering cost effectiveness, and without considering their individual contributions to overall national security.  Yes, this was before the Goldwater-Nichols Act. But it’s been twenty-plus years since the end of the Cold War and there has been a significant reduction of operational nuclear weapons, from more than 31,000 in 1967 to approximately 5,000 today.  There is no Single Integrated Operational Plan.  There have been numerous reviews of the US nuclear enterprise, including the 2008 Schlesinger Report, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, and the president’s Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy.  The DoD has examined future operating concepts in JFCOM’s Joint Operating Environment reports and the Chairman’s Capstone Concept for Joint Operations.  It is factually incorrect to suggest that DoD retains a “bloated” nuclear arsenal with an “outdated nuclear strategy.”

Given that we now live in a multipolar community with numerous nuclear weapon states, and that the U.S. government would like to see less, not more, nuclear proliferation, is there an approach that makes sense? A single nuclear weapon released against the United States would have catastrophic consequences. More than one country can threaten the U.S. homeland with multiple nuclear missiles today, which means that nuclear weapons represent a uniquely frightening strategic challenge.  Is there anyone in any responsible position of power who wants the U.S. government to cut corners in efforts to address the potential adversarial use of nuclear weapons against American territories or security interests?  Can we count on nuclear nonproliferation initiatives and an overwhelming conventional superiority alone to counter all future nuclear threats?

As the total number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal goes down, it may be that adversaries could be emboldened to consider using nuclear weapons against our homeland, our military forces, or our allies.  The simple fact that the contemporary geopolitical and strategic environment is different than that of the Cold War, for which the nuclear triad was initially developed, should not invalidate the concept’s operational use today.  We still use nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, behemoth armored tanks, and amphibious vessels that were designed during the Cold War.  Today, the ICBM missile fields discourage nuclear weapon states – in particular, near-peer rivals – from threatening the United States with a strategic nuclear attack due to the significant numbers of nuclear weapons that would be needed to prevent a U.S. retaliatory strike.  The bomber forces and dual-capable aircraft provide visible assurance to our allies that they do not have to invest in nuclear weapons to protect themselves when regional adversaries rattle their nuclear swords, as well as providing flexible long-range strike options to the president.  The submarine force guarantees a second-strike capability in the event that a “bolt from the sky” attack destroys the Air Force’s strategic nuclear forces.  There is, in fact, a sound operational concept in place to meet current-day political objectives.

The idea that we can’t afford to modernize the nuclear triad, plainly speaking, is just not credible.  Of course we can afford this capability.  The United States still has the largest gross domestic product in the world.  Between 1962 and 1993, the DoD spent an average of $23.7 billion every year – since 2002, the average investment cost has been %5.7 billion.  Including DoD and DOE strategic force dollars, the investment is projected to be less than 0.2 percent of the GDP over the next forty years.  For comparison, the United States spent more than 1.2 percent of its GDP on the Iraq and Afghan wars in 2007.  Yes, this is still hundreds of billions of dollars, which is certainly a significant amount.  Yes, there are probably more efficient ways to spend that money within the nuclear enterprise.  But to say that we can’t afford this?  Ridiculous.  Again, exactly how much risk do you believe Congress and the White House will accept when it comes to the possible use of nuclear weapons against the United States?

The nuclear triad is not the problem.  The cost of nuclear modernization is not the problem.  It is intellectually lazy to suggest that “a strong tradition of evenly splitting the defense budget between the branches” is the reason why the triad exists, as Farley does.  It’s more complicated than that.  If one were to take a hard look at the evolution of nuclear policy since 1992, one would see a considerable change over time.  It continues to be an evolving mission area.  There is, in fact, a representative community of nuclear deterrence analysts – civilian and military – who have successfully developed nuclear operations strategies and plans for the “second nuclear age.”  These nuclear deterrence professionals have the difficult task of developing operational plans for contemporary and future adversaries within challenging political and budgetary restrictions.

Instead of focusing on the numbers of nuclear weapon systems and taking the cost of nuclear modernization out of context, as is currently done, we need to accept that nuclear weapons still have a place in national security strategy discussions.  We should acknowledge that current military R&D efforts take time and money, but that modernization is sorely needed to maintain a credible deterrent into the future.  By focusing on reducing the “means” while ignoring the “ways” required to meet policy objectives, those detractors of U.S. nuclear deterrent operations and planned nuclear modernization efforts fail to contribute to this vital discussion.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Photo credit: AF GlobalStrike