Time to Internationalize the Dialogue on Nuclear Armed Cruise Missiles


A new dialogue is emerging in national security circles on what President Obama may do to advance his nuclear weapons policies in his final year in office. Much of the conversation is centered on Obama halting or delaying investment in a new nuclear-armed cruise missile (now called the long-range standoff cruise missile, or LRSO) in his next budget, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and others have recommended. These nuclear weapons are under particular scrutiny due to several concerns. These include budgetary considerations, the destabilizing effect when a recipient country cannot know whether a cruise missile headed its way is nuclear or conventional, and the opportunity for the United States to help steer other countries away from building their own nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

While this public debate on the LRSO is in a relatively early stage, now is the time to begin working to internationalize the dialogue. American decisions on the future nuclear deterrent must account for the probable reactions of our international partners — in particular, countries that depend on the U.S. nuclear deterrent as a key component of their national security.

In terms of international perception, cutting or delaying the LRSO could be conveyed as a position of strength, determination, and leadership by the United States. This decision would not come at the expense of a strong deterrent, given the depth of other new investments in the air leg of the triad and the more than ten-year lifespan remaining for the current air-launched cruise missile. At the same time, starting now to eventually phase nuclear-armed cruise missiles out of our arsenal would be read by many international partners as a clear sign that the United States remains committed to progress in meeting its long-term disarmament obligation under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. With Russia’s recent recalcitrance and defiance of Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty commitments, it is an opportune time for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to avoiding nuclear provocation and escalation, rallying other nuclear weapons states and treaty allies to show that our near- and long-term security strategies are more sophisticated than mimicking Putin. A U.S. decision to cut or delay the LRSO could also spark a global debate about the risks of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which may eventually help steer countries like India and Pakistan toward a more stable path.

Through their reactions, the rest of the world gets a powerful vote on whether U.S. nuclear weapons investments lead to effective deterrence and greater stability, or stoke new fears and arms-racing. It is critical to ensure U.S. plans reaffirm commitments to both a sustainable triad modernization plan and eventual nuclear disarmament, goals of President Reagan and President Obama alike.

At minimum, delaying funding on the LRSO in the president’s next budget submission would provide many months to consider the implications of this decision with international partners and allies — and with countries that may misconstrue U.S. investment in this capability or react to it with further destabilizing investments of their own. Based on our initial conversations with representatives of key countries, several steps would help in internationalizing the debate.

First, we should engage a broad range of experts and officials in countries that rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, including individuals focused on deterrence, disarmament, regional affairs and bilateral relations. Too often, nuclear conversations are carried out within the deterrence and disarmament communities but not between them, and not with officials charged with governing broader defense relationships and foreign affairs. This complicates the ability of the United States and other countries to set optimal national-level decisions.

Tradeoffs regarding the LRSO and other nuclear investments must also be framed in the context of broader U.S. strategic and budgetary considerations. For example, we found that some political and defense leaders from Europe and Asia are surprised that current defense budget pressures extend into the nuclear weapons realm. Not surprisingly, the fact that some non-governmental experts, defense leaders, and officials on Capitol Hill have serious doubts that the current modernization plan is affordable has not permeated international discourse. But the U.S. defense budget must cover everything from countering terrorism, to space and cyber investments, to the rising costs of properly caring for our military personnel, and we need to be clear that nuclear modernization is a piece of the same constrained budget puzzle.

Second, the United States should speak with key allies and partners in Europe and Asia to find lessons from past changes to our nuclear forces. The United States has successfully managed international responses to decisions such as removing most battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe and retiring the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, or TLAM-N, in part because those systems provided redundant capabilities. Looking to those experiences could be instructive when communicating future changes in the composition of the U.S. triad.

Third, the U.S. government should consider how to reassure allies that our capabilities will remain robust for meeting the security challenges of the coming decades. Nuclear deterrent elements must be considered alongside conventional defense cooperation and non-defense means of reassurance. While a nuclear deterrent is the ultimate security umbrella, it is just one element of a comprehensive reassurance strategy for allies and partners that also includes cooperative investments, training, exercising and the provision of conventional equipment.

Finally, internationalizing the conversation should not stop with close allies to the United States. Effective deterrence is more complex than simply having a nuclear capability to hold at risk every target one player in the relationship deems worthy. It also requires the hard work of ensuring that U.S. nuclear weapons investments are read as we intend them to be by potential adversaries.

We need to gather a broad range of international perspectives in order to understand whether other players in the international system believe that U.S. capabilities go beyond deterring attacks on our country and our allies, negating their own ability to deter adversaries — or more dangerously, that U.S. intent has shifted back toward building nuclear weapons for operational and tactical use more than for strategic purposes. While arms control, deterrence, and disarmament questions are unlikely with Russia and North Korea in the near term, engaging China is particularly important, even if the dialogue is slow to start or is otherwise hampered by broader challenges in the relationship. Simply put, the United States must deepen its understanding of the various ways that China may read the LRSO and other investments to ensure our nuclear activities promote strategic stability.

Whether the United States decides to halt or slow the LRSO, either move would open time for these and other important discussions to ensure international perceptions — and potential misperceptions — help inform U.S. decisions on right-sizing our nuclear deterrent.


Vikram J. Singh is the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress and was previously the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia at the Pentagon. Christine Parthemore served until February 2015 as the senior advisor to the assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs at the Pentagon. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.