Reassuring Allies and Strengthening Strategic Stability: An Approach to Nuclear Modernization for Democrats


In 1985, during the height of the Reagan defense buildup, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wisc.), then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was struggling to figure out how Democrats should approach nuclear policy. On the one hand, he wanted to oppose what he called the Reagan administration’s “almost casual view of the threat of nuclear war.” On the other, he was also concerned that “the left fears nuclear war and is too casual about Soviet goals.” Instead, Aspin urged Democrats to pursue a middle approach to nuclear policy that had “a healthy respect for the dangers of nuclear war, and a healthy respect for the dangers posed by Soviet ambitions.”

Today, we again find a deep skepticism among Democrats about the need for nuclear weapons as well as the prospective costs of modernizing these weapons, in spite of the growing threats from China and Russia. In November, incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), expressed these doubts, saying, “the rationale for the triad, I don’t think, exists anymore. The rationale for the numbers of nuclear weapons doesn’t exist anymore.” These concerns have been exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about nuclear weapons and his administration’s perceived hostility towards arms control and nonproliferation agreements.

Given the changed security environment, the need to maintain strategic stability, and concerns about the Trump administration’s approach to arms control, how should congressional Democrats handle nuclear modernization?

Democrats should remember that America’s nuclear capabilities underpin its key alliances and are a crucial bulwark against growing Russian and Chinese regional aggression, which has caused trepidation among U.S. allies. The Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions have raised further doubts about America’s willingness and ability to support its allies. If Congress opposes elements of the extended deterrent — particularly nuclear cruise missiles — it will only push allies further away, as these missiles are the most credible and visible operational means of deterring Russia and China while reassuring key allies like Japan, South Korea, and NATO countries.

It’s also imperative that congressional Democrats work to bolster strategic stability. To do this, they should prioritize nuclear modernization programs such as the Columbia-class strategic ballistic missile submarine, the B-21 strategic bomber, the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile, and a replacement intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). A more survivable nuclear command-and-control system is also critically important to respond to Russian and Chinese space and cyber weapons. Together, these programs will assure that adversaries cannot succeed in using nuclear coercion against the United States or its allies. Democrats should also be wary of a “no first use” declaratory policy, which is likely to undermine, rather than shore up, U.S. alliances at this precarious time. Finally, these new capabilities must be supplemented by effective strategic arms control measures — like the extension of New START — which will help to prevent an arms race with Russia.

The Problem: Assuring Allies While Deterring Russia and China

Since the Obama administration released its Nuclear Posture Review in 2010, Russia and China have modernized their militaries and become more assertive in their respective regions. Though both the United States and Russia follow the terms of the New START treaty, the Russians continue to develop and field new nuclear weapons that do not yet fall under New START limits. Russia is developing strategic weapons that seek to evade U.S. missile defenses, giving them an assured ability to wage nuclear war against the U.S. homeland. Russia also fields over 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, a new land-based intermediate range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead — the 9M729 — put the Russians out of compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which both countries announced their withdrawal from in March. Russia is indeed strengthening its ability to fight regional conflicts while assuring the ability to strike back at the United States.

China has expanded its strategic nuclear forces over the past decade, modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to fight and win regional wars. The PLA appears to be moving towards a nuclear triad — with both mobile and silo-based ICBMs, nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and possibly a developmental air-launched ballistic missile. China has been fielding more nuclear-capable missiles to hold both land and naval targets at risk in the East Asian theater. Already, U.S. carrier groups and air wings are under threat of PLA long-range conventional precision strike missiles, enabled by reconnaissance satellites tracking their movements.

The resulting shift in the security environment in Asia and Europe has created two related problems for congressional Democrats who want to reduce U.S. nuclear forces. First, Russia and China can better target U.S. forces in theater, and they have also improved their capabilities to strike the U.S. homeland in the case of severe escalation. The deteriorating security environment has also caused palpable stress for U.S. allies in Asia and Europe, leading to the second problem for Democrats: how to shape a strong defense policy that supports allies in the face of the Trump administration’s desire to cut U.S. security commitments? As one of our colleagues has written, one theory of victory for Russian and Chinese planners is to create enough uncertainty that allies doubt America’s ability and willingness to help, and instead move to accommodate the aggressors. Trump’s “America First” policy, especially its use of threats to extract increased defense spending from allies, has made it much harder to reassure allies that the United States will come to their aid in the face of military aggression.

The third problem facing congressional Democrats is how to position themselves against Trump’s embrace of nuclear modernization. The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for continuing the Obama modernization programs as well as for adding new “supplemental” low-yield nuclear weapons to be fielded on submarine-based ballistic and cruise missiles, to provide increased operational flexibility and to respond more effectively to limited nuclear use by Russia. The Trump review also takes a much dimmer view of arms control and nonproliferation agreements, arguing that “progress in arms control is not an end in and of itself, and depends on the security environment and the participation of willing partners.” The decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and the INF Treaty has raised additional concerns about administration’s handling of nuclear security issues.



Strategic Systems Democrats Can Support

In light of these developments, Democrats should support a balanced strategic nuclear modernization program that seeks to reassure allies and uphold strategic stability while also offering a viable alternative to the Trump administration’s antipathy towards arms control. That means prioritizing weapon systems that give the United States the ability to defend its allies, reduce adversaries’ incentives to conduct a first strike against the United States, and that do not lend themselves to nuclear arms-racing. On that note, we believe that the Obama administration got the strategic nuclear modernization program right when it agreed to “modernize or replace the triad of nuclear delivery systems: a heavy bomber and air-launched cruise missile, an ICBM, and a nuclear-powered submarine (SSBN) and Submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).”

Democrats agree that the bedrock of this modernization program should be the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, though some question whether the military needs all 12 in the budget. These vessels provide a mobile and survivable nuclear capability. As the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review notes: “SSBNs are, at present, virtually undetectable, and there are no known, near-term credible threats to the survivability of the SSBN force.”

But unlike most other nuclear powers, the United States must deter direct threats against its homeland while also extending its nuclear umbrella to allies around the world. This contributes to U.S. nonproliferation objectives by discouraging other nations from obtaining their own nuclear arsenals and keeps democratic states from having to politically accommodate Russia and China. But this policy of “extended deterrence” requires that the United States has policies and a force structure that demonstrate its commitment to the security of its allies. And given Trump’s continued questioning of U.S. security commitments to our allies, it is even more important that Democrats eschew a “no first use” policy and support modernization programs that reinforce the U.S. extended deterrent.

The U.S. nuclear weapons system that operates most seamlessly with allied systems is by necessity non-strategic. The B61 air-delivered gravity bomb, the only tactical U.S. nuclear weapon system, can be operated on dual-use aircraft owned by both the United States and European partners and is a key component of our strategic commitment to NATO. But in a hypothetical future conflict with China or Russia, getting dual-capable fighter bombers directly above targets will be difficult without an extensive bombing campaign on adversary soil because of the marked advances in these countries’ air defense systems. Thus, the B61 is mostly a defensive weapon and a political symbol, to be used to thwart massive Russian conventional aggression, much as Russian tactical nuclear weapons systems are designed to offset Moscow’s own conventional inferiority.

Enter the new B-21 strategic bomber and the LRSO cruise missile, with their ability to penetrate sophisticated air defense systems. These strategic weapon systems give the U.S. military credible and highly visible options that can be used to signal to Russia, China, and other potential adversaries in support of our partners in a regional crisis (as one of us argued previously in WOTR). The U.S. can use the B-21 and LRSO operationally to both deter our adversaries and to reassure our allies. The survivability of the B-21 and LRSO against modern air defenses gives the United States a key deterrent capability against regional threats that other U.S. weapons systems do not have.

Some arms control advocates argue that the LRSO is destabilizing because it makes a sneak attack possible. We disagree. To the contrary, bombers armed with cruise missiles have long been considered stabilizing. As former U.S. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller noted in 2016:

…arms control has generally given a ‘discount’ to bomber weapons because they were seen as the least threatening to stability, because they pose the smallest risk of surprise attack. The process of alerting these bombers would be observable…and the aircraft are recallable. These deliberate aspects of bomber weapons provide the President with the most signaling flexibility during a crisis.

Without the LRSO, the B-52 bomber will be unable to conduct nuclear operations after 2030 when the current nuclear air-launched cruise missile is retired from service. The B-2 bomber is only capable of carrying nuclear gravity bombs, which will be less and less able to penetrate Russian and Chinese air defenses over time.

Some experts, including some prominent Democrats, have called for eliminating the U.S. ICBM force, arguing that it is militarily unnecessary and inherently destabilizing. However, we believe that Democrats should support moving forward with a replacement to the existing Minuteman III ICBM. First, a substantial ICBM force means that adversaries looking to significantly degrade U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities must strike deep and wide across the United States, thereby assuring they will provoke an overwhelming U.S. military response. Second, ICBMs provide the capability to hold at risk targets around the world on very short notice. And third, the ICBM force provides a hedge against technological risk, in case U.S. adversaries develop the capability to find and promptly target ballistic missile submarines.

While the SSBN force is currently undetectable, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review notes that United States will need to “continue to hedge against the possibility that advances in anti-submarine warfare could make the SSBN force less survivable in the future.” China’s investments in artificial intelligence and space and airborne reconnaissance present risks, though difficult to measure, as does their development of an “underwater Great Wall” sensor network. All provide a compelling rationale for a land-based deterrent, like the the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, as a hedge against future risks to the submarine force.

One potential Democratic point of departure from the Trump Nuclear Posture Review could be on the low-yield supplements to the Obama modernization program designed to “enhance the flexibility and responsiveness of U.S. nuclear forces.” The issue of whether these supplemental capabilities are needed has been debated intensely in other War on the Rocks articles. From our perspective, the already approved B-61-12 gravity bomb and the LRSO are sufficient to deter the threat from Russia’s non-strategic nuclear forces and other potential adversaries while simultaneously reassuring our allies. These programs are more visible to both allies and adversaries than the suggested Trump supplements, and therefore have a relatively higher assurance value.

A ‘No First Use Policy’ Risks the Credibility of U.S. Extended Deterrence

Some Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation calling on the United States to adopt a declaratory policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. Proponents argue that it would reduce the risk of nuclear use and miscalculation and set an example for the rest of the world to follow. However, given the worsening security environment and the renewed need to reassure allies, we strongly caution Democrats against embracing this policy. A “no first use” declaration would signal to allies that the United States might not support them in the face of Russian and Chinese coercive nuclear threats.

Indeed, the Obama administration weighed — and rejected — the possibility of adopting such a policy in both 2010 and 2016. According to press reports, one of the key reasons this proposal was rejected was concerns raised by U.S. allies, especially the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and South Korea, who feared that such a policy could undermine deterrence. As a 2017 Brookings report, endorsed by a number of former Democratic national security officials, notes: “adopting sole purpose or No First Use, especially at a time of heightened tension and threat, could erode confidence in the efficacy of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent on the part of allies in Northeast Asia and Central and Eastern Europe, who have traditionally been very wary of disavowing the first-use option.”

Congressional Democrats should also be aware that serious allied strategists are beginning to publicly question the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence. For example, Paul Dibb, a respected professor emeritus at Australian National University, wrote recently: “If, in extremis, we can no longer depend on the US to defend us from threats from a nuclear-armed China, Australia might have to revisit the technological lead time we need to develop an independent nuclear weapon.”

While we agree that the United States should work to create the security conditions to be able to adopt such a policy in the future, those conditions do not exist today. Adopting such a policy has the potential to seriously disrupt the existing network of U.S. alliances, at a time when Trump is already putting its strength to the test.

The Role of Arms Control

The Trump administration takes a critical view of arms control and nonproliferation agreements, especially as compared to the Obama administration. For example, the Trump Nuclear Posture Review makes clear that the United States would not seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and was noncommittal about whether it would extend New START. And, of course, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal and the INF Treaty.

Democrats should make clear that strategic nuclear modernization alone is not enough to ensure the security of the United States. As the congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission noted in its 2009 report, “The United States should pursue an approach to reducing nuclear dangers that balances deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation. Singular emphasis on one or the other element would reduce the nuclear security of the United States.” We concur with this assessment. The United States needs a comprehensive strategy in which deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation complement one another.

The Senate clearly linked the issues of arms control and strategic nuclear modernization in the debate over New START ratification in 2010, and Congress should continue to link them moving forward. Indeed, without Democrats’ commitment to modernization during the Obama years, it is hard to see how they would have obtained the necessary Republican votes to approve the New START treaty. And without New START, it’s unlikely that many Democrats would have supported the strategic modernization program.

Democrats should remind the Trump administration of the important role arms control has played in building bipartisan support for strategic nuclear modernization. As Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated in September 2018, “I also want to remind the administration that bipartisan support for nuclear modernization is tied to maintaining an arms control process that controls and seeks to reduce Russian nuclear forces.”

Beyond the domestic debate, arms control and nonproliferation agreements are also critical to maintaining allies’ support for nuclear deterrence, including U.S. basing of military assets and these countries’ acquisition of dual-capable aircraft that can deliver nuclear payloads. Recent events in Germany highlight the political relationship between arms control and deterrence in some NATO capitals. In February, the center-left Social Democratic Party, the junior coalition partner in the German government, announced the creation of a commission to re-examine its foreign and security policy. In particular, the commission will look at Germany’s continued participation in longstanding NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements under which German dual-capable aircraft would deliver U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in the event of a Russian attack. The decision to establish the commission was reportedly a partial response to U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty. If the Social Democratic Party pushes the German government to let its dual-capable aircraft age out of use without replacing them, this could make other NATO allies less willing to replace theirs, which would have significant repercussions for NATO nuclear policy as a whole. U.S. efforts to shore up arms control and nonproliferation agreements could go far toward reversing this trend.


The security environment has changed dramatically since President Barack Obama delivered his famous speech in Prague in April 2009. Instead of joining the United States in expanding efforts to reduce nuclear threats, Russia and China have gone in the opposite direction, investing in new nuclear weapons systems, conventional strike, and asymmetric capabilities. America’s political relationships with both countries have also declined to their worst state since the end of the Cold War. Given these realities, it is critical that the United States modernize its strategic nuclear deterrent in a way that reassures allies and enhances strategic stability. To accomplish this, congressional Democrats should support the Obama strategic modernization program that includes the procurement of the Columbia-class SSBN, the B-21 strategic bomber and LRSO cruise missile, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or a similar land-based ballistic missile capability. These delivery systems should be supported by a survivable and resilient nuclear command-and-control system. At the same time, Democrats should be clear that strategic nuclear modernization alone is not enough to ensure the security of the United States and its allies. Arms control and nonproliferation must be part of the package.

Rep. Adam Smith, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, recently called for “a strategic discussion that asks the big questions about the best way to deter nuclear war, reassure our allies, maintain a credible and reliable deterrent, and accomplish our national objectives while taking into account budgetary reality.” We hope our analysis contributes to the debate.



Frank A. Rose is a senior fellow for security and strategy at the Brookings Institution. He previously served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance from 2014-2017.

Benjamin Bahney is an analyst specializing in 21st century strategic conflict. His research focuses on the impact of space and cyber security challenges on strategic stability. He is a contributing author to Cross Domain Deterrence: Strategy in the Era of Complexity. Bahney’s work supports the U.S. Government but the views expressed here are his own.


Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Paul Villanueva II

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