History Shows U.S. Nuclear Restraint Is a One-Way Street

November 18, 2020
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The United States in the midst of modernizing its nuclear forces for the first time in decades. The modernization program entails a ground-based strategic deterrent program to replace the intercontinental ballistic missile, a new bomber, a nuclear certification for the F-35 aircraft, a new strategic submarine, a long-range standoff cruise missile, and sustainment of accompanying warheads and supporting infrastructure. The United States is slated to spend $35 to $40 billion per year over the next 30 years on these efforts.

Opponents of U.S. nuclear weapons modernization programs argue that it is a primary driver in starting arms races. In 2017, Sen. Ed Markey argued, “Instead of wasting taxpayer money on new nuclear weapons that could trigger a global nuclear arms race, the United States should exercise international leadership by cutting unnecessary and destabilizing nuclear weapons systems.” He added that the president should “contain the massive new nuclear weapons programs now underway before they lock in another 40 years of nuclear brinksmanship” as a solution to the problem.



But efforts by the United States to modernize its nuclear forces will not start a nuclear arms race. In fact, if history is any guide, letting America’s nuclear stockpile atrophy would likely result in a diminished U.S. geopolitical position over the long term with no comparable in-kind restraint on other countries’ nuclear modernization and procurement efforts. If anything, unilateral restraint tends to induce adversaries to compete more vigorously in those areas where the United States exercises forbearance.

The Arms Race Dynamic

Arguments about U.S. actions starting arms races are decades old. Given its gravity, the term itself is surprisingly ill-defined in the general literature on the topic. In 1967, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara described the arms race dynamic as follows:

Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions — or even realistically possible actions — on either side relating to the buildup of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive forces, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side. It is precisely this action-reaction phenomenon that fuels the arms race.

Granted, interactions between adversaries and opponents are an undeniable fact of international relations. After all, it would be foolish to plan weapon systems intended to serve for decades without considering an adversary’s current and future posture in a strategic competition. But there is very little historical evidence to support the notion that it is U.S. nuclear modernization programs that start arms races. Policy prescriptions calling for an end to U.S. nuclear weapons modernization to prevent an arms race, or for U.S. unilateral nuclear weapons reductions that “could even start a peace race,” are wishful thinking.

In fact, sometimes U.S. inaction can trigger other states’ aggressive steps. For example, the United States scaled back its strategic offensive missile buildup at the end of 1960s, allowing the Soviet Union to achieve a level of parity in strategic offensive missiles in the 1970s. The U.S. pause likely weakened its hand in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks I process with the Soviet Union. John S. Foster, Jr., director of defense research and engineering from 1965 to 1973, stated:

[S]ince 1966 the U.S. momentum in strategic systems, in retrospect, appears to some to have been too low. Nevertheless, the United States consciously set it that way and that has made it more difficult for our negotiators. Had they had more to trade, they perhaps could have gotten a better deal.

Additionally, the United States was not building any nuclear submarines during the strategic arms negotiations, leading President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to comment, “The United States was in a rather complex position to recommend a submarine deal [in Strategic Arms Limitation Talks I ] since we were not building any and the Soviets were building eight or nine a year, which isn’t the most brilliant bargaining position I would recommend people to find themselves in.”

In its quest for mutually assured destruction, the United States significantly limited its strategic ballistic missile defense development program and cancelled any additional deployments after the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, codifying its population’s vulnerability to a Soviet missile attack. Washington cancelled a program to develop multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles that could be effective against Soviet silos at the end of 1960s, and made the development of hard-target kill capabilities (e.g., MX Peacekeeper missile) contingent upon how far the Soviet Union would go in 1970s.

How did Moscow respond to these examples of U.S. restraint? By doing exactly the opposite of what proponents of mutually assured destruction in the United States expected. Instead of slowing down their own offensive nuclear buildup in the absence of U.S. defenses, the Soviet Union accelerated their nuclear deployments. The Soviets’ force posture decisions were clearly driven by a much more complex set of considerations than just what the United States did, including the preferences of the leadership in Moscow and their closeness to the defense industrial complex.

Additionally, the buildup was not without consequences for the United States. According to Soviet officials, it translated into a more assertive Soviet foreign policy, despite U.S. efforts to pursue détente. In other words, U.S. strategic restraint did not lead to Soviet restraint. Rather, it was followed by a continuing Soviet nuclear buildup that had significant negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy around the world, including in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen, and Afghanistan in the latter half of the 1970s.

Opponents of U.S. nuclear weapons modernization and missile defense programs predicted that the Soviet Union would stabilize its nuclear buildup once it reached parity with the United States. Some even saw an increased rate of the Soviet missile buildup as a positive development that would facilitate arms control. For example, in 1969 Herbert York, the former director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (today known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), stated in a Scientific American article that the prospects for arms control were improved because “both sides will be discussing the matter from a position of parity. Moreover, this parity seems reasonably stable and likely to endure for several years.” This was not the case. Moscow showed no tangible slowdown in their nuclear missile modernization programs. As a result of increasing Soviet hard-target kill capabilities, the U.S. land-based nuclear force became vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear attack. Perhaps no one described this dynamic better than President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, “Soviet spending has shown no response to U.S. restraint — when we build, they build; when we cut, they build.”

Unlike the United States, which had placed a premium on deterrence stability through the mutual possession of a credible, second-strike retaliatory capability since McNamara’s time, the Soviet approach placed a premium on deploying strategic and theater capabilities to prevail in the event of war. Granted, this interpretation remains contested, with some authors arguing that the United States was interested in nuclear superiority and robust counterforce capabilities even after McNamara’s tenure. Still, it is now evident that while the United States developed its nuclear posture largely to secure the benefits of a stable balance of terror and extended deterrence (rather than, for example, in a way that would incentivize Soviet investments into defensive systems), the Soviet Union placed primacy on developing and deploying counterforce nuclear capabilities to target U.S. nuclear forces and limit damage from potential retaliatory strikes.

This recognition was shared by both Democratic and Republican administrations and led Carter to initiate a comprehensive review of the U.S. strategic forces policy. The resulting Presidential Directive 59 (PD-59) acknowledged that the United States had entered “an era of strategic nuclear equivalence” and mandated the pursuit of nuclear delivery systems that could provide wider target coverage with greater survivability, including the development of the MX Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile, the B-2 bomber, improvements to the sea-based leg of the strategic triad, and enhancements to strategic command and control and early warning systems. These actions were a reaction to the Soviet nuclear buildup and deemed necessary to sustain deterrence — and to improve Carter’s reelection chances hurt by the appearance of a weak foreign and defense policy that emboldened the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan in 1979. They did not and were not intended to match (or outmatch) the Soviet Union on a weapon-for-weapon basis, but to restore the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in the face of a Soviet drive for nuclear superiority. They were reactive and driven by different motivations and priorities, and hardly reflect the U.S.-led action-reaction arms race narrative publicly espoused by critics of the U.S. nuclear modernization program.

The Reagan Buildup Helped to End the Cold War Rather than Turning It Hot

The administration of Ronald Reagan continued and expanded the programs outlined in PD-59 in what turned out to be the last comprehensive U.S. nuclear modernization effort to date. It resulted in the 1980s introduction of the new MX Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile; two new long-range bombers, including the stealth B-2; more accurate D-5 sea-launched ballistic missiles; air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles; and an overall revitalization of the nuclear complex. The United States still relies on some of these systems to meet its nuclear deterrence requirements. In addition to modernizing nuclear forces, the Reagan administration also modernized conventional forces.

Far from starting a new round of the arms race, however, these efforts were a consequence of the lack of Soviet restraint after years of relative U.S. inaction. Fred Iklé, Reagan’s under secretary of defense for policy, described the dynamic as follows:

For two decades we shrank our budget for nuclear offensive forces nearly every year. We reduced expenditures on our defenses against nuclear attack drastically, and after 1970, we cut them practically to zero. And, most dangerous of all, we permitted our intelligence projections for Soviet forces to become warped by our own dogma. In particular, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, we misled ourselves by the mistaken forecast that the Soviet Union, in light of our self-restraint, would not want to overtake us in nuclear offensive forces, much less seek a capability for destroying most of our deterrent strength.

As Brown stated in 1981, “The unquestioned Soviet attainment of strategic parity has put the final nail in the coffin of what we long knew was dead — the notion that we could adequately deter the Soviets solely by threatening massive retaliation against their cities.” Despite criticism of the Reagan administration at the time — for example, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman charged the administration with “squandering” an opportunity to “reverse the nuclear arms race” and “ushering in a new era of strategic instability” — its national security policy generated a heavy strain on the Soviet economy. The pressure, as well as internal problems, contributed to the Soviet leadership’s decision to undertake political and economic reforms that ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s demise. The comprehensive U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program also put Washington in a better position to negotiation arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and its successor state, the Russian Federation.

Others Act Even When the United States Does Not

More recent evidence undermines the argument that it is U.S. nuclear modernization that initiates arms races, or that stopping U.S. nuclear modernization will prevent an arms race because opponents will react with corresponding restraint. From the end of the Cold War until very recently, the United States essentially refrained from any major nuclear weapons modernization efforts. It let its nuclear warhead infrastructure atrophy, although it conducted life extension programs on strategic and selected short-range weapons in its nuclear arsenal. The United States implemented unilateral tactical nuclear force reductions and reduced its conventional forces in Europe —  to some degree concurrently with the Russian Federation, although questions about the degree to which Russia has abided by its commitments remain. It stopped all nuclear warhead testing in 1992, including very small-yield experiments that the directors of national nuclear laboratories said that they needed to ensure that the first stages of U.S. nuclear warheads were operating successfully. The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review sought to devalue the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy by no longer planning, sizing, and sustaining U.S. nuclear forces “as though Russia presented merely a smaller version of the threat posed by the former Soviet Union.” After the Cold War, Congress cancelled even modest adjustments to existing nuclear warheads, like the robust nuclear earth penetrator and the reliable replacement warhead program. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review continued the trend toward a diminished role for nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. Consequently, the United States is faced with a situation in which it needs to modernize its nuclear delivery systems and extend the service lives of its nuclear warheads simultaneously over the next several decades at a cost of about $1 trillion. Critics of these costs argue that the United States can reduce its nuclear systems. However, this idea is currently unadvisable for other reasons.

These changes reflected a new assessment of the international security environment in which nuclear proliferation was considered much more of a threat than “a massive conventional attack by the Warsaw Pact through the Fulda Gap.” The United States sought to “demonstrate leadership” by “reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security” at a time when “the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, rather than the nuclear arsenal of a hostile superpower, poses the greatest security risk.”

And while Russia’s nuclear arsenal did decline after the end of the Cold War, the drawdown appears to have been driven more by a lack of resources and the availability of or interest in diplomatic options to draw down in a verifiable arms control manner, rather than a genuine reassessment of Russia’s threat perceptions or nuclear aspirations. Russia retains a large advantage in tactical nuclear weapons and, unlike the United States, has pursued a comprehensive nuclear weapon modernization program for many years, including delivery systems outside of the current arms control framework. Russia has also engaged in nuclear weapons experiments that have the potential to improve its nuclear warheads and keep its workforce proficient in activities necessary to build new warhead designs. China, too, is engaging in an expansion of its nuclear capabilities, and even more countries joined the nuclear weapons club by conducting explosive tests since the end of the Cold War: India (which conducted a peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974) and Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2006.

In short, countries will make their own choices based on what they perceive to be in their own national security interests. Sometimes, those considerations are influenced by U.S. nuclear modernization policies, and sometimes not so much. But the notion that the United States is an instigator of an action-reaction arms race is simplistic and empirically inaccurate. Calls for the United States to stop nuclear weapons modernization as a solution to prevent an arms race tend to assume that if the United States stops its nuclear weapons modernization, others will stop their programs because they will not be compelled to respond to U.S. steps. History shows that there is very little empirical evidence for this proposition. In fact, quite the contrary. The one-way street of U.S. restraint has led us to a strategic cul-de-sac, and hoping that others will follow our lead by exercising similar strategic restraint has proven to be a dead end.



Dr. Michaela Dodge is a research scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, former senior defense policy advisor for Sen. Jon Kyl, and former research fellow for missile defense and nuclear deterrence at the Heritage Foundation. She has a book forthcoming in fall 2020 examining U.S.-allied post-Cold War relations and Russian influence operations, U.S.-Czech Ballistic Missile Defense Cooperation: Alliance Politics in Action.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Airman 1st Class Jazmin Smith)