Refurbished Minuteman missile engines, foreground, await shipment along with Peacekeeper missile motors.
The United States faces a stark choice in the business of maintaining the nuclear peace: It could travel down a road to smaller, less robust nuclear forces, hoping its example compels rogue states to relinquish their quest for nuclear weaponry; or it could continue to sustain its nuclear arsenal as it has in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, firmly supported by the lessons of deterrence learned in the more than a half-century of the nuclear age.
“Right thinking” analysts support the first path. While acknowledging that the elimination of all nuclear weapons cannot be achieved quickly, these analysts urge the U.S. to eliminate as much of its nuclear forces as possible, as that will assist in the international security environment becoming more benign. This thinking, however, is based on one critical assumption. Once that assumption is understood—as well as other arguments advanced by these nuclear elimination advocates—it becomes clear that the path of nuclear eradication will only increase world peril and uncertainty.
The Global Zero Assumption
While all presidents have, to one degree or another, embraced the eventual goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, most have concurred that in the interim the U.S. needs to maintain deterrence. Unfortunately, underlining the new push for eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide, often referred to as Global Zero, is a mistaken assumption that only a continued rapid U.S. march toward that goal will garner enough international support to simultaneously stop rogue nuclear weapons programs.
This theory relies upon “restraint by example”: If the U.S. cuts its nuclear weapons dramatically, then countries such as Brazil, Germany, and Turkey will decide it is serious about nuclear disarmament and compel others to cooperate with U.S. diplomatic efforts to end nuclear proliferation. This coordinated pressure, the thinking goes, will be sufficient to persuade the mullahs in Iran or the Kim family in North Korea to end their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But this assumption has been proven false. Despite the delay to U.S. modernization efforts and the reduction of the U.S. nuclear stockpile by over 85 percent since 1981, the promised proliferation controls from other countries never materialize. North Korea, Pakistan, China, and Iran’s programs expand; their nuclear stockpiles increase.
Since this spring, Iran has doubled its capacity to produce nuclear fuel or enrich uranium—a fact that is often interpreted not as a matter of bad faith by Tehran, but of evidence of insufficient restraint by the U.S. In this way, the self-appointed arms control community can have its cake and eat it too—support no U.S. modernization and sustainment efforts of any import, while taking the “high road” of explaining that U.S. nuclear restraint (the goal all along) is simply critical to ending the nuclear programs in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere.
But why would those countries and businesses now working with Iran—especially Chinese firms with ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology—be persuaded to stop their nuclear activity if the U.S. reduced its deployed nuclear weapons by another 500 warheads when previous cuts of 10,000 have not done the trick?
The Global Zero Proposition
The U.S. nuclear deterrent is old. Each leg of the nuclear Triad—bombers, submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—needs to be sustained or modernized. According to the #1251 section report under the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, the cost of fully implementing a sustainment and modernization program of the current nuclear Triad would require sustained funding at a total $21.5 billion a year, although the price tag will no doubt be higher when factoring in the modernization of America’s nuclear labs. Nevertheless, that means over the next 10 years, the U.S. would spend $215 billion on the entire nuclear enterprise, from laboratories in New Mexico, California, and Tennessee, to the costs associated with the programs at the Departments of Energy and Defense, to the bombers, submarines, and land-based silos. $21.5 billion spent out of a Federal budget of nearly $5.7 trillion in 2022 amounts to one dollar out of every $265 the U.S. government spends.
For the $21.5 billion a year, the U.S. plans to replace the current 14 Trident submarines with 12 new boats each carrying 16 missiles. The 450 Minuteman missiles first deployed in 1973 need to be modernized starting sometime this decade and plans for doing so are now being considered after a nearly completed 20 year sustainment program. And some portion of the current B2 and B52 nuclear bomber force needs to be replaced as well.
Some proponents of nuclear abolition are pushing to cut $100 billion over 15 years from the administration’s overall nuclear sustainment plan of $215 billion. They assert such savings could be achieved by eliminating all 450 Minuteman missiles, cutting 50 nuclear capable bombers to 18, and replacing the current 14 Trident submarines that carry 336 missiles with 10 submarines (rather than the 12 currently planned for), each only able to carry 16 missiles.
But the desired savings in cost will not be achieved by such reckless cuts to American capabilities. Just the opposite, cutting two submarines will increase both their manufacturing unit cost as well as the cost associated with the missiles. Meanwhile, any savings accrued from eliminating ICBMs will be offset in part by the cost of base closing. Therefore, rather than saving $100 billion as is suggested, the savings might only amount to $15 billion.
One expert estimated that sustaining the current bomber, submarine, and ICBM force—not including the costs of the nuclear labs, communications, and other costs—could be covered by a budget of roughly $6-7 billion a year. Yet cutting $100 billion over 15 years, as some Global Zero advocates have proposed, implies an average annual cut equal to this entire budget. Needless to say, such ideas are irresponsible.
And aside from the balance sheet issues, the larger problem with such proposals is that the U.S. nuclear force would be truncated to consist of less than 10 targets instead of the current target set of more than 460. That means that with submarines either deployed or stationed at port, and with bombers at one base, an adversary could eliminate the U.S. as a nuclear power by simply finding its submarines at sea and using a very limited strike on just three remaining military bases. It risks leaving the U.S. far too vulnerable.
Thankfully, amendments to cut out Minuteman missiles and Trident submarines by advocates of Global Zero lost by lopsided votes in the House of Representatives this summer due to the strong advocacy of nuclear sustainment by the members of the House Armed Services Committee, especially Congressmen Turner (R-OH), Franks (R-AZ), Lamborn (R-CO), and Bartlett (R-MD).
Global Zero Arguments, Deflated
Nuclear Usability: Critics argue that the current nuclear posture is not useful in dealing with the security conflicts of today. As a recent report submitted to the Department of State on this subject asserts, “suicide bombers and rogue states with nuclear weapons” cannot be prevented from attacking with the current or planned U.S. nuclear deterrent. This argument is mistaken for a number of reasons.
First, threats to U.S. security run a wide range of contingencies and no one deterrent capability is designed to deal with all of them. While it is true that current threats such as cyber, pandemic flu, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks do not readily fit into the classical “cold peace” relationship between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union maintained by our nuclear deterrent, does it matter? Does fire insurance protect a car? Does a front door security lock also secure windows? Does the U.S. Coast Guard stop the pandemic flu?
Second, it can be argued that the U.S. nuclear deterrent may prevent future threats. Such threats might involve outright aggression as in the North Korea’s 1950 invasion of the Republic of Korea, which could happen again; or the Soviets’ Cold War support of guerilla war and terrorism throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which has now been adopted in large part by Iran; or a possible military conflict between Pakistan and India that might involve China and Russia. In fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently warned that China’s wrangling with Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea might very well lead to war.
Third, advocates of Global Zero inadvertently justify the need for a continued nuclear deterrent. For example, Fareed Zakaria, an opponent of the use of military force against Iran, ridiculed concerns over Iran’s nuclear capability by arguing the current U.S. nuclear deterrent is adequate to stop any Iranian recklessness should they acquire nuclear weapons. So much for Global Zero’s argument that this deterrent is no longer needed.
Fourth, the American deterrent capability at many levels is reinforced by the strength of its constituent parts and made more credible as each component is respected and feared. A weak nuclear deterrent does not strengthen America’s conventional deterrent any more than the United States’ lack of conventional capability in Korea in 1950 was compensated for by its then existing nuclear weapons. After all, North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea despite the United States’ possession of nuclear weapons. It did so not because America’s nuclear deterrent was not credible but because Washington said that the security of the Republic of Korea was “beyond our security commitment.” The Obama administration would do well to remember this lesson when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program and any possible Israeli attempt to bring that nuclear program to heel. In any case, it is a problem of U.S. commitments and messaging, not a problem of an ineffective nuclear deterrent.
Substitute Capabilities: According to a former senior military commander, three new American developments lessen the need for nuclear deterrence. They are: prompt global conventional strike capabilities, the deployment of missile defenses, and existing unparalleled conventional capability.
Experts say this new paradigm is highly unrealistic. First, prompt global strike capabilities are just now being developed and tested, and none are deployed. Second, missile defenses, while considerable in number and capability compared to a decade ago, have much to improve and are fiercely opposed by some in Congress, by the arms control community, and particularly the Russians and Chinese. Indeed, it is unclear to what extent the U.S. can count on future robust missile defenses when apparently the Russian leadership is counting on America giving up such technology when sufficient “space” is available to do so. And third, Washington’s own senior defense leadership is unanimous that sequestration cuts in future defense budgets could be catastrophic to security and conventional capabilities.
Ironically, other advocates of further nuclear cuts complain that the U.S. advantage in conventional capability, its continued deployment of missile defenses, and development of a prompt global conventional strike capability will actually impede arms control. They argue that these advantages will prevent Russia from agreeing to further nuclear weapons reductions and thus jeopardize the pursuit of Global Zero.
Future Nuclear Planning: Global Zero advocates also argue that Washington’s current force structure looks as it does today because of decisions made decades ago. Therefore, only by cutting as much as possible now will future children and grandchildren be left with a nuclear force closer to zero.
But this is reckless thinking and assumes future conditions will be safe for diminished nuclear deterrence, almost as if wishing it were true will make the future world safer. If these are decisions made for 50 years, then the U.S. should include an insurance policy that gives it the capability to deal with unforeseen trouble such as a resurgent Russia or China. For example, would a China with not hundreds but thousands of strategic nuclear weapons, with ambitions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the oil rich regions of central Asia, be easier to deter with less capability?
Assuming the world will be a better place and thus U.S. security needs will be less is a platform upon which future tyrants may well build their empires.
Nuclear De-Alerting: For some reason, Global Zero enthusiasts believe a U.S. president would be compelled in a crisis to use nuclear weapons quickly. No matter what level of nuclear weapons the U.S. maintains, there are those who advocate for taking its warheads off the missiles and storing them elsewhere. This is variously described as “de-alerting,” the idea being that in a crisis the American president would not be able to use nuclear weapons for many days. But as no verification system exists for such de-alerting measures to be implemented, this posture would create huge problems of instability.
Imagine if the chief of police ordered all his cops to store their guns in one station house, under lock and key, and take the bullets out and store them somewhere else. How soon would a crime wave breakout once the criminal underground learned the news? In addition, countries can easily and quietly “re-alert”—surreptitiously put their warheads back on their missiles as quickly as possible so as not to be found at the short end of the stick.
The Case for Deterrence
Much of the Global Zero enterprise rests on the mistaken assumption that all nuclear powers are the same. CNN founder Ted Turner once quipped, “If the U.S. has a few thousand nuclear weapons, why can’t Iran have a few hundred?” His views, while quirky, reflect the majority opinion in much of the world, especially in U.S. academia, Hollywood, and the media. Even the former director-general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Hans Blix, told this author that the U.S. has no more right to have nuclear weapons than Iran or Sweden.
Herein lies the great misunderstanding. Iran is not the United States. The U.S. has enormous responsibilities as leader of NATO and the free world. It did not abuse its nuclear monopoly after World War II and its entire deterrent philosophy has been to avoid ever using nuclear weapons. How many people believe the mullahs in Iran, once possessing nuclear weapons, will not seek to use them?
Tragically, the U.S. has spent so much time seeking the chimera of zero nuclear weapons that it has seen Iran expand its nuclear program, double enrichment, build thousands more centrifuges, and test ballistic missiles. Through at least three administrations, the goal has been to “isolate” Iran with sanctions and other economic strategies to eventually force Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But at the end of August, the Non-Aligned Movement met in Tehran and voted 120-0 for support of Iran in its fight with the IAEA over its nuclear “energy” program while also condemning the U.S. and its allies for trying to stop Iran’s “right to enrich” nuclear fuel.
Thus the “international community” has given its answer to the idea that by demonstration and example, the U.S. will lead Iran toward the promised land of zero nuclear weapons.
PETER HUESSY is the founder and President of the defense consulting firm GeoStrategic Analysis.