Challenging the Need to Modernize the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a lengthy story by Dana Priest on plans to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal. It is difficult to comprehend the strategic rationale for the nation’s nuclear arsenal and force structure, and politics and parochialism (especially the jobs associated with the various nuclear labs) add a further layer of complexity. Most casual observers can be forgiven for becoming lost in the haze of secrecy and deliberate obfuscation that has swirled around the nation’s nuclear deterrent for decades. To her credit, Priest, one of the better national security reporters out there, is trying to pierce the fog. Unfortunately, this particular story may obscure more than it illuminates.

In excruciating detail, the Los Alamos Study Group’s Greg Mello points out his many complaints. Those who read the entire Priest story might at least want to consider Mello’s point by point analysis. For my part, I tend to agree with Mello that this line–“The need to spend heavily to modernize the nation’s shrinking nuclear stockpile has been apparent for at least two decades”–is the “money quote” of the piece.

This presents a questionable assumption as fact. There is, however, ample evidence that the nuclear arsenal is larger than what is necessary for deterrence, and, therefore, that at least some of the costs associated with modernizing it are not necessary.

I defer to experts like Mello on the costs of the weapons labs, and have also relied heavily on the good work done at the Stimson Center, the Project on Government Oversight, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Federation of American Scientists, and others.

My own research focuses on the dubious strategic justification for the “triad” of delivery systems–manned bombers, land-based missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)–that has constituted the nation’s nuclear force structure since the early 1960s. Along with Ben Friedman and Matt Fay, I have explored the original rationale for the triad, and found it to be mainly a rationalization for a force structure that came into being as a result of competition within and among the military services. These parochial pressures–the services sought to increase their budgets by grabbing a share of the nuclear deterrent mission–tied into exagerrated fears of Soviet strength and U.S. vulnerability promulgated by hawkish defense policy analysts, and the arsenal exploded (pun intended).

There have been a few feeble attempts to restrain the growth and ultimately overkill within the nation’s nuclear arsenal since the late 1950s. These included Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh Burke’s endorsement of finite deterrence, and the post-Cold War nuclear posture review, in which then-assistant secretary of defense for nuclear security and counterproliferation Ashton Carter made the case for a submarine-only monad. These attempts failed; so spectacularly, in fact, that they might have discouraged others from even daring to challenge the status quo.

In recent years, however, scholars have raised new questions about the need for a triad (e.g. here) and others have suggested that a credible deterrent could have far fewer warheads (e.g. here and here). Ben Friedman and I explained earlier this year that the budget was putting additional pressure on the triad. As the costs associated with modernizing all three delivery vehicles cut into other projects and missions that are valued by the services, the Air Force and the Navy may seek ways to opt out of the nuclear deterrence mission.

Cato’s “Triad to Dyad” project will ultimately produce a paper, followed by a series of lectures around the country, and I will share more of our findings over the next few months. In the meantime, I hope that reporters will question some of the assumptions surrounding the nation’s nuclear arsenal, beginning with the presumed need to modernize it.