Ending Nuclear Overkill

Benjamin Friedman and I have an op-ed in today’s International New York Times  (and the New York Times iPad app, I just checked) which calls for shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and moving from a triad of delivery systems—bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)—to a submarine-only monad.

The main focus of the piece is on the strategy that led to the enormous growth of the arsenal in the 1950s and 60s, and the attendant history of the triad. We go into the history to show that the strategy driving our nuclear force posture is outdated and based on inaccurate assumptions. The rationale for the triad is equally dubious given the vast technological gains since ICBMs and SLBMs were first developed and deployed.

But the international system has obviously changed since the days of the Cold War. Potential targets for American nuclear weapons are growing scarcer. New nuclear powers like North Korea struggle to deploy even a handful of delivery vehicles. Targeting China’s few long-range missiles demands intelligence to find them, not sheer numbers of warheads to hit them. And Russia’s plans to modernize its non-nuclear forces suggest that it is not aiming for nuclear parity.

The op-ed draws from our recent white paper, “The End of Overkill?” and will be the subject of an upcoming event on Capitol Hill, for those of you who missed the policy forum at Cato last month. We’ve spoken and written about the paper before, but my hope is that additional exposure will draw attention to an understudied phenomenon: nuclear overkill. Placement in the New York Times certainly should help.

The fiscal situation helps, too. As we explain in the paper and the op-ed, the various military services grabbed a share of the nuclear mission in order to grow their budgets in the 1950s. Even the Army, effectively barred from developing strategic nuclear weapons, managed to get into the nuclear strategy game through “flexible response,” the claim that the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops stationed in Europe enhanced our ability to deter attacks on our allies. Such claims were dubious even then, but few people were inclined to scrutinize them.

By contrast, today’s budget battles are forcing the services to compete with one another, and with themselves (e.g., surface ships vs. submarines in the Navy, or ICBMs vs. fighter aircraft in the Air Force). In that context, as we conclude in the op-ed:

Budget-conscious service chiefs may see nuclear weapons as an attractive target, especially given their irrelevance in recent wars.

Pentagon competition helped create the triad; restored competition could help kill it.

You can read the whole thing here.