Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy

Today Cato released a new white paper, “The End of Overkill? Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy.” I am proud to have contributed to this effort with lead author Benjamin Friedman of Cato, and Matt Fay, a former Cato research assistant now enrolled in the History PhD program at Temple University. We argue that U.S. security does not require nearly 1,600 nuclear weapons deployed on a triad of systems—bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)—to deliver them. We estimate that a smaller arsenal deployed entirely on submarines would save roughly $20 billion annually while deterring attacks on the United States and its allies.

The paper is part of a broader project, “From Triad to Dyad: Rationalizing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems,” made possible by the generous support of the Ploughshares Fund. The project began as a top-line review of the triad, but expanded into a more comprehensive study of U.S. nuclear strategy and policy. Over the last year, we presented our preliminary findings at over a dozen public events in ten different cities, as well as several engagements here in Washington, D.C. This process generated useful feedback along the way.

Here are a few excerpts from “The End of Overkill?”:

  • U.S. nuclear weapons’ policies have long rested on myths—about U.S. force plans, enemy capability, and the difficulties of deterrence—invented to manage Pentagon politics, placate allies and, to an extent, to bluff enemies.
  • The triad developed during the Eisenhower administration as a result of competition—both between the Cold War combatants and the U.S. military services. Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy, which threatened massive retaliation against Soviet adventurism, privileged the Air Force because Air Force bombers were the nation’s primary means for delivering strategic nuclear weapons, and the Air Force also had the lead in developing missile technology.
  • Eisenhower’s policies, by producing interservice rivalries, encouraged innovative military doctrine to address the main U.S. military mission of the day: defending Europe from the Soviet Union, what defense intellectuals call extended deterrence. To regain budget share and relevance, the Army and Navy needed a bigger role. They argued that massive U.S. retaliation in response to a Soviet invasion of an ally was suicidal and thus unbelievable. The Army and Navy’s alternative deterrence strategies helped institutionalize the triad.
  • The structure of the nuclear force that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations established, and the arguments they constructed to justify it, largely lasted through the Cold War. The interservice debate on how to defend Europe might have produced a choice in the early 1960s among doctrines and nuclear delivery systems that allowed a smaller arsenal. Instead, those administrations embraced all three, at least rhetorically.
  • The triad survived after the Cold War because each leg had support from a powerful military constituency and congressmen whose districts benefitted from the associated spending. All had cheerleaders among defense intellectuals who received or sought service grants and political appointments. No similarly powerful interests pushed back. Fights over nuclear weapons policy in the late Cold War covered limited ground. Limited debate obscured the flaws in the triad’s rationales.
  • The declining military usefulness of nuclear weapons increases their delivery systems’ vulnerability to budget cuts. Though the arsenal retains powerful backers, their budgetary utility for the Air Force and Navy has declined. Service leaders may see nuclear weapons as a drain on funding for personnel and platforms better linked to the service’s preferred organizational purpose and doctrine.
  • Policymakers should exploit that circumstance to improve strategic debate. Unity is necessary in war, but dissent is a reliable source of insight in preparing for war. A nuclear weapons policy that better serves the national interest may require the competition of parochial interests.

I believe that all who have an interest in U.S. national security policy will find value in the paper. I especially hope that it helps to dispel some of the most enduring myths surrounding nuclear weapons, and the role that they play in keeping the nation safe and secure. As the military is being asked to accomplish more with less, it is essential that it invest taxpayer resources wisely. The nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal is particularly ripe for additional scrutiny.