Tag: nuclear posture review

Will Reductions in the Size of the Nuclear Arsenal Make the U.S. More Vulnerable?

Over at the National Journal’s Security Experts Blog, Paul Starobin asks “Is An Obama ‘No Nukes’ World Likely To Be A Safer One?”:

Is President Obama on the right track with his new commitment to unilaterally scale back America’s threat to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks on the U.S. and its allies? And as world leaders assemble in Washington on April 12 to discuss matters of global nuclear security, is Obama’s cherished goal of ridding the world of nukes ever likely to be a reality? Would a nukes-free world in fact be a safer, more peaceful one? Even if Obama is right that he is not likely to see a nuclear-free world in his lifetime, will a trend toward declining global nuclear arsenals make America more or less safe?

My response:

It was inevitable that Republicans would knock President Obama for being soft on national security, and it is likely to be an issue in this year’s mid-term elections, and in the 2012 campaign. This has been the standard mantra from the GOP playbook for over a generation, and the party’s leaders show no sign of backing away from it. But the Democrats shouldn’t be too worried. They easily turned aside such criticisms in 2006 and 2008 by pointing out that policies promoted by a Republican president, and supported by a Republican Congress – especially the ruinous Iraq war – had significantly undermined U.S. security.

With respect to nuclear weapons, the president and his allies have more than enough ammunition to refute the charges that reductions in the size of the U.S. arsenal make the U.S. more vulnerable to attack. Leaders in Washington and Moscow figured out long ago that a stable, secure and credible deterrent need not include many thousands of nuclear warheads. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, initiated the very first round of reductions in the early 1970s, and another Republican, George H.W. Bush, made even deeper cuts at the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush tacked on additional reductions under the Moscow Treaty signed with Vladimir Putin. The modest cuts envisioned by New START and implied in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) are consistent with this bipartisan trend.

But what of President Obama’s goal of a world free of nuclear weapons? He concedes that this is unlikely to occur in his lifetime, and that is almost surely the case. He is not the first U.S. leader to pledge to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy; this is a commitment the United States made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What will take the place of nuclear weapons if they were to be abolished? We can glean the answer from the NPR. The United States first shifted to nuclear weapons in the 1950s because they presented a far more cost effective deterrent than conventional military assets. Not surprisingly, the NPR envisions that conventional weapons – namely a forward U.S. troop presence and ballistic missile defenses – will take on greater importance as nuclear weapons recede.

This is a costly proposition at a time when U.S. military spending is already at a post-World War II high. The Obama administration does not dwell on the costs, I suspect, because many Americans are not enamored with extending an indefinite and costly security umbrella over other countries who can – and should be encouraged to – defend themselves. In short, President Obama’s determination to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons will accelerate this costly trend unless he is also willing to revisit the purpose of U.S. military power and our global posture.

Nuclear Posture Review Signals Business as Usual

On balance, the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (PDF) signals more continuity than change. The review wisely clarifies the limited but essential role that nuclear weapons play in safeguarding U.S. national security through deterrence. Unfortunately, it fails to set the stage for dramatic and necessary changes to a bloated and outdated force structure because it reaffirms the U.S. commitment to other countries that imposes a huge burden on our military and on U.S. taxpayers.

The document anticipates that conventional weapons – namely a forward U.S. troop presence and ballistic missile defenses – will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden as the importance of nuclear weapons recede. This is a costly proposition at a time when U.S. military spending is already at a post-World War II high.

Stronger leadership is essential to reining in the entire nuclear weapons enterprise – the warheads and delivery platforms, as well as the laboratories and bureaucracies that support them. A more emphatic “no first use” policy would have assisted in this endeavor. The Obama administration chose instead to split the difference between conservatives who favor an expanded role for nuclear weapons and liberals who anticipate their complete elimination.

The NPR’s middle ground stance on first use has elicited most of the media’s attention, but the role that the U.S. military plays around the world – a role highlighted by the NPR’s repeated reassurances that our allies and partners will be covered by the U.S. security umbrella – deserves even greater scrutiny. Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States continues to carry the burden for security in Europe and East Asia. The costs of this burden are growing, but the NPR merely sets the stage for the continuation of this worrisome trend.