The Buzz

America's Nuclear Weapons: Everything You Always Wanted To Know (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Today, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is facing hard choices about modernization. The Air Force and Navy are drawing up plans for new bombers and a new generation of submarines. The American tactical arsenal will be modernized, at great cost. In effect, the result will be a smaller version of our Cold War nuclear deterrent, an idea that would have been harder to sell until the reemergence of Russia as a severe threat to U.S. security. But with the costs projected to reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars, it’s time to ask if our previous strategies and nuclear force structure make sense.

Why does the United States have a nuclear arsenal, and what is it supposed to do?

That’s actually a complicated question, especially in the 21st century. Even during the Cold War, there were strong divisions among American strategists about the purpose of nuclear weapons. For some, they existed only to deter nuclear attacks on the United States; for others, they were the military equalizer between an outgunned West and a gigantic Communist alliance. How did we get the nuclear deterrent we have, and where should we go from here?

The Past:

The U.S. nuclear force today is the cumulative result of a number of decisions made over 70 years. At the dawn of the Cold War, bombers were the backbone of the American nuclear deterrent, since there was no other way to deliver a weapon over long distances. The Soviets also developed long-range bombers, but they were considerably inferior to their U.S. counterparts, and had to traverse two oceans before reaching North America.

At first, the United States tried to use its nuclear advantage to contain Soviet expansion by threatening to use nuclear force in response to almost any Soviet aggression anywhere. This was the Eisenhower-era policy of “Massive Retaliation,” but this was a less a strategy than a sign of desperation. There was no way for the U.S. and its allies to confront the massive conventional superiority of the Soviet Union (and, for a time, its huge Chinese communist ally) in Europe or Asia with conventional force. Outgunned and outmanned, the Americans threatened to respond “at times and in places of its own choosing” with nuclear arms, but Washington never made clear what would trip this nuclear trigger, and in the end, Massive Retaliation, while an early attempt to induce uncertainty in the enemy, was a hollow threat once the Soviets could respond in kind.

(This first appeared in 2015 and is being reposted due to reader interest) 

From the 1950s to the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union both diversified their strategic forces. Both sides soon developed long-range missiles, but the earliest versions were in perhaps the worst possible configuration: huge warheads on top of relatively inaccurate missiles sitting outside on launch pads. These bombers and missiles out in the open were sitting ducks, which made them a strong and destabilizing temptation for an enemy first strike.

In the 1960s, the superpowers started burying their missiles in the ground and hiding them underwater. Survivability was the key to stability: if neither side could be assured of neutralizing the other with a sudden attack, neither would risk suicide. This created the condition American strategists called “mutual assured destruction,” a phrase they chose in part because of the evocative acronym it created. The United States spread its ICBMs out over vast spaces in the American West, but the Americans took advantage of their maritime prowess to create a powerful sea-going deterrent as well (as did the Soviets, but in smaller numbers). These changes meant that both sides soon had a “secure second-strike capability,” or the guaranteed ability to strike back after being hit first.

By 1967 the U.S. arsenal hit a peak of some 32,000 weapons, from small bombs to blockbusters. This array of forces reflected the war that U.S. leaders and strategists expected to fight. During the Cold War, the United States and its NATO allies assumed, sensibly, that no matter what started an East-West confrontation, the conflict would migrate to the inter-German border, the “Central Front,” in Europe. The Soviets, the reasoning went, would have every incentive to shift any conflict away from areas where they were weaker or less capable (such as Asia or the Middle East) and take it to the area where they enjoyed huge conventional superiority.

Once war was underway in Europe, NATO would be forced to surrender whatever was at issue to get the Soviets to release their grip on Western Europe. Nuclear weapons provided the West with its only chance of stopping such an attack. Small, short-range weapons (“tactical” nuclear arms) would be fired from everything ranging from bazookas to artillery, destroying the advancing Soviet tank armies and halting the invasion in its tracks. The goal was to convince the Soviet Union that nothing could be gained from aggression, since every scenario would lead back to a major nuclear exchange.