Don't Toss the Bomb

Don't Toss the Bomb

Reducing America's nuclear arsenal wouldn't be straightforward and simple.

Steven Pifer’s recent challenge to our December 4 National Interest article “When Fewer Nukes Means More Danger” deserves a response. While we appreciate Pifer’s willingness to challenge our positions and offer a nuclear minimalist perspective, his objections largely stem from the same myths and misunderstandings of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence that have long been the central theses of the nuclear arms control movement.

Comparing Apples and Oranges

Pifer begins by challenging our primary position—that further nuclear weapons reductions fundamentally change the deterrence dynamic—with an argument about numbers, suggesting “…the United States and Russia each have at least ten times as many nuclear weapons as the country with the third largest nuclear arsenal.” He then states “…the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals currently each number about 4,500 total nuclear weapons (operational strategic, operational non-strategic, and reserve/non-, deployed)” and reiterates his recommendation for an arsenal of 2,000-2,500 nuclear weapons, first proposed in a 2012 book Pifer co-wrote with Michael O’Hanlon.

Pifer presses his point by suggesting that China and France, the countries with the third and fourth largest arsenals, possess about 300 and 250 weapons each, less than ten percent of the US stockpile. He then proceeds to compare apples and oranges by switching from total stockpile numbers to the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons agreed upon in the New START Treaty.

Currently, the United States and Russia are moving to 1,550 operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons on about 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles (ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers). Instead, Pifer restates his and O’Hanlon’s proposal of 1,000 and 500, respectively. Our problem with these numbers is that the total arsenal size must serve the deployed force as well as provide a “hedge” against non-compliance or unforeseen events. This becomes problematic as the number of warheads decrease further. There simply is not enough slack remaining in the stockpile to account for potential challenges that may arise during a time when the United States is refurbishing increasingly older weapons.

The size of other nuclear powers’ arsenals factor into a determination of the appropriate size of the U.S. arsenal, but they are but one factor and do not play the arithmetic role implied by Pifer. The argument we put forward is that deterrence at lower numbers is a non-linear problem. The decrease in size creates its own dynamic.

The Cold War is Over

When reading the work of nuclear abolitionists and minimalists, they all too often focus on the bilateral Russo-American relationship and the diminution of the threat posed by Russia. The logic often goes thusly: Russia is less of a threat than the former Soviet Union; thus the United States needs to reduce its nuclear arsenal. What they rarely discuss is the multiple mutual and multilateral deterrence relationships that emerge from an increasing number of nuclear weapons states, which may be competitors or adversaries of the United States. This point is worth reiterating. The United States must maintain the capability—and will—to deter multiple adversaries simultaneously.

Admittedly, nuclear deterrence during the Cold War was simpler. The Soviet Union posed the sole threat to American sovereignty. This made decision making decidedly easier than it is today. Rather than continuing to focus on Russia, it is time arms control advocates realize the Cold War is over. Other adversaries will emerge who see nuclear weapons not as archaic weapons without utility, but as the great equalizer they are.

In no other area of defense would Americans tolerate the purposeful weakening of American military power. Never would a president go before the American people and argue that American air, sea, space, land, and cyber power should be limited in capability and size to that of our adversaries. Instead, Americans expect the United States to field forces that are superior to our adversaries in capability and number. Yet when it comes to nuclear weapons, some are willing to accept equality or even inferiority.

While we do not consider ourselves “deterrence conservatives,” if that means reflexively shuddering at the thought of further reductions, we do urge those advocating for reductions to start with strategy, not intuition and numerology. Even if we shared Pifer’s intuitive position—and we do not—we find little solace in arriving at numbers and structures without adequate modern analysis, which is not driving the current debate. For us, numbers are less important than comprehending the impact (tactical, operational and strategic) of lower numbers, before we step into an abyss.

Extended Deterrence

In his rebuttal to our previous article, Pifer writes, “Extended deterrence (and assurance) in particular depends on far more than numbers. It concerns the confidence that allies have, especially in a crisis, that the United States will be prepared to employ its full military arsenal, including nuclear weapons, in their defense.” Here, we are in agreement. The only problem with Pifer’s argument is that, to NATO member-governments, the issue is more complex. NATO has repeatedly communicated its desire to remain a nuclear alliance with the burden-sharing that entails, indicating they do not find an American nuclear umbrella that is solely based in the United States credible.

While the situation in Asia is distinctly different, both Japan and Korea expect credible American guarantees. Absent the presence of nuclear capable bombers at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) patrolling the Pacific, American extended deterrence in Asia would not remain credible. In fact, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) has already registered its concerns about further reductions in the size of the American arsenal. Contrary to Pifer’s thinking, at least some American allies think numbers do matter.

Empty Threats

Finally, Pifer writes, “As tension peaked on the Korean Peninsula last spring, the U.S. Air Force flew B-52 and B-2 heavy bombers over South Korea. The overflights sent Pyongyang a pointed public reminder of U.S. capabilities and of the fact that South Korea lies under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.” While we agree with Pifer’s view of air power’s strategic effect, sending nuclear-capable B-2s to South Korea as a deterrence signal only works if the signal is credible. Not since the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty has a nation arbitrarily disarmed in the vain hope that weakness would prove stabilizing. It did not work then, and if the United States continues to reduce its nuclear arsenal solely to satisfy the moral and philosophical preferences of some, the next B-2 flight over Korea may not have the intended effect.


Our basic argument is simple: deterrence at lower numbers is a non-linear problem. As arsenal sizes decrease, the deterrence problem becomes more complex in a non-linear fashion. That is why less is not just less, less is different.

Dr. A. B. Lowther is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and Hunter Hustus is a PhD candidate at Northeastern University. Their most collaboration is Deterrence: Rising Powers, Rogue Regimes, and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave-McMillian).