Historians have taken great pleasure in criticizing President Dwight Eisenhower’s New Look Policy in recent years. First formalized in National Security Council document 162/2 on October 30, 1953, the New Look Policy shifted the emphasis of national defense from conventional capabilities to nuclear weapons. Eisenhower’s premise was simple; the United States would go bankrupt if it tried to maintain conventional military parity with the Soviet Union. A robust nuclear arsenal was seen as a much less expensive and equally—or more—effective deterrent to Soviet aggression.
The policy was successful in defending American sovereignty and vital interests. Where it fell short was in limited-war scenarios. In several instances the Soviets acted aggressively in places where the United States had little or no interests. However, it was never designed to solve every possible strategic challenge.
Despite current efforts to reduce and eliminate the nuclear arsenal, we may soon need to dust off the New Look Policy and once again turn to nuclear weapons as the foundation of national defense. Three principle reasons explain why.
First, long-range economic forecasts suggest a rather grim prognosis for America’s fiscal health. The national debt currently stands at 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—$13 trillion—and may hit the 100 percent mark this decade. The Congressional Budget Office has already warned Congress of the dangers of a spiraling debt. Even more worrisome is entitlement spending.
Currently, transfer payments consume over 60 percent of the federal budget and will expand dramatically once healthcare reform takes effect. With only 41 percent of income derived from private sources—an all-time low—the private sector can no longer support an ever-expanding federal budget. The simple fact is the government, in general, and the Department of Defense, in particular, must tighten their belts.
With defense spending representing over 50 percent of discretionary spending, the DoD budget is an enticing target for future cuts. Some $400 billion in defense cuts have already been proposed, and the Office of Management and Budget is calling for a decrease in defense spending from the current 4.5 percent to 3 percent of GDP. A sluggish economy, ongoing conflicts in South and Southwest Asia and higher-than-projected entitlement demands may force defense spending to decline even further. Indeed, efforts are under way to reign in healthcare, pay, benefits and other costs across DoD.
Second, replacing current nuclear capabilities with conventional capabilities is an expensive and unrealistic proposition. At an estimated cost of approximately $50 billion per year—scientists, weapons labs, warheads, delivery platforms and maintenance included—the nuclear-weapons complex is a bargain. This accounts for less than 10 percent of the 2010 defense budget. With fewer than 1 in 10 defense dollars supporting the nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower’s premise that nuclear weapons are an inexpensive alternative to a large conventional military remains true almost sixty years later.
If the acquisition programs of the B-2, F-22 and Future Combat System teach us anything about projecting military capability into the future, it is that we can expect much less at a much higher price than promised. In the case of the B-2, the air force expected to add 132 new stealth bombers to its inventory. Instead, it received 21. The F-22 was not much different; a procurement program that included the addition of 750 fifth generation fighters was recently cut to 187. The Future Combat System fared even worse when it was cancelled this year.
Absent a trend-busting miracle, the U.S. military can expect to have a much smaller arsenal of expensive systems that future presidents will seek to preserve, not expand. While each system will prove more capable than the last, they will come in such small numbers that their scarcity may constrain future presidential action. However, lack of an overwhelming conventional capability could increase stability vis-à-vis Russia and China.
The continued pursuit of superior U.S. conventional military capabilities could be more destabilizing than relying upon our nuclear arsenal. The United States should be cautious not to fuel deterioration in relations with Russia and China or spur support for conventional military buildups in those countries as a counter to Washington. Additionally, Iranian and North Korean leaders are not motivated to act as they do because they are afraid of an American nuclear strike; while they understand that the use of nuclear weapons against the United States could lead to a nuclear response, it is our conventional capabilities that most concern both leaders. An invasion of American forces from Iraq and South Korea may be a far greater concern than any nuclear strike. For these men, nuclear weapons are a logical option as they attempt to deter American aggression.
Take a look at a map of Iran. To the West is Iraq. To the East is Afghanistan. Sandwiched in the middle of a large American occupation force is Iran. Is it any wonder the Iranians are pursuing a nuclear weapons program?
Absent a plentiful supply of superior conventional arms, the United States should once again return to the very approach that proved successful at the most basic of constitutionally prescribed acts—guaranteeing national sovereignty. In this effort to guard against existential threats, nuclear weapons should have a continuing role. The New Look may serve as the foundation for that policy.
Expensive, high-end conventional capabilities for war fighting will not solve our security challenges with major powers. The reality that major powers possess secure second-strike nuclear forces makes these options prohibitive militarily as well as fiscally. America should no longer plan for major conventional wars with large nations who have nuclear weapons because it is too expensive to continue undertaking such a conventional superiority posture and risks dangerous arms racing (albeit conventional) accompanied by a deterioration of relations that could lead to war.
Further, any major conventional conflict with a large power risks possible expansion to nuclear use if war occurs. However, it is not the intent of this article to advocate cutting superior capabilities altogether but to limit their production. In other words, the United States needs robust ground forces for stability and counterinsurgency operations with some high-end capabilities to deter and if necessary respond to aggression. But, Washington should not try to field so many systems that large conventional war is viewed as a viable option against a major power. With this in mind, nuclear forces provide the necessary insurance against threats to United States and allied vital interests.
Third, as the number of nuclear-armed states expands, the importance of America’s nuclear umbrella will increase. One recent article suggests that the United States requires 311 nuclear weapons to sustain an effective deterrent. Nothing could be further from the truth. This view fails to take into account the importance of extended deterrence to Washington and its allies.
If, for example, Iran tests and deploys nuclear weapons (as it seems poised to do), the United States may be called upon to extend the nuclear umbrella over allies in the Middle East or watch as multiple states in the region “go nuclear” themselves. The latter option is not in the national interest.
Should America continue down a path toward a nuclear arsenal with 311 strategically deployed nuclear warheads, the nation will not have the required credibility to assure allies and deter adversaries. Those who seek to maintain some vague “minimum deterrence” will send the wrong signal to those who matter.
Although momentum is seemingly pushing the nation toward a smaller nuclear arsenal and eventual denuclearization, world events and a weakened economy may once again necessitate a greater reliance on nuclear weapons. Those who suggest that precision-guided weapons constitute a “New Triad” are wrong. Nuclear weapons have no substitute and they are unlikely to have an effective replacement any time soon.
It is perhaps best to recall President John Quincy Adams’ Independence Day Address of 1821 when he said, “Wherever the standard of Freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”