The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

Washington's nuclear experts must come to a consensus on the future of U.S. nuclear deterrent architecture.

Some supporters of the CTBT believe an aggressive stockpile stewardship program based on nonnuclear experiments and computer simulation can maintain the credibility of the deterrent. Other supporters, perhaps unwittingly, believe the CTBT is a pathway to making the U.S. nuclear deterrent incredible, and therefore irrelevant over time.

The CTBT debate has gone on so long and with such intensity that it is hard to avoid the impression that the proponents and opponents would rather fight than win. It has become a symbolic, if not a cynical, issue.

Although the past twenty years indicates that the United States is not able to resolve this divide; there is another way. Several years ago Arnold Kanter, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and a nuclear policy expert joined with Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor for both Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush, to suggest a modification of the treaty designed to win Senate ratification.

This modification would make the treaty renewable rather than of indefinite term and subject to Senate confirmation every five years. Since few believe that there is an urgency to test, it opens common ground for an agreement on a continuing U.S. test moratorium for a five-year term subject to extension after review and ratification by the Senate. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty originally ratified by forty-three states entered into force in 1970 (now with 190 signatories) and is subject to a five-year review. In 1995, because of the successful experience with the treaty’s operation, the parties agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely.

In general, pragmatists are more skeptical of arms limitations treaties as a durable way to resolve the differences between countries whose effort to acquire a bomb is the result of perceived security concerns, for example, India-Pakistan, Iran, Israel and North Korea. This difference may reflect the underlying optimistic view of human nature of idealists, compared to that of pragmatists.

Force Modernization

In today’s geopolitical circumstance the question is what is the deployment of nuclear weapons and policy actions that will ensure deterrence and at what level of expenditure.

The big nuclear issue on the table today is force modernization. Few deny that the existing U.S. nuclear delivery systems and the supporting nuclear weapons program managed by the Department of Energy are aging and need modernization. The big policy question is how large a force is needed, and its composition.

The Obama administration proposed an ambitious and costly life extension and modernization for all elements of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, including a new long-range land-based missile (Ground Based Strategic System), a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system (fourteen new Columbia class submarines, carrying sixteen missiles each to replace nineteen Ohio-class submarine, carrying up to twenty-four Trident missiles each), a new dual use intercontinental bomber, the B-21, a long-range nuclear capable standoff air-launched cruise missile, an upgrade of the nuclear command and control, and modernization of the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons research and development and production infrastructure.

It is not easy to assess the cost of this multiyear program. The cost of the existing base program must be defined; this base program would require additional investment (without the modernization program), for dual-purpose systems, costs need to be allocated between the nuclear and conventional missions. By law, the Congressional Budget Office must provide an estimate of the ten-year budget authority required to carry out the nuclear modernization program. The 2017–26 estimate is $400 billion; the annual rate of expenditure increases from about 5 percent in 2017 to nearly 7 percent in 2026 of the DOD total budget, although far below the cold war levels of 15 percent.

Three aspects of the proposed modernization astonish me. First, the Cold War triad of bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) systems would be replicated (although at a somewhat smaller scale). I expected greater discussion of dropping one leg of the triad, now that the bipolar Cold War standoff is over, although Russia is aggressively modernizing its nuclear forces. Curiously, when there is discussion of a dyad, dropping the ICBM is most frequently mentioned, which is by far, the least costly leg. Those urging that it be dropped do so on the basis of its vulnerability, ignoring the presence of the other legs of the triad whose threat of launch would make the attack against fixed land based ICBMs dangerous indeed.

Second, there is a startling contrast between the rhetoric of President Obama’s groundbreaking 2009 speech in Prague stressing “America’s commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and seeking the ultimate goal of a world without them . . . ” and the enormous nuclear modernization program that his administration proposed. I speculate that the administration proposed a fulsome program in order to avoid the U.S. nuclear posture becoming a 2016 election issue.

Third, I expected the Obama administration’s modernization program to be supported by detailed analysis of the relationship of the recommended force structure to the deterrent purpose of nuclear forces.

Put starkly, the pragmatist’s position is that now and for the foreseeable future a dominant U.S. nuclear force posture that credibly can deliver nuclear weapons with precision to targets around the world deters nuclear ambition, possession and use by other nations, as well as other actions that disturb regional stability or commerce among nations. [The deterrent value of nuclear weapons for non-state actors is more problematic, because these groups have less identification and loyalty to communities. However non-state actors do have political objectives and hence will likely consider the nuclear power of the United States in planning and executing their most dangerous terrorist acts.]

However, the pragmatist’s strong belief in the value of a robust nuclear force posture certainly does not mean that analysis is not needed or useful in the decisionmaking process about the purpose, the size and composition of the nuclear force. Thorough analysis is particularly important for explaining and convincing Congress and the public that a robust posture provides for deterrence that better assures that these weapons are never used. Pragmatists also do not believe “the more nuclear weapons the better” since defense resources are not infinite.

Analysis does not lead inexorably to a specific force posture. Rather, the analysis informs decisionmaking by comparing a number of force structures that differ in number, composition and cost to possible future conflict scenarios. This process allows military leaders, national security and international affairs experts to discuss with policy makers the influence of nuclear weapons on deterring, military conflict.

The analytic process should include assigning hypothetical delivery systems to target sets. Important Cold War variables, such as surprise attacks, secure basing and alert status, should be augmented by variables appropriate to today’s threats, such as a rapid capability to reconfigure targeting plans, flexible response and a capability for small attacks with low yield precision guided weapons. Of course, pragmatists will see plausible deployment as contributing to stability, while idealists will see deployments as destabilizing because they invite use and preemption by adversaries. Some aspects of the process I have described should remain classified. But transparency, informs the public about these questions, which are so vital to the county’s future.

We should be thinking about future nuclear deterrent architecture, which is very different and more flexible. My analysis leads to a dyad composed of SLBMs and ICBMs. A new bomber for conventional missions armed with penetrating precision weapons may well be justified to replace the aging B-52 and B-1 fleet. I have not seen analysis that supports the proposition that the cost of adding nuclear capability would not be large compared to the ICBM over the lifetime of these systems. Moreover, technology is inexorably progressing toward unmanned aerial combat vehicles for both conventional and nuclear missions.

The total number of nuclear warheads that must be deployed over the next several decades needs to be defined. The future is uncertain, so it is sensible to have a plan that accommodates a range of deployment. But the high end of the proposed range is an important cost driver of the entire program. I have not seen any analysis but my guess is that total deployed warhead could be well below one thousand.

There is no consensus on any of these complex nuclear modernization questions. The main point is that much more analysis and discussion is needed on a broad set of alternative future nuclear force postures for the United States. It is unfortunate that there are few security experts, scholars and public officials who dedicate the necessary time, attention and work to understand and shape the public discourse and policy decisionmaking in the debate about the country’s future nuclear posture.

John Deutch is Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. This paper was delivered as the first James Schlesinger lecturer at the Henry “Scoop” Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in March 2017.

Image: B-2 stealth bomber. Pixabay/Public domain