Center for Arms Control

Nuclear Shields, Dull Swords

By Matthew Fargo

Earlier this month, Global Zero’s U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission, chaired by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, issued a report reevaluating US nuclear strategy and force posture. In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not significantly altered its approach to nuclear deterrence. Although the United States has retired thousands of nuclear weapons since the Cold War, it still maintains a nuclear arsenal designed to promptly destroy Russia’s ability to wage nuclear war. The report highlights a growing consensus that such a posture does not comport with the 21st century security environment and is also financially unaffordable.

General Cartwright’s report advocates an alternative nuclear force posture that would further reduce deployed nuclear weapons, eliminate intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from the nuclear triad, eliminate the requirement for launch-on-warning or launch under attack, and target economic and population centers instead of nuclear weapons facilities in the event of a nuclear attack. According to the commission, “For the United States, deterring and defeating aggression in today’s world depends a great deal less on projecting nuclear offensive threat and a great deal more on the skilled exercise of all the instruments of power.”

The changes proposed by the report would represent a shift toward the path of minimum deterrence pursued by smaller nuclear powers, such as France, the United Kingdom, and China. US nuclear strategy is still premised on ensuring the capability to prevail in a nuclear war. The most demanding mission for US nuclear forces is to strike at Russia’s nuclear forces, command and control facilities, leadership assets, and other targets in an attempt to prevent Russia from launching its own nuclear weapons. The report recommends going down to 450 deployed nuclear warheads and 450 warheads in reserve. This would still allow for a surge up to 900 deployed warheads in the event of a crisis.

With the Cold War over, there is no reason to ensure that our nuclear forces are ready to wage nuclear war on a moment’s notice. The report also suggests increasing the launch time of American nuclear weapons, removing them from the high alert status which allows them to be launched mere minutes after a presidential decision to do so. This would allow, “Both sides [to] relax their postures while eliminating any incentives for re-alerting and launching a preemptive attack during a crisis.” Since ICBM silos comprise the least flexible and least survivable leg of the triad and require prompt launch orders to remain effective in a crisis, they would be eliminated from United States’ nuclear arsenal under Cartwright’s proposal.

The Cartwright report recommends deploying 450 nuclear warheads and keeping another 450 in reserve. At these levels, multilateral arms control negotiations could begin with other nuclear weapons states, including China. This could pave the way for a comprehensive dialogue between nations that possess nuclear weapons in order to limit the nuclear programs of countries other than the United States and Russia. The report rightly points out that increasing transparency and developing multilateral verification mechanisms will not be easy, but as more nuclear states join the process it will become more difficult for the others to resist the process.

The potential cost savings of reducing the American nuclear arsenal is enormous. The United States has plans to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad. The Department of Defense efforts will cost an estimated $125 billion over the next decade and the National Nuclear Security Administration weapons activities budget will cost an additional $88 billion over the same period of time. This money will be spent to improve weapon systems which are unusable, do not meaningfully contribute to the safety of the United States and do not address the emerging and existing security threats facing the U.S., including nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

The fundamental mindset of the Cold War has outlived its usefulness and has become a hindrance upon foreign policy of the United States. The Pentagon should not continue to spend billions of dollars on weapons it will never use and could be better used developing creative solutions to the threats which face the United States now and will in the future. Cartwright and his colleagues believe that their plan would strengthen American security by allowing “the United States to continue to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons, to reduce nuclear dangers around the world and to move toward a world without nuclear weapons.” The Cold War has been over for more than twenty years. Our nuclear posture should be updated accordingly.

Matthew Fargo is an intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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