Is the United States the only nuclear power that is not modernizing its nuclear arsenal, as is often alleged by some defense hawks? If by “modernization” we mean the regular production of new missiles and warheads, then yes; U.S. strategic forces have remained relatively – though not completely – stagnant. However, if by “modernization” we mean the maintenance of a reliable and credible deterrent, then no; the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains second to none.
In a new article published yesterday by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I argue that it is the latter standard by which we should judge the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Below is an excerpt:
By narrowly defining “modernization” as the production and deployment of new warheads and delivery vehicles, an inappropriate standard is set by which to judge the health of a nuclear arsenal. What matters far more than the age of warheads and other equipment is whether a country has a reliable, credible deterrent. Viewed in this light, the United States cannot be said to be falling behind: Washington takes continual steps to ensure that its arsenal remains dominant, and indeed, its nuclear arsenal remains second to none.
That Washington doesn’t follow the same approach to maintaining its forces as Russia, China, Britain, or France isn’t a sign of weakness or neglect. After all, constantly churning out new systems isn’t necessarily the mark of a more reliable, credible, or threatening force. In so far as the United States has pursued a different approach from other countries, it is because this approach has proven to be remarkably effective. In fact, a comparison of the status of the U.S., Russian, Chinese, British, and French arsenals and modernization programs demonstrates the fallaciousness of the implication that Washington is falling behind; it also undercuts the idea that the United States is the least active nuclear weapon state in terms of updating its forces.