In Washington, it is said, bad ideas never truly go away. So it is with the concept of nuclear disarmament that so preoccupied the Obama administration during its first term. In recent months, the White House has renewed its fixation on reducing the level of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
But its efforts are fraught with peril, because they can contribute significantly to instability in a crisis. At the lower levels of delivery vehicles being advocated by some, and possibly being considered by the White House, we may be at increased risk of sudden attack in a crisis because our arsenal will have shrunk to such an extent as to make an successful disarming "first strike" plausible.
We have faced this problem before. Thirty years ago, the U.S. was confronting an adversary armed with more than 40,000 nuclear warheads. America's own nuclear forces at the time were old and rusting.
But we got creative. We proposed a "build-down," modernizing our nuclear force while significantly reducing overall warhead numbers. To this effort, we added a missile defense research program designed to eventually help make a first strike by an adversary (in the Cold War case, the Soviet Union) far less plausible. Most importantly, we fielded a nuclear deterrent force that was highly survivable, adding permanence to our nuclear deterrent in the process.
Why is survivability so important? The deployed strategic nuclear forces of the United States are calculated based upon what is needed for retaliation, not first use. That retaliatory strike must be able to hold at risk or target what the bad guys prize in the event of a conflict, most of all military forces (including enemy nuclear assets).
Our current force – which numbers 420 to 450 Minuteman, 12 Trident submarines and 60 B52 and B2 bombers – allows us to do this. But at lower numbers, such a sustainable second strike capability is called into question. Already, some Congressional proponents of disarmament have pushed for cutting our platforms significantly (although House votes this week defeated such measures overwhelmingly).
Unfortunately, the possibility of future instability is greater than ever before. China may soon have 100 missiles capable of striking America. According to a new intelligence assessment by the U.S. Air Force, both North Korea and Iran will also have the capability of striking the U.S. with a ballistic missile by 2015. Russia is also fully modernizing its nearly 500 submarine and land based-missiles and bombers. China is doing the same with its nuclear arsenal, while building missiles at a faster rate than any other country in the world.
If we reduce our warheads to 1000 from 1550, it could mean the mothballing of an entire wing (or more) of Minutemen missiles – and a partial (but serious) hollowing of both our submarine and bomber capabilities. Moreover, it could mean such a constriction at precisely the time when our adversaries and strategic competitors are headed in the opposite direction. The result would be the worst of both worlds – heightened strategic instability and the U.S. with a limited and old deterrent force.
The threats we face from North Korean, Chinese and Iranian nuclear and missile modernization are serious. They require better and more robust missile defenses, more vigorous counter-proliferation efforts, a second to none deterrent posture and the stability afforded by a robust nuclear deterrent capability. It's called "providing for the common defense." The White House would do well to seriously look into the idea. Stability really does matter.
Peter Huessy is Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.