Reassessing the Role of Nuclear Weapons

Daryl G. Kimball

Beginning Jan. 20, U.S. nuclear weapons policy can and must change. The U.S.-Soviet standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons is over, but the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.

Previous post-Cold War efforts to update the U.S. nuclear posture fell woefully short. Deployed arsenals have been halved, yet the United States and Russia still retain approximately 5,000 warheads each, mainly to deter a surprise attack by the other. Current policies also call for the possible use of nuclear weapons to defend U.S. forces and allies against conventional attacks and counter suspected chemical or biological weapons threats.

There is broad agreement that yesterday's nuclear doctrines are no longer appropriate for today's realities. If President Barack Obama wants to fulfill his promise to "dramatically reduce" U.S. and Russian arsenals, restore leadership needed to strengthen the nonproliferation system, and make the elimination of nuclear weapons "a central element of U.S. nuclear policy," he should redefine and radically reduce the role of nuclear weapons.

There is no conceivable circumstance that requires or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. Given the United States' conventional military edge and the twin threats of proliferation and terrorism, nuclear weapons are a greater security liability than an asset.

As an eminent National Academies of Science panel concluded more than a decade ago, "[T]he only remaining, defensible function of U.S. nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era is 'core deterrence': using the threat of retaliation to deter other countries that possess nuclear weapons from using them to attack or coerce the United States or its allies."

According to the panel, which included Obama's new White House science adviser, John Holdren, this approach would also eliminate any need "to develop and test nuclear weapons of new types for new purposes."

If Obama directs the Pentagon to conduct a congressionally mandated nuclear posture review on the basis of this "core deterrence" mission, then Washington and Moscow could each slash their respective arsenals to 1,000 or fewer total warheads. This would open the way for Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge to initiate "a high-level dialogue among all the declared nuclear-weapon states on how to...move toward meaningful reductions and the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons."

Unfortunately, a bipartisan congressional commission formed last year to advise Obama on the nuclear posture review appears to be plagued by "oldthink." Its December 2008 interim report accepts antiquated assumptions about the value of nuclear deterrence and implies that the United States is on the brink of losing the capability to maintain its nuclear weapons.

Although acknowledging that the program to maintain the enduring U.S. stockpile "has been a remarkable success," the interim report incorrectly suggests that "support for this program is at risk" and, as time passes, "becomes more difficult to execute."

In fact, since the last U.S. nuclear weapons test in 1992, Congress has supported a robust stewardship program that now costs approximately $6 billion annually. Through regular surveillance and periodic upgrades of the conventional explosives and non-nuclear components, each of the major warhead types has been certified annually as safe and reliable.

Although Congress rejected the Bush administration's expensive, multidecade plan to replace each warhead type with a newly designed warhead, political support for core stockpile stewardship activities is strong. Independent technical assessments suggest that new replacement warheads are not necessary to maintain the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Obama wants the Senate to reconsider and support "as soon as practical."

To maintain a smaller U.S. arsenal without resuming nuclear testing, the White House and Congress must ensure sufficient resources are focused on the core stewardship tasks, and the weapons labs must avoid unnecessary alterations to existing weapons during refurbishment.

The commission's interim report also claims that if the United States does not provide a nuclear deterrence umbrella for dozens of allies around the world, their leaders "would feel enormous pressure to create their own arsenals." Such claims exaggerate the value and ignore the risks of this approach.

For instance, with the end of the Cold War, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe serve no practical purpose for NATO's common defense. Furthermore, many other factors mitigate against a decision by a U.S. ally to go nuclear, not the least of which is the diplomatic and conventional military support the United States can and would provide. There is also the possibility that nuclear-armed enemies of the United States may themselves threaten nuclear attack in the name of an ally's security.

It will be unfortunate if the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States cannot provide better guidance on nuclear weapons policy. It would be a grave mistake if Obama does not provide the leadership needed to usher in a new and more realistic nuclear risk reduction and elimination strategy.