By Ethan Kessler
Nuclear weapons are not something most Americans feel the need to discuss. Maybe this is to blame for the ease with which the current administration is quietly implementing a nuclear weapons plan that is both astronomically wasteful and dangerous. It fails to better the country’s security while making the risk of nuclear war only more likely. Now especially, when a global pandemic, great depression, and mass anti-racist protest movement pass the country through rough turbulence, the folly of President Trump’s nuclear weapons plan should be self-evident.
Nuclear weapons can be viewed as presenting three kinds of problems for U.S. interests. First, there is the issue of proliferation. This could be segmented into two concerns: proliferation of nuclear weapons to state and non-state actors. The former would be problematic if we assume the U.S. desires eventual nuclear disarmament – as enshrined in its ratification and promotion of the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The latter is an issue if one believes non-state actors, including various extremist groups, to be inherently more willing to trigger nuclear Armageddon than state actors. Second, there is the issue of the U.S. using nuclear weapons. In addition to the immediate carnage this would cause, it could invite retaliation by other nuclear-armed states. Lastly, there is the issue of cost. The U.S. maintains a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. The costs of comprehensive overhauls to this arsenal are correspondingly massive – and thus comprise large opportunity costs. For every bomber built, as President Eisenhower once said, 30 schools are not. The administration’s nuclear weapons plan exacerbates the second and third sets of issues without mitigating the first.
Of all the plan’s flaws, the most obvious pertains to the last set of issues – the cost problem. The plan’s projected spending over the next three decades is estimated to be between $1.5 and $2 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The high costs of new nuclear weapons are unfortunately matched by the negligible strategic benefit they can be expected to reap. The Cold War has been over for three decades – no longer does a massive, hostile army stand on the eastern flank of Europe, physically and rhetorically poised to contest swaths of allied territory. The “pivot to Asia” may well be inevitable as China becomes a peer competitor to the U.S., but is $2 trillion in new nuclear weapons needed to deter the Chinese – who claim no mandate to militarily intervene abroad as Moscow once did and possess less than five percent the number of warheads that the U.S. does? Strategic circumstances have changed. The basic inclination of U.S. policymakers at this point should be reducing, not expanding, the expensive nuclear arsenal.
However, some supporters of a continued heavyweight nuclear arsenal raise concerns over proliferation, the first class of issues raised here. The concern here is that cost-based reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would erode trust between the U.S. and the over 30 countries it maintains mutual defense agreements with (all 30 NATO partner countries in Europe and several Asian countries), driving some of them to consider building their own nuclear weapons. This argument evades the logic of deterrence, however. That a dramatically reduced U.S. nuclear arsenal would, say, target Russia with “only” 500 warheads instead of 1,500 at any given time should not be of consequence to Russian calculations of aggression in Eastern Europe. The same goes for North Korean calculations of aggression on the 38th Parallel. That one warhead may make it to the aggressor’s capital is enough to deter even the most bellicose of state leaders.
Moreover, the continued deployment of large garrisons of U.S. troops to both continental Europe and East Asia provides more than enough conventional firepower to deter aggression against treaty allies. Whether these garrisons may or may not be drawn down in the future has no part in the nuclear discussion. If conventional forces are withdrawn from a partner country, it will be because the relevant treaty commitment was no longer worth keeping for Washington. Thus, continuing to hold the nuclear umbrella over that country may make little sense. Furthermore, even nuclear deterrents have their limits: the U.S., willing to use nuclear weapons, failed to secure its goals against a non-nuclear armed North Korea and China in the Korean War. The status quo of U.S. nuclear weapons spending cannot convincingly be justified when accounting for the challenges of the proliferation and alliance issues.
Beyond these failings, the plan poses a security risk to the U.S. by extending the lifespan of the land-based leg of the so-called nuclear triad. Continuing to deploy the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that comprise the land-based leg increases the risk of nuclear catastrophe: They cannot be recalled once launched and are completely vulnerable to enemy attack, which may tempt state leaders to launch them if an enemy strike appears inbound. Meanwhile, the sea-based leg of the deterrent, comprised of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) launched from stealthy submarines continuously at sea, guarantees a second-strike capability and thus precludes the “use it or lose it” dilemma risked by ICBMs – all while remaining “about as prompt and reliable” as ICBMs, according to a 1993 Government Accountability Office report. The air-delivered nuclear options provide their own unique benefits: nuclear-armed aircraft can be recalled midair and deployed overseas to signal resolve to allies and adversaries. ICBMs pose more danger to national security than the other two legs of the triad while bringing no strategic benefits of their own.
Even if the amount of additional danger ICBMs add to the mix can be considered “small,” taking on any additional risk when dealing with tools of annihilation should be discouraged. The litany of close calls since the nuclear revolution shows that humans have managed these tools only with a healthy dose of luck. Many Americans can recount the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but few can recall that it was only the willingness of a single Soviet submarine commander to defy orders during the crisis that averted nuclear catastrophe. Even fewer know that only 18 years later, a malfunctioning chip in the U.S. radar warning system nearly triggered a U.S. nuclear strike on Moscow, or that 15 years after that, President Yeltsin of Russia came within two minutes of ordering a nuclear attack on the U.S. due to a false alarm. That these close calls only brought us to the very precipice of nuclear war should not be taken as proof that we are capable of managing these weapons any more than, in Eugene McCarthy’s telling, “the final outcome of Watergate proved that the system works.” The longer destabilizing weapons are deployed, the higher the chance of a lethal nuclear accident.
This makes the administration’s dedication to the ICBM all the more maddening. In the latest defense authorization request, submitted this past February, the Pentagon requested over $1.5 billion to replace the currently deployed Minuteman III ICBMs with 666 replacements, called the “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent” (GBSD). The final contract is estimated to be worth around $85 billion. Whether due to bureaucratic inertia, the revolving door between the Pentagon and nuclear weapons contractors, or some mix of the two, the Trump administration has not only sanctioned the continued danger posed by ICBMs, but poured considerable effort into extending that danger to future generations.
To be sure, there are arguments for keeping ICBMs around. Steve Fetter and Kingston Reif call these the “sponge, tripwire, and hedge rationales for ICBMs.” But none of them are convincing. The sponge rationale argues that Washington’s 400-some ICBMs present a formidable hurdle to Russian nuclear attack: Moscow would have to waste hundreds of its own ballistic missiles destroying these silos in a nuclear attack on the U.S. and is thus deterred. This argument fails to recognize that, even if Moscow was able to knock out all 400 ICBMs, it would not be able to eliminate the SLBMs at sea. It would therefore be deterred from launching any such attack without the “sponge” of ICBMs.
The tripwire rationale would have us believe that ICBMs’ being stationed in the U.S. ensures that any first strike on U.S. nuclear forces would target the homeland, thereby guaranteeing U.S. retaliation and thus deterring a first strike on the U.S. Meanwhile, the hedge rationale argues that, should a breakthrough in anti-submarine technology render the sea-based leg of the triad vulnerable, ICBMs provide a backup deterrent. Both of these arguments ignore the central logic of deterrence: credible commitment, not absolute certainty about retaliation, is what guarantees deterrence. If U.S. policymakers feel the need to make adversaries absolutely certain in U.S. retaliation by deploying ICBMs in Nebraska or by having a backup system for the sea-based deterrent, then these policymakers do not truly believe in deterrence.
These arguments may be forgiven if one recognizes the unfortunate “reification,” as Alex Wellerstein puts it, of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Americans assume that, because the U.S. has what has been termed a nuclear triad, the whole of U.S. nuclear forces are necessary and worthwhile investments in security. In reality, however, the “triad” is a rationale retroactively applied to a patchwork history of evolving strategic needs, inter-service budgetary rivalries, and plain old bureaucratic intransigence. In other words, the U.S. triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and air-delivered nuclear deterrent is not intentional; it is inherited. Reflecting on this may give U.S. policymakers more reason to doubt the necessity of the GBSD.
However, the nuclear modernization plan isn’t just unwise because it is costly to the taxpayer and U.S. security. For all of the sound strategic arguments that could be offered in support of a nuclear modernization plan (though certainly not this one), there is something backwards about so much national spending going toward so un-national a thing as an enhanced nuclear arsenal. Government spending is not a purely secular pursuit – it has budgetary as well as discursive effects. When the government pushes vigorously for trillions of dollars of spending on new nuclear missiles, long after the Berlin Wall has fallen and after convincing alternatives for a realistic, much-reduced nuclear posture have been offered – and especially now, when pandemic and economic blight weigh on Americans and racial justice has finally pried its way into the national conversation – it reveals how twisted Washington’s priorities are.
The ICBMs and warheads that the U.S. should do without can be dispensed with much as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) nearly were in the 1990s. Both the Soviet Union and U.S. realized as early as the 1970s that MIRVs were destabilizing because they incentivized nuclear first strikes, and both countries proceeded to ban them in the START II treaty (which never entered into force). Here, the U.S. acted sensibly: it treated the MIRV not as a relic of national strength but as a dispensable tool of political ends. A Minuteman missile is named after the rebels of American lore, but it should not embody America. It is a metal tube whose sole purpose is to be able to incinerate adversaries so that Americans will not be incinerated. It is a tool – a dangerous one at that – and nothing more. When a nuclear weapons plan like the present one is brought to the fore, Americans instead retain the false notion that costly, dangerous tools are nationally essential, and for that reason alone may be worth keeping.
The nuclear modernization plan currently being advanced by the Trump administration should be seen for what it is: a highly wasteful and ineffectual plan that damages American security and national character. On the three main nuclear weapons concerns of proliferation, accidental use, and opportunity cost, the plan scores poorly. The U.S. can prevent proliferation with a reduced nuclear force, augmented by a still-large conventional military. It could also reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use by eliminating ICBMs entirely, saving an incredible amount of money in the process, as opposed to building new ICBMs as the plan calls for. Just as dangerous is the plan’s militarization of the American national character, which is wholly unconducive to a healthy republic. On nuclear weapons, Americans should demand safety, prudence, and a virtuous vision for the future. So far, the administration has come up empty-handed.
Ethan Kessler is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. Originally from California, he will be returning to Michigan to work on a political campaign in the fall. He enjoys learning about international relations and American politics.