It seems each day the world grows closer to nuclear war. Iran’s recent enrichment of uranium to near-weapons-grade combined with Russia’s exit from its last remaining nuclear arms control treaty force nuclear anxieties to nearly unprecedented heights. The Doomsday Clock reached its closest to midnight since its creation just after the Second World War.
Nuclear war is the ultimate threat to national sovereignty. The swift end that nuclear weapons could bring constitutes the most abhorrent form of intervention possible. And while the threat of nuclear war has hung over the world for decades, a more present danger is emerging.
The methods that the United States uses to control and strategize around nuclear weapons are crumbling. Traditional non-proliferation tactics prove ineffective at halting Iran’s nuclear program, with its status as a threshold state seeming imminent. Meanwhile, America’s theoretically stalwart nuclear deterrent failed to deter Russia’s expansionist invasion of Ukraine.
Despite what seem like bleak circumstances, there remains an opportunity for the United States to perform global leadership in this dangerous environment, rather than lead the world on its path to destruction. De-escalation of the U.S. nuclear weapons program will set an example for other nations with nuclear weapons or ambitions to acquire them, and reinvigorate the stagnant non-proliferation regime. Such a program would also cut costs without significant erosion of the U.S. strategic deterrent.
Historically, denuclearization has become associated with vulnerability to violent military intervention. In 2002, President Bush named the “Axis of Evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Iraq did not acquire nuclear weapons, and was invaded. North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, and wasn’t. Iran connected the dots.
Beyond Bush’s 2002 targets, nations like Libya and Ukraine were invaded by great powers after discontinuing their nuclear programs or offloading their nuclear weapons, respectively. The message seems clear – states can either develop nuclear weapons, or face the existential threat of great power invasion. This precedent is dangerous, and encourages proliferation.
U.S. nuclear de-escalation can reverse this message. Denuclearization would become, rather than a self-destructive action undertaken by long-deposed leaders, an active project led by a global superpower. Not only does nuclear de-escalation provide an opportunity for the United States to erode its own reputation for hypocrisy, but it could also inspire real change.
States seeking to emulate the nuclear elements of American foreign policy increasingly seem to emulate America’s domestic political values. Thousands of Israelis have protested against undemocratic judicial reform since February. Combined with the massive demonstrations in Iran throughout the fall and winter, there is an impressive case for the viability of domestically-motivated reform in both countries. These demonstrations indicate the influence of the American model of egalitarianism and democracy.
American demands for disarmament do not experience similar progress because the American democratic system at home corresponds to the system U.S. diplomats encourage abroad – the United States leads by example. Comparatively, U.S. nuclear policy does not show the same parity. While brandishing the American nuclear deterrent to enforce an America-led order, American policymakers admonish and even invade lesser powers who attempt to acquire the same capabilities. These public denouncements and coercion tactics rarely sway foreign countries – but a genuine unilateral movement toward embodying the values we seek to encourage in other states might.
Denuclearization would be economically beneficial for the United States. One of the principal historical motivators for denuclearization protests was the lack of resources in American communities, especially marginalized communities compared to the trillions of dollars being spent on weapons programs. Even today U.S. domestic infrastructure crumbles while its expensive nuclear modernization program advances. In the emerging era of great power competition, the U.S. faces dramatic economic challenges both at home and abroad. When every penny counts, it should be investing only in military initiatives that have clear strategic reasoning behind them.
The strategic basis for nuclear modernization, especially for the land-based arm of the air-sea-land nuclear “triad,” is relatively weak. The value of a nuclear armament can be measured by its relative importance in maintaining “strategic stability,” also called mutually assured destruction. If any one country could, or believes it could, destroy the entirety of another country’s nuclear forces before the country being fired upon could retaliate, then the prospect of nuclear war rises dramatically.
The land leg of the triad, consisting of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in missile silos all across the United States, is often agreed upon to be the leg that contributes the least to ensuring strategic stability. It has three primary strategic uses. The first is as a “missile sponge.” The United States’ 400 ICBMs are distributed far and wide across its homeland, each requiring an individual strike to disable, and thereby increasing the cost of an enemy first strike. The second purpose is as a “tripwire.” Some American missiles being situated on American soil ensures that no enemy state can attempt to erode the U.S. strategic force without attacking the U.S. directly, and thereby provoking maximum retaliation. The final purpose is as a hedge against unknown threats to U.S. nuclear submarines – an alternative, in case one of the other legs is destroyed in a first strike.
Neither a missile sponge nor a submarine alternative are necessary if the submarine force is impossible to destroy, and by all present accounts, it is. The Trump administration’s nuclear posture review identified “no near-term credible threats” to the survivability of the U.S. submarine force. The point of a missile sponge is to increase the cost and difficulty of a disabling first strike. If it is impossible to execute a disabling first strike, then no sponge is needed. Additionally, the U.S. is continuing development on the new B-21 strategic bomber, which, while obviously not as survivable as a nuclear submarine, will provide a suitable hedge. While the tripwire purpose remains valid, spending billions on a new missile force with a singular strategic function is inadvisable.
Additionally, the air leg of the triad provides a less escalatory, less dangerous, and more dynamic option as opposed to the ground leg. In order to ensure the ICBM force is not destroyed in an all-out nuclear attack from an adversary, the President must make the decision to launch mere minutes after hearing word of an enemy strike. This can and has led to dangerous close calls and false alarms. On the other hand, the air leg can be launched to avoid attack, and then recalled in the event of a false alarm. And while nuclear posturing is clearly not preferable, the air leg can provide a more reasonable, intermediate form of signaling America’s readiness to strike to an adversary.
There is little distinction between levels of alert for the ICBM force – in the end, they are either launched or not launched. The proximity of a strategic bomber, however, directly corresponds to its level of threat. Flying or stationing bombers closer to an adversary can send a clear signal and reinforce credibility – the most important element of maintaining deterrence.
The United States government even recognized the escalatory danger of ICBMs when it, along with its allies, denounced the Russian movement of nuclear missiles into Belarus. While the United States stores its European strategic deterrent in the form of B-61 gravity bombs, President Lukashenko of Belarus claims the country has received “missiles and bombs” from Russia. The distinction between more dangerous tactical (battlefield) and more stable strategic weapons is relevant in this case, but the all-or-nothing nature of nuclear missiles is a notable escalatory element to Russia’s decision.
In an effort to reform non-proliferation, cut costs, and improve strategic consistency, the United States should not develop the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile, and should consider phasing out its ICBMs entirely. This initiative would save money for other high-priority Air Force acquisition targets, such as the aforementioned B-21, and begin to change the perception of the U.S. on the global stage: from a country that hordes nuclear forces while invading states with any inkling of nuclear ambition, to one that leads the non-proliferation world by example, and not by force.
Carl Parkin is a second-year undergraduate at Franklin & Marshall College, majoring in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies. His IR passions include all things nuclear, from energy development to non-proliferation and defense strategies.