The modernization, build-up and deployment of American nuclear weapons during the Reagan administration was what gave the U.S. leverage over the Soviet Union, which led to the U.S.S.R. giving up its multiple thousands of SS-20 missiles in Europe and Asia — in the 1987 INF Treaty — and subsequently cutting half of Russia’s strategic long-range missile warheads. Pictured: A decommissioned SS-20 missile launcher on display at the Ukrainian Air Force Museum in Vinnitsa. (Image source: George Chernilevsky/Wikimedia Commons)
Two narratives that provided justification for cutting America’s defense budget in the 1970s and 1990s — détente and the “end of history” — had a key component in common: Both were based on the assumption that existential national-security threats to the United States were either exaggerated or a thing of the past.
In each narrative, this assumption proved to be false.
Détente favored the Soviet Union so markedly in terms of its “correlation of forces” — the balance of conventional and nuclear power — that victory over the U.S. was in sight. Détente also fueled U.S.S.R. expansionism. More than 20 countries were subjected to Soviet aggression, coups, revolutions or wars of national liberation.
The “end of history” narrative was largely responsible for America’s massive lack of American awareness of the looming threat of Islamist radicalism that led to the 9/11/2001 attacks, the seeds of which were taking root throughout the previous decade, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
It was during that 10-year period, after the end of the Cold War, that there was a near collapse of funding for America’s nuclear-deterrence, in spite of the rise of nuclear-armed countries, such as Pakistan and India, as well as North Korea‘s and Iran‘s search for nuclear weapons.
Then, in 2000, Russia effectively killed the START II treaty by insisting that the U.S. keep its missile-defense work in the laboratory, and not build an actual missile-defense system in Alaska to defend against North Korea.
Since December 2010, subsequent administrations in Washington have supported the modernization of America’s nuclear deterrent — with each leg of the nuclear Triad scheduled for replacement beginning in 2027, nearly the end of the next decade. Nevertheless, a small but influential community is pushing for unilateral reductions in American nuclear forces and curtailment of much of the deterrent modernization.
- Current nuclear modernization plans are prohibitively expensive;
- Conventional, not nuclear, weapons should be used by the U.S., even in response to a nuclear attack;
- Arms control is the only serious method of reducing nuclear dangers; and
- Congress should punish the Trump administration, which is hostile to arms-control, by withholding support for nuclear modernization.
Unfortunately, each of these ideas is wrong.
Regarding the first idea: While proponents of “global zero” claim that modernizing deterrence will cost $1.2 trillion over the next three decades, it will actually cost less than one-third of that number. The bulk of future nuclear expenditures will go to sustaining old nuclear systems — such as the B-52 bomber, the Minuteman land-based missile and the Ohio-class submarine and associated warheads — which are now approaching 40-70 years in service. As it turns out, modernization would require, at most, only around 3% of the annual defense budget, amounting to an average of $10.6 billion to be spent over the next five years.
As for the second idea: Claims by proponents of massive U.S. defense cuts that nuclear weapons should never be employed is also unrealistic. According to former USAF General and nuclear commander Kevin Chilton, for example, the United States would not be able not deter a nuclear-armed adversary using conventional weapons alone: attempting to do so would “incentivize” enemies’ first use of nuclear weapons against America.
Where the third idea is concerned: Contrary to the assertion that arms control reduces nuclear dangers, the opposite is the case. The modernization, build-up and deployment of American nuclear weapons during the Reagan administration was what gave the U.S. leverage over the Soviet Union, which led to the U.S.S.R. giving up its multiple thousands of SS-20 missiles in Europe and Asia — in the 1987 INF Treaty — and subsequently cutting half of Russia’s strategic long-range missile warheads.
As for the fourth idea: Although the Trump administration is often blamed for the end of the INF treaty, Russia has been violating it for years, and successive U.S. administrations have tried to rectify the problem, to no avail. As a recent British study concludes, “International arms control relies on adherence to reciprocal obligations and nations should not be required to subject themselves to unilateral observance of them. Arms control more generally is undermined by violations going unchallenged.”
Today, the Trump administration is declaring that the 2010 New Start treaty, which expires in 2021, can be extended, but on condition that Russian nuclear systems be included and that China – which, as nuclear analyst Debalina Ghoshal writes, “is working unrelentingly to make up for its quantitative disadvantage in its nuclear arms race against the U.S. by competing qualitatively” — join the treaty.
Trump’s critics have derided even these utterly reasonable goals, dismissing them as “poison pill” strategies and a cover for opposing arms control in principle. Yet, as Dr. Michael Pillsbury details in his book, The 100-Year Marathon, while Russia under Putin seeks to restore the hegemonic power of the former Soviet Union over Eurasia, China seeks to supplant the United States as the world’s premier economic and military power.
The good news is that supporters of Reagan’s “peace through strength” doctrine are turning the tables on the “global zero” community. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) have introduced legislation stipulating that no money for the extension of New Start will be approved by Congress unless and until the “New START or successor agreement includes the People’s Republic of China and covers all strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation.”
In a statement released on May 13, Cotton said:
“Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping continue to expand and modernize their nuclear arsenals. Future arms-control agreements must take into account both the Russian and Chinese threats, while ensuring we don’t place one-sided nuclear restrictions on ourselves.”
“As we negotiate future arms-control agreements, we should take the current threat landscape into account. This legislation would ensure we can protect our country’s national security interests as both China and Russia continue to make strategic expansions of their nuclear arsenals.”
“America deserves better than a mere New START extension. Any meaningful arms control treaty must reflect reality as it is, rather than the hopes and dreams of negotiators. In the decade since President Obama’s New START Treaty was ratified, the world has grown more dangerous and complex. The New START Treaty does little to advance America’s national security. Since agreeing to this treaty, Russia has modernized its nuclear arsenal, and an unrestricted China has taken advantage of the opportunity to do the same and more. The changes laid out in the New START Treaty Improvement Act address Russia’s nuclear expansion and the threat emanating from China. We must also realize that America will not be able to achieve the necessary changes to New START unless it is negotiating from a position of strength. That means Congress must invest in the modernization of our nuclear triad and the additional low-yield capabilities called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. These investments are critical to America’s ability to rein in China and Russia.”
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He was also for 20 years, the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation.
Lt. Gen David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.), serves as the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He is a world-recognized leader and pioneer in conceptualizing, planning, and executing national security operations from humanitarian relief to major combat. He was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s, and director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001.