February 25, 2021
Nuclear disarmament and arms control attract their strongest public support in the United States from elements of the Democratic Party, and they now control the White House, the Senate and the House. Republicans worry what this may lead to — a no-first-use declaration; scrapping of low-yield nuclear weapons; a halt to work on the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile; or, most dramatic and most unlikely, scrapping of the entire Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) arm of the nuclear triad.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is likely to consider the nomination of Colin Kahl for undersecretary of Defense for policy next week and those nuclear issues are likely to be near the top of the list as he gets grilled on his views. Sen. James Inhofe, top Republican on the SASC, and Rep. Mike Rogers, Inhofe’s counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee, offer their views below on how and whether and why to modernize America’s nuclear weapons. Read on!
- The Editor.
The U.S. nuclear triad is the bedrock of our national defense. For over 75 years, it has deterred great power conflict and nuclear attacks against the American people and our allies. Despite its undeniable importance to U.S. national security, we’ve allowed much of our deterrent to become antiquated. We’ve been working to arrest this decline, but as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted during his confirmation process: “the tipping point, where we must simultaneously overhaul these forces, is now here.” President Biden must prioritize long-overdue investments in the nuclear triad, or risk permanently losing our most effective means for deterring existential military threats.
Efforts to modernize and strengthen our nuclear deterrent have long enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Don’t forget: back in 2011, it was President Obama who began a multi-decade, just-in-time effort to update America’s nuclear forces and revitalize its weapons design and production facilities. He clearly recognized that inaction would mean the loss of our nuclear deterrent and the acceptance of risks our country has not had to contemplate in more than seven decades.
Indeed, Obama’s Secretaries of Defense, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, designated nuclear deterrence as the Defense Department’s highest priority mission and expanded nuclear modernization investments, calling them “a small, but critical part of our budget.”
The Trump administration wisely placed an even greater emphasis on holistic modernization efforts, an approach endorsed by the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission. Even today, the nation’s current senior-most military leadership — the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Air Force Chief of Staff and the head of Strategic Command — are all on the record saying nuclear modernization is their top priority, which is good because we don’t have any time to spare.
Over the past few years, global nuclear threats have only worsened. Russia has almost completely rebuilt its core force and is developing new nuclear weapons to overwhelm missile defenses and offset NATO’s conventional superiority. China will likely at least double the number of nuclear weapons it possesses over the next decade. North Korea recently announced that it will develop several new nuclear weapon systems to defeat its “biggest enemy” — the United States. To push for unilateral disarmament and further weaken our nuclear triad in the face of these threats would be a dangerous mistake.
We must be clear-eyed here — it is naïve to believe that if we simply abandon our deterrent, others will follow. We know unilateral disarmament undermines, rather than encourages, stability. Even certain policy constraints, including a “no-first-use” strategy, would hamstring the nation’s ability not only to deter but also to respond to nuclear attacks. If we listen to the radical groups who want our nuclear deterrent to wither away, we will have nothing of value to negotiate and nothing but bad options if we are threatened by a nuclear-armed power. No amount of conventional weaponry can credibly offset that advantage.
President Biden campaigned on a number of objectives that would make our nation more secure, including taking a stronger stance on China and Russia and restoring our allies’ faith in our commitments. He’s said he will reach across the aisle to do so. If the president is serious about keeping his campaign promises, then we urge him to set aside extreme anti-nuclear disarmament agendas, and join with Congress to preserve our nation’s most important military capabilities. Working together, we can ensure our nuclear deterrent remains safe and effective, and make certain that neither the American people, nor our allies, ever have to live in the shadow of nuclear blackmail.
This commentary originally appeared on BreakingDefense.com.