The rush to cut defense spending is on. The president’s deficit commission proposed a trillion dollars in cuts over a decade. Defense department officials are acknowledging that some portion of the $100 billion Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hoped to save through efficiencies will have to be given back to the Treasury. In a recent Gallup poll more than 60 percent of individuals asked favored cutting defense. Based on historical experience, defense cuts typically average 30 percent of the prior budget peak, or some $165 billion based on the FY 2011 proposed defense budget of $551 billion.
Virtually every defense expert recognizes that cuts of $100 billion a year or more will require a radical restructuring of the U.S. military and probably major changes to the current U.S. national security and military strategies. The U.S. defense budget is already dominated by “must pay” bills for personnel, health and dependent care, operations and maintenance and commitments to environmental cleanups, green energy and breast cancer research. The only way to absorb cuts of the magnitude likely to be imposed on the Pentagon is by drastically reducing force structure and curtailing modernization of major weapons systems.
The deficit commission recommended eliminating or cutting back programs such as the F-35, V-22, Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, Joint Tactical Radio System and the Littoral Combat Ship. The Sustainable Defense Task Force, sponsored by Congressmen Ron Paul and Barney Frank, proposed cutting the Navy by 57 ships, the Army by six combat brigades and the Air Force by three air force tactical fighter wings. It also wanted to reduce the overall size of the military by 200,000, reduce the number of troops in Europe and Asia and cancel a bunch of weapons programs. The task force at least had the good sense of acknowledging that there was no way the military could absorb such reductions and still meet all its current mission requirements. The U.S. will not be able to remain the world’s leading power or defend its interests around the globe if its military is gutted as described above.
But there is a way that the U.S. can significantly reduce the defense budget while maintaining its global leadership role. It needs to build more nuclear weapons and delivery systems. I am not speaking of just long-range strategic weapons but also of large numbers of theater nuclear weapons and perhaps even new kinds of small, battlefield nuclear weapons. The U.S. defense budget is overwhelmingly tied up in maintaining conventional forces, both the large number of people required for the full spectrum of conventional operations and the vast array of equipment such missions entail. By comparison, nuclear forces cost relatively little. Since 1945, U.S. nuclear forces have cost, on average, about $100 billion a year. A nuclearized U.S. defense posture could allow the U.S. to cut the defense budget by $250 billion or more while still leaving hundreds of billions for residual conventional forces to conduct counterterrorism operations, engage in small contingencies and support humanitarian relief operations.
The Obama Administration has expressed the desire to maintain U.S. security and global leadership while reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. It would do so by deploying advanced long-range conventional strike systems and deploying missile defenses. Unfortunately, these alternative means are likely to be very costly. Moreover, advanced conventional strike systems are seen as so threatening to potential adversaries such as Russia that they have caused that country to rely even more heavily on its nuclear weapons for deterrence and defense. Rather than trying to outmuscle Russian nukes with conventional forces, an unaffordable strategy, the United States should make a virtue of necessity and simply pursue a posture of nuclear superiority.
In addition, many regional experts will tell you that if the U.S. is forced by reduced defense budgets to back away from its regional deployments and commitments to allies, those countries are likely to pursue their own nuclear options. However, an expanded U.S. nuclear posture, particularly one that brings back theater and tactical nuclear weapons could provide the reassurance allies need and deterrence of aggression by prospective adversaries.
Critics will say that we tried such an approach before in the 1950s when the Eisenhower Administration pursued a strategy of Massive Retaliation. Then we found such a strategy too confining. But we are living in a new century. We do not face a massive Soviet adversary seeking military advantage across the entire spectrum of conflict. We do face much more limited threats such as China building up anti-access and area denial capabilities that will negate U.S. conventional capabilities in the Western Pacific. If the U.S. defense budget is going to be cut substantially where will we get the resources to develop conventional counters to China’s emerging capabilities? Why not instead make it clear to China that even limited aggression against the U.S. or its allies will be met with a nuclear response?
The U.S. would not need to return to the massive nuclear force levels of the Cold War. A nuclear arsenal consisting of perhaps several thousand strategic weapons and an equal number of theater and tactical nuclear weapons should be sufficient. The latter would need to be highly usable, meaning extremely accurate with relatively low yields and deployed in survivable or mobile modes.
So, if the U.S. wishes to remain a world power while significantly reducing its defense budget, I make the following modest proposal: build more nukes. Otherwise, the American people had better be prepared to spend lots of money to maintain and modernize its current world class military.
*with apologies to Jonathan Swift
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