When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was the end of an era in international relations. Despite the hopes of many, the twenty years that followed did not produce a transition to a new international system. Rather the past two decades have been more of a pause, a time when the world dealt with the aftermath of the Cold War. This included such actions as the unification of Germany, the integration of Europe, the expansion of the community of free and democratic nations, the entry of many nations of the former Communist bloc into the global economic order (most notably China and Russia) and a partial demobilization of the vast military establishments created during the long East-West struggle.
One of the most notable successes of this period was the management of the nuclear edifices the two superpowers and their allies had created over the previous decades. The nuclear dimensions of the breakup of the Soviet Union were successfully handled. In the years when Russia was struggling to reorganize and redefine itself, that which we feared most, the large scale proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, did not take place. The nuclear forces of the two superpowers were reduced by around 90 percent, from warheads and delivery vehicles counted in thousands to levels that are measured as some hundreds.
This effort was almost too successful. With the progressive reduction in nuclear forces there occurred what I might call a form of nuclear amnesia. The best examples of the effects of this mental state were a progressive laxness in the management and oversight of nuclear weapons. Little attention or thought was given to the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. It was almost as if we chose to forget nuclear weapons still existed and that they continue to serve a vital role in providing for this Nation’s security.
One of the consequences of this “strategic Alzheimer’s” was a dimming of the collective memory we once shared with respect to the strategic and political role that nuclear weapons had played during the Cold War. History has been rewritten to reduce or even deny that these weapons were important to the course and outcome of the East-West competition. Without an ability to remember our history it is relatively easy to believe the assertions of some that nuclear weapons are now irrelevant.
Nuclear weapons were and remain primarily political instruments. They were and are employed to enable nations’ political strategies and they need to be understood as such. During the Cold War, the West employed its nuclear arsenal as a lever for shifting the competition with the Soviet Union from the military domain to the arenas of economics and politics, battlefields we were pretty sure we could dominate. The existence of a robust, secure and responsive nuclear arsenal denied to the Soviet Union the option to employ its conventional superiority in a manner to counter the strategy the West was pursuing. Nuclear weapons also allowed the West to compete with the Soviet Union without the crushing defense burden that would have been required had deterrence relied on conventional forces alone.
Nuclear weapons continue to serve as political instruments even if their role in U.S. strategy and that of potential adversaries has changed. Today it is America’s adversaries who seek nuclear weapons to serve as a shield underneath which they can pursue a preferred strategy of unconventional, asymmetric or hybrid warfare. For the United States, the challenge is countering these strategies while at the same time ensuring that prospective adversaries have no doubt regarding both our will and capability to escalate.
The West was successful in keeping the East-West competition on its terms during the Cold War primarily because of its investment in the strategic Triad. Try as it might, the Soviet military could never figure out a way of denying the West the ability to employ its nuclear weapons to counter Soviet conventional aggression or, once nuclear weapons were used, escalate to larger and/or more lethal strikes. To have even the faintest prospect of limiting damage, the Soviets had to attack the continental U.S. Such a strike had to be of such a magnitude that it would inevitably prompt full retaliation.
A robust, secure and responsive Triad is just as important today as it was during the Cold War. The United States needs to be able to lay a trail of breadcrumbs that even a blind hog could follow between our commitments to the defense of vital interests, friends and allies abroad to the inevitable destruction that an aggressor would suffer at the hands of U.S. strategic forces should he press the test. In particular, an aggressor needs to have no illusions that he could deter a U.S. conventional response by threatening to use nuclear weapons regionally nor that he can engage in a successful damage limiting attack against the U.S. homeland.
In order to impose this understanding on prospective adversaries the U.S. must maintain a nuclear arsenal that is secure, responsive, flexible and, most importantly, substantial. It must also be postured in such a manner as to present to a potential aggressor no option other than a first strike that would inevitably bring about a massive retaliatory strike.
We have such a force now in the 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, 14 Ohio-class SSBNs and 60 nuclear-capable strategic bombers. The ICBM force provides an operationally responsive force and also presents a targeting problem to any attacker that can only be addressed, if at all, by a massive attack. The SSBN force guarantees that such an attack will result in the destruction of the nation that launches it. The strategic bombers offer utility as instruments for signaling intent and for conducting a protracted air campaign, should that become necessary. It is vital that we not only retain but also modernize all portions of this force.
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