When President Barack Obama urged all countries to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, no foreign leaders followed. In fact, several countries continue to modernize their nuclear delivery systems: Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, France, Britain and North Korea. Since nuclear weapons are the deadliest arms on earth, many people do not realize they enable peace. Washington cannot get rid of its strategic deterrent as other states continue to pump their nuclear muscle. The U.S. must maintain a strong arsenal to discourage other nations from using their own nuclear weapons.
History has shown that the U.S. nuclear deterrent ensures violence does not increase above a certain threshold. During the Cold War, conflict between the nuclear powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was prevented while smaller battles such as the Korean War occurred in proxy states. Since August 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about seven to 10 million people have died from conflict. Compare this to the two world wars that caused about 70 to 100 million deaths prior to the creation of nuclear weapons.
Pentagon leaders failed to educate the public about the importance of the nuclear triad during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Major General Harencak admitted, “We have not discussed the continued relevance of the triad and the stability that it brings to us and our allies. Because of that, people are not realizing [the] tremendous value it brings. The triad is a complementary system that we’ve had for decades … It works.” Commander Admiral Cecil Haney, U.S. Strategic Command, has confirmed the deterrence mission requires bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles as validated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.
The New START treaty will decrease the number of American nuclear weapons to the lowest level since the 1950s. In 2013, General Kevin Chilton, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that 1,550 warheads is the lowest number he would recommend for the U.S. arsenal. This is because excessively low numbers could lead to a situation in which surprise attacks are more likely, increasing the risk to American security and its allies.
Nuclear weapons in NATO territories serve as visible symbols of U.S. commitment to defend allies and deter potential adversaries. Many new members of NATO have stated that they joined the alliance specifically to gain protection under the nuclear umbrella. Naturally, the alliance’s concerns were inflamed after Russia’s recent actions: invading Ukraine, simulation of nuclear strike exercises on Poland and the Baltic states, and threats of strikes on NATO’s missile defense sites. It is critical the U.S. is equipped with a strong nuclear capability so that allies are assured that Washington will remain faithful to its security commitments. Strategic stability requires a sufficient force size to preserve global peace and prevent allies from the need to appease adversaries or acquire their own nuclear capabilities.
Legislation that proposes cutting the nuclear force, like the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures bill, reintroduced at the end of March by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), shows the lack of understanding amongst some legislators of how the deterrent works. Senator Markey publicly stated, “We are robbing America’s future to pay for unneeded weapons of the past” and “it makes no sense to fund a bloated nuclear arsenal that does nothing to keep our nation safe in the 21st century.”
Senator Markey must have missed Admiral Haney’s statement about how the military has placed “[Nuclear] programs on hold as [they’ve] had to address other things, but as you look at the modernization that is going on in various other countries, it’s very important that we have a safe, secure, effective, and credible strategic deterrent – not just today but in the future.” After all, we are funding weapons that kill on a daily basis – it only makes sense to increase funding to modernize nuclear weapons which might well prevent a third world war.
Contrary to some media reports, like Senator Dianne Feinstein’s opinion editorial last year, nuclear weapons are an affordable deterrent. The nuclear triad accounts for less than 2 percent of the total defense budget and protects economic centers like New York and Los Angeles from blackmail and complete destruction. Senator Feinstein points out that the U.S. nuclear program hasn’t had a high level of funding since the 1980s, but fails to mention that the triad has been on a procurement holiday for over 20 years. The budget to modernize nuclear weapons needs to increase because it has been neglected for two decades.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that the U.S. can only defend its homeland from a limited missile attack from Iran or North Korea with the currently deployed Ground-based Midcourse Defense. This is a dangerous issue because the architecture can easily be overcome by an intentional or accidental launch from countries such as Russia or China. Because America’s missile defense system has its weaknesses, Washington must guarantee it has a backup plan by possessing a powerful nuclear deterrent to ensure an aggressor contemplating an attack determines that costs and risks outweigh potential benefits and that an advantage could never be gained by a first strike.
President Obama’s view of a world without nuclear weapons is not feasible right now. Peace can only be secured through strength. Hence, the U.S. should move forward with its plans to fund and modernize the three legs of the nuclear arsenal to ensure the homeland and allies are safe from current and future missile threats.
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