Is anyone surprised that the Obama Administration will seek even deeper reductions in U.S. strategic nuclear forces? According to reports circulating in Washington, the administration’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review will propose a strategic nuclear force of 1,000 warheads. This is a one-third reduction from the number agreed to just two years ago in the New START and which will take another five years to fully implement.
Even without seeing an unclassified version of the review, there are some obvious questions that need to be raised about the plan. First, in what ways has the international security environment improved in the last two years warranting such a significant reduction? Have Iran and North Korea abandoned their nuclear weapons programs? Has China declared a moratorium on improving its theater and strategic nuclear forces or its conventional military? Has Russia written a new national security strategy, one which does not rely heavily on the use of nuclear weapons to win a local conflict? Are prospective adversaries no longer pursuing anti-access and area denial capabilities designed to undermine U.S. conventional force advantages? Have the prospects for global instability and terrorism from North Africa through the Greater Middle East to Central Asia, Pakistan and Southeast Asia declined in the past two years?
Second, how is extended nuclear deterrence to be achieved at this lower number? Russia and China are believed to have thousands of theater nuclear weapons, hundreds of them modernized. The U.S. retains only a small number of aging theater weapons. If either of these countries employs even a small number of relatively low yield theater weapons against our forces or allies, the U.S. will have only one option: retaliating with a part of its strategic arsenal. Such weapons have very large yields. Moreover, what is the implication for controlling escalation when what Russia or China will see is one or more ICBMs or SLBMs heading in their direction? Unless proposed negotiations with Russia include all nuclear weapons, the effect will be to undermine extended deterrence, encourage U.S. allies to develop their own nuclear deterrents and increase regional instability.
Third, what is the rationale for simultaneously reducing both U.S. strategic nuclear forces and our conventional forces? The administration’s new Defense Strategy acknowledges that planned force structure reductions will leave the United States with the capability to fight only one major theater conflict. If a second conflict arises — say one in the Middle East and one in East Asia — the U.S. will take unspecified steps to deny the second aggressor his objectives or impose on him unacceptable costs, whatever these words mean. But the implication is clear; the United States will not have sufficient forces to win a second conflict. Deeper defense budget cuts, not to mention sequestration, will reduce the U.S. conventional posture to a single contingency force.
Since the end of the Cold War, successive administrations have pursued significant negotiated reductions in strategic nuclear forces and unilateral cuts in theater nuclear forces based on the belief that the United States enjoyed a significant qualitative and even quantitative advantage in conventional military power over prospective adversaries. If those conventional advantages were vitiated, logic dictates that a more robust nuclear posture would be required. Conversely, if the Obama Administration sees further reductions in nuclear forces as a strategic priority it must reverse course on its plan to cut defense budgets and reduce U.S. conventional forces.
Cutting U.S. conventional and nuclear forces simultaneously is a sure recipe for less security both at home and abroad. How will the United States sustain security commitments to allies or protect vital international interests with a declining conventional force posture and a nuclear arsenal fit only for deterring direct attacks on the U.S. homeland? Obama’s new strategic plan invites an opportunistic aggressor to wait until the U.S. is committed to a major conflict in another part of the world and then attack.
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