For the last sixty years — since Russia developed its first atomic weapons — U.S. survival has depended on a strategic concept called deterrence. Lacking the ability to defend itself against a large-scale nuclear attack, Washington sought to discourage aggression by threatening devastating retaliation. The thinking behind U.S. strategy was that no sane country would attack us if the consequences looked suicidal.
Although U.S. leaders seldom talk about it in public, deterrence is still the foundation of U.S. nuclear strategy. But in order for deterrence to work, our leaders need to keep three fundamental facts in mind:
1. What matters isn’t how many weapons you have before you’re attacked, but how many remain afterwards with which to retaliate. It’s the weapons that would survive a surprise attack that deter the attack in the first place.
2. The smaller nuclear arsenals get, the more likely it is enemies can gain an advantage by cheating. If America and Russia each have 5,000 nuclear warheads, the fact Russia has hidden 50 probably won’t make war more likely; but if both sides only have a hundred and Russia has hidden 50, that could provide an edge that makes it more likely to launch in a crisis.
3. Leaders make mistakes. They often don’t communicate clearly or assess options objectively, especially in a crisis, so America needs the kind of nuclear posture that leaves no doubt in the minds of enemies as to what would happen if they commit aggression.
Like most people, Barack Obama probably hadn’t given the peculiar logic of nuclear deterrence much thought before he became president. To the extent he had, it seems he came to the same conclusion regarding nuclear weapons that most progressives do concerning handguns: the fewer there are, the safer everybody will be. That reasoning was on display this week at the 53-nation nuclear summit in South Korea, when the president once again said he was working toward “a world without nuclear weapons.” Sadly, the pursuit of that goal could get millions of Americans killed by delivering their fate into the hands of adversaries who are not trustworthy.
It has never been clear how literally Obama took the oft-started goal of a nuclear-free world. Declaratory nuclear strategy is usually a good deal different from operational strategy, and you wouldn’t expect the president to show up at an arms-control conference brandishing nuclear weapons. So the best measure of whether he was being realistic about nuclear strategy was whether the administration funded programs necessary to sustain an adequate deterrent. Up until this January he did. But now I’m beginning to have doubts.
The doubts arise from the administration’s decisions regarding replacement of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Submarine-based ballistic missiles are the backbone of a secure retaliatory force, because unlike bombers and land-based missiles, enemies can’t destroy them in a surprise attack. At least, not the ones that are at sea on the day the attack occurs. But that could change as new ways of looking into the oceans from above are developed, and delays the administration has announced in developing an Ohio replacement will result in a prolonged period during the 2030s when there are only ten ballistic missile subs in the fleet. A third of the subs would probably be in port on the fateful day, so is it really prudent to have only seven subs at sea?
The administration says the risk would be “manageable,” but there’s no way it can possibly know what the global situation will be like 20 years from now. Twenty years after the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end World War One, Europe was again at war. What if America is facing a robustly-armed, expansionist China or Russia 20 years from now — one that thinks it has figured out how to detect or track U.S. ballistic missile subs? Might they be emboldened to strike, knowing that success would bring global dominance? Might we be inclined to appease, fearing that our retaliatory force has become vulnerable?
Every time I hear the president talk about a nuclear-free world, it worries me that nobody in his inner circle is posing such questions. And when I see his Pentagon team delay development of a next-generation ballistic missile submarine even though the existing subs must soon be retired, I know that team is not taking future nuclear threats seriously. Al Qaeda may be defeated, but human nature has not changed. If we take all the rhetoric about a world without nuclear weapons too seriously, we may instead end up in a world without America.
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