Nuclear Exchange: Does Washington Really Have (or Want) Nuclear Primacy?

Just the Facts

Peter C. W. Flory

The essay by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press ("The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy, "March/April 2006) contains so many errors, on a topic of such gravity, that a Department of Defense response is required to correct the record.

Lieber and Press assert that current U.S. nuclear policy looks "like a coordinated set of programs to enhance the United States' nuclear first-strike capabilities," an erroneous inference that has already prompted harsh reactions in Russia and other countries. Lieber and Press allege that the U.S. Air Force is "significantly improving its remaining ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] by installing the MX's high-yield warheads and advanced reentry vehicles on Minuteman ICBMs, and it has upgraded the Minuteman's guidance systems to match the MX's accuracy."

In fact, the MK-21 reentry vehicles and warheads from retired Peacekeeper missiles (formerly known as "MX") are being installed on Minuteman III missiles to take advantage of the MK-21's improved safety characteristics. There is no increase in yield, and the MK-21 reentry vehicles do not increase the accuracy of Minuteman III missiles. Nor will the guidance replacement program under way for Minuteman III missiles -- which involves upgrading guidance components to extend the missiles' lives -- result in those ICBMs' reaching a level of accuracy equal to that of the Peacekeeper.

The authors go on to question why crews of the B-2 stealth bomber train in low-altitude flight unless their "mission is to penetrate a highly sophisticated air defense network such as Russia's or, perhaps in the future, China's." It is no secret that the combination of stealth technology and low-altitude flight increases the survivability of an aircraft in a hostile environment. But these attributes are valuable across the full spectrum of warfare (B-2s have been employed in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq).

Publicly available facts contradict Lieber and Press' thesis that the United States is pursuing a first-strike strategy. President George W. Bush set the nation on a path to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons in a May 2001 speech at the National Defense University, stating, "I am committed to achieving a credible deterrent with the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs, including our obligations to our allies. My goal is to move quickly to reduce nuclear forces."

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis