Obama's Nuclear Upgrade

The Case for Modernizing America's Nukes

To many, the Obama administration's nuclear weapons policy appears to be schizophrenic. In April 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama pledged to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy and to work toward global nuclear disarmament. His aspirations have been reflected in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and in a new strategic review, ongoing this summer, that is intended to pave the way for further U.S. nuclear cuts.

But even as the administration cuts the force and talks about a world free of nuclear weapons, it has proposed a major multi-year campaign to replace aging weapons and modernize the U.S. arsenal. The plan calls for a new class of nuclear submarines, new nuclear-capable bomber and fighter aircraft, and updated nuclear bombs, warheads, and missiles. The price tag for this nuclear overhaul is estimated at $185 billion over the coming decade, but the actual cost will no doubt be higher.

Is there a sensible strategy behind these proposals? Does nuclear modernization contribute to deterrence, which the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review called "the fundamental role" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

In "The Nukes We Need" (November/December 2009), we described the deterrence challenges that the United States will likely face in the coming years and the nuclear capabilities that might mitigate them. First, we argued that the United States is likely to face tougher deterrence problems in the coming years than it did during the Cold War. Specifically, as nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes increasingly likely that the United States will find itself in conventional conflicts with nuclear-armed adversaries. Those adversaries have witnessed the catastrophic consequences of losing a war to the United States -- regime change, with prison or death the frequent fate of enemy leaders. Coercive nuclear escalation is one of the only trump cards that countries fighting the United States hold, offering the prospect of a battlefield stalemate and keeping existing regimes in power. For the United States, deterring weak, desperate adversaries from using their nuclear trump card will be a major challenge -- especially as these weapons spread.

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