Why American Needs More Nukes

Posted: August 6, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Adam Lowther, writing at The National Interest, says Eisenhower’s New Look Policy was ahead of its time and that in a back-to-the-future move, America again needs to again consider nuclear weapons as the foundation for U.S. security. 

The rationale goes like this: nuclear weapons offer more bang (so to speak) for less bucks. Eisenhower’s thinking was an arms race with the USSR would wreck the U.S. economy (a bad thing, unless you were a Soviet).  Today, the thinking is that transfer programs (a more precise name for those government programs formerly known as entitlements or non-discretionary spending) will wreck the U.S. economy and that defense is sure to take a hit along the way.  This means the nuclear enterprise, spending less than 10 percent of the DoD budget, might look like a better security bargain.

Lowther is spot-on in pointing out the high costs of our cutting edge conventional programs which have resulted in far less capability than originally planned for:

If the acquisition programs of the B-2, F-22 and Future Combat System teach us anything about projecting military capability into the future, it is that we can expect much less at a much higher price than promised. In the case of the B-2, the air force expected to add 132 new stealth bombers to its inventory. Instead, it received 21. The F-22 was not much different; a procurement program that included the addition of 750 fifth generation fighters was recently cut to 187. The Future Combat System fared even worse when it was cancelled this year.

So how does this trend bode for the F-35, AKA the Joint Strike Fighter?  Not good.  We’ve a stated intent to buy almost 2,500 F-35s (along with significant foreign military sales).  But if history is a guide (that is, based on the B-2 and F-22 programs), we’ll be looking at well less than a thousand F-35s.

In an idea that runs counter to most think tank thoughts, Lowther suggests the mighty U.S. conventional capability is actually what motivates bad actors like Iran, Syria, and North Korea to have nuclear weapons programs.  After all, one of the lessons of Gulf War I was that countries that don’t have nuclear weapons are at far greater risk of conventional attack.  Since those states can’t hope to compete conventionally, they’ve gone nuclear, which to-date has shown itself to be the ultimate asymmetrical weapon.  For evidence, consider the number of nuclear states who have been invaded: zero.  Correlation or causation?

Lowther acknowledges nuclear weapons don’t fit “limited-war scenarios,” offering there is no such thing as a one-size-weapon-fits-all-conflicts.  As such, he effectively advocates the U.S. assume the risk of being ill-prepared for such conflict: they are too costly and offering too small a security return.  In fact, he goes all-in saying

…Washington should not try to field so many systems that large conventional war is viewed as a viable option against a major power.

Effectively, Lowther is arguing for minimal conventional deterrence, turning much conventional (pun intended) thinking on its head.  But without such a robust conventional force, a more capable nuclear force would be required to “provide the necessary insurance against threats to United States and allied vital interests.”  

Could it work?  Yes, it could.  Would it work?  Maybe.  Could it work politically?  No, and without political support, the entire idea is still born. 

While our (presumed) knowledge of the future is always iffy, one thing seems certain: defense spending will fall.  Former Secretary of Defense Gates called for a “balanced force,” (whatever that might precisely be) and nuclear weapons carry too much intellectual Cold War baggage in the minds of too many U.S. politicos to fundamentally rebalance U.S. forces.  The ‘more nukes’ solution, if there ever is one, would take time and the emergence of an entirely different generation of political leaders.

Finally, without a robust conventional force, how would U.S. presidents be able to participate in non-war like Libya or Somalia, let alone conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan?  This is especially true after the ‘limited-war’ special ops success (BTW, the special ops “community” is said to be about the same size as Canada’s entire military) of the bin Laden takedown in Pakistan.  So while calling for more nuclear and less conventional makes for great argument, I’d wager the likelihood of it happening is the same of the Global Zeros meeting their goal.

  1. It’s an interesting thought that a conventional force can motivate others to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s unfortunate that the US has committed itself to unilateral nuclear reductions, while Russia is developing a new ICBM and SLBM.

    As the US reduces its military and withdraws its forces, nuclear weapons will provide the global reach and diplomatic backdrop to stem our diminishing world influence.

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