U.S. nuclear weapons: not a backstop but a foundation

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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A few years ago, before the Air Force had to get its nuclear deterrence enterprise back on its feet, nuclear deterrence was described as ‘the ultimate backstop’ which underwrote the nation’s security.

The analogy always made me cringe.  I’ve seen too many ball games and the idea of ‘the ball’ (global stability, for example) getting past the ‘global catcher’ (that is, the United States), and ending up at ‘the ultimate backstop’ as ‘the runner’ (a near-peer or a rogue) went from first to third just didn’t do it for me.  As the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise was later being restored, my suggestion was instead to frame nuclear deterrence as a foundation from which we build out other military capabilities versus the ultimate backstop.

So as the defense community stiffens itself for cut and gut funding decisions, it gladdens my heart to see a smart guy say this:

Deterring future wars requires, first of all, a secure and credible U.S. nuclear arsenal. This arsenal must be of sufficient size and varied deployment modes so as to ensure that whatever the circumstances, adversaries will know that the U.S. can respond to a nuclear attack on the homeland, U.S. allies and forward deployed forces with an appropriate but also devastating response. In practice this means maintaining the ICBM force, designing a new generation of missile carrying submarines and building a new long-range bomber. It also means deploying the next generation of early warning satellites.

Nuclear war may not be probable, but the consequences of nuclear deterrence are significant.  Counter-insurgency operations are much more likely but the consequences are much less significant.  Having our most consequential needs addressed first is important because real priorities are shown by whether they are funded or not.


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