Nuclear Modernization: The Future of Deterrence

“For most missions we have today,” argued Benjamin Friedman, “we have more than enough nukes.” Friedman, a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute, was speaking to a crowd at the Charles Koch Institute’s Nuclear Modernization: The Future of Deterrence event in Washington, DC, on April 26. Friedman was joined by retired U.S. Air Force General Eugene E. Habiger, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and moderator William Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and Foundation. Together, they had a wide-ranging conversation on the nuclear triad, the appropriate size of the U.S. arsenal after the Cold War, and the effects of nuclear modernization on the defense budget.

The nuclear triad refers to the three types of delivery methods for nuclear weapons: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from U.S.-based silos; submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); and bombs dropped from airplanes. The three methods are referred to as “legs” of the triad; each has its own costs and benefits, supporters and detractors.

Both Habiger and Friedman support making significant changes to the triad. Habiger argued that while we can technically afford to maintain the triad, it is a Cold War legacy the United States does not need. He is open-minded about which leg of the triad to retire.

Friedman argued specifically in favor of keeping only the submarine leg of the triad. He contended that there is nothing the United States could attack with a bomber that it couldn’t also attack with a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Anticipating possible the criticism that his position puts all of the country’s nuclear eggs in one basket, Friedman argued that the nuclear weapons would “be in a whole bunch of different, very dangerous, very hard to find baskets.” U.S. submarines, he emphasized, are very hard to track and target. He also allowed that it would be possible to pursue a hedging strategy by storing some gravity-based nuclear bombs suitable for dropping from airplanes—just in case they were ever needed.

In addition to discussing delivery methods, Habiger and Friedman also discussed their views on what would be an appropriate size for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Habiger said that while he supports reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 300 active nuclear weapons, he does not support reducing it to zero. In his opinion, the United States doesn’t need the thousands of weapons it had during the Cold War, but some nuclear weapons are still necessary. He thinks the primary purpose of nuclear weapons today is to ensure that other nuclear weapons are not used; nuclear weapons deter other nukes, not other countries.

Friedman maintained that the number of nuclear weapons the United States needs depends on what purpose they serve. For example, if the goal is to deter a Russian conventional attack, nukes are not strictly necessary, because a Russian conventional attack can be deterred with American conventional forces. Friedman does agree with Habiger that the United States definitely needs more than zero nuclear weapons. In Friedman’s opinion, deterrence works: The prospect of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War lowered the prospect of war.

Ruger then asked the panelists about the budgetary aspects of modernizing the nuclear triad, including the opportunity costs associated with spending $1 trillion on this project over the next 30 years. Habiger said that his argument against the current modernization plan is mostly that such spending is unnecessary and partially that it is too expensive.

Ultimately, both Habiger and Friedman agreed that changes to the nuclear triad are unlikely to happen in the current political climate. Habiger argued that “national security policy has become so politicized, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.” He feels that change would need to come from the president. Friedman added that it was unlikely his arguments for a move toward a submarine-based monad would be successful, pointing to the existence of an ICBM caucus in Congress.

Despite these barriers to reform, having a conversation about these issues and educating the public about the costs and benefits of a $1-trillion program help stimulate innovative thinking about how best to allocate our resources in order to ensure the security of the United States. To continue to debate the current status quo in U.S. foreign policy, the Charles Koch Institute is proud to host Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy on May 18 in Washington, DC.

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