We can cut some spending on nuclear strategy

By DIRK JAMESON | | Published: December 14, 2012

Policymakers consumed with avoiding the “fiscal cliff” are missing a critical opportunity to review U.S. nuclear posture. The rapidly changing world, aging nuclear systems, and pressing budget issues make this the right time to update our nuclear strategy for the 21st century.

Today, our nuclear strategy still bears the imprint of the Cold War. The nuclear triad retains our same Cold War arsenal, but reduced in size. It is still far beyond the level that rational military strategists find necessary or practical. With the Cold War seen clearly in our rearview mirror, the U.S. and Russia must continue to reduce the mountain of nuclear weapons so ill-matched to combat modern threats.

Unless a careful reassessment of current needs is made now, we will be spending billions of dollars to extend the life of each leg of the triad. Building a new fleet of nuclear submarines will cost an estimated $100 billion. A new nuclear bomber could cost up to $60 billion. The Minuteman III ICBM modernization and replacement program will cost about $7 billion. Spending billions on nuclear forces beyond a credible deterrent diverts resources from the defense capabilities our troops really need.

A reassessment of the U.S. nuclear strategy must question whether we still need triple redundancy: bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. One element of the reassessment could revalue the overwhelming conventional advantage the U.S. maintains and reduce the triad to two parts, relying upon conventional superiority instead of the third leg.

In addition, other elements of the nuclear complex must not escape scrutiny. Examples of wasteful nuclear programs are everywhere, from a $10 billion life extension program for B61 bombs in Europe to a $6 billion facility that produces new plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. These costs add up: In the next decade America will spend more than half a trillion dollars on nuclear weapons programs.

A careful study of the capabilities we have and the planned upgrades in light of the capacity needed will be a crucial exercise in both cost-effectiveness and security needs. Nuclear doctrine is not sacred. Our security environment is different now, and our force structure must be responsive to that environment.

It will be tough sledding to get a fundamental reconceptualization of the Cold War calculus of the triad’s redundancies. The status quo seems safe, and there are deep intellectual and financial investments in the current configuration. But unnecessary spending on nuclear capabilities puts U.S. security at risk. Moreover, an oversized nuclear arsenal sends the wrong message to states with potential nuclear ambitions, undercutting U.S. attempts to prevent and reverse proliferation.

National security experts such as Dr. Frank Miller, a key player in nuclear security matters for many years, and Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have set the stage for updating U.S. nuclear posture by asking how many warheads and platforms are needed to address today’s challenges. As Cartwright noted, “The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War.”

I recommend a presidential commission of experts to help formulate and adjust our nuclear strategy to meet the military and fiscal needs of the 21st century. This commission should contain experts not only in nuclear matters, but those with a deep understanding of current and potential threats. Such a group could find ways to redefine a nuclear force of the future that is smaller, smarter and more effective than the oversized, unwieldy arsenal of the Cold War.

Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson (retired) was deputy commander in chief and chief of staff of the U.S. Strategic Command before retiring from the U.S. Air Force in 1996. He is a member of the Consensus for American Security, an advisory group to the nonpartisan American Security Project.

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