US Nuclear Deterrence

By Below, Tim D. Q. | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

US Nuclear Deterrence


Below, Tim D. Q., Air & Space Power Journal


An Opportunity for President Obama to Lead by Example

Although the United States has undertaken significant nuclear arms reductions since the end of the Cold War, as has Russia, and is currently on track to achieve the cuts agreed under the terms of the Moscow Treaty by 2012, many people argue that the contemporary security environment warrants further reductions.1 The Nuclear Posture Review of 2002 formally recognized the termination of an adversarial relationship with Russia and set out a move away from a Cold War-styled "threat-based" approach, instead adopting a "capabilitybased" approach. This would provide a "credible deterrent at the lowest level of nuclear weapons consistent with U.S. and allied security," with the broadest possible range of options to respond to any one of a variety of security challenges.2 The capabilitybased approach established a "new triad" composed of offensive nuclear and nonnuclear strike systems, active and passive defenses, and a "responsive nuclear infrastructure."3 On 5 April 2009, Pres. Barack Obama gave a groundbreaking speech on nuclear weapons in Prague, Czech Republic, stating the United States' commitment to the visionary goal of "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."4 Working in the strategic environment, this article considers the direct and indirect nuclear threats to the United States and evaluates the relative merit of retaining extant US nuclear force levels, undergoing complete nuclear disarmament, or implementing unilateral denuclearization to the level of minimum deterrence.5 It concludes that the United States should denuclearize now to an objectively determined level required for true minimum deterrence, reject the first use of nuclear weapons, and unequivocally articulate its rationale for so doing.

Nuclear Threats in the Contemporary Global Environment

Direct threats to US security stem from proliferation, risks of accidents and unauthorized or inadvertent use, and nuclear terrorism. Roger Molander, of the RAND Corporation, asserts that "in the near future, a large number of countries are each going to develop a small number of nuclear weapons."6 The Union of Concerned Scientists considers this the greatest long-term danger confronting both US and international security today.7 Moreover, the more widely proliferated nuclear weapons become, the more theoretical opportunities may arise for theft of nuclear material. Conversely, a minority of public proponents argue that wider proliferation may lead to more stability and that the existence of nuclear weapons potentially makes it possible to approach a "defensive-deterrence ideal," reducing the probability oí any warfare breaking out.8 This minority cannot, however, escape the fact that the chances of an explosive accident or an unauthorized or inadvertent launch increase as the number of nuclear states increases.

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2002) declared that "the gravest danger our Nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology."9 Similarly, the national security strategy of 2006 is unequivocal in its assessment that, in the wake of 9/11, "there are few greater threats than a terrorist attack with WMD [weapons of mass destruction]."10 Despite programs such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, hundreds of complete weapons and even more nonassembled critical weapon components are currently stored in conditions that leave them vulnerable to theft by determined criminals. This parlous state of nuclear security has not gone unnoticed by the criminal fraternity.11 Hans Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, however, considers the threat of nuclear terrorism "very hypothetical" and certainly not something that justifies an "operational nuclear weapon" for a response.12

It should be noted that none of the direct threats arise from the use of nuclear weapons by state actors. These actors, however, do present indirect threats to the United States through their potential to inhibit US influence and their contribution to regional instability. …

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