In 1956, Paul Nitze made an interesting analogy between a nuclear world and a chessboard.1 He wrote that even though the atomic queens may never be brought into play, their position may still have a decisive bearing on which side can safely advance a limited- war bishop or a Cold War pawn. More than 50 years later, this may still be true. But while he had in mind mainly U.S. and Soviet atomic queens, with an advantage on the American side, the reality in the 21st century may be essentially about the shadow of America’s adversaries’ atomic queens.
In the United States, expenditures related to the nuclear enterprise are under increasing scrutiny, making it difficult to modernize the nuclear arsenal.2 Today’s entire Air Force bomber fleet—nuclear and nonnuclear—is 90 percent smaller than it was in 1959, a decline justified in great part first by the deployment of ICBMs, the advent of precision- guided munitions, and the rise in the per-unit cost of combat aircraft, and second by the end of the Cold War. Still, all the remaining bombers are in need of costly upgrades, since the air-launched leg is apparently going to be retained for the foreseeable future.3 The remaining ICBMs are also aging rapidly, with underground silos in need of cost- prohibitive replacement. Among U.S. nuclear allies, the United Kingdom is far from having a clear nuclear policy for both political and financial reasons (in April 2011, for example, part of the UK coalition—LibDem—questioned the need for continuous submarine patrols at sea).
Meanwhile in China, where the military budget has been unconstrained for 20 years, nuclear weapons are playing an increasing role. New air, sea, and ground systems are beginning to be deployed there, with great opacity denounced in the region
1 Paul Nitze, “Atoms, Strategy and Policy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 34, No. 2, January 1956.
2 The Obama administration plans to boost spending on maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal and related laboratories by $85 billion over ten years, including a $7 billion transfer from DoD to the National Nuclear Security Administration (U.S. White House, “Fact Sheet: An Enduring Commitment to the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent,” November 17, 2010b). But the President has also directed that $400 billion be removed from the overall ten-year defense plan and has stated that everything is on the table. As a result, a complex process is under way to frame choices.
3 Taking into account defense cuts, current and forthcoming, a new bomber may no longer be affordable.