U.S. Nuclear Policy in the 21st Century

By Joseph, Robert; Lehman, Ronald | Strategic Forum, August 1998 | Go to article overview

U.S. Nuclear Policy in the 21st Century


Joseph, Robert, Lehman, Ronald, Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* Nuclear weapons will continue indefinitely to play an indispensable role in U.S. national security policy: as a hedge against uncertainties, to deter potential aggressors who are both more diverse and less predictable than in the past, and to allow the United States to construct a more stable security environment. Recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan make it clear that nuclear weapons remain part of the security setting. The aggressive pursuit of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons by states such as Iran and North Korea underscores the role of deterrence as a central component of U.S. security strategy.

* The United States requires a credible nuclear deterrent posture, broadly defined to include forces-in-being; capabilities for weapon system design and production; and the ability to assure the safety and reliable performance of the nuclear stockpile--a fundamental challenge in the absence of underground testing. Because this posture must be both adaptable and responsive to new threats, the national deterrent infrastructure must be treated as a strategic resource. The posture must also incorporate a greater role for defenses in future deterrence calculations. All of this requires trained and motivated people, as well as new ways of thinking and considerable agility and foresightedness on the part of U.S. leaders.

* A nuclear force that is not backed by the perceived ability and willingness to maintain and, when necessary, reconstitute important elements will increasingly be seen as hollow. The decisions and actions that the United States takes concerning the total force posture in the years ahead will influence decisively how both allies and adversaries perceive the credibility of the U.S. deterrent. In turn, this holds important implications for the overall capacity of the United States to shape the security setting at the outset of the new millennium and to provide for the nation's defense in a world of change and turbulence.

Setting a New Paradigm

Recognizing the need for a fresh, long-term look at national security strategy and requirements, and specifically at U.S. nuclear policy in the 21st Century, the Center for Counterproliferation Research at the National Defense University and the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory brought together a group of experts with extensive experience in security policy and military affairs.

The participants examined the broad trends in the international environment and considered how the United States could both shape and respond to them. A forward-looking paradigm for the nuclear dimension of U.S. security policy emerged that builds on the lessons of the past while addressing the opportunities and challenges of the future. The paradigm is based on five elements:

1. Sweeping positive changes have occurred. The bilateral "nuclear balance" that occupied center stage in the past no longer dominates the strategic calculations of the United States or Russia. Yet, there remains a continuing need for deterrence and for the retention of nuclear weapons as an essential component of U.S. national security strategy.

2. Nuclear weapons will remain part of the global security setting. The knowledge to build them will continue to exist; they cannot be disinvented. Even if the United States were to divest itself of its nuclear arsenal, other nations would be unlikely to follow suit. To the contrary, some states would gain incentives to retain or acquire nuclear weapons against a conventionally superior but nuclear-free United States. If nuclear weapons were somehow eliminated, a serious deterioration of the international environment could engender strong incentives for nuclear rearmament. A rapid and competitive race to rebuild nuclear arsenals could increase prospects for a devastating war.

3. In the changing security setting, the nuclear weapons infrastructure--broadly defined to include both the operational forces and the development and production capabilities that can bring new forces into being when needed--takes on a heightened strategic prominence. …

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