Nukes: The Unmentionable Election Issue

One of these days, national security policy will get a few minutes of campaign debate time. And when that day occurs, perhaps—just perhaps—attention will turn to a matter of some urgency: the continuing threat posed by nuclear weapons. As both the US and Russia pursue MADness (mutually assured destruction) with steep investments in nuclear weapons, they use the same distorted logic to justify them that has been used throughout the nuclear age.

The fundamental issue with nuclear weapons at this moment is that, as happened in the Reagan era, a US administration is playing with the idea of having usable nukes for a variety of conflicts, non-nuclear as well as nuclear. This comes as no surprise, since the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in 2018 previewed just such a strategy. Among the specific purposes of nuclear weapons, the NPR states, are to

hedge against the potential rapid growth or emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats, including chemical, biological, cyber, and large-scale conventional aggression. . . .the United States will enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options. … Expanding flexible US nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression.

Accordingly, Trump’s defense department announced last month that a new, “low-yield” nuclear warhead for submarines will be deployed, supposedly in order to make deterrence of a nuclear attack more credible.

It is not as though the US ability to deter attack has been weakened. Its current stock of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles remains more than adequate to deter any adversary. The total US nuclear weapon inventory is about 5,800 warheads, of which about 1,750 are deployed—about 900 on submarines, which are invulnerable, and 400 on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The remaining 2,000 or so warheads are stored at more than 20 sites in the US and Europe. As for launchers, under Trump new generations of strategic bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and missiles are in research or production. Overkill, in short, has acquired a new life.

Needless and destabilizing

The history of planning for nuclear weapons tells us that the introduction of a new weapon is inherently destabilizing; it makes actual use more rather than less likely, because it introduces greater uncertainty than before about the other side’s intentions. Nuclear war due to a miscalculation, accidental use, or false alarm becomes an increased possibility, and deterrence becomes more a matter of guesswork than ever. The idea that a Russian leader, for example, would believe the United States would not respond if it initiated use of a “low-yield” nuclear weapon rather than some blockbuster is absurd. As a group of former officials, including Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense William Perry, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2019:

We write to respectfully request that Congress reject the Trump administration’s request for new, more usable, ‘low-yield’ nuclear warheads for Trident [submarine] missiles. There is no need for such weapons and building them would make the United States less safe. These so-called ‘low-yield’ weapons are a gateway to nuclear catastrophe and should not be pursued.

Presidential candidates should also be drawing attention to the costs of modernizing the nuclear arsenal. As three experienced analysts point out, the defense department’s “projected expenditures on nuclear weapons for the period 2025–34 are at a level that was exceeded only twice during the Cold War,” meaning over $400 billion (Physics Today, April 2018). The major corporations that produce the weapons benefit from enormous investments. According to one report from PAX, a Netherlands peace group:

When examining the top companies involved in the nuclear weapon industry, we found over 748 billion USD invested in these companies by 325 financial institutions between January 2017 and January 2019. This reflects investments in the top 18 nuclear weapon producing companies.

In a word, nuclear weapons are big business, and so long as “deterrence” dominates discussion, companies that invest in them will always thrive.

Part 2, Getting to Zero, will appear next week.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.