First Connect the Dots

Revitalizing the US nuclear arsenal is essential but should follow, not precede, a comprehensive strategic review. The triad was planned and built to deter the Soviet Union and ensure survival for retaliation if the US was attacked. Mutual Assured Destruction may seem insane today but it worked and contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, we face an entirely different set of threats and potential adversaries. Nuclear weapons have proliferated and as they have the nature of the threats that need to be addressed have become more complex.

Bob Butterworth, a national security expert and former Marshall Institute Board member, has addressed the modernization issue in a recent Breaking Defense article—A Second Chance on Nuclear Modernization. He recently wrote that the Navy’s admission that it can’t afford the program to replace the Ohio class nuclear submarine is an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the entire nuclear program and align our force posture with the range of threats that now confront us. He also observed that a “careful review … might endorse the current plan as most likely to provide the deterrence and defense forces best suited to the future. But I doubt it. And pressing ahead with outdated rationales to invest heavily in last century’s force posture could provoke further disaffection with the nuclear weapons enterprise. A more flexible structure and posture, more options for adaptive planning and versatile response, would better meet the surprises we are sure to encounter”.

Connecting the dots should begin with a comprehensive strategic review of the type conducted in the 1950s. That review should then be followed by an analysis of options for continuing to deter the use of nuclear weapons and the survivability of whatever force posture emerges as being the most cost-effective. How much is enough involves striking a balance between priorities, alternative ways to achieve them and budgets. Any process that begins with budget constraints and the absence of a strategic reassessment will inevitably lead to the waste of scarce resources and a bureaucratic battle among the services to maintain their fair share of the nuclear weapons pie.

Prejudging the outcome of a rational modernization program doesn’t make sense. In spite of the Zero Option club, it should be clear that other nations are not going to disarm and that nuclear weapons will get into more hands not fewer. It should also be clear from history that unilateral disarmament is foolish.

Whether we continue to need a Triad and how many nuclear weapons we need are subjects of analysis not rhetoric or prejudgments. Any modernization program must also contain provisions to make sure that warheads and delivery vehicles will actually work if they are needed for a retaliatory strike.

Proponents of a robust modernization program and proponents of the Zero Option would do well to read or re-read the 1965 book, The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age by Hitch and McKean. The concluding remarks are just a relevant today as back then to facing up to our national security challenges: A generally useful way of concluding a grim argument of this kind would affirm that we have resources, intelligence and courage to make the correct decisions. … But, perhaps, as a small aid toward making such decisions more likely, we should contemplate the possibility that they may not be made. They are hard, do involve sacrifice, are affected by great uncertainties and concern matters in which much is altogether unknown and much else must be hedged by secrecy; and above all, they entail a … image of ourselves in a world of persistent danger. It is by no means certain that we shall meet the test.


This article appeared on the National Journal’s Energy Insiders weblog at

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