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Modernized nuclear force is destabilizing

In their recent opinion piece “Cutting nuclear arms won’t promote peace,” guest authors Christine Leah and Adam Lowther advise against cutting any of the nuclear weapons modernization programs currently in design and development.

These programs will cost, in aggregate and including ongoing deployments, about $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The nuclear upgrades under greatest attack are all Air Force missiles and bombs.

U.S. conventional weapons, Leah and Lowther argue, are a greater spur to nuclear proliferation than U.S. nuclear weapons. How this oblique assertion translates into an argument for not just some, or most, but all U.S. nuclear modernization is not explained.

Neither is it mentioned that the modernized air-launched cruise missiles and bombs would all have greater accuracy, or stealth, or low-yield options, or stealthier platforms from which to launch, all aimed at providing illusory “advantages” in nuclear war-fighting.

The more than 1,000 stealthy air-launched cruise missiles being planned would not be counted under any current arms control treaty. They could be launched from anywhere. They have ambiguous nuclear or conventional payloads, and they are very hard to detect.

For these reasons they would be deeply destabilizing, which is why many nuclear pragmatists, like former Secretary of Defense William Perry, at one time a cruise missile advocate, oppose them.

Advanced cruise missiles are rapidly proliferating among nuclear states. They can be launched from many kinds of ships, even from special shipping containers.

The U.S. has no realistic defense against them. Why go down this road?

These are powerful arguments. One wonders how much of the awkward defense Leah and Lowther offer is motivated by the tens of billions this program will bring to the Air Force and its contractors?

The Air Force wants not only new cruise missiles and new bombs, but also brand new ICBMs and a new ICBM warhead. The new warheads are needed only as an “upload hedge” given the large inventory of recently upgraded warheads on hand.

A better approach to nonproliferation begins with the sole enforceable basis of the world’s nonproliferation regime, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty rests on a deal between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” in which the latter agree not to acquire nuclear arms in return for the former eventually giving them up.

In other words, the “fundamental ideological dislike of nuclear weapons” that the authors mistakenly ascribe to former Pentagon officials and generals is not an “ideology” but a legal cornerstone of the world’s nonproliferation structure. It is part of what the Constitution calls “the highest law of the land.”

This is not mere formalism. Even the most hawkish among us must acknowledge that modernizing everything nuclear in sight does not really send the kind of international signals that will make America secure. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime is now foundering, in substantial part because of this policy. The U.S. and other nuclear weapon states have not kept their end of the bargain.

More is just not better when it comes to nuclear weapons. Fast flight times from what are becoming super-accurate submarine-launched missiles do not make us safer. Undetectable cruise missiles that can be launched by their hundreds do not make us safer. Forward-based, ultra-accurate gravity bombs with nuclear low-yield options do not make us safer. Quite the reverse.

Where production is not already far advanced, as it is for the Navy’s main upgraded warhead, these programs should at a minimum be delayed for the next administration to decide upon. More than a thousand nuclear weapons would remain deployed, with thousands more in reserve.

Senior Pentagon officials past and present have pointed out that there simply isn’t enough money in the pipeline for all the new weapons on order. Thinking senior officers must understand that, in the broader interests of the country, choices will have to be made, and soon. None of the new security threats the country faces can be deterred with nuclear weapons, let alone destabilizing ones.