Arms Race Redux? The Obama Administration Is Planning to Spend $1 Trillion Nuclear Weapons
January 23, 2016
Michael Krepon / Arms Control Network & The Economist
Commentary: Is arms racing now picking up speed again? We still use the terminology of arms racing out of habit, just as we talk about arms control when we now mean arms reduction. A careful look suggests change as well as familiar behaviors. Nuclear arms have indisputably staged a comeback with four of the NPT Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) are undertaking or are planning to undertake expensive strategic modernization programs.
(January 20, 2016) -- Back in the day -- that would be the 1960s, '70s and '80's -- arms racing was the norm. The "action-reaction" phenomenon ruled. If one superpower unveiled a new weapon system or improved hard-target-kill capabilities, the other superpower was sure to follow.
MIRVs begat MIRVs, cruise missiles multiplied, and target lists expanded as deployed warheads reached stratospheric numbers. No potential strategic offensive advantage could go unanswered. "Overkill" was trumped by the imperative to avoid being placed at a disadvantage. Anxiety overruled common sense.
The offense-defense competition made everything worse. If one superpower demonstrated interest in national ballistic missile defenses, the other would act to ensure that warheads would still get through. The "mad momentum" of the arms race was a constant.
The best the superpowers could accomplish in the 1970s was to limit deployed capabilities, and even then, prospective limits prompted end-arounds and bargaining chips.
It was not until the advent of the Reagan Administration and a radical reformer in the Kremlin that unorthodoxy held sway and the Rules of the Game changed. When the dealers overrode the squeezers around President Reagan, previously unimaginable outcomes became possible. Missiles with shorter ranges that were well-suited for preemption were eliminated in return for the dismantlement of missiles threatening US allies.
The threat of space-based missile defenses was traded in for deep cuts in strategic forces. Reagan and Gorbachev broke the mad momentum of the arms race by dismissing the underlying war-fighting capabilities behind their nuclear deterrents.
Is arms racing now picking up speed again? We still use the terminology of arms racing out of habit, just as we talk about arms control when we now mean arms reduction. A careful look suggests change as well as familiar behaviors. Nuclear arms have indisputably staged a comeback.
Four of the NPT Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) are undertaking or are planning to undertake expensive strategic modernization programs. India and Pakistan have flight-tested more new types of missiles since 1998 than any of the NWS. North Korea brandishes its nuclear arsenal and tests devices. Vladimir Putin views nuclear weapons as backstopping Russia's resurgence.
All of this is well worth worrying about -- especially since there is comparatively little happening on the other side of the ledger to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear arsenals. Treaty-making is at a standstill, and will remain slow-footed even if the Conference on Disarmament revives.
The next best shot at negotiated reductions may not arrive until New START is nearing expiration -- if Moscow and Washington are looking to cut expenditures for nuclear excess. This is a very long time to wait and watch aging weapon systems being replaced by new ones.
Everyone justifies these expenditures in the name of deterrence, but the flip side of deterrence has always been nuclear war-fighting. What has changed is that, with the exception of China, the NWS's ongoing and prospective strategic modernization programs are about replacement, not about build-ups. Replacement in some cases will accompany shrinkage. Budget constraints do not fade when negotiations lag.
There are no technical revolutions on the horizon that would lend major impetus to arms racing, as there were during the Cold War (with the possible exception of boost-glide vehicles). And while regional missile defenses will become more important, plans for national missile defenses are likely to remain on the shelf.
The testing of nuclear devices was always the handmaiden to arms racing, but testing is now confined to one outlaw state. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty's norm against testing becomes more meaningful every year, even without the Treaty's entry into force.
The taboo against the detonation of mushroom clouds on battlefields is now over 70 years old. The extension of these norms cannot be taken for granted, but they constitute powerful restraints. Because of them, the utility of nuclear weapons is shrinking much faster than existing arsenals. Russian and US nuclear enclaves haven't gotten this message.
In Asia, where stockpiles are growing, the pace of expansion is far slower than during the Cold War. The two major powers in Asia that could greatly pick up this pace -- China and India -- are taking their time. So far, they have not signed up Cold War strategies that equate nuclear deterrence with war-fighting capabilities.
The possibility of strategic restraint in Asia, despite the absence of arms-control arrangements, is greater than most Western strategists anticipated. The triangular strategic competition among China, India, and Pakistan is interactive and serious, and will be tested by the advent of MIRVs. But there is still a decent chance that Beijing and New Delhi will not go overboard.
The enterprise of arms control was a Western construct conceptualized in the early 1960s as a needed replacement to hollow superpower pronouncements championing general and complete disarmament.
The practice of arms control accomplished much, despite its limitations -- including constraints on nuclear testing, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and strategic-arms limitation accords. But the concept of arms control didn't prevent arms racing until immediately before and after the demise of the Soviet Union, when significant strategic arms reduction treated were negotiated.
We have been eating this seed corn ever since. The challenge before us is to conceptualize the next goal and the next phase of reducing nuclear arsenals and nuclear dangers. This time around, conceptualization in the West will be insufficient; a more inclusive approach will be needed.
The end goal is abolition, but we have learned that abolition is not an effective organizing principle. So, what is the next phase and the next goal? And then, even harder, how do we achieve the conditions necessary for success?
Barack Obama's administration, which began with a vision to get rid of nuclear weapons, has a trillion-dollar plan to renew them
(January 23, 2016) – Twenty-five years ago, television viewers around the world were introduced to America's cruise-missile technology. As journalists stood filing their reports from the roof of the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad, Tomahawk missiles were caught on camera sweeping through the city's streets on their way to targets struck with uncanny accuracy.
Designed at the height of the cold war as a nuclear missile, subsequently armed with a conventional warhead, the Tomahawk has been in the vanguard of most American air campaigns since the first Gulf war.
Yet plans to develop a successor, the long-range stand-off missile (LRSO), before the old ones are retired in 2030 -- part of the Obama administration's plan to overhaul America's nuclear deterrent over the next 30 years at a cost of $1 trillion -- are now under attack.
William Perry (defense secretary from 1994 to 1997, in charge of developing the air-launched cruise missile at the Pentagon during the late 1970s) and Andy Weber (the assistant secretary of defense responsible for nuclear programs for five years, to 2014) caused a stir in October by calling for the cancellation of plans to build a fleet of 1,000 air-launched, nuclear-armed missiles. This would save $25 billion.
Their argument is that nuclear-armed cruise missiles are a "uniquely destabilizing type of weapon", because potential foes cannot tell whether they are being attacked with a missile carrying a conventional warhead or a nuclear one. Scrapping the LRSO, they say, "would not diminish the formidable US nuclear deterrent in the least".
Arms-control experts fear that the justifications from the Pentagon for the new missile, and for a highly accurate new nuclear bomb, suggest that cold-war doctrines, controversial at the time, such as escalation control and limited nuclear-war-fighting, are being dusted off.
Hillary Clinton, who is generally thought to be more hawkish than Barack Obama, was asked while campaigning in Iowa for her take on the "trillion-dollar" nuclear program. She replied: "Yeah, I've heard about that. I'm going to look into that. It doesn't make sense to me." Mrs. Clinton's remark betrays the pressure she is under from her left-wing rival, Bernie Sanders.
But many Democrats feel a sense of acute disappointment that Mr. Obama has not, in their eyes, lived up to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, one he described in the speech in Prague in 2009 that helped to win him his somewhat premature Nobel peace prize.
Paying for the Payload
Some of the most expensive parts of the nuclear program are not disputed, even by liberal Democrats. Few argue against the replacement of the 14 Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines which will begin to wear out in the late 2020s.
The bill for that is likely to be around $140 billion for 12 new boats. More questionable is the air force's bid last year to replace the 440-strong Minuteman III land-based missile force at a cost of $62 billion.
A study in 2014 by the RAND Corporation judged that incremental modernization might cost only a third as much, and could sustain the missile system for several more decades. Some, like Gordon Adams of the Stimson Centre, a think-tank, argue that land-based missiles are no longer necessary to maintain nuclear deterrence.
They are the minority. The counter-argument is that as long as Russia builds all the 700 deployed missiles and bombers it is allowed under the New START treaty, America's land-based force will still be needed -- if only as a "sink" providing targets to absorb a nuclear strike.
The arguments are therefore focused on the new cruise missile and a $10 billion new version of the free-fall nuclear bomb called the B61-12, which will replace four older variants. The venerable B-52 bomber will be adapted to take the missile and will soldier on until 2040. The stealthy B-2 bomber, which entered service in 1997, will be able to carry both weapons.
A nuclear-capable version of the much-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be fitted to take the bomb. In addition a new aircraft, the Long Range Strike Bomber, (LRS-B) will be built as the principal carrier for the two weapons. In October the air force awarded Northrop Grumman the $55 billion contract to develop and build around 100 of these bombers, which should enter service in 2025 as the B-3.
With such an advanced bomber flying into view, the argument for a new long-range missile is now weaker. Besides, the new bombs the B-3 will carry are much more sophisticated than their predecessors. With computerized guidance, maneuverable tailfins and a warhead whose explosive power can be dialed up and down from 50 to 0.3 kilotons (from three times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb to 2% of it) to reduce collateral damage, they will be accurate to within 30 meters.
Yet in nuclear deterrence such technological advantages bring their own problems. Precisely because it is so accurate and its yield can be made so small, the new bomb could make crossing the nuclear threshold a lot easier and therefore more tempting for commanders. Critics see it as encouraging a return to something like "flexible response", a cold-war concept which many at the time thought risky, because it unsettled the apocalyptic logic of deterrence.
But advocates of both weapons reckon that it is their detractors who are stuck in the past. Clark Murdock of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies led three other think-tank teams in "Project Atom", a report on America's nuclear future published last June. Mr. Murdock concluded that if the extended deterrence America offers close allies is to remain credible, it will need smaller, more discriminating weapons as part of its nuclear arsenal.
That is because, despite the Iran deal, more rogue states may acquire nuclear capability. Russia, too, is placing a greater emphasis on low-yield nuclear weapons as a way of offsetting America's still-overwhelming conventional military superiority.
Mr. Murdock and Pentagon strategists fear that if America only has hugely powerful ballistic missiles at its disposal, it will be, in effect, "self-deterred" from responding to limited nuclear attacks (or threats of them) from opponents.
Other factors, too, suggest that new nuclear weapons will survive the campaign against them. Franklin Miller, a veteran nuclear strategist now at the Scowcroft Group, points out that Mr. Obama would never have persuaded the Senate to ratify the New START treaty in 2010 had he not pledged to renew America's nuclear weapons on land, sea and in the air.
That agreement allows for what is known as the "bomber discount", which counts an aircraft carrying several bombs as a single warhead.
The LRS-B will be able to carry internally a payload of cruise missiles, the new B61-12 bombs or a smaller stand-off missile with a conventional warhead. It is improbable that any president would forgo that option while Russia retains it.
Nor is cost destined to loom as large as some expect. Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution says that with sequestration budgets caps now more or less abandoned, future defense budgets will be under less strain.
The Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that even at its peak in 2027, the complete modernization plan will claim only 5% of the Pentagon's budget. Nuclear deterrence follows its own logic. So does paying for it.
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