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Cato Argues for Reducing U.S. Nuclear Capability to Subs Only

But one critic calls push to ax America’s nuclear forces “imprudent” and “outright dangerous.”

by
Rodrigo Sermeño

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November 2, 2013 - 10:48 pm
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WASHINGTON – A new research paper argues that axing the U.S. nuclear triad system could save the Pentagon billions of dollars by canceling its land-based missile programs and bombers in favor of a submarine-only nuclear delivery system.

“This paper, I hope, reflects the kind of top to bottom review that is necessary of the [nuclear] arsenal and the rationales that have sustained it,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, at a forum on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

Preble; Matt Fay, a PhD student at Temple University; and Cato defense research fellow Benjamin Friedman argue that nuclear weapons are irrelevant in U.S. wars. In their report, the researchers recommended cutting bombers and land-based missiles, saying submarines are more effective to confront the threats now facing the U.S. They conclude the U.S. can do without nuclear bombers and land-based missiles and save taxpayers roughly $20 billion a year.

“Budgetary benefits and military use of nukes have declined,” Friedman said. “I think the cause of that is that they [nukes] aren’t used in the wars we actually fight.”

He said most of the wars the U.S. wages are increasingly against insurgents and weak states without nuclear arsenals.

“Nuking a bunch of people in a country that doesn’t threaten the survival of the U.S. isn’t morally acceptable so nobody thinks of that as a possibility,” Friedman said.

In the wake of World War II, the U.S. held the upper hand in nuclear capabilities, using the threat of “massive retaliation” as a means to deter Soviet aggression. By the 1950s, the Soviet Union had accumulated a sizable nuclear arsenal that could be delivered on the territory of the U.S. and Western Europe.

By the mid-1960s, unilateral deterrence gave way to mutual deterrence, a situation of strategic stalemate between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The two superpowers would refrain from attacking each other because of the certainty of mutual assured destruction. Both superpowers came to the recognition that the first requirement of an effective deterrent was that it should ride out a surprise attack.

This led to the creation of the U.S. nuclear triad system — bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — during the Eisenhower administration to ensure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal would survive a preemptive Soviet strike.

Fay said that during the Cold War there was not agreement on what exactly it would take to deter the Soviets, but many people have come to accept U.S. deterrence strategy because the superpowers have failed to use their nuclear arsenals against each other.

“Because superpowers failed to obliterate one another, many people have now come to take at face value that we’ve somehow arrived at some sort of optimal and apparently permanent deterrence strategy that is enshrined in the nuclear triad and operative at all times, even absent the particular political circumstances of the Cold War,” Fay said.

Fay said no U.S. adversary has the capability to destroy all U.S. ballistic missiles, let alone all three legs of the triad, and no state currently threatens the Navy’s nuclear submarines, which makes abandoning two legs of the triad more feasible.

“Any potential adversary who could develop advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities would still have to conduct a first strike on those subs in ports and maintenance, and track down the eight to nine subs at sea at any given time. And it would have to do so with the confidence it could destroy them all,” he said.

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'[Friedman} said most of the wars the U.S. wages are increasingly against insurgents and weak states without nuclear arsenals."

History hasn't come to a stop. We can never know where a future crisis might arise. Russia and China are both busy upgrading and expanding their already extensive nuclear arsenals. Iran is racing toward nuclear breakout capability while North Korea works to weaponize their nukes and develop their long-range missile technology. Etc.

Financial planners will always tell you to diversify your portfolio, because putting all your eggs in one basket is a bad idea. This is as true with nuclear strategy as it is with financial planning. It is impossible to predict when some technological breakthrough might render our nuclear submarines more vulnerable than they currently are, and if that happens, we could be in trouble. Maintaining the nuclear triad is relatively cheap insurance and a hedge against technological surprise. At the very least, we should maintain an air-launched cruise missile capability to complement the SSBNs.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The national defense consensus in America is collapsing. Uncle Sam has become the most proximate enemy. In that context the triad is irrelevant.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
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50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh, and one more thing: if the nuclear triad is such an obsolete and unaffordable Cold War era arrangement, why hasn't anyone told that to the Israelis, the Russians and the Chinese? :) All of them are building up and modernizing their own nuclear triads - and India is trying to create one.

The Russians are now developing or deploying several new types of ICBMs, a new class of ballistic missile subs (the Borei class), two new SLBM types (Layner and Bulava) capable of carrying 10-12 warheads each, and are developing a next-generation bomber, the PAK DA. The Chinese are fielding two new ICBM types (DF-31A, DF-41), developing a rail-mobile ICBM and a stealthy intercontinental bomber capable of striking the US, and building two new classes of SSBNs while also fielding new JL-2 SLBMs to launch from these boats - missiles that will eventually have 14,000 km range and a 12-warhead payload.

A nuclear triad is obsolete, Cold War, and unaffordable? Someone ought to tell the Russians and the Chinese :)
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Just when the libertarians seem like they might be getting a clue about defense requirements, they come out with something this mind numbingly stupid.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hah, they never had any clue :) They were always in favor of deep defense cuts and unilateral disarmament - this is just the latest in a string of such proposals by CATO anti-defense hacks.
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"The Soviets are our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy."
-Gen. Curtis LeMay
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
There is an old saying, two is one and one is none. Relying on one means of defense or retaliation is an invitation to calamity. One can be compromised. Two difficult. Three nearly impossible.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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