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

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.