Nuclear Fallback
Budget cuts and administration indifference may harm our nuclear deterrent.


Political turmoil in the Middle East, Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, and the buildup of China’s military are only a few of the worrisome trends that point to a prolonged period of global instability. Against this backdrop, the U.S. defense budget and the military capabilities it buys are being dramatically reduced in ways that will hinder our ability to shape or respond to these developments.

Over the next decade, defense spending will drop by anywhere from $450 billion to more than $1 trillion. The full extent of the cuts, and the national-security implications they foreshadow, are now in the hands of a congressional “supercommittee” charged with slashing overall federal spending. But cuts of this magnitude will translate into less military capability, a likely “dumbing down” of U.S. military strategy, a more problematic margin of military advantage over potential adversaries, and greater strategic risk. They are also likely to diminish America’s ability to advance U.S. policy objectives and secure a stable world order.

Not surprisingly, long-overdue investments in our aging and deteriorating nuclear capabilities and infrastructure — essential to maintaining a reliable and effective nuclear deterrent — are now on the chopping block as the military services seek to protect “usable” non-nuclear systems at the expense of “unusable” nuclear ones.

But the world remains a dangerous place, with nations and groups seeking nuclear weapons as a counter to U.S. military preponderance, a deterrent to U.S. action in regions vital to American national-security interests, a bargaining chip for political leverage, or a counter to regional threats. Nuclear weapons remain the great equalizer in world affairs, granting those that possess them greater influence over American policies and actions. Consequently, an effective and robust U.S. nuclear deterrent remains as important as ever.

The Obama administration committed to revitalizing the nuclear enterprise as the price of obtaining Senate support for the New START treaty and further nuclear-arms reductions. It pledged last year to add an extra $7 billion in new investments to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of our existing nuclear arsenal and a further $5 billion over the next five years. In a report to Congress last November, the administration stated: “Given the extremely tight budget environment facing the federal government, these requests to the Congress demonstrate the priority the Administration’s [sic] places on maintaining the safety, security and effectiveness of the [nuclear] deterrent.” In a letter to senators last December, President Obama reiterated that “my Administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am President.”

While the nuclear reductions mandated by New START have been codified in law, the same cannot be said for the administration’s commitment to fully fund essential nuclear modernization. On the contrary, this promise now appears increasingly hollow, with necessary modernization and sustainment activities increasingly at risk. There is less appetite to spend billions of dollars on nuclear weapons in an era of severe budget austerity and scarce resources.

Recently, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation process that full funding of the administration’s plan for modernizing the nuclear-weapons complex must be “balanced with the realities of the current fiscal environment.” This suggests the administration is laying the groundwork to walk away from the president’s commitment. Doing so would confirm for skeptics that the administration’s pledge was nothing more than a political gambit to win ratification of New START.

Sadly, while the administration may be retreating from its earlier commitment, even the additional funding it originally proposed will not fully offset the overall decline in nuclear skills, competencies, and capabilities that has occurred over the past two decades. Scientific and technical expertise in the nuclear complex has atrophied, and the lack of attention to nuclear matters has left every leg of our strategic nuclear “triad” in need of modernization:


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review