US Nuclear Forces: Meeting the Challenge of a Proliferated World PDF Thumbnail

New Thinking Needed

If nothing else, this report seeks to raise awareness of the need for a fundamental rethinking of the underlying strategic logic developed during the Cold War with regard to nuclear weapons. The conditions that informed that logic have, in many respects, passed into history along with the Cold War itself. The number of nuclear-armed states has grown significantly, and more may be on the way. With US and Russian nuclear force reductions, the world may well be shifting from a bipolar nuclear world to a multipolar nuclear world, complete with regional arms races. With the fielding of long-range guided weapons in large numbers and the creation of cyber weapons following the rise of information-based economies, nuclear weapons are not the only means for inflicting prompt and devastating destruction on a broad scale. An increase in the number of nuclear-armed states, some of them unstable, raises the prospect that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of nonstate entities bent on causing catastrophic destruction. New forms of deterrence may be needed to prevent such attacks, if deterrence is possible at all. Finally, more nuclear powers means an increased risk of ambiguous nuclear aggression, presenting yet another problem that received little attention during the Cold War.

Where does that leave us? We would do well to take a lesson from our Cold War-era predecessors, a succession of administrations who took a realistic view of what arms control might accomplish, while at the same time devoting great intellectual effort — especially in the early years of the nuclear age — to developing strategies for addressing the challenges of the world they lived in. The recommendations that follow are modest. Their purpose is to keep the United States’ nuclear options open until such a review is completed and a well-crafted strategy is in place.

> Building and expanding global counterproliferation partnerships, strengthening NPT compliance and enforcement regimes, and improving human intelligence dedicated to counter-proliferation should be accorded high priority.

> The United States can also assist friendly governments of new nuclear-armed states in improving their controls over their nuclear weapons, fissionable materials, and weapons production infrastructure.

> Capabilities that enhance the United States’ ability to detect, intercept and secure both weapons-grade fissile material (and even nuclear weapons themselves) could prove invaluable in enforcing existing control agreements; intercepting nonstate entities armed with so-called dirty bombs or nuclear weapons, and recovering “loose nukes” that arise in the event a nuclear-armed state descends into chaos.

> The United States must explore the full range of defenses against nuclear attack, to include attacks by traditional means (e.g., ballistic missiles, aircraft, and cruise missiles) and nontraditional means (e.g., covert insertion).

> Should deterrence fail and a limited attack occur, the United States must be able to mitigate the consequences of a limited nuclear attack on itself or its allies in such a manner as to maintain freedom of action to preserve collective interests at home and abroad.

> Some modest reductions in nuclear force levels below the 1,700 minimum called for in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty may be warranted. However, the greater the reductions, the lower the barrier becomes for other prospective rivals to join the United States and Russia as major nuclear powers. Given these considerations, 1,500 warheads seems an absolute floor for the time being.

> The United States must have the capability to respond promptly and devastatingly to aggression through both nuclear and nonnuclear means (e.g., guided weapons and cyber strikes), to include the ability to effect regime change in minor nuclear powers. To this end, the United States should enhance its capabilities for conducting highly distributed, highly integrated power-projection operations from standoff ranges (i.e., absent the use of fixed forward bases) under conditions of radioactive contamination, or against an enemy who retains the ability to threaten nuclear attack.

This report concludes that while the United States should continue to accord high priority to arresting nuclear proliferation and reversing it where possible, it must craft strategies for the world it will likely inhabit for the indefinite future: a world of eight or more nuclear-armed states — some of which are unstable, have ties to radical nonstate groups, or both — with the prospect of more to follow.