We Must Revive Our Moribund Nuclear Force

Barack Obama is not likely to be mistaken for Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, his foreign policy has been quite soft-spoken—especially when addressing openly hostile states such as Iran. But he has whittled America’s “big stick” down to kindling.

While “resetting” with Russia and “engaging” with Iran, Mr. Obama has presided over a tremendous down-sizing of U.S. military strength. The Army’s manpower is down 10 percent since President Obama took office. Our naval capabilities are aging and inadequate to meet our national security demands. The Air Force fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history. The Marines are running only about two-thirds the number of battalions it has historically needed to meet day-to-day operational demands.

Most neglected of all U.S. national security elements are our strategic forces. Here, President Obama has reined in development and deployment of ballistic missile defenses.  The president cut all advanced missile defense programs designed to keep the United States ahead of the ballistic missile threat in the future. The president also delayed and underfunded existing programs, most notably the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. Meanwhile to curry favor with Russia, he pulled the plug on planned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, simultaneously alienating those allies while displaying weakness to Moscow.

Russia immediately exploited that weakness in negotiations over the New START. The final agreement allowed Russia to build up its nuclear arsenal, while requiring a significant reduction in U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery systems Moreover, the treaty included extremely weak verification provisions and ambiguous definitions making it virtually impossible to charge Russia with a violation.

Meanwhile, Moscow has repeatedly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with impunity.  The Commander in Chief barely raised a peep as Moscow covertly developed and tested missiles banned under the treaty. No doubt, Putin will use those missiles to threaten our allies in Europe. Meanwhile, the U.S. meekly continues to comply with the terms of the treaty.

Leadership by example can be a great thing.  But when no one follows your example—be it unilaterally disarming yourself or playing by the rules while the competition blatantly cheats—it’s time to get a new game plan.

The next president must come up with a new nuclear playbook. He or she will have to deal with emboldened adversaries who boast far greater military capabilities than they had when Mr. Obama entered the Oval Office.

Here are five principles that should guide development of the new nuclear playbook:
  • Abandon arms control treaties that benefit our adversaries without improving our national security. The next president should withdraw from the INF Treaty. If Russia won’t play by the rules, it’s time to toss out the rulebook. Discard the New START treaty as well. Weakness invites aggression, and continuing with unilateral nuclear reductions only encourages our adversaries to ramp up their own nuclear programs.
  • Fund, develop, and deploy a multi-layered ballistic missile defense system. President Obama has cancelled several missile defense systems, changed missile defense plans, and reduced funding for interceptor research. Strong presidential leadership can and should get our missile defense program back on track. War gaming exercises have shown that missile defense is the most effective deterrent to attack in a world where more and more nations become nuclear powers.
  • Modernize Nuclear Weapons and Delivery Platforms. Years of misguided policies, underfunding and neglect have taken a toll. Our nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are old and in danger of becoming outdated. When lawmakers ratified the New START, there was congressional consensus that we would make the infrastructure investments needed to make sure our nuclear weapons remained safe, secure, reliable, and militarily effective. But that investment never happened. The next president will have to articulate the urgency with which we must modernize our nuclear force.
  • Dump the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. American vulnerability to a ballistic missile attack arises from a fundamental asymmetry between our values and those of our adversaries. The U.S. values its citizens, economic prosperity, and societal institutions—all of which are easier to destroy than leadership hidden in scattered, deeply buried bunkers. This is why we need multi-layered missile defense — including space-based interceptors — to protect our civilians, our forward-deployed troops, and our allies from both salvo launches and long-range missile attacks. Iran, Russia, and China have openly threatened to attack us.
  • Rebuild relationships with allies. Alliances are not automatic or self-sustaining. Mr. Obama has spent more time negotiating with our adversaries than on building partnerships with our most trusted allies. The next president will need to re-engage with our allies on nuclear weapon policy, especially regarding U.S. treaty withdrawals, modernization and deployment. U.S. nuclear weapons are the most effective tool in the nonproliferation tool kit, assuring security for America’s allies and convincing them to not develop their own nuclear weapons or increase the size of their nuclear arsenals.
For more than a generation, U.S. nuclear weapons and missile defense have served American interests well. So well, in fact, that President Obama seems to have forgotten why we need these awesome weapons in the first place.

His successor will have to lead the nation in an increasingly uncertain and more dangerous environment. The next president will have to restore international confidence in the U.S. as a reliable ally possessed of a viable nuclear deterrent. That will require leadership, perseverance, and focused attention to one of the most challenging problems of our time: how to prevent and deter a nuclear war.

 - James Jay Carafano is a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation, directing its research on defense and foreign policy issues. Michaela Dodge is a senior Heritage analyst specializing in defense and strategic policy matters.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Michaela Dodge Senior Policy Analyst, Defense and Strategic Policy
Center for National Defense

Originally appeared in Breaking Defense