April 13, 2005 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense
There has been considerable debate over nuclear weapons research programs-such as the Modern Pit facility, Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, Enhanced Test Readiness, and Advanced Concepts-in the wake of Congress's decision to cut their funding. Although it is unclear whether funding will be restored, some members of Congress are clearly unwilling or unable to understand the evolving role of nuclear weapons in modern national security. At a recent Heritage Foundation event, a panel of experts examined the role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century and their requirements, such as delivery systems, warhead designs, and technology.
The Changed Role of Nuclear Weapons
The role of nuclear weapons today is different than it was during the Cold War, but the lessons of the Cold War are still instructive. How do we judge if nuclear weapons were successful in their Cold War role? What might be the new standards in today's world?
During the Cold War, the role of nuclear weapons was shaped by the nature of the opponent-the Soviet Union, a fellow nuclear superpower-and reliance on the "balance of terror." Furthermore, holding societal, urban, and industrial targets-and not primarily military targets-at risk was held to be stabilizing. This in turn dictated the numbers and types of nuclear weapons required. The ultimate mechanism of deterrence, which proved extremely effective and certain, was this "balance of terror."
In the post-Cold War world, Russia is no longer the enemy. Today's threats are regional powers armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and long-range delivery mechanisms. Lesser military powers may now be able to hold at risk U.S. military and civilian targets. Deterrence is an uncertain tool in this environment, and capabilities that were formerly stabilizing may now exert destabilizing effects.
Several questions must be considered in this new environment:
Even in the post-Cold War environment, deterrence remains important. The Cold War arsenal must be adjusted, in numbers and types of weapons, to provide deterrence in a new and dynamic situation. And the U.S. needs to be able, more than ever before, to respond to dramatic changes.
The time is right to look with renewed energy at what is being done in the nuclear weapons field. With increasing proliferation worldwide, four main concepts described in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) are important:
The Nuclear Posture Review prescribed a flexible nuclear weapons policy. This is necessary in today's environment of multiple players with different strengths, which has replaced the two-player model of the Cold War. However, policymakers should remember that nuclear modernization is not only about weapons, but also about delivery systems. This necessary infrastructure and the programs that support it are suffering from neglect. Furthermore, new military requirements should be developed to address this changed environment and to ensure a modern strategic force capable of dealing with different kinds of missions:
The United States must prepare its nuclear capabilities for all of these possibilities, while also establishing the correct offensive-defensive mix and maintaining a robust defensive posture.
The overarching question remains: What nuclear posture fits with our capabilities in a relatively seamless and integrated manner? The basic policy is in place, but it remains to be seen whether the programs can catch up with the policy.
The U.S. nuclear stockpile it little different from that designed to fight the Soviet Union and is nearly useless against today's threats. The U.S. can undertake several steps to modernize its nuclear capabilities:
Research from The Heritage Foundation supports many of these points. For more information, see Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 618, Congress is Wrong to Defund Strategic Programs.
Baker Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Kathy Gudgel, Research Assistant in Defense and National Security, contributed to this piece. This WebMemo is based on presentations given at "The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century," a public event held at The Heritage Foundation on Monday, March 14, 2005. Panelist presentations are available at http://www.heritage.org/Press/Events/ev031405a.cfm.