Nuclear Weapons: What Is the NDP Missing?

Michaela Dodge /

The bipartisan National Defense Panel (NDP) provided a well-articulated argument for the types of forces the U.S. needs to meet its national security demands. However, the panel comes up short when it comes to making a case for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Granted, the panel’s task wasn’t to articulate what the U.S. strategic posture should be. As its distinguished members sum up, “Our panel did not have the time or scope to study the nuclear force modernization issue, but we understand its importance.”

However, the panel recognizes the importance of credible nuclear forces that play “a cornerstone in broader U.S. defense strategy” vis-à-vis an uncertain strategic environment where nuclear-related technologies and capabilities are spreading. It also recognizes the importance of strategic forces modernization considering that “the United States faces the looming obsolescence of the suite of nuclear forces procured in the latter half of the Cold War.”

The panel asserts that the U.S. nuclear triad—bombers, intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—“under current budget constraints is unaffordable.” This is a case of the budget driving strategic considerations. Nuclear forces recapitalization is a fairly miniscule part of the U.S. defense budget. Currently, the U.S. spends about 2 percent of its defense budget on nuclear forces. This percentage will increase to about 4 percent of the budget at the peak of new systems’ recapitalization.

It is clear that the nation cannot solve its fiscal woes on the back of the nuclear budget (or the defense budget, for that matter). The panel estimates recapitalization at between $600 billion and $1 trillion over a 30-year period, but this estimate is problematic because the bombers and the nuclear weapons complex and command and control have conventional and nuclear purposes. The U.S. nuclear weapons complex even serves civilian purposes and is responsible for the dismantlement of U.S. nuclear warheads.

The panel strongly states that any future nuclear posture “should be at least as capable in terms of its relevant attributes (such as survivability, flexibility, controllability and discrimination, and penetration capability) as the current posture.” The U.S. nuclear triad is the only configuration that offers such attributes at the levels required by assurance and extended deterrence. Absent U.S. nuclear security guarantees, other nations—especially those facing hostile nuclear-armed adversaries—will be more compelled to develop their own nuclear weapon capabilities.

U.S. nuclear weapons make a critical contribution to the security of the nation and its allies. They are meant to prevent a large-scale conflict and nuclear exchanges, which they have done marvelously since the dawn of the nuclear age. U.S. adversaries are dangerous, and the nation cannot afford to let go of its national security capabilities, a notion that the panel strongly endorses.