Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Today's Reading Assignment

"Why America Still Needs Nukes," by Evan Moore of the Foreign Policy Initiative, writing at Real Clear Defense: 

"In a highly anticipated report, a bipartisan group of former civilian and military leaders recently concluded that U.S. security could face grave dangers if Washington fails to quickly reverse a decade’s worth of deep cuts to defense spending. Known as the National Defense Panel (NDP), they urge immediate and sustained investments to improve the readiness, capacity, and capability not only of America’s conventional forces, but also of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Amid Russia’s violations of a key nuclear arms control pact, and China’s efforts to grow the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal, it’s critical that policymakers and lawmakers act on the NDP panel’s recommendations, especially on America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces."
In particular, the NDP report emphasizes that America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces “continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring U.S. allies and partners around the world.” The report adds that our nuclear arsenal plays “a unique and crucial role”—not only as the “credible guarantor” of the sovereignty of the United States and our allies, but also as “a cornerstone” in “broader U.S. defense strategy.”
Moreover, the NDP concludes that “[n]uclear force modernization is essential,” given the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s “looming obsolescence.” The report added that “America’s nuclear arsenal will need life extension programs and some modernization if its deterrent value is to be preserved.” For instance, the growth of more sophisticated air defense systems around the world will put America’s B-2 bomber, a stealthy long-range aircraft that can carry both nuclear and conventional weapons, “increasingly at risk” in the middle of the next decade. The NDP panel urges the United States to field a new bomber that can sneak into heavily-defended airspace and deliver “a broad array of operationally useful payloads,” including nuclear payloads."

While Mr. Moore presents a very cogent analysis, there is nothing particularly new or revealing in his column. It's simply another reminder that nuclear weapons are an important part of America's security strategy, yet our land and sea-based strategic forces continue to atrophy at an alarming rate.  Equally disturbing, virtually everyone with a modicum of nuclear expertise recognizes the problem, yet no one (beyond a few senior military officers and policy wonks) have articulated a clear plan for fixing the problem.  Then, there's the matter of paying for tens of billions of dollars in required nuclear upgrades, against a backdrop of austere defense budgets. 

And, assuming the modernization effort actually gains momentum, there's the obstacle sitting in the Oval Office.  President Obama openly dreams of the day when nuclear weapons can be completely eliminated, so it's a safe bet that he would never support major upgrades to our strategic arsenal.  Mr. Obama won't be leaving the White House for another 2 1/2 years, so any serious effort at modernization wouldn't begin until the latter half of this decade. 

In the interim, Russia and China are continuing efforts to update their nuclear forces.  Moscow's newest ICBM, variants of the SS-27 series, have been deployed in silo and road-mobile versions.  China is also improving its land-based missiles and building new ballistic missile subs that, for the first time, can target the U.S. from waters close to the Chinese mainland.  To be sure, Beijing's fledgling SSBN fleet is not a match for our remaining Ohio-class boats, and the new Russian missiles have been deployed in relatively small numbers.  But in an era of MIRV technology and greatly improved missile accuracy, you don't need large numbers of missiles to hold our nation at risk.  Even rogue states like North Korea and Iran will soon have a rudimentary capability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Readers will also note we haven't touched other elements of the strategic debate, such as missile defense and anti-satellite systems.  Our adversaries are making strides in those areas as well, posing further dangers to our national security.  Meanwhile, the smart boys and girls at the NSC and the Pentagon are trying to determine the "right" number of bombs that should be dropped on a terrorist army in Iraq.  If we can't figure that one out, prospects for strategic force modernization are decidedly dim. 
ADDENDUM:  The Obama Administration's one real effort at nuclear reform (other than slashing our arsenal) has been aimed at improving morale and career prospects among Air Force missile launch officers.  That effort was prompted by a cheating scandal at Malmstrom AFB, Montana that resulted in dozens of officers being temporarily decertified for nuclear duty.  As we noted earlier this year, cheating among certification exams by missileers was one more sign of endemic rot in the nation's nuclear enterprise.  It will take more than incentives for launch officers to get our strategic forces back on track--assuming that any of our "leaders" are up to that challenge. 

Don't hold your breath.                  

No comments: