The US Nuclear Force

Steven Pifer, a Brookings Institute denizen, wrote some thoughts for Politico in response to a President-Elect Donald Trump tweet about our need to “expand [our] nuclear capability.”  Typical of his piece is this bit:

[O]ne should keep perspective. The North Koreans are building their small nuclear arsenal, and no one knows for certain whether they have miniaturized a weapon that could fit atop a ballistic missile. But nothing North Korea does could stop the US military—with its current nuclear capability—from obliterating the small country.

One should, indeed, keep perspective.  The perspective that Pifer has omitted to notice is that when northern Korea gets an ICBM with a warhead on it that’s capable of reaching American (or Republic of Korean, or Japanese, or Australian) cities, it will be too late to develop upgraded nuclear weapons with which to deal with the barbarians of the north.  Once northern Korea’s nuclear weapons are destroying American (or RoK, Japanese, or Australian) cities, certainly we can obliterate the small country, but our cities or those of our friends and allies, and all the millions of people in them, will already be dead.

Russia and the People’s Republic of China are modernizing and expanding their nuclear weapons suite, also.  Against these two, the US has fewer than 1,500 nuclear warheads.  Despite their power, that’s not enough to fight a war with (especially not a two-front war), even one that starts out as, and stays focused on, conventional arms.  Russia and the PRC know that; that’s one of the motivations for their upgrades.  What we have doesn’t deter those who are deterrable very much anymore.

Our nuclear weapons, including the warheads sitting on them, also are old, and untested for some time other than via computer simulations. (Scary thought: given the Russians’ and PRC’s penchant for attacking and penetrating our government computer systems, what if they are altering or have altered those simulation databases so they don’t give accurate results?  Frankly, that’s not likely at all, but “not likely” is not “impossible.”)

Pifer made this claim, too:

There is no need…for a new US nuclear weapon in Europe.

Except for those Russian nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and those Russian tactical nuclear missiles moved to forward deployment locations in western Russia, from where they can reach not just cities and military forces in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine, but well into Germany.  Would US nuclear weapons in Europe counter those Russian nukes?  No, and yes.  They wouldn’t be used to attack the Russian nukes; they’d be used to deter Russia’s use of those nukes by holding at risk Russian targets.

And one last thought in favor of expanding our nuclear capability, including numerically.  We, strapped as we are, can afford an arms race and the technological race associated with one; Russia and the PRC cannot.  We should welcome an arms and technology race enthusiastically—one might say with open arms.  An arms and technology race is how we buried the USSR.

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