Shadow Government

Facing nuclear reality

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden clearly articulated the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Obama administration’s nuclear weapons policy in an address to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, President Obama has advocated nuclear disarmament; on the other, his administration has just requested $7 billion to maintain ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden clearly articulated the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Obama administration’s nuclear weapons policy in an address to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, President Obama has advocated nuclear disarmament; on the other, his administration has just requested $7 billion to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal and modernize the U.S. nuclear infrastructure. In Biden’s words, "We will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons, while retaining a safe, secure, and effective arsenal as long as we still need it." 

The United States has greatly reduced its reliance on nuclear weapons in recent years, and it has drastically cut the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: Today’s nuclear force is roughly one-quarter the size it was at the end of the Cold War. Precision-guided conventional munitions are today able to perform many of the missions that in years past would have required nuclear weapons. Moreover, ballistic missile defenses today offer options to enhance deterrence without threatening nuclear retaliation.

Although the utility of nuclear weapons has decreased for the United States, their value for potential adversaries, and those of our allies and friends, has grown. The U.S. nuclear arsenal remains the ultimate guarantee of U.S. security against a nuclear attack. Similarly, U.S. nuclear commitments have dissuaded allies such as Japan from acquiring their own nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons have served as a brake on war; eliminating them would once again make the world safe for large-scale conventional war.

Given the enduring importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security, the administration’s request for additional funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure is a welcome development. Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s efforts to fund the nuclear complex offer a cautionary tale. Under Bush, Congressional Democrats cut a Senate-approved funding increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration and cut or eliminated a number of Bush administration nuclear programs and initiatives. One hopes that the Obama administration will fare better.

In the end, however, the administration’s budget request is but a partial solution. The United States is the only nuclear power that is not modernizing its arsenal, and neither the administration nor Congress shows any inclination to change that fact. The newest weapons on the U.S. arsenal were designed decades ago, and the expertise to design new ones represents a critical shortfall. Absent modernization, the United States will eventually face the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

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