Last week's leak from the Pentagon that the United States is considering reducing its nuclear arsenal from the 1,550 re- quired by the New START to as few as 300 provokes a critical question: Is the United States tempting fate with such drastic cuts? Because President Obama frequently states that one of his major objectives is to eliminate nuclear weapons, these cuts make very little difference. Unfortunately, the answer isyes, because nuclear weapons serve fundamentally important foreign- and defense-policy objectives.
For the United States, nuclear weapons matter for purposes of deterrence and coercion - two of the major tools in the toolbox of the United States to advance and protect its interests. To serve these important and complicated ends, the United States must not cut its nuclear arsenal.
For deterrence purposes, nuclear weapons matter for six reasons. First, they help keep the peace and prevent crises from escalating, as the world witnessed with the Cuban missile crisis. Second, they deter an attack on the U.S. homeland. Third, nuclear weapons - both strategic and tactical - allow the United States to extend deterrence credibly, effectively and cheaply to its allies, such as Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia. This provides them with security and removes their incentive to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Fourth, we have nuclear weapons to deter attacks against the U.S. military. Fifth, nuclear weapons play a role in deterring escalation of conflict. For example, were China to attack Taiwan, U.S. nuclear weapons would deter escalation to a strategic exchange between the United States and China. Finally, nuclear weapons deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction, such as biological weapons or chemical weapons, against the U.S. homeland, allies or U.S. military.
Nuclear weapons aid Uncle Sam's ability to coerce opponents as well for three reasons. First, in a crisis situation, nuclear weapons help persuade a challenger not to escalate to a higher level of violence or move up a rung on the escalation ladder. Second, although laden with risks, they also provide the possibility of attacking first to limit the damage the United States or its allies would receive. Whether the U.S. would do so is another matter. But possessing the capability provides the nation with coercive capabilities in crisis situations or war. Third, nuclear weapons give the United States the ability to threaten nuclear first-use to stop a conventional attack or limited nuclear attack and to signal the risk of escalating violence to a higher level.
Regrettably, the cold fact is that the clock cannot be turned back. Nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented, and they remain key tools to advance the interests of the United States and international stability. The global deterrent and coercive commitments of the United States do not permit additional cuts. They cannot be eliminated or dramatically reduced without a cost and penalty for the interests of the United States. The Cold War changed much, but it did not alter the need to be able to deter and coerce foes, a need as identifiable to the ancient Greeks as it is to us today.
No state has given up key tools, certainly not China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, France or the United Kingdom, and the United States should not be first. No superpower has contemplated such drastic reductions in essential weapons it and its allies need now and will need in the future.
Bradley A. Thayer served as a consultant to the Department of Defense and is professor of political science at Baylor University.
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