A year ago in Prague, President Obama declared “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Although Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona supported this same vision during his 2008 presidential campaign, as did President Reagan during the Cold War, some have criticized the Prague speech as a shining example of Mr. Obama’s naivete. Such attacks ignore how much the Obama administration is actually doing - in its new Nuclear Posture Review, new U.S.-Russia Prague Treaty and accompanying budget plans - to strengthen the U.S. nuclear deterrent and enhance U.S. national security.
The primary nuclear threats facing the United States today are proliferation and nuclear terrorism. These threats cannot be overcome merely by maintaining a robust nuclear arsenal. Indeed, the overwhelmingly superior U.S. nuclear arsenal has not stopped North Korea and Iran from seeking nuclear weapons. That is why the new Nuclear Posture Review recommends a series of graded options, including new conventional military capabilities and tailored regional missile defenses, to deter proliferation and nuclear terrorism. By offering realistic responses and not just massive nuclear retaliation, the review reconfigures and enhances U.S. deterrence for the 21st century.
Last year in Prague, Mr. Obama did not promise to unilaterally disarm the United States without regard for what our potential enemies might do. “As long as these weapons exist,” Mr. Obama clearly stated, “the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary.” He added that a world without nuclear weapons “will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime.”
Yet some like to ignore Mr. Obama’s commitment to preserve U.S. nuclear deterrence for as long as is necessary. For example, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle accused the Obama administration of adopting an agenda that runs counter to keeping the U.S. nuclear deterrent safe and effective. Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, ranking member on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, expressed concern “that a zero [nuclear weapons] policy might lead to less program and budget support in the out years.”
While the new Prague Treaty will include on-site inspections and data exchanges that will provide key information about Russian nuclear forces, the treaty will not require the United States to significantly reduce its flexible and robust nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarines and bombers. Indeed, the United States is close to being in compliance with the Prague Treaty today with its current nuclear force structure. The treaty also will not dictate how the United States should arrange its nuclear forces, a change from previous arms-control agreements. By “downloading” the number of warheads deployed on its delivery vehicles without actually destroying the vehicles, the United States will retain a hedge capability to quickly “upload” warheads in the event of systemic technical failures or an existential threat to its security. These attributes of transparency, flexibility and hedge capability in the Prague Treaty will bolster U.S. nuclear deterrence and U.S. national security.
The Obama administration is also putting its money where its mouth is. In next year’s budget, the administration plans to increase funding for nuclear stockpile management by 25 percent, add $220 million to study refurbishment of the B61 gravity bomb and expend $800 million for a new nuclear cruise missile. Between now and 2015, the administration intends to analyze alternatives for a next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, spend $1.7 billion on the Air Force’s next-generation bomber and spend $6 billion on the next-generation ballistic-missile submarine. Once in service, the new submarine will conduct its last patrol in 2080.
For better or worse, the requirements for U.S. security in the indefinite nuclear future are remarkably similar to those of the nuclear past. Nuclear deterrence still plays a key role in protecting the United States. While President Obama may have pledged to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, it is impossible to conclude that his idealistic vision is in any way interfering with his realistic commitment to keep the United States well ahead of any and all potential nuclear adversaries.
Travis Sharp is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.
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