The Obama administration is bequeathing an extremely dangerous security environment to President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.
For example, the departing administration’s attempted “reset” of relations with Russia collapsed quickly after Moscow got all it could want in the 2010 New START Treaty from a supine United States. Now, Russia poses a greater danger to its Western neighbors than any time since the worst years of the Cold War. Russian leaders routinely make explicit nuclear threats and openly discuss the first-use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, including in support of an expansionist foreign policy. Correspondingly, Russia is years into its nuclear expansion programs, including numerous updated nuclear systems and some that are entirely new and unprecedented.
China similarly is years into a nuclear buildup, pursues an expansionist foreign policy at the expense of U.S. Asian allies, and is creating and militarizing islands in the South China Sea in the process. China does so under the implicit and occasionally explicit cover of nuclear threats.
The post-Cold War world has taken a very dangerous and generally unexpected turn. There are numerous steps that the new president and defense secretary can and should take given these harsh realities, but the first must be to understand how to defeat Russian and Chinese strategies of nuclear coercion and escalation. This is a particular danger we must address promptly. Unless the United States and allies shut down any plausible expectation that nuclear threats or use will compel the West to back down in a conventional conflict, there will be a gaping opening for prospective Western defeat and foes willing to exploit that opening. U.S. and allied nuclear deterrence capabilities must be the foundation for all other remedial steps the West may take in response to a new and exceedingly dangerous threat environment.
Unfortunately, the United States has been on a two-decade holiday from nuclear preparation — preferring instead to believe that post-Cold War relations with Russia and China were so benign that nuclear weapons had become relics of a bygone age, and that the highest priority of U.S. nuclear policy should be to eliminate them. It is now manifestly obvious that belief was an illusion, and we must now recapitalize nuclear forces that have languished for far too long. The comprehensive modernization of our nuclear forces should have begun under the George W. Bush administration, but did not. The Obama administration largely continued the holiday until Russia’s nuclear enthusiasm and expansion could no longer be ignored and adamant Russian opposition to further negotiated reductions essentially precluded continuation of the holiday.
The Western nuclear rebuilding program must include the strategic triad of land-based and sea-based missiles, and heavy bombers, and U.S. nuclear forces deployed abroad. Further delay at this point would be a de facto decision to eliminate these nuclear systems — which would be grossly imprudent.
For example, the 46-year-old U.S. Minuteman ICBM system must be replaced, to include future options to ensure its continued survivability against attack. We must also replace the 35-year-old, sea-based nuclear force, and the strategic bomber force that includes aircraft that now range from 27 to 55 years of age. Some recommend simply eliminating one or more of these triad legs rather than spending the approximately 5 percent of the defense budget necessary to rebuild U.S. capabilities comprehensively after so long a holiday. This advice is imprudent, even reckless. The deterrent effect of these three strategic systems combined is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The years ahead present some obviously severe nuclear perils, and almost certainly additional severe threats that are now unseen. To address these threats, we will have only those forces in-hand at the time — which is why there is great value in the flexibility and resilience inherent in a triad of forces. Now is not the time to experiment with minimum deterrence strategies and the elimination of the triad. In truth, no one knows the answer to the perennial question, “How much U.S. nuclear capability is enough for deterrence?” The answer almost certainly waxes, wanes and otherwise changes depending on the opponent, time, place and circumstance — hence the significance of the triad’s flexibility and resilience. Maintaining that triad is not a retreat to Cold War thinking; it is prudent preparation for the increasingly severe, dynamic and ultimately unpredictable threat environment of the 21st century.
The comprehensive modernization of the nuclear triad and U.S. nuclear forces abroad is not an inexpensive undertaking. However, the failure to restore this spectrum of credible Western nuclear deterrence capabilities is not an option — it literally would place our survival at greater risk. In an era once again under the shadow of multiple nuclear threats, 5 percent of the defense budget is not too much to ask to redress decades of U.S. nuclear indolence.
• Colin S. Gray is the European director and co-founder of the National Institute for Public Policy, and professor emeritus of strategic studies at the University of Reading. Keith B. Payne also is a co-founder of the National Institute for Public Policy, the director of the Graduate School of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.