The Wasteful and Dangerous Worldwide Nuclear Modernization Craze

By John Mecklin

This article originally appeared as the Introduction to a Special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Spotlight on nuclear modernization on January 7, 2019, and is republished here with permission. 

Photo of the Department of Energy of Oak Ridge

The military is a prime breeding-ground for euphemism. During the Vietnam War, “pacification” often meant the shelling and bombing of villages and forced relocation of entire populations. The Reagan administration championed a fearsome, 10-nuclear-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile. Its name? “Peacekeeper.” Russia did not invade or annex Crimea, according to President Putin; it “enhanced” its forces there.

“Nuclear modernization” is a euphemism covering a wide range of activities that constitute, in the view of many experts, a new and dangerous global nuclear arms race. And an expensive one. In the United States, the 30-year cost of the plethora of programs under the nuclear modernization umbrella – including new nuclear-capable bombers, land-based nuclear missiles, and nuclear submarines – has been estimated at $1.2 to $1.7 trillion. Observers who remember the $640 toilet seats and $437 tape measures of Defense Department history believe that if the entire modernization program were actually funded and carried out, the cost would be much higher than these estimates.

In this issue, Bob Rosner of the University of Chicago and Stanford University’s Lynn Eden – leading nuclear experts who sit on the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board – give an overview of the astonishing complexities of the US modernization program and try to answer the core question: What does the United States need to do – and what could it reasonably not do – to ensure the reliability of its nuclear arsenal but reduce the cost of maintaining it? Another Science and Security Board member – former Obama administration arms control adviser Jon Wolfsthal – suggests that the first step in responsibly managing the US nuclear budget would require the Trump administration to actually develop a nuclear strategy. Andy Weber and Christine Parthemore of the Council on Strategic Risks, meanwhile, look at once-discarded nuclear weapon capabilities that the Trump administration has resurrected – particularly a proposed low-yield warhead for submarine-launched nuclear missiles and other “small nuke” options – and find them unnecessary and destabilizing.

The nuclear modernization craze is hardly restricted to the United States. As Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin notes, Russian leaders have always been keen observers of US nuclear policy, and as Russia nears the end of its own nuclear modernization cycle, strained East-West relations have created a dangerous situation. “Against a backdrop of deep mistrust,” Trenin writes, “the coming US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the new US emphasis on tactical [nuclear] systems revive the specter of a nuclear war in Europe.” And because the US-China competition is turning “increasingly serious and even hostile,” Tong Zhao of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy argues, the United States should take a number of steps to ease tensions. After all, Zhao notes, the United States is the most important external influencer of Chinese nuclear policy, and as such could prevent a “more negative cycle of action-and-reaction” involving both nations’ nuclear arsenals.

As Trenin and Zhao explain, United States nuclear policy often drives the nuclear policies of Russia and China. Of course, US officials often suggest the obverse: American nuclear policy initiatives are responses to Russian and Chinese defense policies and programs.

There are reasonable and practical ways to short-circuit the new, self-reinforcing worldwide nuclear arms race that is euphemized as “modernization.” As Rosner and Eden point out, the United States could save a lot of money without sacrificing security by taking the “hard decision” to eliminate one of the three legs in its nuclear triad, most likely its land-based nuclear ballistic missiles. As Wolfsthal notes, the United States could adequately deter any adversary with a nuclear arsenal and array of delivery platforms that is significantly smaller (and less expensive) than the Trump administration proposes.

The mere official contemplation of such down-sizing moves in the United States would send a global signal. It's a signal that could well lead to negotiations on slowing or even halting the 21st century modernization sequel to the bad arms race movie the world watched throughout the Cold War. The next Congress should begin contemplating immediately. The world has seen more than enough of this ritual squandering of national resources on weapons of horror that can never reasonably be used.