Turkey, a member of NATO, shot down a Russian fighter jet. NATO is expanding further into the sphere of influence of the former USSR. Russia is increasingly reliant on the rhetoric of nuclear weapons. The South China Sea is a tinder box ready to go up in flames. These are just a few of the potential flashpoints around the world, all involving states armed with nuclear weapons. With global tensions so high, the possibility of war seems very real and that likelihood is increasing. Our saving grace is the presence of nuclear weapons among the states involved that form stable deterrent relationships that make large-scale conventional war unlikely. Some scholars like Ohio State professor John Mueller have described “the essential irrelevance of nuclear weapons,” claiming their impact is at best inflated, but they could not be more wrong. Nuclear weapons, being the ultimate deterrent, still matter and are still a critical part of what keeps us safe and secure, perhaps now more than any other time since the end of the Cold War.
It may seem counter-intuitive to a lot of people that possessing the most destructive weapons known to mankind makes the world safer, but this concept is ultimately what forms the foundation of nuclear deterrence: the threat of massive retaliation to stay the hand of a would-be attacker. When faced with nuclear weapons, a potential attacker must ask themselves: “Is aggression worth the possible escalation to nuclear use and, ostensibly, obliteration.” For instance, if a conventionally armed state was considering aggression against a nuclear adversary they would have to ask, “Is it worth risking the ultimate consequence?”
Simply possessing nuclear weapons does not establish deterrent, however, as weapons need to be secure and survivable so they can hold an adversary at risk even in the face of a first strike. In a world with nine nuclear powers (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea), this makes survivability a major concern and a critical element of deterrence. If a state thinks it could perform a splendid first strike and pre-emptively eliminate its adversary’s arsenal, war becomes a lot less risky — they only have to get lucky once. This is why it is not simply enough to possess nuclear weapons. For instance, if Russia wanted a war with the United States, Russia would have to be able to eliminate all of the United States’ 1,500 deployed warheads as well as the warheads of all its NATO allies in a variety of hardened and mobile platforms to ensure they will not get hit back.
This issue of survivability and effectiveness is what makes the United States’ nuclear modernization effort so important. Many of the systems the United States currently has deployed are rapidly aging and approaching end of life. The B-52 bomber, the bomber that comprises the majority of the U.S. bomber fleet, has now been in service for 60 years and lacks many of the features that would make them survivable against modern air defense. The U.S. Ohio submarine fleet has been in service since 1981, far longer than anticipated and essentially skipping a generation of submarine as the transition to the Ohio-replacement is planned. The Minuteman ICBMs are also pushing 55 years of service and facing obsolescence by 2030. Given the spin-up times for major acquisition projects, if the United States wants to make sure its nuclear arsenal is not in shambles by 2030, it needs to begin production today so the new weapons are ready when the old weapons go out of service.
Despite this fact, there are many who think the United States should cut back on its nuclear modernization efforts or let entire systems age out. Given the important role of nuclear weapons, this is absolutely the wrong decision to make. While steps could be taken to reduce arsenals globally, unilaterally letting U.S. arsenal atrophy is dangerous and would weaken its deterrent, leaving it vulnerable to first strike. Pursuing a world without nuclear weapons is a noble goal, but it is not one that can be achieved by breaking the precarious stability bought by strategic deterrence. As history tells us time and again, security is not maintained through pure goodwill — it requires enforcement, and in the nuclear realm that is other nuclear weapons. So long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must invest in an effective and survivable arsenal to combat the rogue nuclear states of the world like North Korea and continue to ensure global strategic stability.
One day in the future, hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will possess the conditions to make nuclear weapons, and war on the whole, irrelevant. Unfortunately, that day is still a long way off and we have to accept the reality that nuclear weapons are still very relevant and very important to maintaining global stability: they add a level of consequence and necessary consideration to war that no other weapon can match. Sad though it might be, the ultimate force of destruction is also the world’s greatest preserver of peace and stability and we should do everything we can to ensure that continues.
Photo is public domain.