Wasteful old thinking for a dangerous new age

February 3, 2018

There is a rich irony in the administration releasing its Nuclear Posture Review on Groundhog Day. We’ve seen this movie before. Much of the security landscape described in the pages of the review and, more dishearteningly, the investments it puts forward to address growing challenges are strikingly familiar to the bygone days of the Cold War, days that many of us hoped we had left behind.

When the Bulletin released its 2018 Doomsday Clock time and statement, some critics on the right howled that it overstated today’s geopolitical dangers. But today’s NPR, which follows on the heels of the National Defense Strategy the Defense Department issued late last month, lays out a similarly grim picture. Like the Bulletin’s Clock statement, the National Defense Strategy argues that “we are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory” and that “this increasingly complex security environment is defined by rapid technological change, challenges from adversaries in every operating domain.”

Where the Bulletin and the administration differ is not so much in defining the problem, but in constructing the response. The NPR calls for a massive investment in rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal, at a price tag of $1.2 trillion. The Defense Department tried to soften the financial blow by pointing out that its proposals amount to a mere 6.4 percent of overall defense spending, less than the 13.4 percent spent during in 1984 and the 24.9 percent spent in 1964. What the NPR fails to highlight is that such spending is not only significantly higher than what the US has spent since the end of the Cold War, but considerably more than the Congressional Budget Office thinks the country can afford. In a report issued in October, the CBO was crystal clear that the current nuclear plans “would have to compete with other defense priorities for funding” and will require the Trump administration to make hard decisions about allocating defense dollars.

In fact, however, the NPR is written as if these choices will be made in an unconstrained resource environment. Given that fantasy, it’s surprising the Defense Department didn’t ask for even more unwarranted spending.

There are some real howlers in this document. The administration lowers the threshold for which nuclear weapons can be used and argues for fielding smaller- yield, more “usable” nuclear weapons. The triad remains at the center of the US force posture, even though strategic giants such as former Defense Secretary William Perry and former US Sen. Sam Nunn have raised questions about its continued relevance. Nuclear testing is back on the table, if it’s necessary for the advancement of the US nuclear arsenal. The document makes no commitment to the kinds of investments needed in our science and technology labs that are needed to reduce the likelihood that the US will need to test new nuclear weapons

Perhaps worst of all, this NPR seems to argue that the United States should dump huge resources into its nuclear stockpile because other countries are doing the same. But there’s a reason that the North Koreans and Russians are investing in their nuclear arsenals. It’s precisely because the United States is dominant in the conventional realm, including cyber security, that others are seeking to compensate in other sectors. The United States should be channeling more resources into sectors it dominates, so it continues to outpace its adversaries, rather meet them tit-for-tat in the domain of their choosing. The CBO report means we will need to make a choice.

In short, this Nuclear Posture Review is a spruced-up Cold War document, responding in dated ways to current threats. It represents very little in the way of thinking about how to meet strategic competitors in a way of our choosing, and at a cost that we can bear. Instead it goes back to the simple “more is better” nuclear approach that did not serve the United States particularly well in the past.

The NPR identifies the weakening of the international order, the rapid technological advancements of our age, and the changing character of war in the 21st century. A better NPR would acknowledge these challenges and address them head on. Rather, the current posture throws up its hands, throws money at the problem, and throws the US into a spiraling arms race that will be expensive and counterproductive.

Punxsutawney Phil is right to go back to his hole and hope that the current season passes soon. Wish we could do the same.