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A Dialogue on Nuclear Deterrence

By Connie E

On March 22, World Policy Institute hosted a roundtable discussion on the United States’ nuclear deterrence program, featuring Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration of the U.S. Air Force. Weinstein provides direction and guidance regarding the nuclear deterrence mission of the United States Air Force.

Foundational Aspects of Deterrence

Lt. Gen. Weinstein opened the discussion by recognizing the historical significance of nuclear weapons in moderating warfare between great powers. “While we have attempted to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national strategy, not all nations followed suit—Russia is the perfect case in point. To have a productive debate, we need to consider the past, understand the transformative effect of nuclear weapons, and acknowledge areas where there is risk,” he remarked.

Nuclear weapons are credited with ending the staggering death tolls that characterized war in the first half of the 20th century. Over a period of 31 years, 75 million people were killed in two world wars. In World War II alone, 60 million people lost their lives, including 45 million civilians. Nuclear weapons changed this. Weinstein believes the U.S.’s nuclear capability is the primary factor in this refrain from the type of large-scale conflicts that historically resulted in massive casualties. Nuclear weapons affect the scale and scope of conflict through deterrence, influencing an adversary’s decision-making process by credibly threatening to impose unacceptable costs—or deny benefits.

Modernization of weapons capacity is fundamental to maintaining this deterrence capability. The current deterrent was built in the 1960s and was last modernized in the 1980s. Another round of modernization was supposed to take place in 2001, but 9/11 and its aftermath shifted focus away from the nuclear arsenal. Still, argues Weinstein, U.S. capabilities must be adapted to fit today’s security needs. “The strategic environment today is vastly different than it was a decade ago. Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces and increasing its tactical nuclear weapons, while at the same time issuing nuclear threats against our allies,” he said. Maintaining nuclear capabilities and infrastructure is crucial because the triad—bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—constitutes the bedrock of U.S. national security. While American nuclear forces remain safe and reliable, the country must follow through on its financial commitments for modernization and updates in order to ensure robust, reliable, flexible, and survivable nuclear readiness well into the future.

When it comes to the debate on nuclear proliferation, Weinstein emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent, especially in today’s increasingly unpredictable world order. The need to create a credible threat in the mind of an adversary is why the United States never adopted a “small arsenal” approach. “Remember, it doesn’t matter what I think nor what you think, it matters what Russia, China, and other nuclear powers think. In the old days when the two nuclear major powers were the United States and USSR, life was simple and leaders had more open dialogues, but that’s no longer the case today,” said Weinstein. Dialogue among nations is key to strategic stability. Openness and transparency stem from the ability to think from an adversary’s perspective—“mirror imagining,” as Weinstein puts it. Taking the continuing rise in tensions between North Korea and the U.S.—especially after North Korea’s recent rocket tests—as an example, Weinstein said there must be common interests and bargaining chips to bring both parties to the table.

Since New START III, the current nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the U.S. and Russia, will expire in 2021, Weinstein urges the current administration to reassess the U.S.’s commitments to NATO and regional allies such as Japan and South Korea. “No country in history has survived by getting weaker,” he said. Although nuclear proliferation and the potential for misuse can be destabilizing, the nuclear triad remains critical to mitigating risks from the “three Bs”: breakthrough (failure of nonproliferation efforts), breakout (rapid increase in adversary capabilities), and breakdown (failure of a component of nuclear forces, such as a design flaw or an unexpected ability to negate one leg of the triad).

Role of the United States Air Force

Nuclear deterrence is a complex system that requires collaboration between multiple institutions within the U.S. government. Weinstein described the Air Force as the “glue” of this structure that operationalizes and supports the president’s decisions. The Air Force can provide capabilities beyond command and control of the triad, including operating dual-capable aircraft in Europe and providing intelligence service. Weinstein also pointed out the importance of maintaining systems that can respond to diverse situations. The U.S. nuclear deterrent was originally built for self-defense purposes, not for confronting countries with big arsenals such as Russia and China. Given Russia’s growing aggression, Weinstein argued the Kremlin’s strategy is “escalate to win” instead of “escalate to deescalate.” Compared to the Cold War era, however, nuclear capabilities have significantly reduced the likelihood of warfare—and will continue to do so.

Armed with the knowledge of history, today in the United States we are afforded the opportunity to have a free and open debate about what is necessary to secure our future. Weinstein closed his remarks by pointing out the strength of democracy in fostering public discussions about topics such as nuclear capabilities, which are far less likely to be taking place in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, or Tehran.



Connie E is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal

[Photo courtesy of United States Air Force]

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