Why should we (and Secretary of Defense Gates in particular) be talking about modernizing all elements of the U.S. strategic triad of nuclear-armed submarines, land-based rockets, and bombers if we (President Obama in particular) have a decent chance of negotiating the total elimination — Global Zero — of all of the world’s nuclear arsenal? “All elements of the triad need to be modernized,” Gates said Thursday. “You may have to make some choices there,” he added, even as the services are moving ahead smartly on plans to rebuild all three legs.
Global Zero is only tangentially about saving the hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars on modernization costs that would otherwise be incurred around the 2030 timeframe when the current forces become geriatric. It is mainly about averting a nuclear catastrophe that is increasingly likely unless the nuclear swamp is drained of weapons and bomb-grade materials.
A survey (a few years old) of 85 national security experts polled by Senator Richard Lugar estimate a 20 percent “probability of an attack involving a nuclear explosion occurring somewhere in the world in the next 10 years.”79 percent of the respondents believe “it more likely to be carried out by terrorists” than by a government.
Will nuclear weapons modernization prevent nuclear terrorism? No. Will it provide a tool to foil nuclear terrorist plots, or to retaliate to terrorist attacks? No. Will it halt nuclear proliferation? No.
President Obama needs to double down on nuclear elimination, not modernization. Success in negotiating Global Zero would mean pocketing a trillion dollars per decade in savings and putting an end to the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over the world. Success in modernizing nuclear forces would mean wasting money and perpetuating a mushrooming danger.