Trapped in ‘Residual Nuclear Deterrence’

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Has anyone else been wondering why our vast nuclear forces are largely escaping unscathed from the budgetary axe falling on other defense programs?  The justification, as put to me this week by a top Pentagon official, is that we still need to maintain ‘residual deterrence’ in our relations with Russia.

So missile launch crews stand ready today to fire almost one thousand nuclear weapons at Russia within a few minutes after receiving the order.   And right now many such crews are going through training in mock launch centers, practicing their nuclear war-fighting skills. These exercises invariably escalate an international crisis all the way to nuclear war and culminate in crews turning their keys to fire their missiles in an all-out strike — “the crowd pleaser” as the crews call it, likening an all-out missile salvo to the finale of a July 4 fireworks display.

The young ‘z generation’ launch officers in the silos today harbor doubts about all this. These ‘millennials’ came of age after the end of the Cold War, when nuclear proliferation and terrorism have loomed far more menacing than Russia, and it’s a bit puzzling to them that their crowd pleaser all-out exchange is almost always with a country they never really thought of as an enemy.

While presidents talk of Global Zero, must generals be incurably fated to fight their country’s last wars, including the Cold one? Must inertia keep two huge nuclear arsenals locked in mutually reinforcing hair-trigger alert?  ‘Residual deterrence’ is the residue of minds trapped in the past.