A Nu­clear Weapon The U.S. Doesn’t Need

Nu­clear cruise mis­siles don’t make strate­gic sense and won’t in­crease the coun­try’s se­cu­rity

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Bloomberg View -

For a pres­i­dent who fa­mously ad­vo­cated a world with­out nu­clear weapons, Barack Obama has done a lot to keep the U.S. nu­clear arse­nal in­tact. That’s not a crit­i­cism—it was his prom­ise that was naive, not his pol­icy—but in one re­spect, his strat­egy is un­nec­es­sar­ily desta­bi­liz­ing.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posal to spend as much as $30 bil­lion to cre­ate a new nu­clear cruise mis­sile to be car­ried by the ag­ing B-52 bomber—part of the nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion of the mil­i­tary to trade up—makes no sense fi­nan­cially or strate­gi­cally. Cruise mis­siles, which are smaller than land-based in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles and fly far­ther than tac­ti­cal bombs dropped by planes, are the wild card of the nu­clear arse­nal: Un­like ICBMS, they’re very hard to spot by radar or satel­lite, and, even if de­tected, they’re in­dis­tin­guish­able from con­ven­tion­ally armed cruise mis­siles.

This is a prob­lem, be­cause a suc­cess­ful de­ter­rence strat­egy re­quires that both sides in a po­ten­tial nu­clear con­flict have a pretty good idea of what the other would do. Even the cold war­rior Ron­ald Rea­gan sub­scribed to this the­ory of de­ter­rence, agree­ing with the Sovi­ets in 1987 to elim­i­nate land­based nu­clear cruise mis­siles. His suc­ces­sor, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, or­dered them taken off U.S. sub­marines. The only cur­rent ver­sion is car­ried by the B-52, which is too slow and eas­ily spot­ted to en­ter con­tested airspace and drop bombs. Wil­liam Perry, the for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary who over­saw the de­vel­op­ment of air-launched cruise mis­siles, now sup­ports a global ban on nu­clear-tipped cruises.

Amer­ica’s nu­clear arse­nal re­mains a linch­pin not only of na­tional de­fense but also of in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity, and Obama’s sup­port of hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars to mod­ern­ize it is jus­ti­fied. But plans to upgrade the nu­clear cruise mis­sile won’t make the U.S., or the world, any safer. <BW>

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