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
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>