GROUND TRUTH: Nuclear Weapons: Essential, Affordable, Cornerstone of our Defense

Mar 5, 2019
Defense Drumbeat

WASHINGTON- On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee will convene a hearing on Nuclear Deterrence Policy.  Topics will range from the cost of maintaining and upgrading our nuclear arsenal, withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and a proposed No First Use Policy.  Each of these controversial issues has been surrounded by myths and half-truths.  Before the hearing begins, we should get to The Ground Truth:

The INF Treaty No Longer Offers Security And NATO Fully Supports America’s Withdrawal From It: Proponents of the INF treaty are ready to give Russia a second chance on deploying their new nuclear missiles.  They argue that continuing to negotiate is the best way to preserve unity in NATO and bring Russia back into compliance.  The Ground Truth:

  • NATO’s 28 Members Supported America’s Withdrawal from the INF treaty.  NATO Secretary General Jens Stolenberg tweeted that “#NATO fully supports the US suspension & notification of withdrawal from the Treaty.” Other NATO leaders, like Chancellor Merkel, have declared their support for withdrawal.
  • Russia Has Been Cheating For At Least Ten Years.  Since 2008, Presidents of both parties have warned Russia about their behavior, Congress has held hearings and passed resolutions to hold Russia accountable, and the United States has imposed sanctions.  Still Russia remains defiant.  Withdrawal is the only option left to the United States.
  • The Threat From China Is Growing. Over the past two decades, China has developed numerous missile systems that far outrange U.S. systems. United States’ compliance to INF, coupled with unconstrained Chinese missile development, has contributed to a significant disparity in ballistic missile force structure which may have strategic and operational impacts in the Indo-Pacific region. 
  • More Resources: Find more about Russia’s history of cheating on the INF Treaty here.

No First Use Pledges Are Destabilizing, Encourage Our Enemies, And Make Us Less Safe: Proponents of a No First Use Pledge claim that the policy will make us safer by reducing the risk of a nuclear miscalculation by an adversary during a crisis.  The Ground Truth:

  • No First Use Is Destabilizing: Our nuclear weapons deter enemies not just from using nuclear weapons against us, but from attacks by cyber, chemical, and biological attacks as well. Additionally, our NATO and Eastern European allies rely America’s nuclear weapons to deter a Russian conventional attack. Declaring that we would only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack encourages our adversaries to contemplate other kinds of devastating attacks.
  • Russia Abandoned Their No First Use Pledge in 1993 and China is considering abandoning theirs. 
  • No First Use Is Unverifiable: No First Use advocates see the pledge as a first step to eliminating whole classes of weapons and, ultimately, global disarmament. However, there is no way to verify an adversaries no first use policy.  For No First Use to make America safer, Russia and China would have to have such overwhelming faith in our promise that they would fundamentally alter their concept of nuclear deterrence.  That is unlikely.


Nuclear Forces Are The Cornerstone Of Our National Defense And Well Worth The Investment: Opponents of our nuclear arsenal use recent CBO reports as additional evidence that America’s nuclear forces are simply unaffordable.  The Ground Truth:

  • The Cost Of U.S. Nuclear Modernization Is Proceeding As Anticipated.  While the cost is growing, CBO points out that the growth is in line with the increase in defense programs.  Nuclear modernizations programs are not experiencing uncontrolled or unanticipated cost growth. 
  • Nuclear Modernization Is Affordable And Essential. As CBO points out, even at its peak, nuclear modernization will not exceed 6.4% of total defense spending.  In the 1970s the United States spent 17.1% of the DoD budget on the nuclear triad. President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, said “It is affordable.  It’s not an enormous part of our budget, but it is a critical part of our budget.”
  • Even If We Don’t Modernize, Russia Is Rapidly Modernizing Its Nuclear Capabilities. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia’s capabilities would be 100% modernized by 2021.  America’s modernization will not be complete until 2042.  


Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons Are Necessary To Credibly Deter Russia: Opponents of developing supplemental low yield capabilities argue that they are unnecessary- because the United States already has a sufficient arsenal- and destabilizing- because they could lower the threshold to use nuclear weapons.  The Ground Truth:

  • Russia Has A Frightening “Escalate To De-Escalate” Nuclear Theory that argues for the use of low yield weapons in a limited attack because they do not believe that the United States would respond disproportionately with one of our high yield weapons.  
  • “Escalate To De-Escalate” Theory Leaves The U.S. And NATO With Little Choice but to develop supplemental low yield capabilities as a deterrent to the low yield weapons Russia has already deployed. This capability would allow the United States to proportionally respond to an enemy’s attack. 
  • Supplemental Low Yield Capabilities Do Not Lower The Threshold For Use Of Nuclear Weapons.  U.S. policy remains to only use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend our vital interests.  The United States has maintained various kinds of low-yield nuclear capabilities in the past, but never used them.  Rather, having these weapons deters the threat of limited first use because the United States would be able to respond proportionally.  
116th Congress