Michael KreponThe Coming Backlash

One thing the Nuclear Enterprise and the Arms Control Enterprise have in common is overreach. With every incoming administration, one Enterprise or the other draws up ambitious plans. Hope exceeds circumstance. Overreach invites backlash.

President George W. Bush and his advisers wanted to be rid of treaties and pursue new nuclear weapon designs. Bush killed the ABM Treaty and, only at Vladimir Putin’s behest, accepted the fig leaf of a treaty to reduce strategic offensive arms. When Republican administrations are disinterested in arms control, they foster opposition to strategic modernization programs. The Bush administration’s desires for new warhead designs were foiled.

President Barack Obama won a Nobel Prize largely on the basis of his stated intent to pursue the abolition of nuclear weapons. He leaves office bequeathing to his successors bills for strategic modernization programs that, if not pruned, could cost in excess of $700 billion. Large sums are certainly needed to replace aging weapon systems, but this price tag seems all the more objectionable given how little Obama was able to accomplish with respect to nuclear arms reduction. When Democratic administrations think big, and then are foiled as relations with Russia deteriorate, Republicans gear up to reaffirm nuclear war fighting capabilities.

If past is prologue, these tables will turn again whenever a Republican President takes office, relieving Congressional Democrats of the obligation to dutifully support the White House. This familiar dialectic might, however, be upended by a presidential campaign that has defied expectations. No one can confidently predict what the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, would do if elected. And the Democratic Party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton, seems disinterested in arms control, which would also be quite unusual.

Whoever is elected will still have to deal with President Obama’s disinclination to make choices among strategic modernization programs, for which significant funding shortfalls are expected. The case for upgrades in command and control seems clear cut. The need for a new bomber and a new ballistic missile-carrying sub also seems clear, although their numbers are debatable, especially in the case of the bomber buy. Also worthy of debate is whether a new ICBM is worth the additional expense over continuing to upgrade Minuteman missiles, as the Pentagon has done so successfully in the past.

The most apparent area for budget cutting is the request for a new, nuclear-armed, standoff cruise missile alongside the request for a new, manned penetrating bomber. To assert that these requirements are not redundant demands a fealty to nuclear war-fighting concepts that most Americans will be hard-pressed to understand. The nuclear deterrence business is most persuasive to taxpayers in the abstract; particulars require the suspension of disbelief. Why should nuclear war fighting requirements be so exacting when the challenges posed by Russia, China, and violent extremist groups are short-changed?

The coming backlash will be more pronounced if the next administration is disinterested in, or opposed to arms control, which now seem like the two most likely possibilities. The mechanism of ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to secure bipartisan support for recapitalization in the United States is worthy of consideration, but grand bargains of this sort have become as rare as moderate Republican Senators. Nor would a deal of this kind absolve future Congresses from confronting the need to choose between competing nuclear and conventional military needs. Even if – especially if — friction with Russia and China continues to grow, increased investments in conventional capabilities would be additive, while unnecessary investments in nuclear capabilities would be, by definition, redundant.

Over time, the deck will be stacked in favor of budget cutters, even if postponed by Putin’s pushbacks against NATO enlargement and crude embrace of message sending via nuclear forces. Backlash will become more intense, regardless of who wins the presidential election, if the Nuclear Enterprise makes another run at new warhead designs. Groundswells on behalf of “tailored” deterrence and renewed complaints about the confines imposed by the CTBT are evident in the usual quarters, as will be discussed in the next post.