Retired generals have been noticeably silent even as the threat of sequester, with devastating consequences for American military preparedness, draws nearer. Perhaps they are afraid they will be derided as “militarists” for standing up for a strong defense. Retired generals are more likely to be applauded for calling for defense cuts, especially to programs they once oversaw–a “man bites dog” story that provides predictable fodder for the news media.
Thus, retired Gen. James Cartwright, a former commander of U.S. Strategic Command (guardian of the nation’s nuclear arsenal) and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is garnering headlines for suggesting a unilateral cut to the U.S. nuclear arsenal that would be far below the limits negotiated with Russia in the last START agreement. That agreement limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,500 deployed warheads, down from the previous total of 2,200. Cartwright, along with other retired worthies gathered by Global Zero, an organization with the utopian goal of eliminating all nuclear arms, now claims we could go down to 900 warheads, of which only half would be deployed. This, in sum, would be a 70 percent reduction in our deployed nuclear arsenal.
Perhaps that would be a wise course of action if other nations around the world were eliminating their nuclear arsenals. But that is far from the case. India and Pakistan continue to build up their nuclear arsenals and the ballistic missile forces, aircraft, and other means of delivering them. So do China and North Korea. Russia maintains a sizable array of nuclear arms, including a large number of short-range nukes that are not covered by START. Meanwhile, Iran is bidding to acquire its own nukes which could trigger a destabilizing arms race in the Middle East.
It is hard to see how, under those circumstances, a further diminution of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will aid the cause of global peace. Will Iran and North Korea follow the U.S. lead? Hardly. Instead, unilateral American cuts will play into a narrative of American decline and weakness–which will only encourage our enemies to build up their offensive arsenals. And not only our enemies. Our friends, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia, depend on American nuclear protection. If there is any doubt about the ability or willingness of the U.S. to respond with devastating force to potential nuclear threats, our allies will acquire nuclear weapons of their own–as destabilizing a development as it is possible to imagine.
Weighed against the benefits of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, what are the costs? Not very high. The cost of maintaining our current arsenal is in dispute, but it is roughly $20 billion a year. That is a paltry amount in the context of a $3.8 trillion federal budget. Moreover, we would only save a small portion of that $20 billion by cutting our deployed nuclear forces because of the considerable fixed costs we will continue to incur for communications networks, missile launchers, submarines, and other systems, which will need to remain in operation whether or not they are supporting nuclear or conventional weapons delivery.
A unilateral nuclear cut, with an ultimate objective of “nuclear zero,” may sound like a worthy and high-minded policy, but in fact it is a dangerous, destabilizing move because other nations will not follow the American lead. The U.S. nuclear arsenal has helped keep the peace since 1945; we give up that advantage at our peril–and the world’s.