nuclear weapons complex — particularly the personnel who operate and maintain it — is near its breaking point, worn down by years of neglect, lack of funding and unnecessarily invasive and inquisitorial screening of employees. This malaise has been exacerbated by bouts of apathy and even hostility on the part of prominent voices in and out of government: The prevalent attitude is that there are more important national security priorities and, among some, that nukes are useless and should be left to rust.
The situation is considerably worse than we thought — even worse than in 2007 when it was revealed that the Air Force had inadvertently transported six live nuclear weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana. Last week a senior Pentagon official claimed in a background briefing that unless immediate and substantial action is taken to modernize antiquated infrastructure, prioritize the issue, and relieve suffocating bureaucratic pressure, the nation’s nuclear complex risks coming apart at the seams.
To avert this, the Pentagon has identified roughly 100 remedial actions, steps estimated to cost around one to two billion dollars annually, on top of the $15-$16 billion per year the department anticipates spending on nuclear forces in the coming half-decade.
That’s a pretty penny. And so voices have quickly been raised to say that this would be a foolhardy waste of money. Aren’t nuclear weapons becoming obsolete? Shouldn’t we welcome this review as a step toward a nuclear-free world? Shouldn’t we spend this money on conventional forces we might actually use? Aren’t nukes a monetary sinkhole and a strategic dead-end?
The answer to all these questions is no. Spending this money and making these changes is not just advisable, it’s essential.
First, the world is becoming more dangerous. America and the allies it has pledged to defend face challenges from a resurgent Russia, an increasingly assertive China, a bellicose North Korea and a recalcitrant Iran. At the same time, Russia, China and North Korea have all been modernizing their nuclear arsenals with a view toward using them in the event of conflict with the United States. Moreover, as the Pentagon is making more and more clear, non-nuclear military buildups, especially in Russia and China, are jeopardizing America’s conventional military advantages — advantages that had until now allowed America to reduce its emphasis on its nuclear arsenal.
These dynamics are also leading non-nuclear allies of the United States to worry, prompting them to make growing noises about pursuing nuclear arsenals of their own. Together, these factors mean that the United States’ nuclear arsenal is becoming more, not less, relevant.
At the same time, the problems identified in the report and the consequent need for money and attention are not the product of some irremediable defect in the nation’s nuclear arsenal. They arose, as the Pentagon review made clear, because America’s nuclear weapons have suffered from a quarter century of neglect from the Pentagon, the Air Force and Congress.