Are any of these challenges addressed by nuclear weapons? Clearly not. Yet the United States is planning to spend well over $1 trillion to rebuild its nuclear arsenal, complete with a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Whatever you think ails this nation, a new generation of ICBMs is not the answer. But the good news on nuclear policy is that less is more: The country can save money and become more secure at the same time. The Biden-Harris team can and should redirect a large chunk of this nuclear funding to address more pressing needs.
To be clear, we are not calling for the transfer of all of the planned nuclear funding — far from it. As long as other nations have nuclear weapons, the United States must maintain an adequate force of nuclear-armed submarines and bombers to deter any attack. But much of this spending is excessive and actually makes the United States less safe.
Many have suggested that the Pentagon, with its $740 billion budget, is a good place to look for savings. As stated in the 2020 Democratic Party platform, “We can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less.” And if we want to save big bucks by canceling new nukes we don’t need, there is an obvious place to start: the Trump administration’s plan to spend roughly $264 billion on a new generation of ICBMs.
“I frankly think that our ICBM fleet right now is driven as much by politics as it is by a policy necessity,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, recently said.
These dangerous missiles are not needed for deterrence, as we would use survivable weapons based on submarines at sea for any retaliation. Yet ICBMs increase the risk that we will blunder into nuclear war by mistake. Because ICBMs are vulnerable to attack (they sit in fixed silos in the ground, and Russia knows exactly where they are), they are kept on high alert at all times to enable their launch within minutes. In the case of a false alarm, a president would be under great pressure to “use them or lose them” and launch our own missiles before a possible attack arrives.
False alarms have happened multiple times, and in an era of cyberattacks on U.S. command-and-control systems, the danger has only grown. Starting a nuclear war by mistake is the greatest existential risk to the United States today. The ICBMs are, at best, extra insurance that we do not need; at worst, they are a nuclear catastrophe waiting to happen.
The United States can move to a smaller but more secure second-strike nuclear force whose sole purpose is to deter nuclear attack. We do not need to spend hundreds of billions more in a dangerous and futile attempt to “prevail” in a nuclear conflict.
The Biden-Harris campaign has rightly stated that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack. As president, [Biden] will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.”
The best policy would specifically rule out preemptive nuclear attacks, as such attacks have a high risk of starting nuclear war by mistake, and should not be considered under any circumstances. Similarly, a sole-purpose policy should prohibit launching nuclear weapons on warning of attack, as such launches increase the risk of starting nuclear war in response to a false alarm.
The Biden-Harris administration can make a sole-purpose policy more credible and further reduce the risk of accidental launch by retiring the ICBMs. ICBMs are most likely to be used first in response to a false alarm. They are highly unlikely to ever be used in retaliation, as most would be destroyed in any (highly unlikely) Russian nuclear attack against the United States. Thus, ICBMs have no logical role in a U.S. sole-purpose, deterrence-only policy.
This transformational nuclear policy would be win-win: It would free up federal resources to address more urgent needs and, at the same time, reduce nuclear dangers to the nation. In this time of crisis, change and opportunity, our government must have the courage to spend our federal dollars where they are needed most.