The United States should develop new low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons to deter countries from seeking nuclear weapons of their own, a new think-tank report says. It also argues that the U.S. should base more nuclear weapons around the world to better deter attacks.

“Forward deploying a robust set of discriminate nuclear response options conveys the message that the United States will ‘respond in kind’ and proportionately to nuclear attacks on its allies,” wrote Clark Murdock, a former Pentagon policy official who is now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CSIS’ “Project Atom” report, provided to Defense One in advance of its June 22 release, was produced by Murdock and eight co-authors as a “zero-based, blue-sky” look at American’s nuclear arsenal. It challenges the Obama administration’s policy of seeking to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national strategy, and argues for new bombs, missiles, and delivery platforms to replace the ones that have been around since the Cold War.

Murdock’s report comes just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would deploy 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles. It also comes as the Obama administration faces a handful of decisions on nuclear modernization, including proposals to develop new weapons.

The report recommends the U.S. keep its “rough parity” with Russia and “nuclear superiority” over China. It also suggests the U.S.“maintain sufficient capability to cope simultaneously with nuclear-armed ‘regional rogues’” and “maintain a smaller stockpile, which is enabled by a responsive infrastructure.”

In the report, Murdock argues that the superiority of the American military will lead certain countries to seek nuclear arms as an asymmetric counter.

“The value of nuclear weapons as a ‘trump card’ for negating U.S. conventional power was enhanced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” the report says. “If the United States apparently believes that it can be deterred by an adversary’s nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t a nonnuclear ‘regional rogue’ want one?”

Authors’ Dissent

But not all of Murdock’s co-authors agree.

Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh of the Stimson Center argue that the American military is so far superior to its global counterparts that “nuclear weapons add few options” to the U.S. palette. “Indeed, given U.S. conventional military superiority, nuclear weapons serve no military role for the United States beyond deterring nuclear attacks on itself and its allies,” they write in one of the report’s appendices.

Blechman and Rumbaugh formed one of three think-tank teams — the others came from the Center for a New American Security and the National Institute for Public Policy — that contributed to the report, along with experts from CSIS and elsewhere. Under a methodology dubbed the “competitive strategies approach,” each of the teams produced their own analyses, which were discussed by the report’s authors and ultimately included as appendices. But the final report represents Murdock’s conclusions alone.

“As the author of the final report, my views were shaped and influenced by the debate among the independent think tank teams, but did not attempt to bridge the differences on fundamentals between the competing approaches,” he wrote.

Time to Rebuild?

After the end of the Cold War, the military seemed to lose focus on its nuclear mission. In 2007, the Air Force mistakenly flew nuclear weapons across the country on a B-52 bomber; the next year, it accidentally shipped ICBM fuses to Taiwan. There have also been cheating controversies throughout the Air Force and Navy nuclear ranks.

“The various scandals of the past decade were a symptom of the post-Cold War failure to believe in the nuclear mission, think seriously about deterrence, and invest and act accordingly,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at CSIS and one of the Project Atom authors.

After a cheating scandal erupted under his watch, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel placed the nuclear forces under close watch. He began regular visits to ICBM, bomber, and submarine bases. And along with other senior Pentagon officials, he began talking about the importance of nuclear forces down the road.

“The next decade includes a swell of investments to recapitalize the triad and the weapons themselves,” Karako said. “We’re paying the piper now, with interest, for having taken a peace dividend of the 1990s and our nuclear allergy in the 2000s. But the real deficit has been in thinking seriously about nuclear deterrence.”

In coming months, the Pentagon is expected to award a contract for a stealthy new Air Force bomber, a plane that officials say will eventually carry nuclear weapons. The Navy is also planning to buy new ballistic-missile submarines to replace its Ohio class. But these projects are expensive, and Pentagon officials have questioned their affordability.

We’re paying the piper now, with interest, for having taken a peace dividend of the 1990s and our nuclear allergy in the 2000s. But the real deficit has been in thinking seriously about nuclear deterrence.”
Tom Karako, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Murdock argues the Pentagon needs a more diverse suite of nuclear weapons. “In order to execute its Measured Response strategy, the nuclear forces for both deterrence and extended deterrence should have low-yield, accurate, special-effects options that can respond proportionately at the lower end of the nuclear continuum,” he writes.

This could also include a “smaller, shorter-range cruise missile that could be delivered by F-35s” including the ones that will someday operate from the Navy’s aircraft carriers, Murdock said.

Karako said, “Without completing the current slate of modernization programs, we can’t even sustain our current deterrent capabilities from the 20th century – let alone go further, adapting and expanding our force to the challenges of the 21st. Project Atom represents a thinking competition of sorts, for what that may require.”

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