Republicans and Democrats may quibble over how federal tax dollars might be spent on various social welfare programs like Medicaid and food stamps. But alongside Social Security, there is one area of federal spending that everyone can apparently agree on: military spending. Last year, the Biden administration requested one of the largest peacetime budgets ever, at $813 billion. Congress wanted even more spending and ended up approving a budget of $858 billion. In inflation-adjusted terms, that was well in excess of the military spending we saw during the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. This year, Joe Biden is asking for even more money, with a new budget request that starts at $886 billion. Included in that gargantuan amount—which doesn’t even include veterans spending—is billions for new missile systems for deploying nuclear arms, plus other programs for “modernizing” the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
Indeed, over the past year, the memo has gone out among the usual advocates of endless military spending that the US needs to spend much more on nuclear arms. This is a perennial position at the Heritage Foundation, of course, which has never met a military pork program it didn’t like. Moreover, in recent months, the Wall Street Journal has run several articles demanding more nuclear arms. The New York Post was pushing the same line late last year. Much of the rhetoric centers on the idea that Beijing is increasing its own spending on nuclear arms and thus the United States must “keep up.” For instance, last month, Patty-Jane Geller insisted that the US is in an “arms race” with China. Meanwhile, writers at the foreign-policy site 1945 claimed Congress must “save” the American nuclear arsenal.
Congress will surely be happy to cooperate. Such spending is an enormous cash cow for weapons manufacturers, although it has little to do with actual military defense. The US nuclear arsenal is huge, and China’s efforts to expand its own arsenal will have no effect on the already substantial deterrent effects of the US’s existing nuclear arsenal. Although the 1945 article insists that China soon “will field a peer or superior arsenal to the United States,” it’s difficult to see by what metric this is actually true.
Contrary to claims that the US nuclear arsenal needs to be “saved” or it will soon be eclipsed by the Chinese arsenal, the US remains well in the lead of every single nuclear power except Russia. Even if Beijing increases its arsenal to one thousand warheads, as the New York Post breathlessly predicts, the Chinese arsenal will remain well behind that of the US.
This is true even if we remove all the retired US warheads from the equation. In that case, Moscow retains the global lead with more than forty-four hundred weapons, and the US comes in second with more than thirty-seven hundred. Presently, Beijing has approximately 350 of these weapons, France has 290, and the rest of the world is well behind that.
Source: Data from Our World in Data, “Inventories of Nuclear Weapons.“
Like Moscow, Washington has a full-blown and well-developed nuclear triad, complete with a fleet of nuclear subs that can launch up to twenty missiles—each containing multiple independently targeted warheads—land-based missile silos, and bombers. Each option provides ways to deliver hundreds of warheads. The submarine fleet, of course, is constantly mobile, ensuring first-strike survivability.
The Nonexistent Missile Gap
This won’t stop advocates of more spending from calling for more. They’ll always have reasons why there is some sort of missile gap. Lately, the obsession is with hypersonic missiles and having various forms of delivery, as well as the claim that the current gap between the US arsenal and rival arsenal is not sufficiently large.
There’s a reason US advocates of an aggressive nuclear posture invented the “missile gap” myth during the Cold War. It sows doubt about US security and ensures a certain level of paranoia about US nuclear capability. Nowadays, it’s acknowledged that the missile gap was always a myth, but this was much less known in the days when debates over US rocket technology were a frequent cause for alarm and debate. Nonetheless, the nonfactual basis of the “gap” was known at least as early as the 1960s, and then defense secretary Robert McNamara noted to John F. Kennedy:
There was created a myth in the country that did great harm to the nation. It was created by, I would say, emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon. There are still people of that kind in the Pentagon. I wouldn’t give them any foundation for creating another myth.
How Much Do Numbers Matter?
The myth persists, however, and Geller claims: “Given the hundreds of new Chinese missile launchers and other new weapons, the U.S. will need more nuclear weapons to hold these targets at risk. In nuclear deterrence, numbers matter.”
How much do numbers really matter? Yes, in matters of deterrence, ten is certainly better than zero. But is three thousand better than one thousand, or even one hundred? That logic often works with conventional arms, but it makes little sense with nuclear arms, a single unit of which can destroy an entire city. As John Isaacs noted last year in the National Interest:
In the nuclear age, a country that deployed 1,000 nuclear weapons rather than an adversary’s 500 is not twice as powerful since a handful of weapons could devastate both countries. But the Pentagon and political leaders did not learn this critical lesson. This is a numbers game that may have been relevant for tanks and battleships before [the invention of nuclear weapons] but is not today.
What is key in nuclear deterrence is not simply numbers. Nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter identified this problem in the early 1960s and concluded that “the criterion for matching the Russians plane for plane, or exceeding them is, in the strict sense, irrelevant to the problem of deterrence.” Rather the key, Wohlstetter went on, is creating a force that is “survivable” to ensure the possibility of a retaliatory “second strike.” This is what establishes deterrence.
Wohlstetter certainly wasn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. In a 1990 essay titled “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” Kenneth Waltz—perhaps the most influential scholar of international relations of the past fifty years—concludes that the total number of missiles in these enormous arsenals is of little importance for nations that are already well above the threshold for achieving nuclear deterrence.
What really matters is the perception that the other side has second-strike capability, and this certainly exists in both US-Russia and US-China relations. Once each regime knows that the other regime has second-strike capability, the competition is over. Deterrence is established. Waltz notes:
So long as two or more countries have second-strike forces, to compare them is pointless. If no state can launch a disarming attack with high confidence, force comparisons become irrelevant. . . . Within very wide ranges, a nuclear balance is insensitive to variation in numbers and size of warheads.
The focus on second-strike capability is key because pro-arms-race policy makers are quick to note that if a regime’s first strike is able to destroy an enemy’s ability to retaliate in kind, then a nuclear war can be “won.”
Second-Strike Capability Evens the Score
But, as shown by Michael Gerson in “No First Use: The Next Step for U.S. Nuclear Policy” (2010) establishing second-strike capability—or, more importantly, the perception of it—is not as difficult as many suppose. Gerson writes:
A successful first strike would require near-perfect intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to detect, identify, and track all of the adversary’s nuclear forces; recent events surrounding U.S. assessments of Iraq’s suspected WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities forcefully demonstrate the challenges of reliable, accurate, and unbiased information. Intelligence regarding where an adversary’s nuclear weapons are located and if the state is actually planning to attack could be wrong or incomplete, and an attempted first strike based on inaccurate or incomplete information could have far-reaching negative consequences.
The threat of a successful first strike can be countered through a variety of methods, including secrecy and the ability to shift weapons delivery channels. This is why the US, Russian, and Chinese regimes have long been so enthusiastic about the so-called nuclear triad. It is assumed that if nuclear weapons can be delivered by submarine, aircraft, and land, then it is impossible for an opposing regime to destroy all three at once and achieve first-strike victory.
But even in the absence of a triad, an opposing regime that seeks a total first-strike victory has few grounds for much confidence. As Waltz shows, “nuclear weapons are small and light; they are easy to move, easy to hide, and easy to deliver in a variety of ways.” That is, if a regime manages to hide even a small number of planes, subs, or trucks, this could spell disaster for the regime attempting a successful first strike. Gerson explains:
A nuclear first strike is fraught with risk and uncertainty. Could a U.S. president, the only person with the power to authorize nuclear use and a political official concerned with re-election, his or her political party, and their historical legacy, ever be entirely confident that the mission would be a complete success? What if the strike failed to destroy all of the weapons, or what if weapons were hidden in unknown areas, and the remaining weapons were used in retaliation?
Nor must it be assumed that a large number of warheads is necessary to achieve deterrence. Waltz recalls that Desmond Ball—who advised the US on escalation strategies—convincingly asserted that nuclear deterrence could be achieved with as few as fifty warheads.
Proceeding on the assumption that an enemy has no warheads left following a first strike requires an extremely high level of confidence because the cost of miscalculation is so high. If a regime strikes and misses only a few of the enemy’s missiles, this could lead to devastating retaliation both in terms of human life and in terms of the first-strike regime’s political prospects.
This is why a rudimentary nuclear force can achieve deterrence even with a small but plausible chance of second-strike capability. A small nuclear strike is nonetheless disastrous for the target, and thus “second-strike forces have to be seen in absolute terms.” Waltz correctly insists that calculating an arsenal’s relative dominance is a waste of time: “the question of dominance is pointless because one second-strike force cannot dominate another.”
The US Is Already Far beyond the Deterrence Threshold
One could certainly debate how much the US nuclear stockpile could be cut without sacrificing deterrence. Given the enormous size of the stockpile, however, the answer is that “most of it” could be cut. Indeed, the US arsenal could be cut by 90 percent and still have hundreds of warheads available for silos, submarines, and bombers.
Moreover, reductions in the arsenal are prudent for reasons of avoiding unintended nuclear war. As Wohlstetter noted, a prudent policy also requires “strategic nuclear forces to be not only capable of riding out and operating coherently after an actual preemptive attack against them; but also completely controllable in times of peace, crisis, and war—and especially in the face of ambiguous warning—so as to avoid unauthorized operations, accidents, and war by mistake.” Having large numbers of nuclear warheads actually is imprudent because it creates more potential for accidents, mistakes, and unauthorized use. Maintenance remains expensive and risky.
In spite of all this, it remains popular among some to keep arguing for more nuclear expansion year after year. Surely, some of these advocates are true believers, but there is also a lot of money at stake for government contractors. Thus, in one form or another, the myth of the missile gap—and its modern variants—endures.