Break with Cold War Thinking

by Valerie Plame, former career covert CIA operations officer and best-selling author

Editor's Note: This essay is the first essay featured in our new report, "10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President" (pdf), which was published before the election.

Dear 45th President, welcome to the White House. You now have an opportunity to make a lasting impact on national and international policy. But whatever your priorities may be — national security, education, immigration, the deficit or the environment — one issue can trump them all: nuclear weapons. Unless you make a definitive break with Cold War thinking, you may undermine everything else you and so many others are striving to accomplish.

The massive US nuclear arsenal, inherited from last century’s Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation, is poorly suited to address the alarming challenges posed by today’s security threats. Failure to significantly reconfigure our nuclear strategy by keeping the status quo may jeopardize your administration’s work because of a nuclear weapon incident; either through mistake, miscalculation, or act of terrorism. You have the ability to restructure our nuclear posture to a configuration that fits our 21st century national security needs. If the outdated thinking on nuclear issues is not addressed, then all your gains for US leadership will be for naught.

Consider the extraordinary cost of our nuclear arsenal that squanders the nation’s wealth and impedes our ability to address more pressing priorities. The United States plans to spend about $350 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, and up to $1 trillion over 30 years. As they say in Washington, that’s getting to be “real money,” in spite of these weapons playing no role in responding to today’s highest-priority threats. US nuclear weapons did not keep Russia from taking Crimea. They did not stop the Islamic State from committing atrocities and stealing territory from Syria and Iraq. They cannot fight state-sponsored cyber hacks. And Ebola? Zika? Our nuclear arsenal is like a dinosaur from another age that won’t stop eating our national treasure.

Some good news: due to the incredible redundancy of these weapons, we can forgo a large portion of the arsenal, realize significant monetary savings and still keep a strong deterrent.

For example, as General James Cartwright, former STRATCOM commander argues, the United States can reduce its deployed nuclear arsenal by one third and still keep America and its allies safe. Your administration could save about $238 billion over the next few decades by phasing out all land-based ballistic missiles, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry recommends. And we could save $20 billion by cancelling the planned nuclear-armed cruise missile, as Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Smith propose. Consider how far these savings would go toward funding early childhood education in this country. President Dwight Eisenhower was keenly aware of these trade-offs when, in 1953 he said:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

If the classic “guns versus butter” argument is insufficient, another truth is that unbridled spending on nuclear infrastructure significantly drains money away from vital conventional military programs. These are the capabilities that we are actually using to blunt the spread of radical terrorist groups in the Middle East and around the world. There is great irony in the fact that we have the world’s most expensive, most sophisticated nuclear deterrent — yet it has no real deterrent effect on the most pressing conflicts we face.

Nuclear weapons are the dinosaurs of military hardware and with your presidency, it is time to overhaul our nuclear strategy. Your administration has a tremendous opportunity to make desperately needed changes before inertia and entrenched bureaucratic interests make creating pertinent nuclear strategies all but impossible.

Two specific changes could immediately improve our nuclear posture and bring it into today’s world. They are: “no-first-use” and “no-launch-on-warning.” Both would make us more secure.

A no-first-use policy would commit the United States to never initiating a nuclear strike. No-first-use is already an unspoken policy within the US security establishment, as there is no realistic scenario today in which a nuclear first-strike would be warranted. If the United States were to strike Russia or China with nuclear weapons, the retaliation would be unimaginable and perhaps not survivable. It is more logical, and more in alignment with our national security reasoning, to pledge ourselves to no-first-use and put our priority on 10 survivable forces that do not project a first-strike threat.

The current launch-on-warning posture allows the unleashing of nuclear weapons immediately after detecting an apparent nuclear strike in progress, before the incoming weapons reach their targets. But false alarms do happen. As president, you may have only 12 minutes — at most — in such a circumstance to make that horrendous decision. President Vladimir Putin has an even smaller window of 2-4 minutes because Russia’s satellites are outdated. These are decisions that may kill millions of people. It is clear that technological prowess has outstripped our ability to contain these terrible weapons.

Finally, nuclear weapons offend and cause great harm to the American democratic ideals we hold dear. The United States is as much an idea as a country, predicated on the social contract drawn by our Founders between citizens and their government.

Invented under intense secrecy during World War II, nuclear weapons and their use have never been brought to the public arena for debate. Information about the number of weapons on alert, their capabilities, their targets and their readiness are all classified. In fact, the entire topic of nuclear strategy is considered so secret and sacred that even our elected representatives do not have the basic information regarding, and are not permitted open debate on, this arsenal that can kill millions in a moment. We are told that this profoundly anti-democratic state of affairs is necessary to protect our freedom. But this secrecy actually strips every American of the freedom to make an informed decision.

As Kennette Benedict of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists writes:

Americans have continued to cede the right to decide when the nation will launch a nuclear war to a single person. We have no voice in the most significant decision the United States government can make — whether to destroy another society with weapons of mass destruction.

I wish you well as you launch your new administration. It is with great respect that I ask you to consider my concerns that the US nuclear arsenal is outdated, in crisis and in need of new strategies. You can initiate a new era of nuclear arms management that can make our nation and the world more peaceful and secure.

Valerie Plame is a former career covert CIA operations officer and best-selling author.

Big Nuclear Idea #1 for Next President: Break with Cold War Thinking via @ValeriePlame.

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