Renewing America’s Nuclear Arsenal: Options for the 21st Century

This Adelphi book argues that the US need not replicate its Cold War triad to achieve credible and reliable deterrence.

  • Introduction

    In the next few years the government of the United States will make decisions regarding the renewal of its nuclear forces that will have huge implications for the security of the country and its allies, its public finances and the salience of nuclear weapons in global politics. Current plans provide for spending an estimated US$1 trillion over 30 years to modernise or replace the full triad of air-, land- and sea-based...
  • Chapter One: The plan for a trillion-dollar triad

    The US plans to renew its nuclear triad – its fleet of nuclear bombers, ballistic-missile submarines, and land-based ICBMs and their nuclear warheads – in full in the coming years. The airborne part of the nuclear force will retain some B-52 and B-2 bombers but will largely consist of 100 new B-21 strategic aircraft (although not all of them may be produced for nuclear missions), equipped with more than 1,000...
  • Chapter Two: Deterrence and flexibility

    The principal function of the US nuclear force is to deter a range of plausible threats from nuclear-armed rivals against the US and its allies. This objective is met by keeping high-value targets of potential nuclear adversaries constantly at risk, and by holding nuclear forces that are rapidly employable in a crisis, and able to survive an initial attack and then respond with devastating effect. Nuclear forces must also provide...
  • Chapter Three: Strategic stability and arms control

    It is a long-standing US practice to ensure that the size and structure of the nuclear force, while maintaining deterrence, also supports and promotes strategic stability between the US and the other principal nuclear powers. This objective is reflected in current nuclear posture and employment guidance. In the paradoxical world of nuclear strategy, efforts to achieve superiority over a rival can be self-defeating because they can induce destabilising actions by the...
  • Chapter Four: Nuclear security and non-proliferation

    Decisions concerning the renewal of the nuclear arsenal also bear directly on the US objective to support nuclear non-proliferation globally, including through international agreements. US security depends on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is near-universally regarded as increasing the risk of a conflict involving nuclear weapons – or of those weapons falling into the wrong hands. US nuclear weapons and materials must be secure from the threat of...
  • Chapter 5: Procurement trade-offs and support for conventional operations

    A major consideration for the US is whether the expected outlay on full replacement of the nuclear triad is justified in the context of a finite defence budget, and the contribution that nuclear forces make to overall national defence priorities. The high expense and modest contribution to conventional operations are arguably the weakest aspects of the default plan for nuclear modernisation of the full triad. Funding the plan within the...
  • Conclusion

    This book has assessed the US plan for nuclear modernisation and three alternatives against a range of criteria: deterrent power and flexibility; strategic stability and arms control; nuclear security and non-proliferation; and trade-offs with conventional procurement as well as contributions to conventional operations. All the modernisation plans would meet the requirements of deterrence against nuclear-armed states. On the other criteria, the existing plan fares less well, in large part because...
  • Appendix

    Figure 6: US strategic nuclear weapons, 1960–90 Figure 7: US strategic nuclear forces, 1991–2016

AP462The US government is planning to spend an estimated US$1 trillion over 30 years to modernise or replace its triad of air-, land- and sea-based nuclear weapons. These plans have huge implications for the security of the United States and its allies, its public finances and the salience of nuclear weapons in global politics. This Adelphi book argues that the US need not replicate its Cold War triad to achieve credible and reliable deterrence.

It proposes viable alternatives that would allow the US to maintain deterrence at a lower cost, thereby freeing up funds to ease pressing shortfalls in spending on conventional procurement and nuclear security. These alternative structures – which propose a reduction in the size and shape of the arsenal – have distinct advantages over the existing plan in maintaining strategic stability vis-à-vis Russia and China; upholding arms-control treaties; boosting the security of US nuclear forces; and supporting the global non-proliferation regime. They would also endow the US with a nuclear force better suited to the strategic environment of the twenty-first century, and mark an advance on the existing triad in supporting conventional military operations.

‘Doyle shines a spotlight on a crucial choice facing the United States that has so far received far too little debate: whether to rebuild, at enormous cost, a nuclear arsenal that would perpetuate Cold War thinking until nearly the end of the century; or whether to reduce and restructure nuclear forces to make clear that their only purpose is deterrence. Required reading for anyone interested in this important issue.’
Steve Fetter, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, University of Maryland

‘How many nuclear weapons does the United States really need? James Doyle, a former Los Alamos nuclear-weapons lab expert, rightly challenges the nuclear-weapons bureaucracy to think outside the box regarding nuclear-weapons modernisation. Doyle cogently argues that less is more, especially in an age of uncertain relations with Russia. From competing defence-budget priorities to strategic stability, arms control and non-proliferation, Doyle articulates the many reasons why the current modernisation plan is Cold War overkill.'
Sharon Squassoni, Senior Fellow and Director, Proliferation Prevention Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

‘It can be easy to forget that we still live in the Nuclear Age. Doyle’s wonderfully clear consideration examines the policy choices to be made, and the costs and benefits associated with each option. This sober, professionally informed and wise study provides readers with the facts and tools to judge for themselves. Doyle’s discussion of the trade-offs between spending on nuclear rather than conventional weapons is particularly illuminating, as are his thoughts on the importance of a flexible force structure that can meet both new threats and opportunities for reducing nuclear dangers.'
Jim Walsh, Senior Research Associate, MIT Security Studies Program

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Dr James E. Doyle formerly a specialist in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, focuses on strategic planning and policy development in the field of nuclear weapons.

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