America can make better choices for modernising its nuclear forces than simply rebuilding the Cold War nuclear arsenal, argues James Doyle in the latest Adelphi book. In this introduction to his book, he explains that cheaper and more stable alternatives that comply with arms-control treaties are available, if only Washington can move on from its Cold War mindset.

Renewing America's nuclear arsenal

By Dr James E. Doyle, author of Renewing America’s Nuclear Arsenal

The international security environment has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War in 1990. Even if the United States has entered a new, hostile relationship with Russia, there are fundamental differences from the old Cold War contest of 1949–89. So why is America planning to replicate a nuclear force structure designed for a bygone era?

That is a good question that taxpayers concerned about US national security should be asking. Threats have changed, our nations’ finances have changed, military technology has changed fundamentally, our knowledge of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons on society has changed yet we plan to basically rebuild our 50-year-old nuclear strategy and force structure at tremendous cost.

Weak justification for nuclear overkill

Current plans will require more than US$1 trillion over the next 30 years to rebuild five means of delivering nuclear weapons. That includes new ballistic missile submarines, silo-based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic nuclear bombs and nuclear cruise missiles and a strategic bomber to carry them, in addition to new tactical nuclear bombs and aircraft to be based with our NATO allies.

Strategic justification for this Cold War nuclear overkill is weak and the plan runs the risk of consuming finite defence budget resources that are needed to buy military capabilities that keep America safe every day. These include counter-terror operations, troop training, conventional ground forces, navy ships and conventional combat aircraft.

For example, US Air Force officials have claimed that after 2020, funding levels for its conventional combat, refuelling, transport and reconnaissance aircraft including the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker, several unmanned aircraft, as well as the new B-21 strategic bomber will become ‘unmanageable’ if nuclear-weapons systems called for under the current nuclear modernisation plan are acquired.

With respect to US Navy programmes, spending on 12 new Columbia-class nuclear submarines will force cutbacks to conventional shipbuilding programmes, principally the new Virginia-class attack submarines, Ford-class aircraft carriers and new fleets of destroyers that make vital contributions to US military power across the globe.

Massive investments in nuclear weapons cannot keep America safe from new types of threats like terrorists, North Korea or cyber attacks. Moreover, technological advancement in computing, sensor technology and unmanned systems is making traditional basing of nuclear weapons more vulnerable. Despite these realities, the US plans to replace 400 ICBMs that are vulnerable to both direct and cyber attack and present the greatest threat of accidental nuclear war. Even more alarmingly, the same plans call for the continued basing of US nuclear weapons in NATO countries such as Belgium and Turkey that have a rising incidence of terror attacks, including some at military bases.

It doesn’t have to be this way

The good news is that America can make better strategic choices. Alternative nuclear modernisation plans for forces of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads or fewer, as permitted by the New START Treaty and sufficient to deter threats against the US and its allies from nuclear armed rivals, can be purchased and maintained for far less than US$1 trillion over 30 years. Some alternatives offer distinct advantages for maintaining strategic stability vis-à-vis Russia and China. They would also endow the US with a nuclear force better suited to the strategic environment of the 21st century, and represent an advance on the existing triad with regard to supporting conventional military operations.

Three of these alternatives are presented in detail in Renewing America’s Nuclear Arsenal: Options for the 21st Century, the latest Adelphi book published by the IISS. They are evaluated against a set of criteria derived from official statements describing the role that nuclear weapons play in our security policy. This includes providing flexible deterrence, supporting strategic stability, nuclear security and non-proliferation goals, supporting conventional military operations and reflecting a balanced investment of finite defence resources. This assessment highlights the pros and cons of each of the three options and clearly demonstrates that America can make better choices for modernising its nuclear forces than simply rebuilding the Cold War nuclear arsenal.

Back to content list

Latest Posts


Is NATO’s two percent target fit for purpose?

NATO’s two percent target only provides a limited view of countries' defence capabilities.

armed conflict database

Armed Conflict Database

A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.