Nuclear Values: What Stockpiles and Yields Don’t Tell Us About “Military Strength”

The Heritage Foundation, a right-of-center think tank in Washington, recently released its annual Index of US Military Strength. The index provides lengthy documentation of U.S. military assets, and, in a report card-like assessment, rates the U.S. nuclear complex as “marginal but trending toward strong” in its quantification of “strength.” In this analysis, it is clear the Heritage Foundation conflates the size and relative newness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile with strength, when, in reality, the presence of large nuclear arsenals sows global instability. Bolstering stockpiles does not increase the value of deterrence, and viewing large numbers of nuclear weapons as “strong” is a traditional warfighting lens that is simply not applicable to nuclear weapons analysis.

Current Stockpile and New Weapons

The Foundation defines military strength as “[possessing] armed forces that exist above all else so that the U.S. can physically impose its will on an enemy and change the conditions of a threatening situation by force or threat of force.” However, labeling a large nuclear stockpile as “strong”  utilizes a conventional understanding of weapons use regarding a decidedly unconventional weapon. Having more nuclear weapons does not explicitly yield more deterrence. Rather, it increases instability and lays the foundation for miscalculation and escalation between states.

For example, a smaller arsenal specifically designed for survivable second-strike targeting would provide just as much, if not more, deterrence as a larger arsenal. In fact, a smaller, deterrence-only nuclear arsenal and posture would provide more insulation and protection from accidents, mistakes, and miscalculation.

Similarly, adding new weapons and delivery systems to the current stockpile does not necessarily add deterrent value to the nuclear complex. New weapons are likely to spur arms races, further bolster interstate tensions, and create even more dependency on nuclear weapons. Additionally, smaller nuclear weapons, often referred to as low-yield or tactical, are unnecessary as they blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons; this is incredibly dangerous as it increases the probability for nuclear warfighting, and further convolutes the meaning of a credible nuclear arsenal. Simply put, while it is prudent for the  U.S. to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent as the world works toward elimination, it does not need a large nuclear stockpile to do so.

Life Extension Programs and Modernization

Despite the relatively “strong” rating, the Index adds the caveat that should the U.S. fail to budget for extensive modernization programs, the force will rapidly degrade to a “weak” score. However, modernization and life extension programs offer little to no deterrent value or strength to nuclear arsenals. Modernization programs are expensive policies that are a byproduct of large arsenals, adding no independent deterrence in and of themselves.

Modernization and life extension programs do not increase military strength as they subtract resources from conventional warfighting capabilities. Reducing the stockpile relieves the cost of modernization and life extension programs while still ensuring deterrence and increasing strength in actually quantifiable military conduits.

While the Index provides a comprehensive look at the current U.S. force structure, the Heritage Foundation should take care to not classify and quantify nuclear weapons with the same metrics as conventional ones. Nuclear weapons do not provide “strength,” and any current deterrent requirements can be satisfied with a significantly smaller force.