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U.S. Nuclear Modernization will support Global Nonproliferation

Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy, © 2003.

Much of the conversation on the improvement of the United States’ nuclear capability centers on its financial cost, rather than the risks of ignoring modernization. The United States has ignored this process for too long. Ready to push the limits of their antiquated arsenals, Russia and China are modernizing while North Korea marches forward toward a sizeable deterrent. If the U.S. arsenal begins to appear unreliable, U.S. allies will lose confidence in its nuclear umbrella and begin developing their own stockpiles. The stipulations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) mandate that only a select few powers, of which the United States is included, have nuclear weapons. Increasing the probability that other nations, reliant upon the nuclear shield provided by the United States, will start to experiment with the development of their own arsenals would prove the death knell of this vital treaty.

The House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 8, 2017, made it clear that upgrading the nuclear command, control, and communication (NC3) systems is the most critical portion of the modernization process. Life-extension programs are still possible on the warheads and delivery vehicles, but increasingly impossible for the current NC3 systems. NC3 includes the command systems that allow the president to launch a nuclear strike, the control systems that allow military personnel to launch the ordered strike, and the early warning systems that can detect and alert command to an imminent nuclear attack. Without adequate NC3 systems in place, the United States deterrent cannot be relied upon, regardless of how sophisticated its delivery systems or warheads are.

Russian assertiveness and North Korea’s recent tests of new missiles and nuclear devices have made the US nuclear umbrella more important than ever. The Trump administration’s seeming ambivalence toward NATO and a general reluctance to modernize has created doubts as to the integrity of the U.S. umbrella. One example of backlash to this is, within the German political establishment, the proposition of creating a “European deterrent” to counter Russia. Although this idea has been criticized within Germany, it has been praised by some in the Baltic States and Poland, which would likely be the first victims of a conventional Russian attack. Similarly, North Korea’s weapons program has alarmed Japan and South Korea, making the continued deterrence capability of the United States critical to their security. If the umbrella should fail, through poor policy or antiquated equipment, South Korea will have no choice but to develop its own nuclear arsenal to deter aggression from North Korea.

An expansion of nuclear-armed states would undermine the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, likely killing it altogether. This treaty was designed to fight proliferation by officially recognizing the United States, France, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union (now Russia) as the states legally allowed to possess nuclear weapons while banning all other signatory states from developing them. While the NPT is holding in force, the shock from a major, law-abiding state (such as Germany or South Korea) leaving its framework due to a lack of confidence in the United States’ extended deterrence capability would destroy the treaty.

Keeping the U.S. nuclear deterrent up to date is not only prudent security policy, but also necessary to maintaining the NPT and to ensure the credibility and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and umbrella. This, in turn, will help the integrity of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by dissuading allies of the United States from abandoning it and creating more nuclear-armed states. Russia’s assertiveness and North Korea’s tests have already scared U.S. allies. In such a chaotic world, the United States must do everything it can to prevent further nuclear proliferation, starting with its allies.


John Ashley is the Nuclear Security Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John received a Master of International Policy from the University of Georgia in 2015, where he concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation and international security.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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