U.S. Nuclear Strategy 2025–2050 : Nuclear Non-proliferation has failed so more military options needed for measured responses

Center for Strategic and International Studies Project Atom took a competitive strategies approach to its zero-based, “blue sky” review of U.S. nuclear strategy and force posture. Three independent think tank teams – the Stimson Center, the Center for a New American Security, and the National Institute for Public Policy – investigated U.S. nuclear strategy for the new era (2025-2050) and what U.S. nuclear posture is needed to support that strategy. Their analysis, unconstrained by current strategy and policy and conducted within a common framework of assumptions, resulted in competing recommended strategies and postures for 2025-2050.

2025–2050: Recommended U.S. Nuclear Strategy

The CSIS think tank argues the Pentagon needs a more diverse suite of nuclear weapons. “In order to execute its Measured Response strategy, the nuclear forces for both deterrence and extended deterrence should have low-yield, accurate, special-effects options that can respond proportionately at the lower end of the nuclear continuum.

This could also include a “smaller, shorter-range cruise missile that could be delivered by F-35s” including the ones that will someday operate from the Navy’s aircraft carriers, Murdock said.

The recommendations made here are based on two related propositions about what would occur in the absence of an effective U.S. nuclear strategy to counteract these trends:

• The dynamics of the 2025–2050 security environment will cause further nuclear proliferation—perhaps not to the 18 nuclear powers envisioned in an alternative future, but higher than the 9 to 11 nuclear powers of the 2030 and beyond (2030+) “Likely Future” assumed by the think tank teams.

• The credibility of U.S. extended deterrence, as well as the assurance that U.S. allies and friends derive from it, will decline significantly in 2025–2050, in part because of the failure to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

The strategic environment of 2025–2050 is likely to become more complicated, more unpredictable, and more nuclear. The current U.S. nuclear force may not, however, be well suited to the challenge. In the short term, the path of modernization and recapitalization of existing forces and capabilities must be continued without further delays. For the longer term, however, more significant changes may be necessary to strengthen credibility and flexibility.

To better meet these challenges, the future nuclear enterprise and nuclear force would benefit from a responsive infrastructure and liberated national labs, a smaller but newer stockpile, lower and variable yields, a more diversified set of delivery systems, greater distribution and forward deployment, and further integration with nonnuclear capabilities. Both the 2017 nuclear posture review and several near-term procurement decisions will provide opportunities to review and potentially advance some of these capabilities.

A major stimulus for a faster rate of nuclear proliferation is U.S. conventional military superiority. This causes nonnuclear nation-states (such as North ­Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya) to pursue nuclear weapons as a counter or offset to U.S. military prowess. It also leads nuclear-armed states with interests in opposition to the United States (Russia, for sure, but perhaps China) to increase their reliance on nuclear weapons, much in the way that the United States did during the Cold War. Although the margin of U.S. conventional superiority has never been as great as often proclaimed and is declining relative to other major powers, the prospect of a conventional-only war with the United States is a losing proposition for any state. The value of nuclear weapons as a “trump card” for negating U.S. conventional power was enhanced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear weapon. If the United States apparently believes that it can be deterred by an adversary’s nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t a nonnuclear “regional rogue” want one.

U.S. nuclear forces were designed for a global conflict involving the exchange of thousands of high-yield weapons, not limited exchanges of low-yield weapons. Since most U.S. nuclear response options are large, “dirty,” and inflict significant collateral damage, the United States might be “self-deterred” and not respond “in kind” to discriminate nuclear attacks. U.S. conventional superiority establishes escalation control for the United States at the conventional level and causes its adversaries to think about breaking the nuclear threshold. The United States needs discriminate nuclear options at all rungs of the nuclear escalation ladder to make that option unattractive as well.

The nuclear strategy being recommended here is called “Measured Response.” This is not a new strategy; it is grounded in the U.S. strategy of escalation control that evolved as the United States turned away from the “massive retaliation” strategy of the 1950s and adopted “flexible response.” It’s about ensuring that there are no gaps in U.S. nuclear response options that would prevent it from retaliating proportionately to any employment of a nuclear weapon against the United States and its allies. U.S. conventional superiority lowers the nuclear threshold because it tempts conventionally weaker adversaries to early (rather than as a last resort) employment of a nuclear weapon in order to avoid adverse results at the conventional level. By having a robust set of proportionate nuclear responses, the United States raises the nuclear threshold because it reduces the attractiveness of nuclear escalation. This may seem paradoxical, to be sure, but paradoxes seem to be endemic to any nuclear age.

The following are offered as guidelines for sizing the future U.S. nuclear force:
• Maintain rough parity with Russia.
• Maintain nuclear superiority over China
• Maintain sufficient capability to cope simultaneously with nuclear-armed “regional rogues.”
• Maintain a smaller stockpile, which is enabled by a responsive infrastructure.

The relationship between nuclear weapons and other “strategic weapons” (2025-2050) is expected to be as follows:
• BMDs (Ballastic Missile Defenses) will continue to improve with greater reliability in defending against regional small-scale missile attacks but with little utility against nuclear arsenals the size of Russia’s and China’s.

• While border security capabilities will also continue to improve, irregular means of delivering a nuclear weapons cannot be entirely eliminated.

• Unmanned systems, and advances in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (including enhanced, cheap sensors and ability to process massive data) could degrade the survivability of submarines.

• By 2050, the capacity for destruction and disruption of chemical and biological weapons and offensive cyber weapons will be widely appreciated, which will increase the perceived need to deter and defend chemical, biological, and cyber
attacks (although not necessarily with nuclear weapons).

• The vulnerability of space-based assets will grow while the cost of access to space for all will decrease, but nuclear weapons will not have been deployed in space and space-based lasers will remain impractical.

• Improving CPGS capabilities will increase concern among some (if not all) nuclear-armed powers about the risk of nonnuclear attacks on their nuclear weapons, which (when combined with more effective BMD) negate their assured second-strike capability against the United States.

Space based access will be cheap

The cost of space lift will decrease dramatically during this time frame, perhaps to as little as $200 per kilogram to launch into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Miniaturization and the development of nanosatellites will also change the cost to operate in space and will afford greater redundancy and rapid replacement of lost space-based systems.

Space based assets will remain vulnerable to a range of adversary approaches such as spoofing, dazzling, jamming, and kinetic kill

The 2030+ Nuclear Club

• ­Either 9 members (same as today), 10 members (should Iran acquire nuclear weapons), or 11 members (should Saudi Arabia follow suit).

Authors’ Dissent

But not all of Murdock’s co-authors agree.

Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh of the Stimson Center argue that the American military is so far superior to its global counterparts that “nuclear weapons add few options” to theU.S. palette. “Indeed, given U.S. conventional military superiority, nuclear weapons serve no military role for the United States beyond deterring nuclear attacks on itself and its allies,” they write in one of the report’s appendices.