When Barack Obama was campaigning for president in 2008, he famously pledged to place nuclear disarmament at the center of his national-security strategy. He seemed to be delivering on that promise when he began outlining the terms of an arms-reduction treaty with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during his first months in office. In a highly celebrated speech in Prague in April 2009, Obama declared that “the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” and he restated “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Later that year, the Nobel Committee cited the president’s leadership on this issue when it awarded him the Peace Prize.
Why, then, we must ask, is the Obama administration moving forward with an ambitious nuclear-weapons modernization program that could dramatically raise the threat of nuclear war? The program aims to overhaul the entire US nuclear-weapons arsenal, with a particular focus on improving the fusing systems and accuracy of long-range land- and sea-based ballistic-missile warheads and on increasing the killing power of other nuclear warheads. A recent federal study estimated the cost of this enterprise at $1 trillion.
The stated goal of the program is to increase the “reliability” of US nuclear forces. But a close analysis reveals a technically sophisticated effort to ready US nuclear forces for a direct confrontation with Russia. To be sure, such preparations had been under way long before the modernization program caught the attention of the public in September, when The New York Times ran an extensive front-page story on it. The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have earnestly pursued the upgrade for more than two decades, and watchful Russian political and military leaders are keenly aware of its focus and intent.
The schedule and technical objectives of the US nuclear program are perfectly aligned with the bristling atmospherics associated with the downward spiral of US-Russian relations. Despite Obama’s high-profile attempt to “reset” US-Russian relations during his first term, a new dynamic never took shape. Many Russians, including those with moderate political views, believe the United States has been engaged in an endless campaign of disrespect, opportunism and predation toward Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union. Many Americans regard Russia as intransigent, dangerous and aggressive. Most Europeans consider themselves caught between two giants locked in an increasingly volatile feud. This politically charged environment has grown increasingly tense since the Ukraine crisis erupted last winter. US nuclear hawks now regard the modernization program as an urgent national-security priority, while Russian leaders perceive US rhetoric about the need to increase the reliability of supposedly aging US forces as yet another lie aimed at lulling Russia into a trap.
Sophisticated Russian analysts, especially those who understand the technical aspects of nuclear weapons, see the modernization drive as a disturbing indication that the US military believes a nuclear war against Russia can be fought and won. It was the Soviets’ obsessive focus on improving their strike capacity that led Ronald Reagan to the same conclusion about his counterparts. Just as I did when I was analyzing Moscow’s antiballistic-missile defense as an adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1980s, these analysts will ask themselves why the Americans are putting so much national treasure into systems that could not realistically be expected to work. Do US military and political leaders actually believe that the upgraded systems could serve a useful military purpose? If so, could such ill-informed beliefs lead to a cascade of events that result in a nuclear catastrophe?