Warrior Maven

Why Banning Nuclear Weapons Could be Dangerous

Opponents of US nuclear modernization and the US strategy of extended deterrence teamed up recently to support a trifecta of new policies.

Missiles fly across the range into the designated target during demonstration of the combined live fire exercise on August 17, 2015, at Seungjin Range, South Korea. (Jaewoo Oh via DVIDS)

Opponents of US nuclear modernization and the US strategy of extended deterrence teamed up recently to support a trifecta of new policies. William Hartung of the Quincy Institute, Robert Dodge, the President of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and Doug Bandow of CATO, called for unilateral cuts in the US nuclear and conventional arsenals, the banning of all nuclear weapons, and for the US to withdraw its forces from the Republic of Korea, respectively, even as the nuclear threats from North Korea, China and Russia expand markedly.

Bandow has previously argued that the ROK conventional capability was significantly better than the DPRK military so that the US conventional and nuclear extended military deterrent to help the ROK was not necessary. In addition, Bandow for years initially took the strange position that US withdrawal was without consequence, as the ROK conventional capability was sufficient to defeat a possible North Korean invasion so deterrence would hold.

But then simultaneously, Bandow also admitted that even if a nuclear armed North Korea invaded after a US withdrawal under the belief that the ROK deterrent would not stop the North’s invasion, at least American soldiers would not be fighting or American cities would not be at risk.

As such, Bandow’s argument is the US should not be militarily involved in the ROK and our forces should be withdrawn in order to protect Americans, which Bandow concludes should be a higher priority than protecting people in South Korea. Indeed, if American soldiers are not in the ROK to help defend that country, the reasoning goes, America would no longer need to protect its homeland from North Korean long-range ICBM rockets able to strike US cities.

Apparently now realizing the contradiction in his previous assessment of the military balance on the Korean peninsula, Bandow admits that the ROK could solve its problem by building its own nuclear arsenal to match that of the North Koreans. This implicitly concedes that the withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella would leave a big hole in the ROK defense and that historically the US extended deterrent has been a key ingredient in defending the ROK, as otherwise why would the ROK need to build its own nuclear forces to continue to deter the DPRK?

Bandow tries to dismiss the implications of blowing up the NPT or the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which the ROK is a party. The US, claims Bandow, cheered on the development of nuclear weapons in India, Pakistan and Israel, so what’s the big deal? But Bandow fails to mention that none of the three nations he lists are or have been members of the NPT, and thus their proliferation status is well known and not a violation of legal proliferation norms.

In addition, it was China not the US that in 1981 secretly adopted a plan to transfer nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, and then to Iran, North Korea and Libya (and possibly Iraq), as detailed by Tom Reed’s 2009 book “The Nuclear Express.”

Nuclear weapons proliferation was a Chinese objective for offensive purposes, not as a defense mechanism, not to deter war but to make the threat of war itself more diplomatically successful. In short, North Korea and China deployed nuclear weapons to make the threat of war a more useful coercive strategic tool.

Bandow initiated his analysis of the military balance on the peninsula with an Afred E. Newman-like “What me worry” narrative by dismissing the conventional capability of the DPRK military as “limited,” with a quantitate edge that is “dwarfed” by the ROK’s “sophisticated military” although he also describes the US-ROK alliance as a “fundamental bankrupt” deal.

The obvious question is that despite the ROK’s advantage combined with the huge US capability, Bandow still thinks the chances of a North Korean invasion are high. To avoid the US being swept along by what is described as a “transmission belt” of possible nuclear war, Bandow is thus recommending a unilateral withdrawal from South Korea that his own assessment admits could very well trigger a nuclear war.

Dodge and Hartung think nuclear weapons can be outlawed and then abolished. And the US should unilaterally start with sharp cuts in the country’s nuclear arsenal and defense budget, although neither suggests a deterrent spending level or nuclear force structure they believe is adequate. Dodge simply quotes Dwight Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iran” 1953 speech where the President bemoans the waste that goes into military spending.

This author too used Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech as the basis for an 1972 speech in college wishing the US could build more schools and hospitals just as Dodge and Hartman do.

But what I learned during the last five decades is that the US defense needs are not determined by how many schools we want to build but determined by the threats from our adversaries. From 1933-40, the US defense budget was stuck at $732 million annually, because Rosevelt wanted to build more schools and WPA projects, a period during which the threats from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany swelled.

Throughout the Cold War, the US had to fight to provide a robust defense, particularly during the 1969-80 supposed era of détente and peaceful coexistence, and in the post “end of the Cold War” period from 1991-2000 and again 2009-2016.

Today although the USSR is no more, the threats the US face are primarily an axis of totalitarianism, led by China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, that collectively since 1917 have murdered some 100 million of their own citizens to stay in power, three of which are nuclear armed and with the fourth well onto the nuclear path. Think maybe they would not think twice about killing Americans to hold onto power as well?

Dodge cleverly cooks the books by adding tens of billions to the current nuclear spending accounts of the US government claiming some $90 billion for that category. Missile defenses are included even though these defenses actually destroy (not build) incoming conventional and nuclear warheads. As for the programs the US adopted after the collapse of the USSR that collected loose nuke material in the former Soviet Union, the Nunn-Lugar program (named for the Senate sponsors of the implementing legislation), destroy or dismantle nuclear warheads and material as well and add nothing to the US nuclear arsenal.

The actual overall nuclear spending of the US government including DOD and NNSA is around $55 billion annually. And since 1991, the US twice went on what could be rightfully described as a “holiday from history” where we cut a cumulative $1.8 trillion from defense between 1991-2020, cuts both Hartung and Dodge enthusiastically supported. With the result that our legacy nuclear systems were all in danger of what HASC senior staffer Clark Murdock warned were “rusting to obsolescence.”

Dodge and Hartung also complain the US doesn’t use diplomacy enough and relies too heavily on military force to settle conflicts. For some reason, robust military spending is apparently incompatible with sound diplomacy.

Is that true?

Let’s examine Korea. In 1949, the US said we would not maintain troops in South Korea, that the country was beyond our defense perimeter. Diplomacy would work to prevent conflict. Leaders in the Department of Defense wanted to curtail defense spending and some proposed the $12 billion spending in 1949 be reduced to as low as $7 billion!

In January 1950, by two votes, the US House of Representatives decided not to support giving military assistance to the government in Seoul. After all, who wants to be described as a warmonger?

That same month, the US intelligence community assured President Truman that only with Soviet forces could the North Korea military successfully invade the South and Soviet forces were simply not present in the DPRK. So, what was there to worry about?

Subsequently just a few weeks later, in June 1950, the DPRK with 70,000 troops invaded the ROK and subsequently over three years criminally caused the death of at least 5 million people, mostly Korean civilians, and came within a few days of taking over the entire peninsula. Thirty-five thousand US soldiers perished as well.

Now what about nuclear deterrence and arms control?

The disarmament community, including the Physicians for Social Responsibility, opposed the entirety of Reagan’s nuclear modernization effort. Under President Reagan, however, diplomacy and military strength worked together and gave the US the leverage to seek massive reductions in nuclear weapons between the US and the USSR. Reductions most disarmament advocates opposed as they embraced the nuclear freeze.

Reagan’s success was nothing short of astounding. The INF treaty of 1987 eliminated thousands of Soviet SS-20 missiles. Under START I (1991) and START II (1993) allowable nuclear weapons for both the US and the USSR were cut from roughly 12,000 to 6000 to 3500, respectively. Although START II never went into force, the 2002 Moscow Treaty and the 2010 New START treaty then both subsequently cut allowable nuclear forces to around 2100-2200 (when you take into account special counting rules for bomber weapons under New START the 1550 official is actually quite close to the Moscow level.)

All in all, over a period of 23 years, nearly 25,000 US and Russian nuclear weapons were dismantled and then destroyed, probably the greatest disarmament undertaking in world history.

And during this period, especially 1981-1991, the US modernized its entire nuclear enterprise, proving there was no incompatibility between arms control and a strong deterrent, as long as you did it right.

Though subsequent arms control will be exceedingly difficult, especially given Russian suspension of its obligations under New START and China’s dismissal of the existing arms control regime, the US has to still maintain its effort to modernize its aging legacy systems.

Unfortunately, Dodge and Hartung give the impression the US nuclear spending is largely only for new modernized nuclear forces, and part of a mistaken arms race, whose weapons production is at least in some significant part unnecessary.

However, Dodge and Hartung together ignore eight facts. *

First, nearly 70% of the nuclear spending is for sustaining not modernizing the legacy US nuclear forces, spending necessary even if the US had zero nuclear modernization underway.

Second, US nuclear spending some 30+ years after the breakup of the USSR is after adjusted for the additional inflation costs of nuclear forces some 60% less than what the US spent in 1991, the last year of the USSR.

Third, at the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower was spending nearly half of the entire federal budget on defense, which has since grown from the base spending an average of 28% annually, while non-defense spending has grown from the initial base an average of 122% per year for all of the past 63 years. Defense is now 13% of federal spending.

Fourth, despite hundreds of billions in proposed new taxes and growing revenue, the projected defense spending in ten years drops to 2.8% of GDP, or 65% less than the FY73-22 average.

Fifth, nuclear sustainment and modernization are 4% and 2% of the defense budget, respectively, and .005% and .012% of the overall Federal budget, respectively.

Sixth, overall annual research, development, and acquisition of the new nuclear systems is $18.4 billion, which 1/372th of the federal budget.

Seventh, given these nuclear platforms, including ICBMs, submarines, SLBMs, bombers, cruise missiles and NC3 will last until 2080 according to General Anthony Cotton, our new Commander of the US Strategic Command, the average annual cost of modernizing these systems comes to $9.3 billion a year, less than what Americans spend each year buying movie tickets after driving to the movies.

And finally, eighth, as Admiral Charles Richard, the just retired Commander of US Strategic Command explained, “When we talk about the modernization of the triad, what we leave out is the 'or else.’ And the other choice that we have is not to keep what we have. The entire Triad is reaching the end of its useful life. So, either we replace what we have now, or we start to divest, almost on a path to disarmament, in the face of this growing threat.”


Bandow, Dodge and Hartung find much to complain about in America’s stance in the world. And the defense priorities the US supports to keep the peace and strategic stability.

However, missing from their critiques is a solid understanding of our enemies. The bad guys get to vote and they do not have the same moral compass as the United States an its allies. So, the US pleas to ban nuclear weapons and unilaterally restrain deployments go nowhere, as David Trachtenberg’s NIPP study in 2002 conclusively proved.

Former NDU President USAF Lt Gen Michael Dunn was the military adviser to the US command in Korea. He put together a power point slide deck with a pyramid of North Korean objectives, and at the top was the forced reunification of the Korean peninsula, and with the withdrawal of all US military forces from the ROK a very close second.

China critically created the North Korean nuclear force as a means of dividing the US-ROK-Japan alliance, hoping to compel the US to leave the peninsula and facilitate the unification of the peninsula under North Korean rule. While to date the US—ROK alliance is stronger as is the cooperative work between the ROK and Japan, withdrawing US forces will collapse that progress.

As General Dunn explained, as soon as the US withdraws its extended deterrent from the ROK, the DPRK will begin to implement its long-held plan to invade the ROK again.

Bandow thus would grant the DPRK and China their long time wish and undo nearly 70 years of successful deterrence and individual sacrifice. And Bandow implicitly recognizes this but wants the US not to be involved in the fight, not realizing that with the US defending the ROK, it is highly likely no such war would ever take place.

Dodge and Hartung also propose dangerous policies. Both would collaboratively dismantle the US nuclear Triad just as our adversaries are building nuclear weapons technology faster than at any time during the Cold war. Hartung supports the unilateral elimination of US ICBMs or 70% of the allowed SNDVs under New START, an idea the Democratic party-controlled House turned down in 2022 by a lopsided vote of 308-116.

Russia and China are deploying some 20 new nuclear weapons systems such as bombers, submarines, ICBMs and MRBMs, according to Anthony Cordesman’s new CSIS assessment, systems either already deployed or slated for near-term deployment, just as the US is recovering from a near three-decade long holiday from history during which we forgot to sustain and maintain our nuclear deterrent. After all, in part to meet US arms control requirements, the US stopped production of the Ohio class submarine, the Peacekeeper ICBM and the B2 bomber between 1992-97, but with no plans adopted to eventually replace them.

It was not until 2007-10 that the US Congress and administrations concluded a variety of budget agreements to undertake the needed US nuclear modernization, an effort that will be primarily finished between 2029-42, nearly half a century after the end of the previous nuclear build.

Dr. Henry Kisinger once said that diplomacy without the threat of force is without effect. Senator Malcolm Wallop often said, “diplomacy without force is prayer.” The US nuclear modernization effort and its extended deterrent umbrella over our allies are exactly the force component that can lead to successful diplomacy, whether keeping the peace or forging arms deals.

That is a history lesson Bandow, Dodge and Hartung appear to have forgotten.

Read in Warrior Maven.