As a father of two young children, I am often perplexed when I hear senior leaders from the Department of Defense speak before civilian and military audiences and say something like, “If I could uninvent nuclear weapons, I would. But since we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, we must maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear force.”
What makes this statement so perplexing is that creating a world free of nuclear weapons wouldn't ensure my son and daughter live in a world safe from the great power wars that killed eighty million people between 1914 and 1945.
During World War II alone more one million people died per month because of the war.
For those critics of nuclear weapons who argue that the world would be safer if we put the genie back in the bottle, the historical record presents a number of inconvenient truths that they cannot overcome.
Nuclear weapons save lives
Since 1945, nuclear weapons have eliminated great power wars, saving the lives of untold millions. This is because a conflict between nuclear-armed states has the potential to escalate to a nuclear conflict. Fortunately, the leaders of nuclear powers are not only unwilling to go to war, but they go to great lengths to constrain their allies and partners from engaging in conflicts that might eventually drag them in a conflict with another nuclear armed state.
The net effect of this risk averse behavior is that there has been an approximately ninety percent reduction in conflict related deaths over the last seven decades. This is not to say that all conflict has disappeared. It has not. What it does mean is that the wars that are fought are on a much smaller scale and are much less costly in blood and treasure. This is very good news for parents like me who would be expected to send their sons and daughters to fight in the next great power war.
Modernizing the nuclear triad is necessary
Nuclear deterrence only works if an adversary believes the other side has the capability and will to use its weapons. For the United States, both have eroded over the past two decades. During the Cold War, the United States replaced its arsenal about every ten to fifteen years.
However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H. W. Bush cancelled the modernization programs that were set to replace both weapons and delivery vehicles designed and fielded in the 1960s and 1970s. Twenty five years later, those same weapon systems are still defending our families and deterring our adversaries.
The problem with our current nuclear arsenal is that it was never designed to last five, six, or seven decades. Not only is the technology outdated, but keeping these weapons functional is becoming increasingly difficult.
What is even more dangerous are the developments taking place in Russia and China where they are, for example, replacing their 1970s era intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with modern ICBMs that are more capable—putting American families at greater risk?
In fact, our adversaries are modernizing every aspect of their nuclear triads. And in the case of Russia, they have a modernized triad which they can use as part of their “first use” policy, which allows for a first strike as part of Russian nuclear doctrine.
Ensuring the continued credibility of deterrence depends on the nation placing the necessary value on nuclear modernization. It is really that simple.
The nuclear arsenal is cheap
Without question, the nuclear arsenal is the most cost effective component of our national defense. Currently, American taxpayers spend about $25 billion per year on nuclear weapons and operations. That is less than five percent of the defense budget and less than half of one percent of the federal budget. At the height of modernization, that cost will rise to seven percent of the defense budget.
When you compare what Americans spend on sovereignty insurance, which is what nuclear weapons are, you will find that they are the most inexpensive form of insurance we can buy. For example, the average American taxpayer spends about $225 per year on the nuclear arsenal (sovereignty insurance), while at the same time they spend an average of about $1325 on auto insurance and $12,000 on health insurance.
What many American do not realize is that the money we spend on the nuclear arsenal allows us to spend less money on national defense and more money on new cars and better healthcare. Because nuclear weapons deter our adversaries from attacking the United States, we are able to redirect our hard earned money to areas that allow us to better take care of our families.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, I am very thankful that they were invented. Neither my father nor I fought the Soviets in World War III. It is my hope that Americans will continue to see the value of nuclear weapons in ensuring peace and will guarantee that we have a nuclear arsenal second to none. I have devoted my life to that mission because I believe it is a crucial way to ensure the safety of my children.
Dr. Adam B. Lowther is the director of the U.S. Air Force's School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.
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