National security starts with a credible nuclear deterrent and missile defense
A commission co-led by Jon Kyl points to vulnerabilities.
There is an expanding divide in the Republican Party over foreign and military policy between what can be called, more for convenience than precision, internationalists and non-interventionists.
Stated broadly, the internationalists believe that there is still a need, and a strategic interest, in the United States operating as the leader and ultimate guarantor of what they often call a “rules-based” international order. The non-interventionists think that the United States has been stretched too thin by our international commitments and that serving in that role is no longer in our strategic interest.
This divide is most evident, and pressing, regarding continuing to fund Ukraine’s attempt to forestall being absorbed into Russia by force. But it extends much further and now constitutes a fundamental disagreement about how the United States should interact with the rest of the world.
These lines aren’t always sharp or binding. For example, I generally find myself in the non-interventionist camp. But I believe strongly that there are actionable security interests for the United States justifying continued assistance to Ukraine. And most of the Republicans opposing continued U.S. assistance to Ukraine support aiding Israel in its effort to eradicate Hamas’s power base in Gaza.
There is a similar, and longer standing, divide in the Democratic Party. The rationales of the GOP and Democratic non-interventionists differ. But both reject the bipartisan consensus of the internationalists about the continued need and strategic interest in the U.S. operating as the leader and guarantor of a rules-based international order.
Into this divide comes a report from the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. The commission was established by an act of Congress. At the time, Democrats were in charge so the chairwoman, Madelyn Creedon, was a Democrat. Former Arizona U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, a decades-long close friend and the political figure I most respect, served as vice chairman and the lead Republican on the commission. Although the commission was balanced in terms of the parties, it operated in a bipartisan fashion and its report was unanimous.
The report, America’s Strategic Posture, examines the potential vulnerabilities, military and diplomatic, in the time period 2027 to 2035. These vulnerabilities arise from the increased military capabilities of China and the accelerating authoritarian alliance — my term, not the commission’s — between China and Russia. According to the commission, the United States isn’t prepared to deal with what it calls “two nuclear peers”.
Its recommendations are firmly anchored in the internationalist view of what the U.S. role in the world should be. One of its recommendations is that the United States needs to be able to deter and defeat “simultaneous Russian and Chinese aggression in Europe and Asia using conventional forces”. That would require a massive, and expensive, increase in conventional capabilities.
However, in reading the report, what struck me was that its recommendations on nuclear weapons and missile defense should serve as a unifying policy for both internationalists and non-interventionists. Irrespective of what people think the U.S. role in the world should be, a starting point to national security ought to be a nuclear deterrent that both ourselves and any potential adversary regards as highly credible. And that should be supplemented by the ability to protect the country against a missile attack to the maximum extent possible, reducing reliance on a retaliatory nuclear strike also to the maximum extent possible.
The United States is in the midst of a modernization program for our nuclear force, replacing both warheads and delivery systems. The current modernization program is in large part due to Kyl’s advocacy, prodding, and skillful legislating when he was in the Senate.
However, the commission found that the current modernization program isn’t going to move quickly enough to respond to the “two nuclear peers” vulnerability. Moreover, it expressed concern about a possible gap in our nuclear capabilities if existing weapons reach the end of their useful lives before replacements are produced. Anyone familiar with the lumbering speed at which government tends to move would find this a credible, and disturbing, concern.
The commission also questions the capacity of the military industrial infrastructure to produce what is needed on the current timetable, much less the quicker pace it thinks is required. It makes several recommendations about expanding that production capacity, including more secure funding commitments rather than appropriating through short-term continuing resolutions.
With respect to missile defense, the bipartisan commission says pedal to the metal, albeit in loftier language befitting a congressionally commissioned report. According to the commission, the missile defense program should consist of “research, development, test, and evaluation into advanced (missile defense) capabilities leveraging all domains, including land, sea, air, and space ….The (Department of Defense) should urgently pursue deployment of any capabilities that prove feasible.”
Now, I think there is a strong possibility that the threat from China and Russia abates during the time period, 2027 to 2035, evaluated. Much of the anti-American animosity animating the authoritarian alliance is a product of the two current leaders of the countries. Both Xi and Putin will become octogenarians during this period. They won’t rule forever and neither has a clear succession pathway established.
Russia was an economic basket case even before the Ukrainian invasion. Xi economics won’t work, and the consequences of greater party control, actually Xi control, of ostensibly private businesses are beginning to be felt.
The Ukrainian war has exposed Russia’s military prowess as overblown, with serious weaknesses in munitions, command and supply structures, and will to fight. The Economist recently published a briefing questioning whether China’s military capability lives up to the raw numbers, based upon no true experience in combat and continuing corruption at the top.
However, our national security strategy shouldn’t be based on an assumption of the threat abating. The commission was right to craft a recommended strategy based upon the assumption that Russia and China are militarily capable and remain aligned and antagonistic toward the United States.
Compared to conventional forces and weaponry, nuclear deterrence and missile defense offer significantly greater increments of security for the marginal buck. The estimate by the Congressional Budget Office of the cost of maintaining the existing nuclear force and implementing the planned modernization over the next decade constitutes less than 10% of overall defense spending. My crude estimate is that less than 3% of defense spending is going to missile defense. The commission’s recommendations on nuclear weapons and missile defense could be reified without materially worsening the country’s precarious fiscal position.
At some point, the country and its political leaders need to focus on where we agree and act, rather than on where we disagree and don’t act. Ensuring a credible nuclear deterrent and maximizing missile defense would be the most important place to begin.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.