America’s Russian nuclear obsession
by Michael Austin
When the Chinese Communist Party held a huge military parade on Tiananmen Square on September 3, it did more than mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan. By parading some of China’s most advanced ballistic missiles, it also put America and the world on notice that it has steadily become a major nuclear power. China was jostling for position in a crowded field in what some are calling a “new nuclear age.” Yet even as America’s two-decade vacation from nukes is ending, the country’s nuclear thinking remains obsessed with an old enemy, Russia. In order to navigate the unwelcome return of nuclear weapons to international politics, U.S. nuclear strategy and planning needs to change, as well, and new questions need to be asked about our strategic environment.
For a country focused on terrorism and counterinsurgency for nearly 15 years, talk of nuclear conflict seems a throwback to the days of Fail Safe and On the Beach. Yet the disconnect works at two levels. In Washington, D.C., nuclear weapons have been out of fashion since the end of the Cold War and the standing down of the iconic Strategic Air Command, in 1992. Until Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine, Russia was dismissed by administrations of both parties as a geopolitical has-been, and its nuclear force fit only for further negotiated reductions. Moreover, President Obama’s 2009 Prague call for “global zero” further fueled the belief that nuclear weapons were a horror whose time had come and gone. The fact that the world’s nuclear powers, and some would-be powers, were recommitting to their nuclear arsenals was largely ignored by U.S. policymakers and analysts more focused on immediate threats.
America’s fearsome nuclear arsenal sat quietly in its silos, submarines, and bombers while politicians turned to debates over counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The nuclear enterprise, as it is called, became a military backwater, and morale and standards suffered, with cheating scandals and the public firing of both the nation’s number two nuclearcommander and the Air Force general in charge of the country’s ICBM’s. Yet even as the military struggled to restore confidence in the nuclear mission, America’s nuclear war fighters continued their mission 24/7, deep underground in silos, in the ocean depths, or in cramped and aging bombers decades older than their pilots.
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