If President Obama ever had a rationale for moving away from his personal belief in nuclear disarmament, Vladimir Putin has provided one in Crimea. Russia’s annexation is a game-changer that will likely change the strategic dynamic in Europe in ways that neither Putin nor Obama fully understands.
If deterrence equals capability plus will, then the nuclear disarmament crowd is concurrently undermining both at a time as Putin gauges President Obama’s reactions and wonders just how much he can take before the US and the West respond with more than sanctions on Russian plutocrats.
What European Allies May Want
NATO member states on the alliance’s eastern periphery will undoubtedly see an imminent threat to their own independence and expect greater commitments from NATO. Poland, for example, may seek faster deployment of Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) batteries on their soil. And Romania, also scheduled to receive SM-3 batteries, may join them. Currently, the missile batteries are not scheduled to be complete until 2018.
The Czechs may reopen talks with the United States for deployment of anti-ballistic missile radars on their soil.
Poland and the Baltic states appear to be contemplating the benefits of nuclear-capable aircraft and of the stationing of American nuclear weapons on their soil. On January 6, two months before Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Estonian Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu told a public audience in Washington that “nuclear deterrence is badly needed for NATO. Surely it is a very valuable ‘pro’ which the U.S. provides to the security of the alliance.”
If Russia’s annexation of Crimea taught the Ukrainians—and everyone else watching—anything, it was that their decision to give up nuclear weapons two decades ago was a mistake.
In Western Europe, leaders will undoubtedly seek to keep every last nuclear weapon now in Europe right where it is. In fact, NATO members may begin to forcefully encourage President Obama to stop reductions to the American nuclear arsenal and to vigorously fund programs that sustain weapons and delivery platforms.
What Should Be Done?
Research and development funding for a Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) replacement and the next-generation nuclear bomber (Long Range Strike Bomber) should be dramatically increased. The administration could also end the delay in funding the nuclear air-launched cruise missile replacement. Nothing signals what is important better than where you spend your money.
The Senate should schedule all nuclear-related nominations for an immediate vote — and in a very public fashion. Currently, the National Nuclear Security Agency, responsible for building, maintaining and safeguarding our nuclear weapons enterprise has no leader. President Obama’s appointee has been waiting for a vote since the fall of 2013.
The defense and energy committees in Congress should ensure that the nation’s nuclear programs are fully funded. At less than 5 percent of the defense budget, the advantages of signaling support for the arsenal outweigh potential cost savings.
With the fiscal constraints of the Budget Control Act reducing the United States’ conventional capabilities, the nuclear arsenal is likely to grow in importance, not diminish. If the United States is to effectively deter Vladimir Putin from grabbing more of his neighbors’ lands, it will require an increase in the credibility of our nuclear arsenal. Being unprepared or unwilling to react will only increase the probability of conflict.
Adam Lowther is a professor at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base. He specializes in the study of nuclear weapons policy and, obviously, air power issues. He was deeply involved in the Commander Directed Investigation about cheating and drug use among missileers at Malmstrom Air Base.