New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Making Sense of the U.S. Nuclear Posture – and Making it Make Sense


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks on September 18, 2012, to an event at the Capital Hill Club in Washington, D.C., organized by the British American Security Information Council.  Professor Janne Nolan of the George Washington University also participated.

Good morning everyone.  It’s a pleasure to be here, and I’m grateful to Paul Ingram and Anne Penketh of BASIC for inviting me, as well as to the Reserve Officers’ Association and Air Force Association – and, as always, Peter Huessey – for their hospitality here at the Capital Hill Club.

The Purposes of the Force

Paul suggested that I say a word about what purposes I think the U.S. nuclear force serves, so let me try.   As I see it, our nuclear weapons have generally served the same general purposes for many years.  There are basically five.

First, we acquired our nuclear forces first with an eye to ending one great-power war, and kept them in order to prevent another: they have served as strategic stabilizers and powerful inhibitors of general conflict between the most important players in the international order.  As the Soviets built up their own arsenal, our weapons acquired two additional missions: deterring others’ use of such weapons against us; and in the event that deterrence fails, providing the U.S. president with a range of options both for warfighting and for war termination through escalation control and intra-war bargaining.

Fourth, we also came to understand after a while that nuclear weapons had some utility in deterring the use of other weapons of mass destruction – a view reflected in the Nixon Administration’s decision to abandon biological weapons (BW) secure in the conclusion that our nuclear weapons would deter another state from using BW on us.  Fifth and finally, we also found that nuclear weapons had an important role in reinforcing alliance relationships with countries feeling threatened by powerful potential conventional or nuclear adversaries – thus extending all these missions into the realm of third-party benefits.  (This extension was useful first of all because it helped provide them security they need, but it also served the cause of nonproliferation by reducing any perceived need they might have felt to develop such weaponry on their own.)

The relative importance of each of these factors varies over time, but none of them have ever disappeared.  All of them, moreover, remain reflected in one form or another – and for good reasons – in the United States’ current posture.

Adjusting the Mix?

Paul asked me to say a word about how I would change our nuclear posture if I could.  My response is that the posture in its basic form – that is, a “Triad” of forces that combine different aspects of flexibility, redundancy, and survivability – still meets our needs and is quite sound.  What I would adjust is its components, not its structure or even its size.

I’m not so much interested in ever-lower numbers, for I don’t see that anything is “broken” enough in the strategic realm to require reductive surgery, with all the risks that deep cuts might entail.  Nor do I support abandoning the “Triad” format if we can possibly avoid it, for it provides a mix of complementary and partially-overlapping capabilities that works pretty well as its own sort of strategic “hedge” against technological surprise and adversary activity.  Smaller is nice, but I like stable postures more than I like small ones, and these two values sometimes work at cross-purposes.

What I would do as the highest priority is modernize our forces – a difficult and expensive road down which we are now only just beginning to travel.  For so long as we retain any nuclear weapons, it is vital – and I think both deterrence and crisis stability require – that they be safe, secure, reliable, credible, survivable, and as well-tailored to their potential missions as possible.  We will also need to ensure that our nuclear weapons infrastructure is capable of being genuinely “responsive” to future threats, not least because keeping state-of-the-art weapon design capabilities and a robust production capacity is a critical “hedge” against future uncertainty without which we would likely need to maintain a larger arsenal.

These requirements are not cheap – and they do not lessen with reductions in arsenal size.  (They may even increase.)  The fewer weapons and delivery systems we possess, the more important it is that those we keep are optimized for modern needs in all these respects, and the more important it is that we maintain the ability to reverse course in the face of some grave new threat.

Underinvestment in modernization has left us with an arsenal built around systems developed in and optimized for a Cold War competition that ended decades ago, not now changed in any significant essential, but merely reduced drastically in numbers.  (It has also left us with an infrastructure that is today all but incapable of genuinely new work in this field or of significant production volumes, either now or in some future contingency.)  If we are serious about maintaining deterrence and meeting our security needs as the 21st Century progresses – and especially if anyone wants us to keep fewer weapons around than at present – we have a lot of work to do.

I’m not the biggest fan of President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), for I see it in many ways as a Master Class in equivocation.  On the other hand, as I’ve said repeatedly since it was published in 2010, my strongest reaction to it was relief that it wasn’t worse.  For a president who spent so much effort, so early, on disarmament posturing, the NPR is an almost shockingly moderate document.  There is a lot of hat-tipping to the disarmament “true believers,” but such bows are more often than not rhetorical and atmospheric – or come in areas like declaratory policy, which few real strategists take too seriously in the first place.

I’m pleased the NPR wasn’t worse, and I’m glad that there is as much said in that document as there is about modernization.  I’d be much happier if the president and Congress hadn’t been conspiring since then to abandon modernization funding promises that Obama made in order to secure ratification of “New START.”  At the level of doctrine, however, it’s nice to see that modernization is at least theoretically on the U.S. agenda after all this time.


As for nonproliferation, I don’t believe that the success or failure of nonproliferation policy depends much – or really at all – upon U.S. disarmament policy.  We’ve certainly gotten precious little so far, from a nonproliferation perspective, out of all our pro-disarmament posturing during the last four years.  Iran and North Korea face tougher sanctions than they did before, but these pressures haven’t been enough to change their policies, and in any event we owe what sanctions there are to those regimes’ ongoing provocations – not to our own disarmament promises, for which neither they nor the Security Council foot-draggers in Moscow and Beijing care one whit.  Nor is our current disarmament-friendly position keeping more and more countries from pursuing technological capabilities that will give them in effect a nuclear weapons “option” in the future.  The world’s proliferation dynamics continue apace, essentially unaffected by our disarmament positioning.

We were told for years that everything in the nonproliferation world would be better if only we did more to show our seriousness about disarmament.  And President Obama believed the pitch.

In fact, however, the real point was made clear pretty early on, if anyone had been listening.  When I was U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, disarmament diplomacy gurus Sergio Duarte and Abdul Minty quite openly explained to me that the disarmament community would never give the Americans credit for getting rid of nuclear weapons they didn’t need.  It’s not considered “disarmament,” apparently, to reduce the role the nuclear weapons play in our strategy, or to resolve the worst of our strategic problems with a major nuclear adversary, and to cut our arsenal accordingly.

As both of those esteemed gentlemen told me – one at the Annecy Conference in 2007, and the other over a very nice dinner in Pretoria – cuts only count as “disarmament” if you actually still need the weapons you eliminate.  We only get credit for disarming, in other words, if we thereby imperil our security.  (I really am not making this up!)

This is why the disarmament community hasn’t batted an eyelash that we’ve cut our arsenal 80 percent the end of the Cold War.  Indeed, those same 80 percent cuts have coincided with the growth of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, as well as with the ratcheting up – not down – of the modern disarmament mantra that we are the problem, not the proliferators, and that nonproliferation difficulties would ease if only the United States led in disarming.

If even a little bit of that mantra were true, the U.S. and Russian post-Cold War reductions would have all but solved the modern world’s nonproliferation problems years ago, but of course they did not.  Historians will remember the Cold War as a period in which the superpower arsenals skyrocketed while proliferation remained surprisingly limited, and they will remember the post-Cold War era as a time when the nonproliferation consensus essentially collapsed after the superpowers had slashed their arsenals to the smallest levels in more than half a century.

The nonproliferation-for-disarmament mantra was thus hooey all along: a bait-and-switch game.  Shame on Barack Obama for being so credulous.

A Possible Consensus?

For my part, I think it is possible to imagine some agreement between hawks and doves on U.S. nuclear policy, at least with respect to short-term policies – not least among them the imperative of modernizing U.S. forces and our infrastructure, so that whatever nuclear forces we retain are as safe, reliable, survivable, flexible, and effective as we now know how to make them.  This consensus can be seen in the Strategic Posture Review Commission’s report in 2009, in the “New START” ratification debates, and even in elements of President Obama’s own 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.  It is in jeopardy now because the White House and Congress seem to be conspiring to betray the modernization promises made in connection with “New START” ratification, but the conceptual core of a bipartisan program remains there.

The case for reductions, one should remember, gets harder to the extent that reflexive objections continue to preclude or impede modernization.  The less well-tailored U.S. warheads and systems are to our needs, or the less confident we are in their long-term reliability, the more of them we are likely to need to keep around to make sure our arsenal is capable of doing its job.  The smaller you want the force to be, in other words, the more perfectly it’s got to fit its mission, and the more confidence you’ll need to be able to place in its reliability, survivability, and flexibility into the indefinite future.

Whether the ultimate destination is envisioned as abolition or as a stable long-term deterrent force, therefore, I like to think that we can agree on near-term approaches.  There is certainly a lot of “theology” in the disarmament debate, but perhaps reason can lead us at least to this near-term agreement.

Thank you.  I look forward to our discussions.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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