Editorial Board

A Nuclear Weapon the U.S. Doesn't Need

Dangerous enough.

Photographer: Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images

For a president who famously advocated for a world without nuclear weapons, Barack Obama has done a lot to keep the U.S. nuclear arsenal intact. That’s not a criticism -- it was his promise that was naive, not his policy -- but in one respect, his strategy is unnecessarily destabilizing.

The administration’s proposal to spend up to $30 billion to create a new nuclear cruise missile meant to be carried by the aging B-52 bomber makes no sense financially or strategically. Cruise missiles, which are smaller than land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and fly farther than tactical bombs dropped by planes, are the wild card of the nuclear arsenal: Unlike ICBMs, they are very hard to spot by radar or satellite, and, even if detected, they’re indistinguishable from conventionally armed cruise missiles.

This is a problem because a successful deterrence strategy requires that both sides in a potential nuclear conflict have a pretty good idea of what the other would do. Three years ago, the U.K. decided not to develop a submarine-based nuclear-tipped cruise missile because it carries too great a risk of “miscalculation and unintended escalation.”

Even the cold warrior Ronald Reagan subscribed to this theory of deterrence, agreeing with the Soviets in 1987 to eliminate land-based nuclear cruise missiles. His successor, George H.W. Bush, ordered them taken off U.S. submarines. The only current version is carried by the B-52, which is too slow and easily spotted to enter contested airspace and drop bombs.

In the early days of the Cold War, this weapon may have made sense. But after the B-1 supersonic bomber and B-2 stealth craft came along in the 1980s, the U.S. had planes with the capability to enter hostile airspace with nuclear bombs. (The B-1 no longer carries nuclear weapons, but the 20 remaining B-2s can.)

Today, with Russia a much-diminished nuclear threat and China little interested in challenging U.S. nuclear superiority, the need to overwhelm either nation’s air defenses is less of a priority. Meanwhile, lesser potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea have limited capability to protect their airspace. And technological advances have made the nuclear submarine fleet vastly more capable of penetrating enemy anti-missile defenses.

So why the push for the new cruise weapon? In part, it’s the natural inclination of the military to trade up. There are also concerns over what will happen when the B-2 goes out of service and the B-52s, which have been flying since the 1950s, give up the ghost.

But the Air Force plans to spend $10 billion to extend the B-2’s life for another four decades, and up to another $80 billion for the next-generation Long Range Strike Bombers, which could enter service as soon as 2025 and are designed to penetrate contested airspace. In addition, the current air-launched cruise missile can probably remain usable for 15 years, filling any gap before the new bomber takes off.

Given all this, spending billions on a new nuclear cruise missile isn’t the best or wisest use of resources. William J. Perry, the former defense secretary who oversaw the development of air-launched cruise missiles, now supports a global ban on nuclear-tipped cruises.

America’s nuclear arsenal remains a linchpin not only of national defense but also of international security. Obama’s support of hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize the aging nuclear “triad” is justified. But plans to upgrade the nuclear cruise missile would not make the U.S., or the world, any safer.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.