History Shows US Nuclear Restraint Is a One-Way Street – War on the Rocks

The United States in the midst of modernizing its nuclear forces for the first time in decades. The modernization program entails a ground-based strategic deterrent program to replace the intercontinental ballistic missile, a new bomber, a nuclear certification for the F-35 aircraft, a new strategic submarine, a long-range standoff cruise missile, and sustainment of accompanying warheads and supporting infrastructure. The United States is slated to spend $35 to $40 billion per year over the next 30 years on these efforts.

Opponents of U.S. nuclear weapons modernization programs argue that it is a primary driver in starting arms races. In 2017, Sen. Ed Markey argued, “Instead of wasting taxpayer money on new nuclear weapons that could trigger a global nuclear arms race, the United States should exercise international leadership by cutting unnecessary and destabilizing nuclear weapons systems.” He added that the president should “contain the massive new nuclear weapons programs now underway before they lock in another 40 years of nuclear brinksmanship” as a solution to the problem.

But efforts by the United States to modernize its nuclear forces will not start a nuclear arms race. In fact, if history is any guide, letting America’s nuclear stockpile atrophy would likely result in a diminished U.S. geopolitical position over the long term with no comparable in-kind restraint on other countries’ nuclear modernization and procurement efforts. If anything, unilateral restraint tends to induce adversaries to compete more vigorously in those areas where the United