Nuclear Weapons & US Alliances in the Next Administration

The author Christine Parthemore, Rear Admiral John Gower, CB OBE and the Hon. Andy Weber of CSR, and others, are pictured here outside the United Nations in New York after an event on nuclear-armed cruise missiles, October 2016. 

By Christine Parthemore

President-elect Biden has spoken eloquently about the paramount importance of U.S. alliances in how the nation pursues security and stability. Given the number of allies under the umbrella of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence, American nuclear weapons policies and plans must be coordinated closely with these countries. 

When I left the Pentagon in 2015, I and many others were increasingly concerned about a pivot already underway toward the blurring of nuclear and conventional warfare concepts, and the development of new nuclear weapons that fit those concepts and otherwise added new risks to the strategic environment. In the past 5 years since, I and many others in the field have explored how dozens of countries are responding to the emergence of these new capabilities—and what they might think about U.S. measures to reduce or eliminate them. 

Our strongest focus has been on nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which both introduce specific risks and hold the possibility of forming the basis for new arms control measures given how few countries have them. But I had to ask the overriding question: what would our friends think? 

In this 2016 Medium post, I distilled the main lessons I was then hearing from discussions in NATO and other European countries, Japan, and South Korea. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive, though they also introduced significant questions that should be (and can be) worked through if the United States were to pursue its security interests by ending its reliance on nuclear-armed cruise missiles. (The focus was on air-launched variants, which at that time were the only new nuclear cruise missiles in our plans.)  Several key findings were:

  • High confidence that the U.S. nuclear deterrent would remain strong with or without a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile.
  • If the Commander in Chief cancels investment in the LRSO (the long-range standoff nuclear air-launched cruise missile), he or she would likely find significant international support.
  • Reassurance will be critical in the coming years — but it does not need to be nuclear.
  • The importance of China.
  • Deep interest in further international dialogue.

The specific reasoning, questions, and ideas I heard from U.S. allies and close partners were enlightening—detailed further in the post. The large number of officials I interviewed also understood the difficulty of taking such steps on arms control, and stood ready to work supportively with the United States. Many specific concerns I heard about nuclear cruise missiles have been amplified by the subsequent demise of several arms control treaties and elevation of the missiles in U.S. and Russian nuclear plans.

Several colleagues and I continued these discussions around the world in the years since—including with Russian and Chinese officials and experts during meetings around Europe and in Beijing, and in United Nations’ fora in Geneva and New York (including First Committee side events in 2016 and 2018). 

There are several attractions to this focus. Only 3 countries today have declared stocks of these weapons but others are increasingly eyeing them, so arresting this trend could be slightly less complicated than with other types of nuclear weapons, while still producing outsized gains. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles carry specific risks and characteristics that may actually undermine deterrence. And as I wrote with Dutch expert Sico van der Meer in 2016, there are multiple potential paths away from these weapons that the United States and others can pursue.  

Unfortunately, over the past four years the U.S. administration renewed focus on increasing these weapons and introduced plans to revive their previously-retired sea-launched variants into the U.S. arsenal. This is especially dangerous, put to life by simply envisioning how jarring it would be for U.S. security calculations to have Russian submarines off America’s coast carrying such nuclear weapons to be launched without warning. 

No nuclear weapons reductions or arms control measures are simple, but the next administration has the opportunity to dial back this specific set of nuclear threats. At CSR, we continue to work through important questions on verification, timing, defense posture and budget implications, and more.  


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