A new article from three Air Force strategists and scholars, including a Colonel who is part of the staff working directly for the head of the Air Force, argues that the US should unilaterally cut its nuclear arsenal by more than 90 percent – going down to 311 nuclear weapons from the current 5000. The bold proposal comes as the Administration is finalizing their Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and a new START Treaty, which hill watchers expect to encounter loud conservative opposition. This new proposal should serve as a major boon to arms control advocates in the coming debates and should embolden the White House to push for a bolder NPR.
The article in Strategic Studies Quarterly is not an isolated ivory tower scholarly piece divorced from the actual strategic thinking taking place inside the Air Force. Two of the authors – James Forsyth and Gary Schaub – are professors at war colleges at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The Air Force war colleges are not known for their independence and free-thinking, as they are generally seen as much less free wheeling than other services war colleges. But more surprising is the third author, Colonel B. Chance Saltzman, who is the chief of the Strategic Plans and Policy Division at Headquarters Air Force. Saltzman is therefore an integral figure in determining Air Force strategy and works closely with General Norton Schwartz the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. In short, this article is not by some Air Force outsiders, but from very influential insiders.
Noting that during the Cold War “the actual marginal utility of additional forces was quite small,” the authors conclude that a significantly smaller arsenal of nuclear weapons will be more than enough to maintain an effective deterrence and to assure allies without any cost to our security. The article backs the far reaching report from the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which called for reductions of US forces to 500 nuclear weapons by 2025. Forsyth, Saltzman, and Schaub argue that it is possible to go even further.
This [the commission report] represents a 90-percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal but offers more than enough deterrent capability while providing flexibility to pragmatically implement the force structure cuts. In fact, the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence… it does not matter if Russia, who is America’s biggest competitor in this arena, follows suit. The relative advantage the Russians might gain in theory does not exist in reality. Even if one were to assume the worst—a bolt from the blue that took out all of America’s ICBMs—the Russians would leave their cities at risk and therefore remain deterred from undertaking the first move.
In other words, even if we could only obliterate Moscow that would be more than enough of a nuclear capability to deter Russia from starting a nuclear war or from seeking to adopt an aggressive posture that could lead to escalating hostilities. As a result, if we cut our nuclear arsenal nothing would change, especially since, as the authors also note, the US would still maintain a vast conventional capability that would further deter adversaries and assure allies.
This article has not come out of nowhere. It follows a similarly bold report from the Institute for Air Power Studies – an organization closely associated with the Air Force – that surprisingly this past December called for eliminating the nuclear bomber leg of the US nuclear triad. These two reports led Kingston Reif to ask “What’s gotten into the Air Force lately?” It is a good question, one that the Administration, despite being in the final stages of its Nuclear Posture Review, would do well to explore. It would be a shame to put out an NPR that’s behind the strategic curve before it’s even released.