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With a nuclear arsenal, how small is 'small?'


"It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."

So read Thursday's report on DoD's "comprehensive strategic review," in the latest potential tea leaf foreshadowing fewer missiles, bombers or submarines -- or even a wholesale step down from today's triad to a potential dyad. But what does it actually mean? Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was asked about that on Thursday, and this is what she said:

"I think the strategy is very clear that we will continue to field a safe and secure and effective deterrent -- and that we will continue to modernize and recapitalize as necessary.  I do think ... that we can maintain deterrence at lower levels of forces, but I will defer any discussion of specific programmatic details to the budget when it rolls out."

So, she was asked, that means more to follow with the budget? Answered Flournoy: "Yes."

All right -- it's a cypher for now, but at least it won't stay that way very long. Flournoy's promise to continue "modernizing and recapitalizing," taken with a specific phrase in the strategy endorsing the Air Force's new bomber as an antidote for "anti-access and area denial," seems to be a guarantee for that program. But there are big question marks here for the Air Force's land-based ICBMs and the Navy's ballistic missile submarines, the other two legs of the strategic barstool.

Next month's budget submission could call for something as simple as decommissioning some number of ICBMs and submarines and leaving it there. Or it could call for letting the ICBMs serve until the end of their current design lives and not replacing them -- saving the cost of a potential joint Navy-Air Force nuclear missile. Or the budget could be the first official document that confirms all these rumblings about building fewer Ohio-replacement submarines with bigger missile compartments.

Or it could say none of these things -- DoD has trapped us all again in document messianism, using one announcement to promise answers in a future announcement, which itself may not actually include any new information. The Pentagon could pull one of its old tricks and include some mention of change in the nuclear arsenal that would take effect starting in 2018, say, so far in the future that there's no guarantee it could happen.

Still, it's a question worth pondering: Assuming that these are the only two options, which is better: Reduce the size of the current nuclear arsenal about proportionally, but keep the three legs -- bombers, ICBMs and boomers? Or eliminate one leg and keep the remainders at full size? Which leg should be the one to go? What do you think?

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