During some public discussions of US nuclear strategy, you'll hear US officials justify the maintenance and modernization of the American nuclear arsenal, based on fears of a future enemy. Clearly, we don't have a great power or superpower competitor that matches the bad old Soviet Union...But who knows what the future will bring?
While that might sound like a thin, alarmist rational for expensive, dangerous weapons, American officials have a point. It's not cheap, easy, or quick to rebuild a nuclear arsenal. The entire "supply chain," from the manufacture of the weapons through their testing and deployment, is an expensive, time-consuming process. Without the retention of some nuclear threat, a new rival could surprise us in two ways, new intentions or capabilities:
- A country already armed with nuclear weapons might suddenly turn them on us. Russia, of course, is the country that is most capable of delivering this kind of grand strategic surprise.
- A country with modest or no nuclear capabilities might suddenly acquire weapons that could be used against US targets. For example, China's energetic modernization program might conclude with a sizeable number of nuclear-tipped missiles that could strike American cities. Iran might develop nuclear warheads delivered by courier, not missile.
A quick aside: you can see the risk the United States has taken in neglecting the program of locking down and eliminating Russian nuclear weapons that started after the end of the Cold War. Once the Bush Administration lost interest, the risk that Russia might pull either kind of surprise--a change in intentions, or an increase in capabilities--increased substantially.
The hidden elephant
If you think that the "placeholder enemy" rationale doesn't have a prayer of flying with the American public, think again. From WWI to today, American voters has had practically no awareness of the size or nature of the US government's chemical and biological weapons programs. How many Americans today know that, in 1993, the US government agreed to the destruction of all chemical weapons by 2012? Who, outside a small group of specialists in this area, knows how much progress the US government has made?
The obvious question, of course, is why the US government was developing and storing tons of VX, sarin, and mustard gas in the first place. Against whom were we going to use chemical weapons? During the Cold War, you might imagine a temporary deployment of chemical weapons to stall a Soviet assault into Western Europe. However, if the situation ever got that bad, a far more horrible nuclear exchange might be in the offing anyway. After the Cold War, who would be the target of 31,000 metric tons of chemical weapons? And how many Americans knew their government had them?
If the US government can hide capabilities in plain sight, so too can it continue to develop war plans that don't make sense in light of the current world situation. Between the World Wars, American military strategists developed the "Rainbow plans," designed to respond to practically any threat from beyond American's borders. While War Plan Black, aimed at thwarting German aggression, in hindsight seems like justiifed caution, how much sense did the premise of War Plan Red, a major war against Great Britain, make? War Plan Red envisioned a war across the US-Canadian border, with the possibility (as described in War Plan Emerald) of supporting an uprising in Ireland.
The real obstacle
In other words, the US government can maintain all sorts of plans and capabilities without the knowledge or assent of the American electorate. The biggest obstacle today, however, is cost.
Since 2001, the strains on the military budget aren't confined to the Army and the Marines. For example, the Navy's next-generation destroyer, code-named DDX, faced opposition based on justification (why this weapons program, instead of something that might help the wars we're actually fighting?) and cost ($2.6 billion for the first two destroyers).
However weird it might seem to be buying destroyers while improvised roadside bombs continue to kill American soldiers, the chance that these destroyers might be used, in actual war or just a show of force, is much higher than the use of nuclear weapons. While we might still be living in the waking dream where funding for the Iraq war (approximately $2 billion per week) appears from thin air, we're soon going to wake up to some hard budgetary realities. (Perhaps, conveniently, right after the 2008 election.) Nuclear weapons programs are going to face some minor public scrutiny, and even tougher resistance from within the US government itself.
Who knows, there may be some future, nuclear-armed enemy worth our concern. However, we won't have the luxury of such concerns, as long as the US military continues to bleed in Iraq, and the US economy begins to sputter.