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With a federal budget deficit that exceeded $1.3 trillion in FY 2010 and a rapidly mounting national debt, the findings of the Fiscal Commission established to identify ways to balance the budget have been much anticipated. Tackling the deficit is important to restoring the government’s fiscal health and the nation’s economic prosperity. It is also important to national security. History has demonstrated that in times of major conflict, the fiscal might of the United States and the ability to mobilize resources on a massive level have been a source of enduring strategic advantage. But with the deficit near record levels, the debt load rising, and interest payments on the debt consuming a greater share of the budget each year, this advantage is rapidly eroding.
The United States is struggling to emerge from the greatest peacetime economic downturn since the Great Depression. Known as the Great Recession, the country’s current fiscal difficulties seem unlikely to abate any time soon. If there is a consensus regarding the country’s recovery, it is that it will be both gradual and protracted.1 Some economists, eyeing the government’s rapidly growing debt and expanding obligations, have expressed concerns over the country’s ability to sustain healthy growth levels over the longer term. The implications for US security are potentially profound. Washington has long relied on its ability to bring to bear far greater resources than any other country against any threat to the nation’s security. If current trends play out, this advantage is almost certain to diminish, perhaps dramatically, in the coming years. Long accustomed to pursuing a “rich man’s” approach to strategy, the United States will find itself increasingly challenged to take a “smart man’s” approach—one for which it seems ill-prepared.
As the economy begins to emerge from the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the federal government faces a dire fiscal situation. In fiscal year (FY) 2009, the budget deficit rose to a record high of $1.4 trillion, and it is forecasted to reach as high as $1.6 trillion in FY 2010. These record deficits are due in no small part to increased spending on fiscal stimulus programs and a sharp reduction in tax revenues due to the recession. But underlying the current fiscal situation is a structural deficit that the economic downturn has only exacerbated. A telling indicator of this is that one of the fastest growing items in the budget is net interest on the national debt. According to OMB projections, in FY 2018 the federal government will begin spending more on net interest payments than on national defense for the first time in modern history.
On April 6, the Department of Defense released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which sets forth the Obama Administration’s guidance on American nuclear policy, force structure, and doctrine. The report has been highly anticipated, due in large part to President Obama’s public commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world.
Over the past several years, the prospect of a terrorist group armed with a nuclear weapon has frequently been cited as a genuine and overriding threat to the security of the United States. Moreover, press reports indicate that the forthcoming Nuclear posture review will make the goal of countering nuclear terrorism “equal to the traditional mission of deterring a strike by major powers or emerging nuclear adversaries.”1 Although the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack may be relatively low, the consequences of such an attack would obviously be enormous. There is, therefore, widespread agreement regarding the severity of this threat. Despite this consensus, a number of important questions remain open to debate: How real is the risk that a terrorist group could acquire or construct a functional nuclear device, and how might it attempt to do so? Which group poses the greatest threat in this regard, how has that threat changed over time, and is it currently growing or abating? What existing and prospective measures will prove most effective in preventing terrorists from obtaining a nuclear weapon, stopping them from delivering and detonating a weapon if prevention fails, and responding both at home and abroad in the event that an attack succeeds? The purpose of this backgrounder is to examine these critical issues.
During the early days of the Cold War, an enormous amount of thought was given to the role of nuclear weapons in the overall US defense posture. The reason for this is simple: nuclear weapons were so destructive that they fundamentally altered the competitive environment. Indeed, for several decades substantial intellectual effort was devoted to understanding the US-Soviet nuclear competition, which was a defining feature of the Cold War security environment. With the Cold War’s end, nuclear weapons proliferation has become an increasingly important issue; yet there has been comparatively little analysis of the kind that characterized the early Cold War period. Moreover, the main intellectual response to this growing danger to US security has been a renewed call for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. However, just as the nation’s national security leaders at the dawn of the nuclear era had to contemplate a less-than-ideal outcome of their efforts (i.e., a Soviet Union armed with large numbers of nuclear weapons, including thermonuclear weapons), so too must those who seek a world without nuclear weapons take into account the likelihood that they will not achieve this goal for decades to come, if at all.