The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century

  • Published
The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century by Brad Roberts. Stanford University Press, 2015, 352 pp.


Need a break from the standard global zero talking points? You'll find a new approach to that topic in Brad Roberts's The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century. You won't find anything in the way of the history of the atom. Nor does the author devote much space to the history of the Cold War. Instead, this book gives you a fast-moving, highly readable, and in-depth look at the modern challenges to sound nuclear policy while ultimately offering a realistic answer to the question, Do nuclear weapons "make an important and irreplaceable contribution to the national security of the United States" (p. 1)? Roberts answers with a resounding "Yes!"

Dr. Brad Roberts established himself as a nuclear policy expert not only through his academic acumen but also as a policy expert in Washington. Most recently, he served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. Are you familiar with the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report? He helped write it. Couple that with his work on the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report and the image of a nuclear policy authority begins to emerge. So what does this authority have to say concerning nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century?
Overwhelmingly, he advocates for the retention of US nuclear capability. While keeping open the possibility of unilateral nuclear arms reductions and even acknowledging the elimination of nuclear weapons as a worthy goal, Roberts explains that current and emerging threats prevent such actions. He focuses most of his analysis on the three "Red" powers of a resurgent Russia, an emerging China, and an increasingly hostile North Korea. Roberts's breakdown of North Korean motivations and actions should prove particularly interesting to readers of the Air and Space Power Journal, as will his recommended counteractions. Through this analysis, he concludes that possession of nuclear weapons remains a critical component in the US policy-making arsenal.

How then should the United States deal with the remainder of the world's nuclear powers or the emerging regional players? Herein lies one of the few weaknesses of this book. Although he does a more than adequate job addressing many aspects of modern proliferation, Dr. Roberts misses the opportunity to take his audience further into the nuclear policy quandary that is Iran. Granted, the recent (2015) Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action resolves immediate concerns, but a book dedicated to providing recommendations for twenty-first-century problems should delve deeper into the myriad of possible outcomes of a nuclear Iran and the possibility of additional proliferation throughout the Middle East.

Despite this oversight, Roberts's effort more than deserves to be read by people seeking to understand the modern nuclear policy environment. Those who pick it up will quickly find themselves thinking beyond the semantics and theories of the Cold War and thrust into the intricacies of modern nuclear reasoning. Individuals staunchly in the global zero camp should read this book with the recognition that Roberts shares their ideals but noting that through his analysis, he is forced to conclude the following: "For now, we must cope with the reality we face" (p. 240). In doing so, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century confirms that the United States needs nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century--at least for now.

Lt Col Todd A. Moenster, USAF
Whiteman AFB, Missouri

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."