Will a New Generation Learn to Love the Bomb?
Increased nuclear weapons investments by U.S. competitors have brought nuclear modernization front of mind for the first time in thirty years. An October Pentagon report estimates that China increased its operational nuclear arsenal from 400 warheads in 2021 to 500 this year. The country could deploy 1,000 warheads by 2030.
The United States and Russia, for their part, maintain around 1,500 operational nuclear weapons under the New Start Treaty. But the agreement is set to expire in 2026, and Russia is investing in wholesale modernization efforts that aim to upgrade its Soviet-era arsenal by the end of this decade. This could increase competition in the nuclear weapons domain.
Intensifying geostrategic rivalry has given new relevance to nuclear weapons modernization, but the case for new investments must be made to new generations who see less value in nuclear deterrence and defense spending. Convincing them will require showing that nuclear security has positive knock-on effects for other issues these voters care about, including safeguarding U.S. alliances and preventing proliferation.
The United States has not procured a nuclear-capable missile or bomber since 1997. That’s despite the fact that modernization has been recommended in Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Reviews since 2010.
Nuclear modernization is a vast enterprise that encompasses updating weapons designs, strengthening the nuclear triad that delivers weapons, building new facilities to prepare nuclear materials, and improving existing command, control, communications, and early warning systems. Critics believe the program would fail to make the U.S. safer, providing a low return on investment to the public.
True, modernization is expensive. According to the Congressional Budget Office, existing efforts to modernize the arsenal and triad, including a new ballistic missile submarine, long-range stealth missile, and bomber, would cost $355 billion between now and 2032. Spending such a large sum on defense requires tradeoffs and could mean foregoing other government programs that receive broad support. For example, $355 billion is roughly the cost of providing a decade of universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, which is supported by 71 percent of Americans.
Proponents of nuclear modernization must also convince the 50 percent of the American public under 40—who experienced the Cold War through textbooks rather than the nightly news—that these investments are worth it. Younger voters are attaining increased political power and assuming greater positions of influence. Millennials now constitute a plurality of Americans, and count among their ranks one-in-nine members of the House of Representatives and the average lieutenant colonel in the military. Their views are increasingly central to the nuclear modernization debate.
The Five Generations of U.S. Voters:
Silent Generation: Born between 1925-1945
Baby Boomers: Born between 1946-1964
Gen-X: Born between 1965-1979
Millennials: Born between 1980-1994
Gen-Z: Born between 1995-2012
The generations that grew up after 1986—when the last round of U.S. nuclear modernization brought the Peacekeeper Missile into service—have distinct foreign policy priorities. In a 2017 survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Millennials listed international terrorism and cyberattacks as the most critical threats facing the United States. Silent Generation, Baby Boomer, and Gen-X respondents all ranked North Korea’s nuclear weapons program first. While Millennials prioritized building and maintaining alliances, Silent Generation and Baby Boomer respondents emphasized maintaining U.S. military superiority.
Five years later, a new survey by the Chicago Council found that only 15 percent of Gen-Z and 19 percent of Millennial respondents say U.S. nuclear weapons have been “very effective” at preventing wars, compared to 31 percent of their Baby Boomer counterparts. While 33 percent of Gen-Z and 36 percent of Millennials surveyed believe defense spending should be cut, only 23 percent of Gen-X and 18 percent of Baby Boomers thought the same.
These differences have been replicated many times. Pew Research found in 2018 that 77 percent of Millennials believed good diplomacy—rather than military strength—was the best way to ensure peace, compared to 52 percent of Baby Boomers and 43 percent of the Silent Generation. Gen-Z and Millennial respondents were less likely to say defense spending should be favored over other spending, and less likely to say competition with China or dealing with Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats were a top-three foreign policy priority.
Figure 1: Percentage of each generation that believes defense spending should be cut (Chicago Council, 2023)
Figure 2: Percentage of each generation that believes that nuclear weapons have been “very effective” at preventing war (Chicago Council, 2023)
Figure 3: Percentage of each generation that believes good diplomacy, not military strength, is best to ensure peace (Pew Research, 2018)
Younger generations are less worried about foreign competitors and see less value in U.S. nuclear and military superiority than their older counterparts.
Is support for nuclear modernization inevitably confined to generations who experienced the benefits of deterrence firsthand? Not quite.
Those who advocate for nuclear modernization must focus on how nuclear weapons align with younger voters’ priorities. While the younger generation cares deeply about strengthening alliances and preventing proliferation, most don’t realize that both priorities depend on nuclear modernization, as counterintuitive as that might seem. Nuclear modernization has a crucial role to play in assuring allies who rely on the U.S. umbrella about the strength of our alliance commitments. Failing to modernize could strain existing alliances. As Assistant Secretary of Defense Deborah Rosenblum argues, modernization is essential for U.S. allies in addition to our own national security.
Second, like older voters, young generations strongly favor preventing nuclear proliferation, and there is a compelling argument that nuclear modernization helps limit proliferation among allies. Facing nuclear-armed rivals in China and North Korea, Japan and South Korea rely on U.S. nuclear guarantees—i.e., the U.S. commitment to defend our non-nuclear allies. Uncertainty about the United States’ nuclear readiness makes it likelier they will pursue weapons programs of their own.
Support from new generations is an essential—and largely missing—ingredient in the nuclear modernization agenda. Advocates for modernization would be wise to target their appeals towards younger voters and show why and how modernization will help to advance issues they care about. Nuclear modernization isn’t just a means to compete with arch rivals—rather, it can help to advance alliances and nonproliferation and thus help contribute to a safer, more peaceful world.
Harry Oppenheimer is a postdoctoral fellow in technology and international security at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) based in Washington, D.C. The title of this blogpost refers to the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Thumbnail credit: Kelly Michals