A funny thing happened in the skies over Norway last month. On Dec. 10, as U.S. President Barack Obama geared up to deliver his acceptance speech before the Nobel Prize Committee in Oslo, spectators outdoors were treated to a spectacular display of spiraling light. The cause was not a UFO, as some contended, but a failed test of the Bulava, Russia's newest sea-launched intercontinental ballistic missile.
The episode was a telling reminder of the shifting strategic balance between Washington and the rest of the world. To understand the significance, one need look no further than Russia's military modernization program. That initiative, launched in the early days of Vladimir Putin's presidency, has charted major gains over the past decade under the watchful eye of Putin (now prime minister) and his handpicked protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev.
And while the effort is certainly not perfect, as the latest failure of the Bulava underscores, Russia can now boast upgrades to every leg of its strategic triad (submarines, bombers and ballistic missiles). In addition, Russia has made progress on advanced technologies related to missile countermeasures, hypersonic glide vehicles and electro-magnetic pulse - all systems designed to defeat U.S. defenses.
Nor is Russia alone. Over the past two decades, China has embarked upon a massive, multispectrum military modernization. The most immediate goal is to increase China's ability to dominate Taiwan in the event of a conflict, but the threat posed by this effort extends far beyond the Asia-Pacific.
"The PLA Navy is currently developing the JL-2, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, to be deployed on the navy's newest nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines," the latest report of the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission outlines.
"Although this missile has not yet been successfully tested, the U.S. Department of Defense anticipates that it will have a range of at least 7,200 kilometers." The emergence of this new capability, the study explains, has enormous consequences. "When operational, this missile will allow Chinese submarines for the first time to target the continental United States from operating areas located near the Chinese coast."
Indeed, practically every declared nuclear weapon state is engaged in a serious modernization of its strategic arsenal. The United States, by contrast, has allowed its strategic infrastructure to atrophy since the end of the Cold War.
The results of this neglect are striking, as scholars Bradley Thayer and Thomas Skypek have detailed in a pair of studies. America's ICBM force is aging rapidly, and the retirement of long-range missiles such as the Minuteman and Peacekeeper in the years ahead will cause a major constriction in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal, with no replacements in sight. Meanwhile, the U.S. bomber fleet has shrunk by nearly two-thirds since 2001.
An aging work force and poor incentives for science and technology education also raise the possibility that the current decline could become irreversible unless major investments are made, and soon.
The White House doesn't seem overly concerned by this state of affairs. While some in the Obama administration appear to understand the imperative of nuclear force modernization - Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for one, has emerged as a champion of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program currently languishing in Congress - the prevailing official zeitgeist is squarely in favor of arms control and disarmament.
U.S. diplomats are now engrossed in negotiations with their Russian counterparts on a follow-on agreement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, one that will codify further steep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both countries, but which almost certainly will not demand corresponding limits on Russia's nuclear modernization. President Obama himself has uncritically backed the idea known as "Global Zero," entailing the abolition of U.S. nuclear superiority, without a related discussion about the need to preserve America's global military edge in other ways.
As for missile defense, the plan outlined by the Obama administration is what the late great military strategist Fritz Kraemer would have called "provocatively weak," providing America's adversaries with the incentive to step up - rather than scale back - investments in anti-missile technologies.
This has dire implications for American security and the durability of U.S. alliances in the years ahead. Already, many countries are beginning to think of the day after U.S. nuclear dominance. This can be seen in Japan's quiet deliberations over a nuclear program of its own to balance a rising China, and in the growing number of countries in the Mideast seeking a nuclear capability as a counterweight to the emerging Iranian bomb.
In his acceptance speech in Oslo, President Obama pointed out that America "has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms." If it wants to continue doing so, the United States will need to once again get serious about nuclear superiority.