Credit Ryan Peltier
In recent years, Russia and the United States have started rebuilding their Cold War nuclear arsenals, putting the world on the threshold of a dangerous new arms race. But we donít have to repeat the perilous drama of the 20th century. We can maintain our countryís strength and security and still do away with the worst of the Cold War weapons.
The American plan to rebuild and maintain our nuclear force is needlessly oversize and expensive, expected to cost about $1 trillion over the next three decades. This would crowd out the funding needed to sustain the competitive edge of our conventional forces and to build the capacities needed to deal with terrorism and cyberattacks.
The good news is that the United States can downsize its plans, save tens of billions of dollars, and still maintain a robust nuclear arsenal.
First and foremost, the United States can safely phase out its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, a key facet of Cold War nuclear policy. Retiring the ICBMs would save considerable costs, but it isnít only budgets that would benefit. These missiles are some of the most dangerous weapons in the world. They could even trigger an accidental nuclear war.
If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them; once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. The president would have less than 30 minutes to make that terrible decision.
This is not an academic concern. While the probability of an accidental launch is low, human and machine errors do occur. I experienced a false alarm nearly 40 years ago, when I was under secretary of defense for research and engineering. I was awakened in the middle of the night and told that some Defense Department computers were showing 200 ICBMs on the way from the Soviet Union. For one horrifying moment I thought it was the end of civilization. Then the general on the phone explained that it was a false alarm. He was calling to see if I could help him determine what had gone wrong with the computer.
During the Cold War, the United States relied on ICBMs because they provided accuracy that was not then achievable by submarine-launched missiles or bombers. They also provided an insurance policy in case Americaís nuclear submarine force was disabled. Thatís not necessary anymore. Today, the United Statesí submarine and bomber forces are highly accurate, and we have enough confidence in their security that we do not need an additional insurance policy ó especially one that is so expensive and open to error.
As part of the updates to Americaís nuclear arsenal, the government is also planning to replace nuclear-armed submarines and bombers. If we assume that the Defense Department is critically analyzing the number of systems needed, this makes far more sense than replacing ICBMs. The submarine force alone is sufficient to deter our enemies and will be for the foreseeable future. But as technology advances, we have to recognize the possibility of new threats to submarines, especially cyberattack and detection by swarms of drones. The new submarine program should put a special emphasis on improvements to deal with these potential threats, assuring the survivability of the fleet for decades to come.
The new stealth bomber will provide a backup to submarines. This is not likely to be necessary, but the bomber force is a good insurance policy. The new bomber would be capable of carrying out either conventional or nuclear missions. But the development of new air-launched nuclear cruise missiles, which has been proposed, is unnecessary and destabilizing. We can maintain an effective bomber force without a nuclear cruise missile.
Instead of overinvesting in nuclear weapons and encouraging a new arms race, the United States should build only the levels needed for deterrence. We should encourage Russia to do the same. But even if it does not, our levels of nuclear forces should be determined by what we actually need, not by a misguided desire to match Moscow missile for missile. If Russia decides to build more than it needs, its economy will suffer, just as during the Cold War.
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The Obama administration says it is looking for ways to reduce nuclear dangers. If this examination leads to a reduction in planned nuclear programs and costs, it would be consistent with the Democratic Partyís new platform, which states that the party ďwill work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs that are projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.Ē
In addition, 10 senators recently wrote to the president, calling on the administration to ďscale back plans to construct unneeded new nuclear weapons and delivery systems.Ē A similar letter from House members warns that the nuclear plan may be ďneither affordable, executable, nor advisable.Ē
Russia and the United States have already been through one nuclear arms race. We spent trillions of dollars and took incredible risks in a misguided quest for security. I had a front-row seat to this. Once was enough. This time, we must show wisdom and restraint. Indeed, Washington and Moscow both stand to benefit by scaling back new programs before it is too late. There is only one way to win an arms race: Refuse to run.
William J. Perry was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997. His recent memoir is ďMy Journey at the Nuclear Brink.Ē

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