The global nuclear weapons scene is changing, yet the U.S. is promoting a costly program to replace its warheads according to an outdated cold war policy. More thinking should precede more spending.

In July the secretaries of defense, state and energy issued a simple three-page document saying that the country’s strategy is to deter aggression and that nuclear weapons play the essential role. The statement calls for replacing thousands of aging warheads with new Reliable Replacement Warheads (RRWs), with the insistence that the swap does not violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it does not provide any new military capability—a position some nations dispute (see “A Need for New Warheads?” by David Biello, on page 80). The note also benevolently rationalizes that such a swap would “assure our allies that the U.S. nuclear arsenal continues to serve as the ultimate guarantor of their security, thus obviating any need for them to develop nuclear weapons of their own.”

This view hardly amounts to enlightened policy. The statement itself acknowledges as much in the very first paragraph, noting that “every American administration since president Truman’s day has formulated U.S. national security policy in much the same terms.”

Indeed, in the decades since World War II, the U.S. has maintained thousands of nuclear warheads that could be launched at a moment’s notice. According to the original strategy, this capability would deter other nations from building nuclear arsenals, because if one country launched its missiles the U.S. would, too, assuring mutual destruction. Rational or not, such a strategy fit a world in which two superpowers had stockpiled enough warheads to destroy the planet.

But today nine countries have nuclear weapons, and the portrait of enemies and allies is much more complex. Although Russia is annoyed at America’s interest in building an antimissile defense system—to the point of testing, in September, the largest nonnuclear bomb ever built—it is also a partner in a wider war against terrorism. China has targeted more of its missiles at the U.S., and yet it is one of only a few countries to declare that it will not use nuclear weapons unless it is first attacked with them. In September, North Korea, on the verge of joining the fearsome fraternity, said it would disable its atomic programs if the U.S. lifted economic sanctions and removed its name from America’s list of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism. Iran, meanwhile, is operating more and more centrifuges to enrich uranium but has no missile or bomber that could reach the U.S.

Furthermore, military experts acknowledge that the most likely nuclear attack on American soil would be a dirty bomb in a terrorist’s suitcase or van. How would the U.S. respond—by carpet bombing Afghanistan with nuclear warheads? Clearly, neither al Qaeda nor Iran is deterred by a huge U.S. stock­pile.

Even though the 2002 Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions specifies that the U.S. and Russia must each reduce their stockpiles of “operationally deployed” warheads to less than 2,200 by 2012, American defense laboratories say the country must refurbish old warheads through the RRW program. Critics say the program is nothing more than job security for lab personnel. Gradually replacing warheads with upgraded models will cost many billions of dollars, including $21 billion to retrofit industrial infrastructure. Experts disagree over whether an upgrade is even needed. Others note that the new warheads could not be tested, according to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, so no one would know if they are “better” or even reliable; therefore, military commanders would not trust them.

Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed skepticism about the RRW program, noting that without a modernized defense strategy, funding the program is irresponsible. Change is clearly in order. The U.S. might even consider leading the world toward abolishing nuclear weapons. Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former secretary of defense William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia (who chaired the Senate Committee on Armed Services) have all recently argued for the elimination of such weapons. As arms-control experts note, if the U.S. thinks it needs new nuclear weapons, then it is easy for other countries to believe that they are in need of them, too.

Antiproliferation efforts have succeeded frequently. In the 1980s South Africa built six nuclear bombs, then dismantled them and joined the nonproliferation treaty. Thirteen other nations have terminated active nuclear weapons programs. Even the cantankerous Libyan leader Mu‘ammar Muhammad al-Gadhafi announced in 2003 that his country would end its program. A high-profile cut in the U.S. arsenal could recapture some of the moral high ground that antiproliferation efforts thrive on, without eroding the nation’s ability to assuredly destroy any country that would attack it.