May 1, 2009  

A deterrence we need

Why nuclear disarmament is an unwise promise

Claiming freedom from the ideologically driven policies of the recent past, the Obama administration has promised a “new pragmatic approach” to everything from the economy to national defense, including U.S. deterrence strategy. This implies a strategic view that embraces the old notion of politics being the art of the possible — a return to negotiation and compromise in solving the nation’s problems.

New political dawns often bring heightened expectations from supporters of the new governmental incumbents. In the case of defense policy, in particular nuclear defense policy, a return to old internal Cold War-era ideological clashes is likely in the offing, clashes that will strain national leaders’ ability to negotiate the “possible.”

The arrival of what could be called a moderately liberal executive branch reinforced by Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress along with a heightened awareness of the new dangers posed by rogue nations and global terrorist factions will likely resurrect Cold War desires to once and for all rid the world of nuclear weapons — and to strike while conditions appear optimal. As it has always been, nuclear disarmament is indeed a worthy goal but one not lacking in either difficulty or real national dangers.

The task for the new president is to convince the world that the U.S. is indeed serious about at least more closely approaching disarmament by further reducing nuclear stockpiles while at the same time doing what is necessary to assure the nation’s safety. Of course, the issue then becomes, does what is necessary include maintaining nuclear deterrence — possibly against the will of some “no nukes” advocates? Such ideological nuclear nirvana may eventually be in the cards, but the continued need to ensure national safety in a still-dangerous world has seemingly stacked the deck against it. For the present, let’s look at ways to make the current world less dangerous.

Any approach to nuclear arms reduction, ideological or not, has to deal rationally with one unrelenting reality. Nuclear weapons are possessed or strongly desired by an expanding number of nations: Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and quite possibly North Korea, with Iran reported to be on the verge. Some of these nations are viscerally hostile to the U.S. As if that were not enough, nuclear weapons are actively sought by a set of lethal new nonstate enemies (al-Qaida comes swiftly to mind) who have every intention of using what they get. Thus, ensuring the nation’s safety — the president’s most sacred responsibility — entails guaranteeing that potential adversaries see no benefit from the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. In other words, they must be deterred — all of them.

A recent report on Defense Department nuclear weapons management, the Schlesinger Report, alluded to the shifting sand of national security in reference to an old U.S. nemesis, one we believed we had made some progress with: “Russia is reshaping its doctrine and improving its nuclear arsenal toward greater reliance on nuclear weapons. There is a substantial set of experiments being conducted at its nuclear test site and President, now Prime Minister, Putin has publicly declared his intention to deploy new weapon types based on ‘new physical principles.’”

The administration’s same nonideological approach must also deal with one of the most ideologically spurred goals of the post-World War II era: the elimination of nuclear weapons. No rational observer can argue that such a political triumph would not be a boon to humanity, but as always, it is far easier said than done since that lofty task requires nothing less than convincing the aforementioned nuclear powers, near-nuclear powers and nuclear wannabes that they should throw down their arms and ambitions and join an enlightened world order.

The president’s wicked problem

So, President Barack Obama faces what some theorists would call a wicked problem with his nuclear deterrence policy — which is to say a problem, similar to others he faces from an economy on life support to a failing education system, with no optimal solution and no real way to make the left and right happy. The so-called political “negotiating space” in this instance is bounded by two perspectives.

Despite arguments for a less rigid position, sticking by their disarmament guns in the face of real dangers from new adversaries would not suggest a non-ideological approach to the administration’s wicked problem. To this observer at least, if single mindedly pursued, it seems to adopt an uncompromising extreme one from our Cold War past.

But fortunately, as with most things political, there are obvious, real-world driven compromises. During his April 6 speech in Prague, Obama clearly and firmly stated his desire to proceed down the nuclear disarmament path, but with some well placed caveats that, to this observer at least, do allow some room for maneuver and a strong desire to ensure national safety:

“This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence…. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

Many nuclear weapons advocates cling to the notion of “sufficiency” — having an arsenal sufficient to deterring, by threat of use, any potential adversary with substantial reserves to intimidate any others that may seek to profit from the first striker’s mistake. Sufficiency in this case has traditionally implied a bludgeon-based deterrence strategy of inflicting catastrophic damage for major transgressions.

On the other hand, nuclear abolitionists insist that these weapons can indeed be eliminated with some — not all, certainly — suggesting that the U.S. should lead the way in unilateral disarmament. A fairly recent disarmament argument gaining some traction in government as well as in activist circles maintains that nuclear disarmament is necessary to prevent greater proliferation.

Neither extreme — abolition or legitimized assured destruction — is likely to happen, at least not anytime soon.

Of course, these arguments and positions are not new. The wicked problem has been with us since at least the 1960s. However, it has become even more wicked with the advent of deadly new players in the form of ideologically motivated non-state terrorist organizations that are far more difficult to deter than your run-of-the-mill nuclear-armed country — at least with the nuclear arsenals we now possess. Unfortunately, the odds are better than just fair that they will eventually obtain at least some sort of minimal nuclear capability (with a relatively unsophisticated, but still deadly, “dirty bomb” being a good candidate). The Hobson’s choice left to U.S. leaders of obliterating huge swaths of territory with a barrage of high-yield Cold War-vintage nuclear weapons or committing to a conventional land army invasion of some terrorist harboring nation (like the multiyear Afghanistan operation) in response to a deadly but very limited attack does not bolster either our credibility or deterrence of our enemies.

One argument for nuclear disarmament is gaining some acceptance within both government and activist constituencies. In a 2007 essay in The Wall Street Journal, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” four respected U.S. statesmen — the former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and Sen. Sam Nunn — unexpectedly argued for total nuclear disarmament. They maintained that even given advancements in traditional nuclear arms control agreements between major powers, proliferation would continue with many more nations being armed with the tools of Armageddon. They went on to suggest that as more irresponsible states possess nuclear weapons, especially states like North Korea and Iran, the greater are the dangers we face and, even more importantly, the greater are the chances that terrorists will eventually get their hands on them. They then proposed that such risks may ultimately be greater than the traditionally viewed risks posed by their abolition.

In discussing the dangers the international community faces from clandestine proliferators in a post-disarmament environment (where at least nuclear-armed nations have foregone their arsenals) in her recent Current History article “The New Disarmament Discussion,” Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, maintains that, “In its simplest form, the idea gaining momentum is that more weapons — regardless of whether they are amassed in existing nuclear weapon states or new nuclear weapon states — provide more potential access points for terrorists.”

But as compelling as these arguments may be, the issue is far from settled. The need to possess a credible nuclear deterrent for many years to come is still the prevailing credo of much of the political and military communities. Even given the president’s stated policy supporting the complete near-term cessation of fissile-material development and an expressed desire for complete disarmament, we can be assured that there is substantial disagreement within the government about ways to solve the nuclear problem. One indication is Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ insistence on developing new, less destructive, safer nuclear warheads to replace ones that are now two to four decades old, and doing so in the face of his new boss’s stated policy that the U.S. will not develop any more nuclear weapons. The rationale of course, is that to deter anyone — from Russia to al-Qaida — our arsenal must not engender doubt as to its effectiveness. It must work as advertised by our defense policy. But the Pentagon maintains it cannot guarantee that 30- to 40-year-old warheads will even work, especially since tests are prohibited. Gates summed up his position during a recent speech: “Even though the days of hair-trigger superpower confrontation are over, as long as other nations possess the bomb and the means to deliver it, the United States must maintain a credible strategic deterrent.”

I would also posit that perhaps instead of lessening the risks of proliferation, attempts at complete disarmament might just increase them as unknown and perhaps even some known players calculate the risks of developing or stashing away nuclear weapons as worthwhile when the rewards of being the only nuclear “power” on the block are so high. We must remember that the elimination of means to produce weapons and fissile materials by current members of the “nuclear club” only makes development of a rogue nuke more difficult, not impossible. With money and patience, weapons will be built. The knowledge and basic technology will still exist. Some participants in the nuclear gamble see such mutual international political structures as nonproliferation or test ban treaties as useful only to the extent that their questionable strategic goals are met. Violating treaties and agreements then becomes standard procedure (North Korea comes to mind).

I must emphasize, however, this does not suggest that the international community should cease making efforts to, if not eliminate nuclear weapons, at least mitigate the severity of the wicked problems it faces. The self-perpetuating disarmament debate tends to overshadow the true international requirement — security and safety. After all, safety from nuclear attack or blackmail is the objective; complete disarmament is but one means to achieve it. But if we choose to try total disarmament, any agreement must be truly and totally verifiable — no nation or group can achieve nuclear superiority with just one clandestinely built weapon. That is indeed a wickedly tall order.


Perhaps we should try to mitigate the premise of nuclear proliferation by reducing the incentive to possess nuclear weapons in the first place.

It should be possible to reduce global nuclear stockpiles to a few hundred safer, less-destructive weapons if:

å The remaining weapons are truly and verifiably secure from both attack and theft. This serves to reduce temptations to attack them in times of crisis as incentives and rewards for doing so become greater. Storage site hardening, weapons dispersal (not as big a problem as now if you only have a few) and maybe even mobility offer some remedies. Regardless of the means, future treaties should focus more on ensuring that those weapons that do exist are protected than absolute knowledge of how many there are and should enforce common security standards for all participants. Numbers become most important to assuring that some have not fallen into other hands.

å These weapons are useful — they can accomplish the real war-fighting tasks assigned to them. In the present world this means that even if used in sparing numbers they can be seen as providing some active remedy against clandestine proliferators intent on applying their ill-gotten stockpile. If they are properly designed and protected, this does not require either the great numbers or the high yields so prevalent during the Cold War when power was a substitute for accuracy. Low-yield precision is the key now. It should be remembered that deterrence is only effective to the degree that the opponent believes you will and can achieve your objectives. Large-yield weapons are not operationally credible in the post-Cold War world, and high numbers are politically and economically untenable. At this point it is necessary to acknowledge that over the past decade-and-a-half important steps have been taken to significantly reduce the numbers and destructiveness of the nuclear stockpiles of Russia and the U.S. and some of our allies. These steps have lessened the potential for disastrous miscalculation and continued proliferation to some degree (though as previously pointed out, Russia may have begun backsliding). But as important as these actions are, they are not sufficient; other dangers and other proliferators remain and the technology exists to make individual weapons even less destructive.

å A new defense policy is developed and promulgated by national leaders, both U.S. and our international partners, that stresses the capabilities of an arsenal of weapons designed for a new type of deterrence, one that repudiates vestiges of Cold War mutual assured destruction and the many thousands of high-yield weapons it required and relies on the characteristics described above. This policy would make clear that rogue states and fanatical nonstate organizations are not off the hook and indeed will be targeted by an arsenal with accuracy, low yields and secure base best suited to meeting the challenges they present. This new nuclear structure would provide the capability part of deterrence. Stated national, and hopefully international, policy must now convince those we wish to deter of our will to do what is necessary.

Of course, this would require the president to abandon his promise of no new weapons or fissile materials. Such a course reversal is always a hard pill for any politician to swallow. In this case it is necessary. The new weapons proposed by this concept would be less destructive than what they replace and could be fielded on a less than one-for-one basis for old weapons — even unilaterally if necessary. If the intent is for nuclear weapons to never be used by nuclear-armed states, further reducing incentives for use-or-lose options is indeed a step in the right direction. If the intent is to also reduce the ability for rogue players to attain and use such weapons, then the big reductions of global weapons and components this strategy would represent would reduce availability of illicit materials as well as provide a more capable but less destructive means to respond to nuclear use by anyone, including non-state actors.

The intended effect here is to reduce incentive to possess high numbers of nuclear weapons, or in the case of nuclear aspirants, any at all. If nations see a markedly diminished threat to national survival as posed by the arsenals and strategies suggested here they may forgo the financial and political capital expenditures necessary to keeping up with the Joneses. But to our most ardent opponents, such a structure would at least begin to offer a credible threat to what they value most — their arsenals, the ability to control them and claims to legitimacy in acquiring them. The enhanced moral position of subscribing nuclear nations would also go far in bolstering their argument for strict nonproliferation. Trading in the last of their Cold War arsenals for far fewer less destructive but more secure weapons does portray a more responsible mind-set.


But in absolute terms the wicked problem would still exist. Nuclear weapons would not be abolished as the abolitionists desire, but their numbers and destructiveness would be significantly reduced — more than envisioned by many arms control advocates today. And it is likely that nuclear sufficiency advocates would argue that we will have gone too far and put our national security in jeopardy (“overkill” still being an operative concept to some.) So the wicked problem will still be with us — but maybe a little less wicked — and the world will be a good bit safer.

If they play their cards right, the new administration could claim a political victory — even while moving away from disarmament promises — by adopting an approach similar to the one advocated here. It would be no stretch of the truth to lay claim to ridding the world of thousands of nuclear weapons, making the international community safer than at any time in the nuclear era, reclaiming the international moral high ground in the non-proliferation debates and, perhaps most important, remolding our much-reduced nuclear arsenal into one that still deters — perhaps even those, like the Osama bin Ladens and Kim Jong Ils, who many believe could not be deterred. Not a bad day’s work. This will no doubt be a hard sell and difficult political task, but certainly would not be the only one the president did not shy away from.

GROVER E. “GENE” MYERS is a senior consultant with ABS Consulting in Arlington, Va. He is a retired Air Force officer with extensive experience in nuclear policy and aerospace and joint doctrine and concept development.