December 15, 2013  

Deterrence in the post-Cold War era

Five myths of the nuclear nonproliferation agenda

The Truman National Security Project recently released the fifth edition of the Truman Security Briefing Book, a primer on “the most significant national security and foreign policy issues of our time.” The book is intended to develop influential leaders who advance “progressive national security policy” through various means. This is a worthy and noble effort, and should be applauded — unless the Truman National Security Project is failing to promote sound national security policies.

My concern is that the chapter on nuclear nonproliferation is skewed toward a liberal internationalist point of view, one that disparages the U.S. nuclear enterprise with misstatements, unfounded assertions, and poor recommendations.

Liberal internationalists seek to reduce the number of nuclear weapons through increased security cooperation using arms control and nonproliferation agreements. This idealist viewpoint suggests that if only the world would give up nuclear weapons, all nations would be safer. This narrow focus on numbers rather than weapon employment is unhelpful. Harvard professor Joseph Nye believes that a progressive realist policy would stress the importance of developing a grand strategy that combines hard military power and soft diplomatic power into “smart” power. If nuclear-weapon states continue to develop nuclear weapons because of concerns of national survival, we ought to develop a strategy that includes an effective and credible nuclear-weapons capability in addition to arms control and missile defense.

The Truman National Security Project seems to suggest that the United States should de-emphasize nuclear weapons and focus on a minimal deterrent capability without modernizing these weapons. People will have different points of view, but we should guard against myths that can lead to poor defense policies and bad budget decisions.

Here are five key statements directly from the Truman Security Briefing Book, and explanations for why they are myths.

1. “Terrorists want a nuclear weapon and they may use it if they get one.”

Many pundits have offered the popular, if unfounded, statement that the 9/11 incident demonstrated how terrorists — religiously motivated terrorists, at least — are seeking chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) material so that they can cause mass casualty events in major cities. This is largely based on interpretations of written or oral statements by extremist leaders rather than on any cultural or case studies. The actual data do not support the assertion. Look at any edition of the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual Report on Terrorism over the past 10 years. On average, there are more than 10,000 terrorist attacks a year, which cause more than 11,000 deaths and affect 45,000 victims. More than 95 percent of the attacks had fewer than 10 fatalities. There have been zero deaths caused by terrorists’ use of radiological or nuclear material.

Pundits tend to focus on al-Qaeda as the primary group seeking nuclear weapons because it was a particularly well-funded organization and its leadership made particularly inflammatory statements. This usually devolves into generalizations that all terrorist groups have the same stature and resources as al-Qaeda. Are we to assume that all terrorist groups “want a nuclear weapon” and will use one as soon as they get one just because al-Qaeda’s (dead) leaders have stated such intent? We ought not make plans and dedicate resources against what terrorist groups want or aspire to be — rather, we should plan for what they can actually do, given their geographic base and limited resources. Intent is not the same as capability.

This fearful fantasy that shadowy terrorist groups are seeking nuclear weapons from “rogue states” was ingrained into defense policy in 2002-03 and has infected both sides of the political platform. It remains a canard, a “Black Swan” that people use as rhetoric to demonstrate their concern for homeland security. The real terrorist threat is one of small sub-state groups using conventional weapons in small-scale events, largely at overseas locations. As a result of overinflating our homeland insecurities, we run the risk of spending too much intellectual capital and resources on a worst-case scenario that has practically zero chance of occurring, while ignoring or downplaying other more credible national security risks.

2. “The spread of nuclear material makes it more possible for al Qaeda to get a bomb or create a dirty bomb.”

In 2002, the Institute for International Studies at UC Berkley completed a database to track lost or stolen nuclear material. This database registered 830 incidents of illicit trafficking of radioactive material, including highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Many of these incidents were on the order of grams, and it remains unclear where these materials have gone. Between 1985 and 2011, the number of civil nuclear reactors worldwide climbed from 245 in to more than 435, resulting in thousands of tons of radioactive waste each year. And yet, that time span has seen only one “dirty bomb” incident: the 1995 Chechen cesium device, which didn’t explode.

Do increased amounts of hazardous material automatically translate into a greater security risk from weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? Pundits often say that, because there are more chemical manufacturers, biotechnology labs, or nuclear reactors, our society is at greater risk from terrorists seeking CBRN materials. When violent extremists can get easy access to handguns, military rifles, and high explosives, why should they invest in hazardous materials that are dangerous to handle, difficult to disseminate, and unpredictable in their results? Although the decades-long trend of conventional terrorism is no guarantee of future performance, we ought to also guard against Delphic oracles repeatedly warning that “in the next five years, there will be a WMD incident.” Then five years go by, and again, nothing happens.

No one is against securing radioactive material, and especially fissile material. Of course it’s a good idea; it’s a service for the greater public good. Nonproliferation activities are a good way to get agreeable nations to secure fissile material, but this is not going to stop a terrorist nuclear incident (and for that matter, neither is counterproliferation). Counterterrorism activities are the best way to respond to concerns of nuclear terrorism. Putting up a Maginot line of radiological detectors and trying to secure the hundreds of nuclear waste sites across the globe is a very expensive and labor-intensive effort. The smarter way to stop nuclear terrorism is to deter nuclear-weapon states and use law enforcement and the intelligence community to interdict sub-state groups with global ambitions.

3. “Too many nuclear weapons now make the world more dangerous, and terrorists are not deterred by them.”

There are a number of concerns related to the relative size of nuclear stockpiles. There is a greater risk of accidents, in which a bomber or submarine might accidently drop a nuclear munition. National leaders might be more prone to use a nuclear weapon if they have a large stockpile. Terrorists might steal or purchase a nuke from a nuclear-weapon state, given the large number of weapon storage sites. None of these concerns have more or less viability if a nation has a large stockpile or a small one. Nuclear-weapon states tend to treat these munitions as special weapons. High security standards and strict operational practices are rigorously practiced whether there are 30,000 nuclear weapons or 300.

Of course these weapons are dangerous, but what makes the world more dangerous is unstable relations between two or more nuclear-weapon states. Political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear weapons promote stability between nations, and that there has not been significant nuclear proliferation as much as there has been conventional weapons proliferation. This is because most nations don’t need nuclear weapons. It has been argued that advanced conventional weapons can take the place of nuclear weapons, but other nations will instinctively seek out nuclear weapons to counter the immense advantage that the United States has on the conventional battlefield. Reducing the number of nuclear weapons does not necessarily result in a world less prone to major conflict.

The argument that nation-states rely on nuclear weapons to deter terrorists from obtaining and using nuclear weapons is a straw man. Of course terrorists are not deterred by a nation’s nuclear stockpile. It would be insane to even think about using a nuclear weapon against a sub-state group. Strategic deterrence does not rely solely on the use of nuclear weapons — it is a method of political communication between adversaries. Nuclear-weapon states understand the dangers of being connected to a terrorist nuclear incident: Attribution and retribution will follow. We don’t need to create phantom dangers of states giving (or losing) nuclear weapons to sub-state groups. Terrorists and their supporters can be deterred from seeking nuclear weapons by conventional and irregular warfare concepts as well as through other government tools of power.

4. We must “[r]educe overall U.S. stocks of nuclear weapons, for reasons of security and cost.”

The Truman book uses the tired argument that terrorists are coming after nukes, as if there are not multiple layers of security involved to secure nuclear weapons. This is just as true in Pakistan as it is in the United States and Russia. Nations do not casually treat their nuclear weapons as “just another weapon.” Does the size of our nuclear stockpile still drive Russian concerns of U.S. global hegemony? A realist would say, no, that’s ridiculously simplistic. Russian politicians are keenly aware that the Cold War is over. They are more driven by concerns of the adequacy of their conventional forces in protecting national borders and security interests. However, we ought to be cognizant that Russia — and some day, perhaps, other states — has the military capability to end life in the United States as we know it. Yes, the Cold War is over, but no one can accurately predict the future in a complex, multi-polar international system. At the end of the day, we still have to consider the possibility of a peer or near-peer nuclear weapon state trying to threaten the United States with a first-strike nuclear attack.

Reducing the nuclear stockpile would not save costs, certainly not in the near term. Dismantling nuclear weapons and handling fissile material is not something done in haste or at low cost. It would take billions more than currently programmed to demilitarize nonoperational nuclear weapons, and the lack of past investment in the U.S. nuclear infrastructure only makes this more challenging. The Stimson Center recently estimated that the DoD spent around $23 billion in fiscal 2011 on strategic nuclear offensive forces, including command and control, R&D, and overhead and support costs. This is less than 5 percent of the overall DoD budget. If you want to add the National Nuclear Security Administration investment of around $8 billion in that same year, this is still a relatively small annual investment in terms of the benefit and overall national security costs.

The issue should not be: “We ought to reduce the nuclear stockpile because it’s expensive and the Cold War is over.” Rather, the issue ought to be: “What nuclear forces do we need to ensure that the United States is not deterred by WMD and to assure our allies that we will protect them if threatened?” Given that other nations are not planning on eliminating their nuclear stockpiles, that the national missile defense system is not an invulnerable shield, and that arms control agreements are only as good as validated actions prove, we ought to be cognizant of the dangers in decreasing nuclear weapons to the edge of minimal deterrence.

5. “New programs to modernize weapons are unnecessary and out of touch with the current security climate.”

When the nonproliferation community pooh-poohs the need to modernize nuclear weapons designs — designs that are now decades old — what they are really suggesting is eliminating ICBMs and retaining the current munitions for the submarine and bomber fleet. They believe that ICBMs do not require modernizing because they are a Cold War relic, designed for a hostile Soviet Union that no longer exists. Overall costs could be saved, as long as one accepts that what we have today is “good enough.” If the U.S. military is designing new nuclear weapons, other nations may see this as a signal that it is legitimate to consider nuclear weapons in future conflicts.

All that might be true, except that the “current security climate” is one in which nearly every other nuclear-weapon state is modernizing its nuclear weapons. If other nation-states believe that the U.S. nuclear stockpile is outdated, not well-maintained, or untrustworthy, it will not be credible as a deterrent. One could have faith in the current nuclear weapons designs, based on computer modeling on weapons effects and continued life extension programs. But the failure to modernize nuclear weapons has significant operational costs. If we can modernize our nuclear warheads to be safer and more secure, compatible with future delivery systems, and less massively destructive, should we not seek these technological solutions out? The result of continuously eschewing new nuclear weapon designs and mandating additional life extension programs is an inefficient and increasingly expensive nuclear R&D infrastructure.

There are numerous studies comparing the operational value of the nuclear triad against a dyad or even monad strategic force. There is no question that, if one accepts a higher degree of risk, the United States could abandon the triad concept. That’s a political decision that has its own consequences. Who wants to make the call that the United States can accept a higher risk of a peer or near-peer nuclear-weapon state conducting a nuclear first strike? Who wants to tell our allies that the United States cannot guarantee “extended deterrence” against an aggressive nuclear-weapon state? If the desire is to retain a credible deterrent against peer or near-peer nation-states, the triad is a very good and low-risk option.

A Better Future

There does not have to be, and should not be, such an adversarial relationship between the nuclear nonproliferation community and those who promote the need for a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. Some of this adversity is certainly created by the increasing focus on the defense budget — one side of the political body seeks to defund nonproliferation and arms control activities while increasing funds on national missile defense and the nuclear stockpile, while the other side tries to do the opposite. Both sides have credible issues within this policy challenge. Both nonproliferation activities and a modern, credible nuclear deterrent are required in this post-Cold War era.

We cannot, however, develop good defense policy when think tanks or policy offices promote myths that do not have a credible basis in fact or theory. We ought to avoid drastic polarization that suggests either minimizing nonproliferation activities or reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles below minimal deterrent levels. The result of this polarization is stalemated defense initiatives, unaffordable defense programs, unrealistic defense policy, and in the end, a nuclear deterrent that is not credible. The former Soviet Union and the United States are not on the brink of strategic nuclear warfare. Given a multi-polar international system with greater global access to defense technologies, however, the challenge of countering nuclear weapons use remains and has become much more complicated. The U.S. nuclear enterprise has, in fact, acknowledged that it’s not the Cold War anymore. Can the nonproliferation community admit to the same?

Al Mauroni is the director of the Air Force Counterproliferation Center. He has more than 27 years of experience addressing counter-WMD policy and programmatic issues, working for the Army, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Air Force. He has written six books and more than two dozen articles on WMD issues. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Greetings from Russia.  I agree completely with the author that it is madness for the US not to invest into stewardship of its nuclear arsenal.  So long as there are nuclear weapons in the world it is critically important that US understanding and mastery of such weapons is second to none. Ignoring the risks inherent in a stockpile or being incompetent at dealing with those risks does not make them go away.

I also agree that it is unlikely terrorists would gain nuclear weapons by stealing them from the US arsenal.

But I do respectfully disagree that terrorists do not seek nuclear devices or that all nuclear states control their nuclear devices sufficiently well to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.  The Pakistanis, for example, famously considered giving their nukes to the Taliban for safe keeping when they feared an invasion by India.

The more nuclear weapons states there are and the more nuclear weapons they have, the more likely it becomes that one day a nuclear weapon will be used against the United States.  It therefore behooves the US (and others of the existing nuclear weapons states) to keep the nuclear club as small as possible.   

The US can assist that effort by not providing billions in dollars in military aid to governments that you know are utilizing your funds to develop nuclear weapons.   For example, the US provided massive military funding to both Israel and Pakistan at a time you knew they had active nuclear weapons development programs.   You should refrain from such proliferation-enhancing funding in the future.