Politics & Policy

The Wrong Nuclear Posture

Obama's new nuclear policy could make the world more dangerous.

Released on April 6, the newly issued 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) created a brief stir both for what it said and what it didn’t say. Commentators on the right were relieved that some of Pres. Barack Obama’s more extreme statements on nuclear weapons were not incorporated into the document, while those on the left were mildly disappointed that it did not significantly advance the cause of nuclear disarmament. Quickly displaced from the news by the announcement of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia and the nuclear-security summit in Washington, the NPR was considered much ado about nothing — the real action was elsewhere.

But the NPR deserves more serious consideration: It undermines the basis of the deterrent policy that has helped maintain the peace for more than 60 years.

To understand how, one must first understand the purpose of the NPR, which is to provide a contextual framework for the implementation of a coherent nuclear strategy. In theory, the NPR lays out guidelines with which specific policies and programs should conform. In practice, the connection between the Posture Review and policy implementation is tenuous at best: The NPR is largely an advisory document; nothing is mandated, and nothing requires the administration to follow its own advice.

#ad#Therein lies one serious problem — at face value, the NPR looks very much like a victory for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the forces of continuity within DoD and the National Security Council: It calls for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national-security strategy, something that happened in practice more than a decade ago. The NPR also calls for maintaining deterrence “at reduced nuclear-force levels,” and preserves the strategic nuclear triad of ICBMs, ballistic-missile submarines, and bombers. It calls for the allocation of $5 billion for warhead modernization, and advises the development of a new ICBM to replace the 40-year-old Minuteman III and a new ballistic-missile submarine to replace the 35-year-old Ohio Class. The document also recognizes the importance of ballistic-missile defense as an element of nuclear deterrence and theoretically retains the right of the United States to execute a nuclear “first strike.”

The problems with the NPR lie in its lofty aspirations, underlying assumptions, and small but significant changes in some arcane policy points. NPR lays out five overarching objectives:

‐Prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

‐Reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.

‐Maintain deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear-force levels.

‐Strengthen regional deterrence.

‐Sustain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

In actuality, nuclear posture can do little to prevent proliferation or the risk of nuclear terrorism unless one believes that nuclear weapons themselves cause proliferation or that nuclear weapons are capable of deterring terrorists. The elementary postulation seems to be that nuclear weapons are a Bad Thing, and, if we got rid of them ourselves, others would follow suit. In reality, countries pursue nuclear weapons for their own local and regional security concerns. Disarmament will not solve the proliferation problem and may make it worse. On the other hand, a firm and effective policy of sanctions — and, if necessary, force — against obvious proliferators like Iran and North Korea is much more likely to induce other proliferators to enter the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) umbrella. Witness the example of Libya after the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

#page#More serious is a change in “declaratory policy,” meaning the conditions under which the United States would employ nuclear weapons. The NPR says the U.S. will abjure the use of nuclear weapons against signatories of the NPT, as though this would encourage more states to become signatories. This is a serious violation of sound deterrent policy that could have disastrous repercussions for the U.S.

To be effective, a deterrent must both be credible and perceived as credible — an adversary must believe that nuclear weapons would be used, and that, if they were used, would be devastating. Thus, one must lay out very clearly those actions that will result in a nuclear response. But when it comes to situations that will not elicit a nuclear response, a degree of ambiguity is very useful, because it creates uncertainty in the mind of the adversary about the results of marginal actions on his part, and retains the advantage of “escalation dominance.” (As in the Chicago Rules: He pulls a knife, you pull a gun.) This deterrence paradigm worked brilliantly during the first Gulf War, when Iraqi officials later admitted that their refraining from the use of chemical and biological weapons against Israel was due to fear of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The NPR signals clearly that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states but ignores other weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological, and radiological — that can be used against the U.S. and its allies. This has the potential to create a false impression in the minds of potential aggressors that such weapons can be used without fear of an equivalent reprisal, because the U.S. and its allies have eliminated their chemical and biological stockpiles. The NPR states that America’s response to such an attack would be massive conventional retaliation, but that misses the point. Our nuclear posture isn’t about responding to a WMD attack, but about preventing that attack in the first place. Obama’s new nuclear policy undermines this preventative posture, receiving little in the way of security assurances in return.

Further, the NPR is pushing the U.S. willy-nilly into a rapid reduction in its nuclear forces, with START being the first step towards a drastically smaller arsenal. But lesser arsenals do not enhance stability — quite the opposite, once a stockpile drops below a certain threshold. In order to be credible, a deterrent must capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on any potential foe (according to his calculations). To do this, the deterrent must be survivabl: able to weather an enemy first strike and then able to penetrate enemy defenses. The deterrent must also remain credible even after a nuclear exchange, through a nuclear force deliberately held in reserve.

#ad#Small arsenals, as advocated by President Obama, are more vulnerable to a first strike than larger ones, lacking the margin to absorb losses. This can tempt an adversary into attempting preemptive counterforce attack to eliminate enough of the deterrent force to prevent a successful second strike. Small forces are also vulnerable to technological breakthroughs, such as a new anti-submarine sensor, a more effective missile-defense system, or better integrated air defenses. Knowledge of vulnerability creates a “use it or lose it” mentality, resulting in a “launch on warning” posture; i.e., knowing the deterrent will not survive a first strike, one launches it upon detecting an attack, rather than riding out the attack and then shooting back. But what happens if it’s a false alarm?

Small arsenals also encourage cheating on arms-limitation agreements, since the benefits of retaining even a handful of illicit weapons is greatly magnified — and it is much easier to hide a couple of dozen warheads than several hundred.

Vulnerability to attack can be reduced by a combination of passive and active defenses; e.g., by the development of mobile missile launchers, maneuvering reentry vehicles (MARVs) and decoys (PENAIDS), and, above all, by the deployment of robust ballstic-missile defenses capable of defeating not only an accidental launch or small attack by a rogue state, but also a full-scale counterforce strike. All of these enhance the ability of the deterrent to survive a first strike and penetrate enemy defenses. But the Obama administration remains philosophically opposed to more extensive missile defenses and weapon modernization (e.g., the Reliable Warhead Replacement Program). Moreover, there is no money in the budget to develop a replacement for Minuteman III, Trident II, a new strategic bomber or cruise missile — nor is there likely to be in the out years. As a result, our nuclear arsenal will continue to age and, at reduced force levels, it will become more vulnerable and less credible. The world will be less stable as a result.

Finally, large reductions in nuclear-force levels tend to encourage other countries to become competitors. The U.S.S.R., for instance, did not seriously attempt to match the U.S. nuclear arsenal as long as the nuclear competition remained open-ended, because of the expectation that the U.S. would maintain its proportional lead in nuclear weapons. As soon as the U.S. unilaterally adopted set force levels under MAD, the Soviets saw the opportunity to reach and exceed parity — which they did by the early 1980s. Today, China has a very small nuclear arsenal, because it cannot afford to match present U.S. and Russian force levels. But if those force levels are reduced to somewhere around 1,000 deployed warheads, then China may reconsider — and the U.S. will find itself with a new peer competitor.

The NPR and the new START agreement are both seen as first steps towards a drastically reduced nuclear force, seemingly without carefully considering the deeper strategic implications. While President Obama’s goal of a nuclear free-world appears noble, it could ultimately jeopardize the stability that has kept America safe for over six decades. We should proceed cautiously.

– Stuart Koehl is a senior fellow at John Hopkins University’s Center for Trans-Atlantic Relationships. John Noonan served as a Minuteman III nuclear-launch officer with the United States Air Force and is now a policy adviser with the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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