Cheryl Rofer at WhirledView has started a collaborative effort to discuss the US nuclear weapons policy – what it is, what it should be, why the administration has had such a difficult time articulating one. I was fortunate enough to be contacted by her to contribute to this worthy effort.
I have heard some of the top nuclear weapons policy advocates talk on this subject, and if it is one thing that they all agree on, it’s that the US government lacks a modern, post-Cold War strategy for justifying the current nuclear stockpile. This has directly led to the unresolved debates over the need for a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), the development of non-nuclear strike capabilities, and the DoE infrastructure supporting the nuclear stockpile.
The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review caused a direction to drop the number of active nuclear weapons and the development of the new “triad” strategy. This strategy changed from the old “triad” of land-based ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and ballistic missile submarines to a new “triad” of nuclear and non-nuclear offensive strike systems, active/passive defenses, and a “revitalized defense infrastructure” as the basis for a strategic posture. This was a positive measure, in that it changed the dialogue from a Cold War “mutually-assured destruction” mindset to a more comprehensive and flexible strategy addressing the roles of air/missile defense and the DoE labs as well as decreasing the reliance on nuclear weapons as a global strike tool.
The strategy did not offer an explanation as to why the goal of 1700-2200 active nuclear warheads was the right number, why a new warhead design might be needed, or under what circumstances would a nuclear weapons employment be exercised. Naturally, discussions on these matters might be classified, but the fact remained that, absent a public discussion on US nuclear strategy, it becomes difficult to support resolution on the key issues identified above. In fact, one former DepSecDef suggested that we ought to zero out the inventory and justify every weapon system added to the US stockpile, if we are to have that honest debate.
I am not going to have a long discussion on the proper role of nuclear weapons. If you want that understanding, go read Thomas Schelling’s “Arms and Influence.” I do want to outline the broad brush strokes of a progressive nuclear weapons policy that has a few main points of departure: 1) the US government will always need nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent against other countries that have nuclear weapons; 2) the US government needs to minimize the possibility of a future nuclear conflict between other nations as well as between the United States and another major power; and 3) there is no such thing as a tactical nuke.
To go back to Schelling, one purpose of national strategy is to be able to communicate with and influence other nations on particular issues such as war and peace. There is no mistaking an intercontinental ballistic missile for its message – an intention to threaten another country’s infrastructure with massive destruction. As long as Russia and China have these weapons, we will need equivalent capability to ensure freedom of maneuver and freedom of the marketplace across the world. We probably need a number of nuclear weapons to counter current regional powers such as India, Pakistan, and Israel, as well as future nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea.
This does not mean that “The more nuclear weapons the US has, the saver[sic] the world is.” This is ridiculous, as is the statement that “the US would not have won the Cold War if it didn’t have nuclear weapons.” The Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not say that Russia and the United States must completely disarm their nuclear stockpiles; rather, it states that nuclear-owning nations need to “pursue negotiations in good faith” toward that end-state. It may be that we will never see a nuclear-free global community, but it is not a bad vision to pursue. Visions are important motivators because of their long-term and idealistic nature. As long as we’re negotiating, it’s progress. “It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.”
US policy makers need to stop the practice of “deliberate ambiguity” as a diplomatic threat against other nations who are doing something the US government doesn’t like. We ought not threaten non-nuclear nation-states with nuclear weapons, as we did against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Retaliating against chemical-biological weapons with nuclear weapons is not justifiable; this counters basic Cold War (Schelling) logic of rational deterrence. The message needs to be clear and simple: If you have nuclear weapons, you are now a target on our Single Integrated Operational Plan.
As for the second point, the US government needs to continue to pursue a strong nonproliferation strategy with both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. Part of this strategy must include acknowledgement that Israel has nuclear weapons, and that they are a part of the problem within the Middle East. I fail to understand the coy game played by US and Israeli politicians on this point. Until open discussions begin, how can we expect Iran, Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia to discard the ambition of becoming a nuclear power? It’s basic deterrence theory again. I’m not suggesting that Israel give up its nukes; far from it, I want Israel to openly declare that they have nukes and will use them as part of its national strategy. This tact hasn’t hurt relations between the US government and India or Pakistan so far.
The other part of nonproliferation is a strategy to address the concern over a “cascade” of proliferating states as the result of Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Japan, or Venezuela becoming a nuclear state. I am not steeped in the subtleties of diplomacy, but I would suggest that a successful strategy is possible through agreements of protection under the US nuclear “umbrella”, sponsorship of regional military/economic agreements, and expansion of programs such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction effort beyond the former Soviet Union. All of this requires the US government engage both allies and potential adversaries on an international, not unilateral, stage.
I will make just a few comments about non-nuclear strike capabilities, air/missile defense, and the DoE lab infrastructure. Non-nuclear strike capabilities are definitely worth investment, as they both reduce the need for nuclear weapons and retain an ability to place adversarial nation-state interests at risk. The push for US missile defense platforms in Poland and the Czech Republic is a foolish, transparent attempt to protect US global interests at the cost of alienating friends and further aggravating adversaries. And certainly the DoE labs need investment, but the RRW is not the answer to their deep-seated challenges.
To summarize: The current “new triad” strategy articulates a correct approach to retaining a strategic deterrence capability against adversaries armed with nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear weapons should be adequate to 1) influence Russia, China, and two regional actors from considering first-strikes against US interests; and 2) protect US allies from nuclear attack. Plans ought to be realistic and avoid excessive multiple targeting of single sites to ensure success (standard AF target planning). This number will be classified, but the methodology needs to be articulated clearly.
We should invest in non-nuclear strike capabilities to the fullest extent possible, and maintain a minimal R&D effort in nuclear warhead reliability, safety, and efficacy (i.e., no RRW until it’s clear when current warheads will become unreliable). The DoE labs are an important resource that ought to be utilized to research both nuclear and non-nuclear global strike and defense capabilities. We ought to pull back on the idea of a global missile defense capability (specifically, plans for sites in Europe) and instead invest those funds into increased regional military/economic security discussions.
The US government should redouble its diplomatic efforts in nonproliferation and regional engagement. The NPT remains a noble vision toward which the US government ought to pursue, in that it will continue negotiations with nuclear states on reducing stockpiles and opening communications to reduce the chance of an aggressive action. Any ambiguity as to the US employment of nuclear weapons ought to be removed, to include articulating that non-nuclear states that attack US interests or allies with chemical or biological weapons will be engaged with non-nuclear strike weapons. Last, the US government must engage Israel, Pakistan, and India as seriously as Iran and North Korea on the issues of reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles and reducing the chance of a nuclear exchange.