Lingering Questions on America’s Nuclear Posture

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The Nuclear Posture Review Report (NPR) came out two years ago. Yet, questions remain with regard to America’s nuclear posture. What are our objectives for America’s nuclear arsenal? Can we reach consensus on those objectives? Should we maintain the current size of the arsenal or reduce it? Should we modernize what we have? What does this mean for nonproliferation? What does this mean in light of the Obama administration’s calls for Global Zero?

On September 18, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the Air Force Association (AFA) hosted a discussion titled, “Making Sense of the Nuclear Posture” in Washington, DC. Dr. Janne Nolan, a faculty member of the Elliott School at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies, and Dr. Christopher Ford, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, presented two perspectives on America’s nuclear posture.

Dr. Nolan emphasized three points.

Within debates on nuclear policy, there is a “formal split” between declaratory policy and operational policy. Nolan dated this split back to the 1960s. Declaratory policy occurs within Congress, bureaucracies, the public sphere, etc. Here, Nolan explained, one oftentimes finds positions tending toward the extreme in both directions. There is little moderate ground. The NPR falls within this realm of policy. Though it originates from broad presidential guidelines, it is the product of bureaucratic infighting. Hence, the purpose of the NPR is to move the consensus forward in light of competing interests. Nolan commented that it is hard to think of nuclear strategy as the result of democratic processes. On the other hand, operational plans are formed by military and political leaders. These do not draw from changing public sentiments on nuclear weapons.

Nolan hinted that the NPR does little to address certain issues. These include questions of targets, the level at which the U.S. targets, and the harmony between political and military objectives with regard to nuclear weapons. She focused on the frustrating absence of core understanding regarding the utility of nuclear weapons. This includes the dilemma of global zero. Nolan reiterated that global zero has no substance in the operational plans, remaining purely within declaratory policy. The lack of core understanding prevents the U.S. from building architecture to address a world of multiple deterrents. Gone are the days of one deterrent, the Soviet Union. Furthermore, now the U.S. must answer the question of how to “deter the un-deterrable” – terrorists seeking nuclear weapons. These questions include a “discussion of numbers.” Nolan mentioned one desire for a nuclear arsenal that has parity with Russia. However, in response to a question posed, Nolan explained that the numbers debate is “bogus and misleading of the true intent in creating a stable posture” flexible to current deterrents.

Finally, Nolan commented on the debate of modernizing current nuclear forces, which has recently re-surfaced thanks, in large part, to Dana Priest’s articles in The Washington Post. Nolan praised Priest, claiming she did a public service in raising the issues. Yet, Nolan emphasized the importance of distinguishing between urgent needs and long-term modernization with regard to nuclear forces. Nolan mentioned the prickly issue of how the New START Treaty was ratified with the understanding of a modernization program. She advised the president to revisit this and reach a consensus on the understanding surrounding the Treaty.

Dr. Ford provided a history of America’s reasons for pursuing a nuclear program. The U.S. acquired nuclear weapons to conclude a great power conventional war. Then, the U.S. kept them to prevent the outbreak of another war. Nuclear weapons have been used as a bargaining chip should deterrence fail. With the Nixon administration, the U.S. gave up biological weapons, thinking that a nuclear capability was sufficient to deter. Since then, the U.S. has used nuclear weapons in alliance relationships, both to provide security to friends and to persuade friends to not pursue their own nuclear programs.

Ford mentioned his shock that the NPR was reasonably moderate given Obama’s talks of disarmament. However, Ford criticized the NPR with respect to nonproliferation and the perception of disarmament.

Ford stated that sanctions do not seem to alter the course of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs. The world’s proliferation continues unaffected by America’s current disarmament posture. Ford stated that during the Cold War, the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers – the U.S. and the Soviet Union – skyrocketed while proliferation was very rare. After the Cold War, both superpowers drastically cut their nuclear arsenals, and then proliferation increased greatly. Ford noted that other countries do not count America’s disarmament as legitimate until the U.S. cuts those nuclear weapons it actually needs. This would imperil U.S. national security, Ford argued. Finally, he mentioned how the New START was ratified with promises for the modernization of America’s nuclear forces.

Ford outlined his version of a nuclear posture, which would focus on survivability, security, reliability, and credibility. He argued that the idea of reduction poses too many risks at this time, given current technological advances. Also, Ford advised against abandoning the TRIAD, which is a “strategic hedge” against surprises from others’ technological innovations. With regard to modernization, Ford raised the point that the case for reductions gets harder when warheads are not modernized: if we do not believe that the arsenal meets our needs, then we will continue to think we need more of them.

Nolan and Ford appeared to agree on the need for modernization. However, both reiterated the importance of defining what that means. Both also pointed to the complexity of deterrence, indicating that it was multi-faceted and required  clear communication to adversarial countries. Nolan and Ford emphasized how deterrence must be specified for each country the U.S. seeks to deter. As Nolan explained, any simple notions like the “sole use of nuclear weapons” are unhelpful and not usable when speaking of “all options” in diplomatic and military capacities. Finally, both hinted at optimism for technological advances with regard to conventional capabilities. As these advance, American may need to rely less upon nuclear weapons for deterrence in the future.

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