Will The Right Nuclear Policy Please Stand Up!

Will the New Triad of nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities reduce or increase the role of U.S. nuclear weapons? To get an answer to that question I went to a hearing the Senate Armed Services Committee held earlier today on the Pentagon’s new Global Strike mission. But instead of giving a clear answer, the Pentagon muddled the issue by saying that it is reducing its dependence on nuclear weapons while at the same time increasing the nuclear strike options.

Four officials were lined up to explain the Global Strike mission to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee: Peter C. W. Flory, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, General James E. Cartwright, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Rear Admiral Charles B. Young, Director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs, and Major General Stanley Gorenc, Director of Air Force Operational Capabilities and Requirements and Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations. These guys ought to know what the nuclear policy is.

STRATCOM Commander General Cartwright explained to the Subcommittee that the New Triad provides increased flexibility in dealing with a wider range of contingencies, “while reducing our dependence on nuclear weapons….” Although he mentioned that the President has committed the United States to sustaining a credible nuclear deterrent capability “to ensure our nuclear force remains ready to meet any contingency,” Gen. Cartwright only mentioned non-nuclear weapons when describing the new capabilities of the New Triad, and he never explicitly stated that the Global Strike mission also includes nuclear weapons.

Secretary Flory described the role of nuclear weapons very differently. Although his testimony echoed Cartwright’s statement about reducing the role of nuclear weapons, Flory described an important role for nuclear weapons in Global Strike. In fact, his prepared statement appears to suggest that the nuclear role is increasing. In three consecutive paragraphs describing the continued “critical role” of nuclear weapons, Flory stated that flexible and credible nuclear forces will provide the President with “a broader range of options” that will make it possible to “tailor deterrence” against adversaries armed with “chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons….” “What we need is not a smaller version of the Cold War-era nuclear stockpile; we need capabilities appropriate for 21st Century threats,” he advocated. “Making tailored deterrence a reality…will require us to make adjustments in our force posture, in our residual nuclear stockpile, and in our thinking,” Flory explained.

Will the right nuclear policy please stand up! Is there a nuclear option in Global Strike or is there not? Is the range of options broadening or is it not? Why does STRATCOM gloss over the nuclear option while the Office of the Secretary of Defense emphasizes it? Three years after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assigned a new Global Strike mission to STRATCOM, 18 months after the first Global Strike plan became operational, and six months after the new Space and Global Strike component command stood up at Offutt Air Force Base, one would have hoped that Congress could have gotten a more coherent account of the role of nuclear weapons in this critical new mission.

This is serious stuff. Embedded in Global Strike is preemption against proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. Try adding nuclear weapons to those scenarios, and the ramifications become truly immense. Several countries, including Russia and North Korea, have already referred to the Bush administration’s preemption doctrine to justify their own preemptive strikes if necessary. Moreover, if we can preempt with nuclear weapons, why can’t terrorists?

A clear account of how U.S. nuclear weapons could potentially be used under Global Strike should have been part of today’s Congressional hearing. After all, if the Pentagon cannot articulate a coherent nuclear policy to the Senate, how does it expect to communicate the policy to the countries it is trying to deter?

More: Global Strike background | Not Just A Last Resort?

3 thoughts on “Will The Right Nuclear Policy Please Stand Up!

  1. AW: Come on, Hans, you know what’s going on here. The civilians in OSD policy are trying to justify the existence of nuclear forces by finding new and interesting uses for them. They call it “tailored deterrence,” but it really is selected target attack planning. Sometimes they’ll remember to argue that the ability to take out the selected targets will enhance deterrence because the bad guy will know that we can take out the target, but that’s an issue that is still open for debate. Does more precise attack planning enhance deterrence or encourage use? The deterrence argument may be weakened if the bad guy doesn’t know we are planning to use nuclear weapons against his targets. Hard to deter without a declaratory policy. This is the “new triad” story.

    Anyway, STRATCOM has a different story, the “global strike” story. It really is a different set of issues and contingencies, in spite of all the time you spend trying to find nuclear preemption in global strike. The biggest difference is that they are really looking at an operational mission for long-range strike weapons, rather than a theoretical construct for the possible use of nuclear weapons.

    As for whether reliance has increased or decreased. If measured in the number of weapons we might use, it has certainly decreased. Cold War scenarios called for the use of thousands of weapons, but only in a handful of contingencies. If measured in the number of possible contingencies, then reliance has increased, but we’d only use a small number in any of those possible contingencies. So, has reliance increased or decreased? The mountain may be a lot lower, but its also a lot wider at its base. You decide.

  2. M: Mr. Kristensen, I appreciate your blog entry, however, one of your comments contains some faulty thinking. You wrote, “Moreover, if we can preempt with nuclear weapons, why can’t terrorists”? If you meant by this question that if we are justified to preempt with nuclear weapons, then so may terrorists – you have introduced a faulty argument.

    One must look at who is the first cause of grave and direct threat. Terrorists are not preempting anything in the same sense. It is a determined terrorist intent which creates a threat and therefore a threat which we then respond to. Terrorists are the first cause. Preemption is actually a response to the threat they pose before it is fully executed. We (the U.S. Government and others) seek to respond to the threat terrorists pose from their threatening intentions and preempt the execution of those threatening intentions. And while terrorists may and are seeking to attack us using nuclear weapons, this is not in a direct response to the nuclear threat the U.S. Goverment or others societies pose to terrorists. The U.S. Government and other societies pose a determined threat to terrorists because of the grave and determined threat they pose to us. Our use of nuclear weapons to preempt terrorists would be in response to the first cause of threat that which a terrorist posed.

    Reply: Who is to blaim and who is just is in the eye of the beholder. The issue that should interest us, I believe, is whether a policy works. There are not many people in the military top that believe nuclear weapons are relavant again terrorists. The only area where I hear the nukes may – theoretically – have some effect, is if the terrorists are closely affiliated with a state. You need something important to threaten with nukes: infrastructure.

    Instead of dreaming up fantastic missions for nuclear weapons, let’s focus our efforts on the means that can realistically effects terrorist acts: constructive diplomacy, foreign aide, law enforcement, intelligence, special operations forces, and, if all else fails, conventional forces. – MK

  3. BL: Amy, “finding new and interesting uses for them” indeed this seems to be the case. You might wish to read this news item from the outback (nice to know we have a free and well informed media here in the US, opps scooped by the Aussies again).

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