The United States Senate
Senate Armed Services Committee
Strategic Nuclear Policy
Dr. Keith B. Payne
President, National Institute for Public Policy
Faculty, Georgetown University
School of Foreign Service
National Security Studies Program
Why We Must Sustain Nuclear Deterrence
Senate Russell Office Building
Room 222, 9:30 a.m.
March 31, 1998
Why Nuclear Weapons Are Critical For U.S. Security
Dr. Keith B. Payne
President, National Institute for Public Policy
Faculty, Georgetown University
School of Foreign Service
National Security Studies Program
Since the end of the Cold War, American policy makers have sought to align the U.S. nuclear deterrent posture with the new strategic environment. The Clinton administration has emphasized engagement over deterrence, and conventional weapons over nuclear forces. Indeed, nuclear weapons have been deemphasized significantly. And, of course, the call for complete nuclear disarmament has been energized by prominent retired military officers such as General Lee Butler, the former head of the Strategic Command.
This morning I would like to summarize briefly the findings of my analysis of the future deterrent role for nuclear weapons. My analysis is based largely on historical studies of deterrence—how deterrence actually has been practiced by real leaders in real crises down through over 2200 years of history.
The most obvious conclusions from this assessment of deterrence are that:
1) The conditions assumed in deterrence theory frequently are absent in practice, including rational, well-informed, and cool-headed leaders in mutual communication;
2) Deterrence frequently does not work predictably, and sometimes it does not work at all; but, effective deterrence ultimately is much cheaper than fighting;
3) Deterrence threats and practice should be flexible and adaptable, because challengers can have vastly different goals, determination, values, and cost- and risk-tolerances. The threat necessary to deter one challenger may be wholly inadequate to deter another, and the method for communicating that threat to one foe may be completely ineffective for another. For example, deterring challengers who are risk- and cost-tolerant, and highly-motivated, may be possible only by very severe retaliatory threats. Consequently, tailoring a specific deterrence policy to a particular foe and context may be essential for success.
These points cannot be overstated because deterrence, including nuclear deterrence, was at the heart of U.S. security policy during the Cold War; it will be equally important, possibly more so, as we face regional challengers armed with chemical, biological, and/or nuclear weapons—weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Because we can have little confidence in our capability to destroy challengers’ WMD, we must make our deterrent as foolproof as possible.
A single illustration of the lethality of biological weapons will clarify why the U.S. capability to deter regional challengers is critical: a single undeterred attacker delivering just over 200 lbs. of anthrax spores over Washington could, under likely conditions, inflict from 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 fatalities—creating a lethal area of approximately 300 square kilometers. In terms of population fatalities, such a biological attack could be more deadly than a megaton hydrogen bomb. Recall that Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria possess biological warfare programs. To risk understatement, deterrence is not less important in this post-Cold War period. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry rightly stated, “Clearly the United States does not want to spend the rest of the decade fighting regional conflicts. The key to avoiding such entanglements is to use its new strength to deter these conflicts rather than fight them.”
I would like to summarize my basic conclusions at the outset: Because some challengers are highly motivated, and cost- and risk-tolerant, very severe deterrent threats are necessary. U.S. nuclear weapons serve that purpose. Nuclear threats are insufficient to guarantee deterrence, but in some tough cases they will be necessary; they will make the difference between deterring attack and being attacked. Consequently, nuclear disarmament would be dangerous and counterproductive for the United States, potentially increasing the prospects for catastrophe.
In the absence of revived great power competition, the most obvious goal of U.S. deterrence policy will be deterring the use of WMD by hostile regional powers. This deterrent goal has a number of complexities new to the post-Cold War era: how will the United States prevent the rogue threat of WMD use from deterring a strong U.S. response to regional aggression in the first place? How can the United States deter WMD strikes even while it is conducting successful conventional military operations on an opponent’s soil, operations that may threaten the opposing regime’s survival?
Is there a role for U.S. nuclear weapons in this regional deterrent mission? One’s answer to this question has significant implications. For example, some prominent defense commentators now assert that U.S. nuclear threats are not credible for regional deterrent purposes, and that conventional forces can reliably replace nuclear forces for deterrence of all but nuclear threats. That is, nuclear weapons generally are neither useful nor needed for regional deterrence.
This assessment—that U.S. nuclear weapons are irrelevant to deterring regional challengers—now is at the heart of the various nuclear disarmament proposals; it also is contrary to the actual empirical evidence. That evidence, including recent history, suggests strongly that U.S. nuclear threats can be credible and essential when a regional challenger is highly motivated, and cost- and risk-tolerant.
What, for example, was the value of nuclear weapons for deterrence in the Gulf War? Immediately following the Gulf War prominent U.S. military commentators, such as former Secretary of Defense McNamara, claimed that nuclear weapons were “incredible” and therefore “irrelevant” to the war. By Iraqi accounts, however, nuclear deterrence prevented Iraq’s use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) that could otherwise have inflicted horrendous civilian and military casualties on us and our allies.
Senior Iraqi wartime civilian and military leaders have explained that while U.S. conventional threats were insufficient to stop Saddam Hussein, implicit U.S. nuclear threats did deter his use of CBW. As the then-head of Iraqi military intelligence, Gen. Waffic al Sammarai, stated, Saddam Hussein did not use chemical or biological weapons during the war, “because the warning was quite severe, and quite effective. The allied troops were certain to use nuclear arms and the price will be too dear and too high.” In short, implicit U.S. nuclear threats were credible to Saddam Hussein, and nuclear deterrence worked where conventional threats did not.
India’s former Army Chief of Staff, General K. Sundarji summarized this point nicely in his conclusion about the Gulf War: “The Gulf War emphasized again that nuclear weapons are the ultimate coin of power. In the final analysis, they [coalition members] could go in because the United States had nuclear weapons and Iraq didn’t.” General Sundarji’s view of U.S. nuclear weapons as extremely relevant to regional security challenges is far different from the perspective held by America’s anti-nuclear activists. But Gen. Sundarji’s view is shared by the military and political leaders in many countries abroad; and it is some of those leaders who otherwise would use CBW that we must be able to deter.
The continuing proliferation of CBW can only increase our need for nuclear deterrence. The United States has given up these capabilities, and has thus given up the option of deterring chemical and biological threats with like capabilities. In some tough cases, conventional forces alone simply will be inadequate to deter CBW attacks. Consequently, as these deadly weapons proliferate, our nuclear capabilities become more, not less important for regional deterrence.
Clearly, WMD are a relatively inexpensive means of “trumping” Western conventional technical superiority; this is one reason they are so attractive to some developing countries. As Gennadiy Khromov, a senior Russian arms control official has observed in this regard, “Liquidating existing nuclear arsenals, along with the transition to virtual nuclear arsenals, will benefit those countries with the most powerful conventional forces.” Ironically, the U.S. conventional superiority that makes a non-nuclear world and conventional-based deterrence attractive to some Americans is strong motivation for less developed countries to emphasize WMD.
Consequently, U.S. leaders need to stop creating the impression that U.S. nuclear forces are devoted solely to deterring nuclear attack, and have little practical relevance to regional security. This unfortunate impression may have been created by recent statements from current and past U.S. officials, and by the fact that the United States has withdrawn almost all of its theater nuclear weapons from abroad. U.S. efforts to place nuclear weapons into the “background” should not go so far as to prevent credible nuclear threats from being made against extreme provocations by regional powers such as Iraq.
Gen. Butler was correct when, several years ago, he stated, “Deterrence may not work in the old Soviet-American terms, but I’m convinced that having nuclear weapons still matters.” Gen. Butler had it right at the time: nuclear weapons still do matter very much for deterrence. When U.S. operational practices and declaratory policies limit the flexibility of U.S. nuclear forces and the credibility of U.S. nuclear threats, they undermine the prospects for effective deterrence and increase the likelihood of regional crises and wars.
Tailoring the most appropriate deterrence threat to a particular challenger and crisis may not be possible if the United States rules out, a priori, nuclear retaliation, or so limits its nuclear policies that U.S. threats are not credible. Active and passive defenses, various forms of conventional retaliation, and arms control offer some benefits, and taken together they could sharply reduce the potential threats posed by the use of CBW.Eliminating the credible threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation, however, could easily mean the unexpected failure of deterrence.
The problem, of course, is that U.S. leaders will not know in advance those specific conditions and opponents that will necessitate nuclear deterrence. Not knowing when and where nuclear threats will be essential to deterrence success, they must be available to cast a shadow over any military crisis, to be made more explicit or to remain “under wraps” as the challenger and context warrant.
The quantity of nuclear forces also still matters for deterrence. It is far from obvious that a relatively small number of U.S. nuclear weapons could provide the coverage of targets necessary vis-à-vis Russia, China, and the variety of prospective regional challengers such as Iraq that we will need to be capable of deterring in the future.
The United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile considerably since the end of the Cold War (continuing a downward trend which actually began in the late 1960s). Yet, to go down too far too fast—or to remove too many forces from alert posture—could unnecessarily decrease the nuclear flexibility that the United States has purchased over the past fifty years. That flexibility—entailing the capability to tailor nuclear threats to specific circumstances—is likely to be required in some tough cases for deterrence effectiveness. And we are likely to encounter tough cases as the United States confronts a wide spectrum of potential foes and circumstances in the post-Cold War era.
In addition, if the United States moves toward very low numbers, unless great care and cost were devoted to preserving the survivability of those few remaining nuclear weapons, their vulnerability (possibly even to conventional attacks) could create tempting targets and easily undermine U.S. security. There is a continuing need for survivable systems, and the number and diversity of forces helpful to that survivability. Indeed, the traditional survivability rationale for maintaining a Triad of bombers, and sea- and land-based missiles grows stronger at lower force levels.
Some suggest that the United States should drastically draw down its nuclear weapons in the hope of strengthening an international norm against nuclear weapons. Given that five members of the U.N. Security Council possess nuclear weapons, as do other undeclared nuclear powers, and that U.S. nuclear deterrence protection is extended to many other allies, it is far from obvious that an international anti-nuclear norm actually exists. Nevertheless, it may be enough simply to note in this regard that if the United States brought its nuclear stockpile down to the hundreds, nuclear weapons would likely become more attractive to regional aggressors. At that level, a would-be proliferator could “buy in” to near-superpower status in terms of nuclear weapons. This would be costly for a regional power, but much easier than trying to catch up to the advanced industrial nations in conventional technologies.
Similarly, if the United States gives up its capability to provide a credible nuclear umbrella to allies, such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea, those countries will be motivated to “go nuclear” themselves for deterrence purposes. This concern is not speculative; national leaders in Japan and South Korea have publically stated as much. Consequently, the United States could easily fuel nuclear proliferation by reducing its nuclear arsenal precipitously.
Finally, the number and types of nuclear weapons the United States requires for deterrence are not related per se to the number of nuclear weapons possessed by Russia or China; it is a function of the number and types of targets that the United States must be capable of threatening worldwide for deterrence purposes and the foreign political perceptions related to the size of the U.S. arsenal.
The tradition of tying the number of U.S. strategic forces to that of the Soviet Union and now Russia largely is a legacy of Cold War arms control and a bipolar world that no longer exists. Even if Russia would now agree to take its nuclear arsenal down to the low hundreds, which seems highly unlikely given Moscow’s recent increased emphasis on nuclear deterrence of nuclear, conventional, and regional threats, the United States should consider such a course with great caution.
In conclusion, U.S. national security policy now is characterized by a general deemphasis on military deterrence, and by an even greater deemphasis on nuclear weapons within the residual deterrent framework. Advanced conventional weapons have assumed the pride of place in DoD’s strategy. And, of course, there have been numerous recent proposals for nuclear disarmament and de-alerting.
The arguments underlying these proposals are: 1) U.S. movement away from nuclear weapons will help stop nuclear proliferation; 2) military deterrence is of declining relevance to U.S. security; and 3) U.S. conventional forces alone can ensure deterrence of all but nuclear threats, i.e., nuclear deterrence is irrelevant to most regional security concerns. In fact, U.S. nuclear disarmament or deep reductions could easily fuel nuclear proliferation; military deterrence remains enormously important to U.S. security; and as the Gulf War demonstrated, in some tough cases nuclear weapons will likely be essential to regional deterrence. Speaking in favor of a robust nuclear force is not fashionable. But following the available evidence about deterrence—how it has failed and succeeded through the centuries and most recently—leads to no other conclusion.