Will The Right Nuclear Policy Please Stand Up!

By March 29, 2006

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?

Categories: Nuclear Weapons, United States