Changing the Nuclear Posture: moving smartly without leaping

Release of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is delayed once again.  Originally due late last year, in part so it could inform the on-going negotiations on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty Follow-on (START-FO), after a couple of delays it was supposed to be released today, 1 March, but last week word got out that it will be coming out yet another 2-4 weeks later.  Some reports are that the delay reflects deep divisions within the administration over the direction of the NPR.  That means that there is really only one person left whose opinion matters and that is the president.

We can only hope that President Obama makes clear that he meant what he said in Prague and elsewhere.  This NPR is crucial.  If it is incremental, if it relegates a world free of nuclear weapons to an inspiring aspiration, then we are stuck with our current nuclear standoff for another generation.  This is the time to decisively shift direction.  But we should not be paralyzed by thinking that the only movement available is a giant leap into the unknown.  We need to move decisively in the right direction, sure, but we can do that in steps.

I am not privy to the debate going on inside the administration but anyone can make some good guesses about what the positions might be.  Most reports say that the NPR will reduce the role of nuclear weapons and, specifically, may reverse the Bush policy of targeting chemical and biological weapons with nuclear warheads so that nuclear weapons will be reserved only for nuclear threats.  This is sometimes called a “sole-use” policy.  The real question is whether the nuclear doctrine should move beyond a sole-use policy to a no-first-use policy.  Some reports are that Secretary of Defense Gates is being cautiously incremental while Vice President Biden is pushing for more dramatic changes.

A no-first-use policy would be a dramatic shift from current doctrine.  It would be a statement that nuclear weapons really are for what everyone claims they are for:  deterrence, that nuclear weapons would be used only in response to nuclear attack to deter that attack in the first place.  We would voluntarily remove the option of a preemptive first strike to destroy enemy forces on the ground before they could be used against us, that is, we would forgo the option of striking first to reduce the consequences of being attacked first ourselves.  (This is called a counterforce attack.)  Such a major change in doctrine would allow similarly profound changes in the operation of our nuclear forces;  in particular, it would allow us to substantially reduce the alert levels of the forces so they would not be ready to launch on a moment’s notice.

The decision on no-first-use is, most likely, the big sticking point.  It seems to be a huge leap.  Why would any president give up the preemption option?  If, in a crisis, he suspected an enemy was about to attack us, who could possibly not want to at least have the option of striking first to destroy enemy forces on the ground before they could kill between tens of thousands and tens of millions of Americans?  What seems at first glance to be a no-brainer is, however, much more difficult, complex, and subtle.

Of course, if we were certain that an enemy were about to attack us, we would want the option of attacking his weapons first before they are launched to reduce the damage that could be done to us.  The Secretary of Defense’s job is to imagine these sorts of threats and prepare for them.  The problem is that preparing for them creates other dangers.

Preparing for this attack on enemy forces requires our nuclear weapons to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice, it requires weapons that are highly accurate, fast flying, and very powerful.  In short, to attack an enemy’ weapons we have to make them vulnerable to our attack.  The potential enemy knows this, of course, and the only potential adversary who can destroy us as a nation and a society, Russia, has to counter this capability by keeping its own weapons on alert, ready to launch in case we do.

Ironically, keeping alive this option of attacking to reduce the damage from nuclear weapons actually creates much of the danger coming from nuclear weapons.  We can imagine this specific contingency but, while specific, it is highly unlikely.  The crisis that would lead us to consider a first strike, high confidence that Russia is planning an attack on us, is itself very unlikely but also the president’s decision to use his first strike capability is also unlikely because he would be trading a likelihood of nuclear war for a certainty of nuclear war, certain because we would be starting it.

Preparing for this potential threat, which may or may not ever arise in the future, exacerbates the day-to-day danger of accidental launch of weapons or of intentionally launching weapons in a crisis.  We have to compare this great, but highly unlikely, future threat with the on-going, everyday threat of living in world with simply too many nuclear weapons always ready to launch.  The problem is that we tend to become inured to the everyday threat, it becomes the wallpaper that we simply stop noticing.  But it is there.  When we compare dangers, we have to be careful not to ignore the constant threat and over emphasize the highly unlikely threats especially if they do not simply add up but if one causes the other.  Making some reduction in first strike capability will reduce day-to-day nuclear threats from Russia and China so reducing our ability to destroy Russian nuclear forces can, overall, actually reduce the threat the nation faces over time.

I believe a major problem with thinking about this conundrum, that addressing one threat increases another, is that we cast it in terms of a yes or no choice, give up counterforce or not.  True, no-first-use may be new uncharted (but not unimagined) territory, but is not to either make one great leap into the darkness or to sit forever where we are today.  There are intermediate steps along the way.  There is such an enormous gap in the size of the Russian arsenal facing us and those of all other countries combined, that we could make major reductions in the alert levels of our forces in cooperation with Russia and still have more than enough force to deal with a nuclear North Korea or a future nuclear Iran.  (Apparently, the current START-FO does not discuss alert levels as all.  Coordinated de-alerting should be high on the agenda for the next set of negotiations, which ought to start as soon as the ink is dry on the current agreement.  And keep in mind, many of the useful actions could be accomplished by executive decision of the two presidents; they do not have to be enshrined in a treaty.)

Taking weapons off alert is not just flipping a switch, it is a process and we can take steps.  Some things we can do on our own and some steps will be far more valuable if carried out in coordination with Russia.  Anything we do to take weapons off alert has to be carefully thought through:  we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where putting weapons back on alert unnecessarily escalates a crisis.  But the general argument that we can’t take weapons off alert because it would be destabilizing does not hold up;  we now have thousands of nuclear weapons that are not even deployed—that is just an extreme case of being “off alert” —but could be redeployed with some effort and I never hear these described as destabilizing.  We could, for example, change the deployment areas of the ballistic missile submarines or pile gravel and boulders over the doors of the land-based missiles.  We could also begin serious R&D on invulnerable but slow-to-launch basing systems.  For example, the Office of Technology report of MX missile basing considered basing in deep tunnels but these schemes were rejected out of hand at the time because the missiles would not have been responsive enough.  But lack of instant response is exactly what demonstrates inability to strike first.  If the labs want to do research on new weapons and delivery systems, they should at least do research on weapons that have fewer, not more, nuclear capabilities.

The key point is to not discuss no-first-use as all-or-nothing.  No-first-use will be radically different from today’s frightening standoff but we do not have to get there in one revolutionary move, there are stops along the way that allow us to reevaluate.  The NPR simply has to take a large step in the right direction.

6 thoughts on “Changing the Nuclear Posture: moving smartly without leaping

  1. Ivan, you’ve equated terms that are not equivalent. Pre-emption (i.e. shooting before the war even starts) is not the same thing as prompt launch (shooting quickly after the confirmed start of a conflict.) Although we do not forswear nuclear preemption (i.e. the use of nuclear weapons against an enemy before the war even starts), its really not part of our nuclear doctrine. Our policy is one of maintaining the option (not the necessity) of prompt launch. In other words, the President, when informed of an incoming attack by an enemy, has the option of launching promptly in response (that options exists because a portion of our forces are on alert and can be launched promptly). The President also has the option of waiting, and delaying his response. There is nothing about high alert rates that makes either prompt launch, or preemption, inevitable.

    Second, neither pre-emption nor prompt launch are the same thing as counterforce attack. Counterforce means an attack against military forces. You could do that preemptively, promptly, or in a delayed response. You could also attack non-military (i.e. industrial or civilian) targets preemptively, promptly, or in a delayed response.

    Further, even if you take all your nuclear weapons off alert, and bury them under mounds of gravel, you have not eliminated the ability to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive attack. You’ve just made it necessary to start planning your pre-emptive attack weeks or months ahead of time, rather than hours before you launch it. For example, President Bush launched a pre-emptive attack against Saddam Hussein at the start of the war in 2003. But this was a delayed response. He really wanted to do it in 2001 or 2002, but he was forced to wait as his diplomats (Powell, in particular) insisted that we take this to the U.N. and try to build a coalition before we launched the first strike.

    So, again, preemption and prompt launch are not the same thing; and preemption and counterforce attacks are not the same thing. I’m not sure what this does to your argument for reducing alert rates, but you may want to think it through again.

  2. Anon above brings up several good points. (And Anon, by the way: Hi!) I do not think I “equate” two different things, alert rates and preemption, but I do make them tightly related. Obviously, one can have weapons on ready-to-launch alert and NOT launch in a disarming first strike as demonstrated during the entire Cold War when both sides had such ready-to-launch forces they did not use. And, at least in theory, one could have weapons not on alert and use them in a first strike (although this scenario requires that the other side not do anything first in response to the preparation for attack). And of course there are some targets, say a steel mill, that might be a target of a nuclear weapon but it isn’t going anywhere so it could be attacked today or next week with little difference in effect, while other targets, both military and non-military, but definitely non-nuclear, might be fleeting and need to be attacked quickly if they are to be attacked at all so to attack those we would need alert forces.

    Now we get to some subtler points where there is often a great deal of confusion. It is true that, during the Cold War, one reason, perhaps the primary reason, that weapons were kept on alert was to enhance their survival by launching them if they were under attack so they could get away before being destroyed. That way, the Soviets might launch their missiles at our missile silos and bomber bases but the silos would be empty when the incoming weapons arrives; our missiles and bombers would already be on their way to do their job. There was a great deal of confusion about this tactic. It was often mislabeled “launch on warning” but the tactic was actually “launch under attack.” Launch on warning was different. “Warning” might be indications that the Soviets were fueling up their liquid fueled missiles. If we had unambiguous evidence of Soviet attack preparations, we wanted to be prepared to attack first. Launch on warning was preemption. In addition, during the Cold War, we wanted to be able to just flat-out attack Soviet central nuclear forces because crippling those forces was necessary before we could use the theater nuclear leverage that we thought necessary to counter Warsaw Pact conventional advantage in Europe.

    Now, while all the above is true (and included in part to remind Anon that I understand it), it doesn’t change the arguments above. What I have just described, President Obama would call “Cold War thinking.” While it is of historical interest, it isn’t particularly relevant to American concerns today. Russia does indeed have to worry about being attacked by the US but I know of no one who today believes that Russian forces pose an effective threat against the US ICBM force. The US ballistic missile submarines are invulnerable and will remain so for the foreseeable future. So, in the past, there HAVE been several reasons for keeping our forces on alert, including enhancing their survival, so we would have been forced to make painful, perhaps dangerous, tradeoffs. But with survival no longer an issue, what are the justifications for our high alert rates other than maintaining the day-to-day ability to take out Russian forces? (I say Russian and not Russian and Chinese because China is now a lesser included case, only Russia has the number of weapons, hence aim-points, to justify the current deployments.) I don’t think you will come up with any good answers but, if you do, then that just strengthens my argument: one can keep enough forces on alert to attack those targets without keeping all forces on alert or being able to attack all targets. Alert levels are not all or nothing, we can make great strides in reducing alert levels without taking all the weapons off alert. Welcome to the 21st Century.

  3. “This is the time to decisively shift direction.”

    Before you advocate a major policy change you should look around the world and assess the chances of a major war. If you knew that nuclear war would hit America in the next five years would you still advocate the same policy changes?

    Let me explain why America is vulnerable to nuclear war.

    The economic decline of America marks a great transition point in history. It is during these transition periods that great wars can happen as a new regional or global order emerges. For example, the decline of the Ottoman empire left Europe vulnerable to war (World War I).

    Economic volatility is another key factor present before great wars like World War I and II. With the global economic crisis causing economic volatility around the world, social unrest is subject to increase. Russia could be hit with increasing social unrest due to the global economic crisis. China will also be subject to even more social unrest once its real estate bubble bursts. Also, how long can China keep stimulating its economy?

    A catalyst for a great war exists in the Middle East today. As Israel and its neighbors prepare for war, it is shaping up to be unlike anything we’ve seen before. Israel’s neighbors will be coordinating attacks and showering Israeli cities with thousands of missiles. It is likely that chemical weapons will be used against Israeli cities. Will Israel respond with nuclear weapons? Maybe. Will America be blamed? Probably.

    We know that Syria is an ally of Russia’s. In the past Russia has said it reserves the right to use a preemptive nuclear attack to protect its allies. What would Russia do if Israel destroys Syria with nuclear weapons?

    Then there are issues like the fact that Russia and China feel threatened by our missile defense systems starting to surround their borders. Russia is in decline and will have increasing trouble keeping up with American technological advances in the future. China is likely to start experiencing big demographic problems in the not too distant future.

    Why would Russia and China attack? For the same reason that World War I started and for the same reason that America was attacked at Pearl Harbor. A preemptive attack because of fear about the future.

    The time period we live in now is extremely dangerous. We should stick to policies known to work.

  4. My concern is that Obama will want to show leadership and show that he is very different than what came before so that he’ll take unilateral steps and not get Russia to take parallel steps.

    It’s hard for me to imagine under any circumstance anyone trying to actually occupy the US. So our nukes are primarily only to deter attacks from other countries. But we can defend ourselves quite well with just our current amount of conventional forces plus the heck that the invader would get from our citizenry UNLESS we are attacked by WMD. Get others to give up their WMD and we really don’t need nukes. But keeping our nukes makes it harder to stop the nuclear club from growing.

    So, I support the rapid negotiation of the elimination of nukes on the part of the US, Russia, China, UK, & France. Then this would put us in the position of being able to sanction to death any others who would wish to retain or build their nukes. Israel, however, would have to be given considerable defensive and offensive conventional capabilities.

  5. “Preemption” against a strategic near-peer (Russia) or a minor strategic nulcear power (China, UK, France) is simply first strike sneak attack. Would probably work against China and the Euros, would probably not work against Russia.

    Against a theatre nuclear power (rabid nuclear brinkmanship, revolution – think Pakistan, Israel, Iran) it would work, but it could be done with tactical nuclear or conventional weapon systems. Totally different category, and is almost purely an affair of the armed forces (deployed in far-away theatres of outlying bases like Guam), whereas on a strategic level the general population would be affected.

    I say the strategic system (ICBMS, SSBNS/SLBMs) *have* to remain reserved for use against (potential) opponents able to reach CONUS with strategic nuclear weapons (Russia, China, UK, France). And those strategic weapons should also not be used to “protect” allies or partners, just CONUS (probably not even AK or HI). Anything else is warmongering and mine-shaft gap masturbation.

    It’s strange that “counterforce attack” is still – or was ever – seen as a viable option against a near-peer opponent (Russia mostly). It deminshes deterrence (people might think they can ride it out) and is a waste of resources (not talking about so-called legal aspects here, which is absurd in any case when considering strategic nuclear warfare).

    “Prompt launch” is just one factor of survivability. If the other guys can’t figure out where your stuff is, they can’t attempt a sneak attack on you and you don’t have to prompt launch – MAD works between near-peer opponents! Actually more intesting than “prompt launch” is strategic BMD (currently only GBI), as it adds a defensive to an offensive option.

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