“Strengthening Deterrence” with More Nuclear Bombs?

Earlier this month the Department of Defense acknowledged that it has recently begun to deploy low-yield nuclear warheads on certain submarine ballistic missiles.

“This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence. . . and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” DoD said in a February 4, 2020 news release.

The notion that multiplying and diversifying the options for using nuclear weapons is the best way to deter their use by others has long been at the foundation of U.S. nuclear policy. Yet to a large extent it is built on wishful thinking and flimsy assumptions that can hardly stand common sense scrutiny.

The origins and development of the theory of nuclear war are illuminated with new clarity in Fred Kaplan’s new book The Bomb: Presidents, General, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. Based on interviews with many of the principals and on thousands of pages of declassified documents, Kaplan retells the story of how each Administration in the nuclear era has tried to manage the threat of nuclear war.

And like many significant works of history, his book also casts new light on the present.

Deterrence is an effort to affect the thinking of an adversary in order to discourage a resort to nuclear weapons. As such, the very concept of deterrence “is as much a psychological as a military problem,” wrote Henry Kissinger more than half a century ago (Kaplan, p. 104).

But U.S. nuclear deterrence policy shows little evidence of psychological acumen or insight. It assumes linearly that any perceived threat is best countered by a comparable, corresponding threat (so U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons are needed in order to deter Russian low-yield nuclear weapons, etc.). It does not consider the possibility that different foreign leaders — or totally different cultures — might be deterred in different ways, or not at all. It promotes the dangerous but seductive belief that larger nuclear arsenals confer greater “strength” and decisiveness. And so on.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials — who nowadays can hardly communicate effectively even with allies — think that they are sending meaningful deterrent signals to foreign adversaries. But these signals have often been lost or garbled in transmission.

“Americans put forces on alert so often that it is hard to know what it meant,” said Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in 1973 (Kaplan, p. 108).

Instead of resting on solid intelligence and empirical data — which are naturally hard to come by — nuclear policy has often been based on “hunches,” strongly held opinions, bureaucratic politics, inter-service rivalry, and serendipity.

During the Obama years, Kaplan writes, the question arose whether to officially endorse the policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. At a White House meeting, science advisor John Holdren not only advocated no first use, but also no second use, arguing that modern conventional weapons would be fully adequate to respond to an initial nuclear strike in most scenarios. This assertion infuriated Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who “snapped back, red-faced, yelling” (p. 253). Carter’s anger was more likely an indication of the intensity of his feeling than the cogency of his position. But his view prevailed then, and now.

All of this would simply be a fascinating puzzle for political scientists if it were not also extremely dangerous and prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, the nuclear weapons enterprise entails tremendous opportunity costs that will make it difficult or impossible to meet other urgent national and global challenges.

But “absent some transformation in global politics,” Kaplan writes (p. 298), “an upheaval so immense that it can hardly be imagined, the bomb will always be with us, looming over everything.”

Such a transformation or upheaval may yet emerge. Even if it doesn’t there is plenty that could be done to limit and reduce the threat of nuclear war — including extension of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that will expire in 2021. But that would require the sort of vision and leadership that are in short supply at the moment.

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Deterrence “sounds tough and smart, even though, in many circumstances, nobody is really sure how it could ever work,” wrote Amy Zegart in The Atlantic last month. “It has become a hazy, ill-formed shorthand policy that consists of ‘stopping bad guys from doing bad things without actually going to war, somehow’.”

“Deterrence isn’t a useless idea,” she wrote. “But it’s not magic fairy dust, either.”

“History shows that deterrence has been useful only under very specific conditions. In the Cold War, mutual assured destruction was very good at preventing one outcome: total nuclear war that could kill hundreds of millions of people. But nuclear deterrence did not prevent the Soviets’ other bad behavior, including invading Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. The key Cold War takeaway isn’t that policy makers should use deterrence more. It’s that some things are not deterrable, no matter how much we wish them to be.”

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Why did arms control advocates criticize the Trump Administration for withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty even after Russia had violated the Treaty by conducting a test of an intermediate range cruise missile?

According to a rather disconcerting speech last week by State Department Assistant Secretary Christopher Ford, the criticism was rooted in a “pathology” within the arms control community. As Ford sees it, those who believe that the U.S. should have adhered to the Treaty despite the Russian violations are indifferent to facts, unconcerned with actual security issues, and blindly devoted to “an identity politics of virtue signaling, progressive solidarity, and consciousness-raising against retrograde mindsets.”

Other, better explanations are possible. According to Kaplan, “withdrawing from the treaty gave the Russians what they wanted. The Russian military had abhorred the INF Treaty from the moment that Gorbachev [and Reagan] signed it.”

“Killing the treaty would help only the Russians, giving them free rein to build as many of these weapons as they like and to blame the breakdown on the Americans, while doing nothing for the West.” (p. 293)

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There are now “mountains” of declassified records on nuclear issues at the National Archives and the presidential libraries, including those which helped inform Kaplan’s The Bomb.

“These institutions are invaluable for the preservation of our history and democracy,” he wrote, “and their underfunding in recent years is shameful.” (p. 300)

My Take on Snowden’s Revelations

data scanningEarlier this month, I was interviewed by KNBC’s Scott McGrew regarding Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying. The clip is eight and a half minutes long, and here are some of the main points I made:

A lot of what are now seen as NSA’s abuses were authorized by the Patriot Act, which was passed and renewed by large margins by our elected representatives. When it was first passed in October 2001,  only one senator, Russ Feingold, voted against it. How did we reward him? By kicking him out of the Senate  in the 2010 election . If there’s someone to blame, perhaps we should look in the mirror.

Right after 9/11 I was shaken enough to say that I wanted my government to be more intrusive in my life, and I got what I asked for. In hindsight, I over-reacted. But, given that we now have the Patriot Act, we need much better oversight. For example, it’s dangerous that all FISA court judges are appointed by just one person: Chief Justice John Roberts.

As a nation, we want absolute privacy against government intrusion, absolute security against  terrorists, and the right to use our military anytime and anywhere we think it is appropriate. We need to recognize that there’s a tradeoff, and we can’t have all three, at least at the level we’ve been demanding them.

Our civil liberties have become collateral damage to our many wars. If we want want less domestic surveillance and improved personal security against terrorism, we’re going to have to be less intrusive in the world. We’re going to have to kill fewer people, who then might want to come and kill us.

If we become less militarily adventuresome, it would reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons in  two ways. First, terrorists would be less interested in doing us harm, including via nuclear terrorism. Second, our toppling governments as often as we have feeds dangerous paranoia in Russia and China, which increases the risk of a nuclear confrontation. A prominent Russian international relations expert made a reasonable case that his nation should be fearful of us. Here’s how the Washington Post covered his remarks:

I’m skeptical that anyone outside of the Kremlin could diagnose its view of American foreign policy with real certainty, but Fyodor Lukyanov is probably about as close as an outside observer can get. …

According to Lukyanov’s latest article in Al-Monitor, an assessment of the lessons that he believes Russia drew from the Iraq war that began 10 years ago, President Vladimir Putin and his government are convinced that U.S. foreign policy is basically running on madness at this point. … “Everything that’s happened since — including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, U.S. policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria — serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.” …

Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy,” it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. [emphasis added]


Martin Hellman is a professor at Stanford University, best known for the invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, his primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

The post My Take on Snowden’s Revelations appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Defending the Earth

The 60-mile diameter Manicouagan impact feature in Canada

The 60-mile diameter Manicouagan impact feature in Canada

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out, we live in a cosmic shooting gallery. Less than a year ago a good-sized chunk of cosmic rock exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk with a force of over 400 kilotons – over 30 times as powerful as the bomb that flattened Hiroshima. The impact was huge, blowing out windows and knocking people off their feet over hundreds of square miles – over 1500 people sought medical care for their injuries. And that was a fairly small rock – about the size of a school bus. There are much larger rocks out there with our name on them – like the 6-mile asteroid that dredged a hundred-mile crater (killing the dinosaurs in the process), or the even larger ones that excavated craters over 160 miles in diameter in Canada.

In fact, there are at least 4 craters on Earth that were formed by impacts large enough to cause mass extinctions – and these are only the ones we know about. Given that well over half the Earth’s surface is water-covered it stands to reason that there have been about twice as many huge water impacts as those on land. On top of that, we also have to wonder how many have eroded away, been covered by sediments, or destroyed by plate tectonics. Over the history of our planet it’s possible that we’ve had our bell rung by at least a dozen major impacts – every few hundred million years or so. Given that complex multicellular life has only been around for 500-600 million years most of these impacts would be invisible in the fossil record, but every one of them would have been catastrophic to life all over our planet – any of them would have been fatal to our civilization and would have pushed humanity to (maybe even past) the brink of extinction. And remember – it doesn’t take a dinosaur-killing strike to end our civilization – something far smaller is more than sufficient to put an end to our current technological civilization. Considering all of this, it might not be a bad idea to have some contingency plans.

Believe it or not there’s been a fair amount of work on this topic – watching the 1993 impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 leave Earth-sized bruises on the face of Jupiter convinced scientists that cosmic impacts can still play an important role in today’s Solar System. That led to Congress tasking NASA with locating all of the largest asteroids that have a chance of hitting Earth – to date the American programs have located over 2400 near-Earth asteroids, many of them large enough to pose a serious threat to our civilization.

Locating threats is a good first step but it would be nice to be able to do something other than passively watch an asteroid all the way to a collision – it would be nice to be able to deflect it somehow. Over the years there have been a number of suggestions, including gravitational tractors (parking a massive spacecraft nearby to let the gravity of the spacecraft tug the asteroid out of a collision course), using a giant mirror to heat one side of the asteroid to help divert it, and even coating half the asteroid with reflective materials to let the very slight pressure of reflected light push an asteroid out of our path. But the more dramatic methods – usually involving rocket motors or nuclear explosives – have pretty much been relegated to the realm of science fiction.

Part of the reason for this is that rockets and explosions are pretty dramatic and high-impact events – not only are they hard to get into position to use, but they are also just as likely to break an asteroid into pieces as to push it off course. This would seem to be OK – but in actuality, getting hit with three 2-mile diameter rocks is about as bad (maybe even worse) as being hit with a single 4-mile object. Unless whatever we were to do were to break the incoming object into pieces small enough to break up or burn up while passing through the atmosphere we might end up making things worse. Nevertheless, the concept of using nuclear weapons to help divert an incoming asteroid remains under consideration. In general, the further out we can predict a collision the more time we have to avoid trouble – and the gentler the methods we can use. But if we don’t see something until the last minute – a few years before collision – we might have to resort to more violent methods. This is where nuclear weapons might play a role, and according to a recent story in the Global Security Newswire, both Russian and American scientists are interested in using their skills to help develop weapons that might help to save our bacon.

So here’s the question – actually one of many – are nuclear weapons designers and the governments who employ them really interested in saving the planet, or are they just looking for a pretext to keep working on (and maybe testing) new and improved weapons? And a follow-on question – there’s a very real risk of a catastrophic collision in the next hundred million years, but a very small risk in the next century; do we face a greater risk from a possible asteroid collision or from developing and testing a new generation of nuclear explosives ostensibly aimed at averting such a collision?

I don’t have an answer to that one, but society needs to decide. If we, as a society, decides that the risk of a civilization-ending asteroid strike is sufficiently high that we need to have plans, backup plans, and an ultimate backup then we will need to not only design, but also to test new nuclear weapons that might someday save humanity – and we’ll also have to trust the governments and the scientists who design and test these devices that they will only be used for that purpose. If we don’t feel we can make this leap of faith then perhaps we ought to beef up our efforts to locate and track everything that poses a risk so that we don’t need to fall back on a last-ditch and last-minute effort to blow something out of our sky.

Personally, I think it makes sense to hedge our bets. There are only a few nations that have proven themselves capable of developing an asteroid-moving nuclear weapon and all of these nations have shown themselves able to resist the temptation to use these weapons in tense situations. I’d like to think that these nations will continue to show this level of restraint. And I also have to say that, to me, there is a certain symmetry in the thought that the weapons we thought might destroy civilization and launch a nuclear winter might one day be used to save the world.

The post Defending the Earth appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.