Nuclear Weapons

Not Getting It Right: More Bad Reasons to Have Nuclear Weapons

07.09.09 | 10 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

A recently released report, U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century:  Getting It Right, by the ad hoc New Deterrent Working Group with a forward by James Woolsey, is an interesting document.  I believe this report is significant because it might typify the arguments that will be used against arms control treaties in the upcoming Senate debates.

Much of what is written in support of existing nuclear policies is such a logical muddle that one hardly knows where to start in a critique.  As a statement of the pro-nuclear position, this paper is clearer than most so worth addressing.  It makes the errors that others do when arguing for nuclear weapons, specifically, making statements about the “requirements” for nuclear weapons that imply missions left over from the Cold War, but the report is particularly blunt in its demands and might serve as a good example of the pro-nuclear arguments.  The report is almost seventy pages long, so I can’t touch on every point in a blog and I think I will leave the arguments about nuclear testing for a separate blog to follow.

The report starts out with one fundamental mistake contained in almost every discussion on nuclear weapons:  It conflates nuclear weapons with deterrence.  Nuclear weapons are so thoroughly equated with deterrence—they are often simply called “the deterrent” —that we seldom stop to think about the details of how this deterrent is supposed to work.  What is being deterred, whom, how, for what purpose?  If we do not know what nuclear weapons are for, what their missions are, what their targets are, then it is impossible to pin down what their performance characteristics ought to be.

Uncertainty, Reliability, and Safety

The report argues that we need nuclear weapons in part because the world and the future are very uncertain.  The report admits no one knows the answers to any of the questions above so the United States simply has to make certain that it has sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons with a variety of capabilities and hope for the best.  The problem with this approach is that planning for uncertainty is never finished;  we never reach an endpoint.  For example, the heading on p. 25, “U.S. nuclear weapons are deteriorating and do not include all possible safety and reliability options” is not only true but always will be true.  The “deteriorating” fear has been refuted:  parts in weapons age, and these parts are being replaced when needed so the weapons remain within design specifications.  This is not cheap or simple but neither is it impossible and can continue for decades.  But admittedly, nuclear weapons do not have “all possible safety and reliability options.”  There are, no doubt, “options” no one has even thought of yet.  So how much reliability and safety is enough?  When can we stop?

The answer depends on the missions for nuclear weapons.  If nuclear weapons had only the mission of retaliating against nuclear attack, to inflict sufficient pain to make such an attack seem pointless in the first place, then one could plausibly argue that 90% reliability is adequate.  If the United States needs to destroy, say, ten targets to inflict sufficient pain to deter, then which ten is not absolutely critical and it could fire at eleven targets and accept that one might escape.  Even if the United States wanted to use nuclear weapons to attack and destroy stocks of chemical and biological weapons, it could fire a nuclear weapon at the target and, if one in ten does not go off, it could fire off another bomb an hour later.  It is not as though we will not know whether a nuclear bomb actually went off, that will be pretty obvious.  If, on the other hand, the United States wants to conduct a surprise, disarming first strike against Russian central nuclear forces, destroying its missiles on the ground, then there is a huge difference whether the attack is 90%, 95%, or 99.9% successful.  If the Russians have a thousand warheads, that is the difference between 100, 50, or 1 surviving, obviously significant.  So, to say that nuclear warheads need a certain reliability, specifically a high reliability, is to imply certain missions.  But these are missions that nuclear advocates rarely want to acknowledge explicitly because they know what a hard sell it will be while “reliability” seems like an obvious, inarguable good quality to have.

What about safety?  Certainly we should have nuclear weapons that are as safe as possible and no effort should be spared to make them safer, right?  In fact, the Working Group does not agree.  The safest nuclear weapons are the ones that do not exist, so ultimate safety calls for nuclear abolition, an option explicitly rejected by the Working Group.  If we are going to have actual nuclear weapons, they could be made safer by storing them disassembled.  If we need assembled warheads, they could be made safer by removing them from their missiles.  Warheads on missiles could be made safer by taking the missiles off alert.  All of these options are explicitly rejected by the Working Group.  What the report really means when it says we should have “all possible” safety options is that we should fund the National Labs at high levels forever but not change deployments one iota in the interest of safety, hardly my definition of “all possible.”

How Much Is Enough?

The rest of the report makes claims that are unproven and often unprovable and sets requirements for nuclear weapons that sound as though the Cold War never ended.  I understand that even in a report of seventy pages not every statement can be fully analyzed and supported but, even so, there are a score of amazing claims for nuclear weapons that are supported mostly by lots of quotes.

The report makes the error of discussing the numbers of nuclear weapons in terms of reductions, specifically since the Cold War (p. 11).  All references to reductions imply the Cold War is a benchmark by which current arsenals are measured.  But the world has been turned on its head since then and comparison to Cold War numbers is neither relevant nor enlightening.  (The Navy also has fewer battleships than it did in World War II.  The point is?)

The report states (p. 11), “In a number of cases, a robust American nuclear arsenal has proven to be effective not only in deterring attacks on the United States and its allies from adversaries using weapons of mass destruction.”  This may be true but it is very hard to know.  Failures of deterrence are obvious but, if some action does not happen, then why did it not happen?  Was the action every really considered?  Was it considered but rejected for some other reason?  Or was it deterred?  Arguments about the effectiveness of deterrence are inevitably going to be speculative and based on absence of evidence.  As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out while Secretary of Defense, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  There is no doubt that deterrence is real in many cases, it really works in many cases, but it is very difficult to be certain when and where.  We should all (me included) be very cautious when making arguments about deterrence.  I believe that general discussions of deterrence almost always go off the rails.  When we talk about deterrence, we should at least try to use concrete examples for discussion.  In the case of nuclear weapons, going to some example, any example, almost always demonstrates that the arguments in favor of nuclear weapons are simply incredible.

The report states (p. 12), “In short, the available evidence suggests that an American nuclear deterrent that is either qualitatively or quantitatively insufficient will have the effect of encouraging the very proliferation of nuclear forces we seek to prevent.”  This might be tautologically true if the definition of “insufficient” is chosen to make it true.  But there is no “available evidence” for the simple reason that the “American nuclear deterrent” (note again how nuclear weapons are thoughtlessly referred to as the “deterrent”) has never been anywhere near “insufficient” since 1945.  So exactly when was this experiment conducted?  Later (p. 51) the reports states, “To the contrary, history has clearly shown that unilateral US reductions, far from causing a similar response, actually stimulate nuclear buildups by adversaries.”  What can they be talking about?  Russia, Britain, France, and China went nuclear while the U.S. arsenal was expanding or just plain huge.  The nuclear arsenal of the United States declined from its peak because of the retirement of thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons made obsolete by modern precision conventional alternatives.  Did South Africa, India, Israel, Pakistan, or North Korea really go nuclear because of “unilateral US reductions”?  These confident statements are based on a “history” of some parallel universe.

The report asserts that China has “its own extensive military modernization program.”  China, with a growing economy is naturally increasing its overall budget but its nuclear ambitions continue to appear quite restrained.  Hans Kristensen has written extensively on this.

Hydronuclear Alert

The report asserts that Russia is conducting hydronuclear tests, that is, nuclear weapon tests with very small nuclear yields, tests that the United States would consider in violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban.  This is a common claim from pro-nuclear people, based, apparently on highly classified reports that are repeated here in this unclassified document.  Some of the authors of the report have or had security clearances so any claim to the contrary is met with “if only you knew what I know.”  All I can say is that I have asked people who do know what the authors know and apparently the evidence is unclear, specifically, the United States does not have good enough detection capability to prove that the Russians are not conducting such tests.  If the Russians are conducting such tests, and the pro-nuclear lobby has already let the cat out of the bag, the intelligence community should present testimony in Congress confirming the tests.  As far as I know, they have not done so.  Even so, note that the fuss is about a treaty that the United States has not ratified.  Upon ratification, the United States and Russia (and perhaps China) could agree in parallel to place instruments at each other’s tests sites and resolve this ambiguity.

Nuclear Weapons Ready to Fly.

The report advocates, even assumes, an aggressive nuclear stance, with weapons constantly ready to go.  For example, (p. 15):  “Finally, the continued credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent precludes de-mating of warheads on operational systems or otherwise reducing the alert rates or alert status of U.S. forces.”  Again, we should apply this general statement to a few concrete examples.  First, by arguing against reducing alert rates they are endorsing current alert rates.  While the report objects to the term “hair trigger alert,’ U.S. nuclear weapons are, in fact, ready to launch on a few minutes’ notice.  At any given moment, many are deployed on submarines off the coast of China and Russia, atop missiles just a few minutes flight time from their targets.   Do they really mean that an enemy will not be deterred if these conditions are relaxed?  We have to imagine a scenario in which the leader of China, Russia, or maybe North Korea want to use nuclear weapons against the United States but, knowing that they will be hit back 40 minutes later are deterred.  Then their head of military intelligence comes in and reports that the American nuclear bombs won’t arrive until eight hours later, or perhaps the next day, or whatever, and as a result the enemy leader says, “Well, in that case, let’s attack.”  Perhaps someone else can think of a case in which this is plausible but I cannot.

Later (p. 59), the report does try to give some further justification for high alerts:  “They [nuclear weapons] must be known to be ready and useable to have deterrent effect. No START follow-on agreement can be deemed in the national security interest if it would require downgrading of that condition and, thereby, potentially leave the United States vulnerable to coercion based on the threat of second or third strikes before we could respond to an attack.”  This actually makes some sense but we have to think about what it really means.  It means keeping a constant counterforce attack capability.  The statement above says that, if Russia (in the context of START, we are talking about Russia) attacks the United States with nuclear weapons, the next act of the United States should be to attack all remaining Russian nuclear weapons so they can’t do any more damage.  That sounds plausible but let’s think this though.  The Russians can safely assume the Americans will be more than a little upset after a nuclear bomb has gone off.  The Russians will know that their vulnerable weapons could be attacked so they would either disperse their weapons to make them invulnerable or they would use them.  It might be that keeping a counterforce capability results in the Russians throwing everything they can throw at the United States in the first wave, actually increasing the damage to the United States in a contest that would otherwise have smaller stakes.  I have written elsewhere how high U.S. alert rates make reductions in nuclear forces more difficult for Russia.  Moreover, the report completely neglects the costs of high alert rates, not just the financial costs but the risks of accidental nuclear launch, either by the United States or Russia, and the danger of Russian mitigating tactics, and the loss of escalation control.  The authors fail to imagine that the United States and Russia might negotiate mutual force postures that include weapons off alert that are mutually invulnerable, creating a much more stable nuclear environment.  The authors seem to believe that a Cold War Lite is the only way the world can be.  They cannot see over the hill into the next valley.

The report makes a series of other remarkable and unsupportable claims, but I want to address those in a separate blog about nuclear testing.