Global Risk

Changing the Nuclear Posture: moving smartly without leaping

03.02.10 | 6 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

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.