Nuclear Weapons

Strategic Failure: Congressional Strategic Posture Commission Report

05.06.09 | 10 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
The final report from the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission seems focused on hedging rather than leading.

By Ivan Oelrich and Hans M. Kristensen

The Congressional Strategic Posture Commission report published today is definitely not the place that the President or the nation should look for new ideas on how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and lead the world toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

Even for a compromise document written by a diverse group, it is a work of deeply disappointing failure of imagination.  The recommendations can be summarized as:  the nuclear world should stay pretty much the way it is but at slightly lower force levels, incrementalism is the most we can hope for, and even that should be approached very cautiously.

The report comes close to dismissing the President’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons – and the enthusiastic support it has generated worldwide – as a utopian dream:  “The conditions that might make the elimination of nuclear weapons possible are not present today and establishing such conditions would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  The United States should retain a viable nuclear deterrence “indefinitely.”  The Commission surrenders to the nuclear problems of the world rather than recommending a proactive way forward out of the mess.

Of course, the Commission is not opposed to nuclear reductions per se and supports them under certain conditions, but it recommends that the approach “balances deterrence, arms control, and non-proliferation.  Singular emphasis on one or another element,” the report says, apparently hinting at disarmament, “would reduce the nuclear security of the United States and its allies.”

If the Commission’s report is any preview of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, we should expect minimal changes in nuclear forces, structure, or mission.  The report recommends a nuclear policy of “leading and hedging” but seems to be focused on hedging.

The Nuclear Mission and Deterrence

While President Obama believes the United States should “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same,” the Commission offers little support for this approach or analysis of what it would mean.

Indeed, while the report concludes that, “…as long as other nations have nuclear weapons, the U.S. must continue to safeguard its security by maintaining an appropriately effective nuclear deterrent force,” the Commission fails to ask fundamental questions about what nuclear weapons are for and what their character should be.  This is probably because there was no consensus on these matters, but better to ask the question and admit they have no answer than to simply state over and over again that nuclear weapons are for “deterrence.” Since some will believe that “appropriately effective” is two thousand nuclear weapons and others think it will be twenty, what does the statement mean?

But it is also an assertion that should be, but is not, challenged.  Does this really mean that if North Korea has one nuclear bomb, intended to counter our overwhelming conventional capability, we need to have nuclear weapons to counter it?  That may be true but it is certainly not clear to us and should not be asserted as though it needs no explanation.  Elsewhere the report says the United States faces decisions about how to reduce “nuclear weapons to the absolute minimum.”  Again, two honest people could agree on this goal and differ by a factor of a hundred or a thousand on what an “absolute minimum” is.  When the United States had 32,000 nuclear weapons, that was also considered the “absolute minimum” needed for national security.

Without examination of the mission of nuclear weapons, how can we say what their characteristics should be?  Even if nuclear weapons are for deterrence, how do they deter?  What are their targets?  How should those targets be attacked?  If we do not answer, or even ask, those questions, how can we say that we need high levels of reliability?  How can we say we need land-based missiles that can be launched on a moment’s notice?  How can we say we need a vast nuclear weapons complex to design complex two-stage thermonuclear weapons with hundreds of kilotons of yield?  There are other examples as well, about reliability, safety, and so on, that presume missions for nuclear weapons that simply should not be presumed.

The Commission acknowledges that it is difficult to replicate the “relatively simple” deterrence calculus of the Cold War, determined by the damage inflicted, in today’s much more complex and fluid security environment.  Even so, the report states, the United States still “needs a spectrum of nuclear and non-nuclear force employment options and flexibility in planning along with the traditional requirements for forces that are sufficiently lethal and certain of their result to threaten an appropriate array of targets credibly.” The justification for this sweeping conclusion about capabilities is that “the security environment has grown more complex and fluid.”

As with so many discussions of nuclear weapons, the use of the term “deterrence” in particular is confused and the logic self-referencial.   Throughout the report, in too many places to cite, are repeated explicit declarations that nuclear weapons are for deterrence.  The report frequently makes the mistake of talking about nuclear weapons and deterrence and then slipping into the error of assuming that deterrence must be nuclear deterrence, or the report makes true statements about deterrence but then implies that the deterrence must be effected with nuclear weapons.  It repeatedly refers to our nuclear forces as our “deterrent” or our “deterrent forces” as though they were the same thing.  Nuclear weapon designers are maintaining their “deterrent skills.”

In describing the role of deterrence, the Commission glosses over many important developments that have shaped U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, and doctrine over the years.  “In a basic sense, the principal function of nuclear weapons has not changed in decades: deterrence. The United States has these weapons in order to create the conditions in which they are never used,” the report declares.  Yet we recall hugely important developments ranging from Mutual Assured Destruction, flexible response, adaptive planning, Global Strike, and preemptive strike options, all of which changed the policies and conditions under which the weapons might be used. The report’s more accurate statement would be: “Presidents have not changed their reluctance in decades to authorize use of nuclear weapons.”

Likewise, the report does not describe the important development after the end of the Cold War, where U.S. nuclear targeting policy expanded from Russia and China and their satellite states to deterring all forms of weapons of mass destruction use by six individual countries today (some of which do not have nuclear weapons).

Non-Use and First Strike

One of the most important conclusions in the Commission report is that the “tradition of non-use serves U.S. interests and should be reinforced by U.S. policy and capabilities.”  But what that implies for policies and capabilities is not explained.

Even so, the Commission concludes that not only must U.S. nuclear forces be able to retaliate against an attack, “the United States must also design its strategic forces with the objective of being able to limit damage from an attacker if a war begins.” Such damage-limitation capabilities “are important because of the possibility of accidental or unauthorized launches by a state or attacks by terrorists,” and can be achieved “not only by active defenses, such as missile defenses, “but also by the ability to attack forces that might yet be launched against the United States or its allies.”

Such first strike planning might be relevant with conventional forces against rogue states and terrorists, but first strike planning of course can also be used against other nuclear weapon states as it was during the Cold War against the Soviet Union and China. For the Commission to advocate such a mission for nuclear forces today, however, is deeply troubling because it is a primary reason why Russia insists it must have large numbers of nuclear weapons on alert – a dangerous posture that is a direct threat to the interest of the United States or its allies.

Extended deterrence

The Commission report echoes many of the points raised in the Schlesinger report from December last year about extended deterrence and views expressed by officials from some allies about the importance and mission of nuclear weapons.  The good news is that the Commission report makes clear that those allies are not all of the same mind concerning the requirements for extended deterrence and assurance, and that substantive and high-level consultations are needed.

But the Commission does not explain the different capabilities that contribute to extended deterrence, but instead equates “extended deterrence” with nuclear weapons and implicitly non-strategic nuclear weapons.  This after NATO for almost two decades has insisted that the U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have no military – only a political – role.

The Commission reports that “some allies located near Russia” are saying that “U.S. non-strategic forces in Europe are essential to prevent nuclear coercion by Moscow and indeed that modernized U.S./NATO forces are essential for restoring a sense of balance in the face of Russia’s nuclear renewal.”  Yet the Commission does not say that the German foreign minister has called publicly for the withdrawal of the U.S. weapons from Europe, the Belgian Senate has unanimously called for the same, and that the overwhelming majority of Europeans want the weapons to go.

Worst-case analysis is to reference only what is a concern, but that is not the full picture.

The Influence of Russia

After nearly two decades of the Clinton and Bush administrations insisting that Russia is not an adversary and not an immediate contingency for setting U.S. nuclear force levels, the Commission at least admits that Russia largely is what drives U.S. nuclear posturing, saying, “The sizing of U.S. forces remains overwhelmingly driven by the requirements of essential equivalence and strategic stability with Russia.”

In doing so, combined with numerous other references to Russia throughout the report, the Commission essentially reinstates Russia as a central pillar in U.S. nuclear posture planning.  The report seems to accept that we are locked in an arms race with Russia and it is surprisingly cautious about how to free ourselves from it.  It even concludes that, “the United States should not abandon strategic equivalency with Russia,” because overall equivalence is important to many allies in Europe, and that the “The United States should not cede to Russia a posture of superiority in the name of deemphasizing nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy.”

While the commission says there is no risk of such an imbalance emerging in strategic weapons in the near-term, the situation is different with non-strategic weapons.  The Commission doesn’t know how many Russia has and it can’t say how many the United States has, but while acknowledging that strict U.S.-Russian equivalence in non-strategic force numbers is unnecessary the Commission concludes that the current imbalance is stark and will become apparent as strategic weapons are reduced. This, the report correctly concludes, “points to the urgency of an arms control approach” involving non-strategic weapons.

Overall, the Commission concludes, the United States should “retain enough capacity, whether in its existing delivery systems and supply of reserve warheads or in its infrastructure, to impress upon Russian leaders the impossibility of gaining a position of nuclear supremacy over the United States by breaking out of an arms control agreement.”

Rising China

China looms in the background in many places of the report, reflecting uneasiness among the Commission members about the direction China is taking.  But how that direction relates to the U.S. nuclear posture is not analyzed well.  Even so, the Commission concludes, in addition to being able to deal with Russian and regional scenarios, the United States “should also retain a large enough force of nuclear weapons that China is not tempted to try to reach a posture of strategic equivalency with the United States or of strategic supremacy in the Asian theater.”

Curiously, the Commission is so concerned about China’s potential nuclear capacity that it urges that Russia – which it is otherwise concerned about – not reduce its nuclear forces too much.  This is a mild reversed version of the Reagan administration’s policy that sought China as a nuclear deterrence partner against the Soviet Union.


Based on all of these assumptions (and many more we don’t have room to mention here), the Commission lands on a conclusion that the United States should retain the Cold War nuclear force structure of the Triad.  All three legs have unique characteristics that are all needed, the Commission concludes, and because two will be left if one fails, and because “resilience and flexibility of the triad have proven valuable as the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons has declined.”

Yet the Commission could not come up with a specific force structure or a specific number for the correct size of the U.S. nuclear force, even though it was asked to do so by Congress.  The issue is too complex, the authors concluded, and really should be left to deal with by the President in consultation with the military.

The United States should reduce nuclear forces only in bi-lateral negotiations with Russia (and others later), but not pursue unilateral reductions except in reserve warheads — and only if the nuclear warhead production capacity is increased.


In conclusion we were greatly disappointed with the Commission’s report because we see it preoccupied with hedging and failing to offer the leading that is necessary to change status quo.

Indeed, the report seems strangely detached from the President’s vision and the widespread support it and the “gang of four” op-eds have received worldwide.

It would be ironic if the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review ends up recommending bigger changes than the Commission. That shouldn’t be hard.

The task at hand is how to challenge the role of nuclear weapons, we agree with the President, not perpetuate it.