Nuclear Weapons

Speaking at the CSIS Global Security Forum

05.13.10 | 8 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen

Clark Murdock and John Warden with the Center for Strategic and International Studies invited me to speak today at their Global Security Forum. My co-panelists were General Larry Welch (USAF, ret.) and Morton Halperin.

The question posed to us was whether the United States should, in a proliferated world, continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy. There were different views on how much and for what reasons the role could be reduced, but at least no one could envision a need to increase the role.

CSIS will probably make the video available online soon, but in the meantime here are my prepared remarks:

Options for Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons

By Hans M. Kristensen
Federation of American Scientists
Presented at the CSIS Global Security Forum
May 13, 2010
The question for this panel is whether the United States should, in a proliferated world, continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy?

The answer to that question is, I think, clearly yes. But it obviously depends on how and how much. So here I want to discuss two areas where I think reductions can happen.

The first is the reach of the nuclear mission; what kinds of potential adversaries need to be covered by the nuclear mission? The question for the panel suggests that the role of U.S. nuclear weapons depends on how many countries have WMD. In other words, if a proliferator develops WMD then U.S. nuclear weapons almost automatically would have to be aimed at it.

We see this logic in some of the Obama administration’s first major documents, including the Ballistic Missile Defense Review: “Against nuclear-armed states, regional deterrence will necessarily include a nuclear component….”

Why “necessarily?”

President Obama’s Prague speech also contained some of that nuclear logic: “As long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary….”

I assume we only need a nuclear option against those adversaries that are necessary to deter with nuclear weapons. Does the Prague language mean, for example, that if North Korea were the last nuclear adversary in the world, the United States must have at least one nuclear weapon as well?

I think it is important that the United States does not have a domino policy based on the nuclear logic that if a potential adversary has nuclear weapons then there must be a nuclear option against it.

The role ought not to depend on whether someone has WMD, but to what extent the threat of nuclear retaliation is necessary against that particular adversary or can be done by other means.

So far the United States has not ventured very far down the path of reducing the role of nuclear weapons. It’s different than during the Cold War, but not that different.

The Nuclear Posture Review changes somewhat the declaratory policy, but once I look at how the new language changes what the war planners have to do and how many and what kind of adversaries are left in the nuclear crosshairs, I don’t see much reduction yet.

The Negative Security Assurance is abbreviated and made more explicitly conditional on compliance with nuclear non-proliferation obligations, but this doesn’t appear to affect nuclear planning against the adversaries currently in the war plan.

Russia and China are not affected and planning appears to continue largely as before, only with fewer deployed strategic warheads.

North Korea and Iran are explicitly exempt from the change because they are either outside the NPT or not in compliance with it.

Syria also appears to fall outside the restrictions because of what appears to be clandestine nuclear work, but the administration has been less explicit about Syria.

Non-state actors, acting alone or in collaboration with a nuclear weapon state, appear to be subject to some limited planning, but the new language does not appear to constrain this scenario either.

The nuclear role against non-nuclear weapons has already been “significantly reduced,” the NPR states, thanks to improvements in conventional capabilities, missile defense, and capabilities to counter and mitigate the effects of chemical and biological weapons.

But at the same time, the NPR states that countries not covered by the negative security assurance – countries that possess nuclear weapons and countries not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations – are still subject to “a narrow range of contingencies” in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional, chemical, or biological attack.

The NPR does predict that at some point in the future, the United States might adopt a “sole purpose” policy. But such a potential change appears to depend on acquisition and deployment of additional conventional weapons, missile defenses, and counter WMD capabilities in what is called a new, tailored, regional deterrence architecture.

So with not a whole lot of reduction in the role yet, the NPR comes across more as a “Keep Hope Alive” review that leaves the option open for a possible future reduction in the role of nuclear weapons.

In defining that role, we have to be careful that we don’t talk to ourselves but think clearly about how our declaratory policy and posture are interpreted by our adversaries and allies. Not least to avoid creating the wrong impressions, as I experienced the other day in New York at the NPT review conference where I learned that some Brazilian lawmakers worried that the rewritten negative security assurance meant that Brazil is now in the nuclear crosshairs because some of their uranium facilities are outside IAEA safeguards.

A decision to develop a nuclear option against a particular adversary must depend on much more than whether that adversary has WMD. It requires a careful assessment of whether a nuclear option is strictly necessary and what the net benefit of holding the nuclear sword over a regional adversary is to U.S. national security interests.

It must at the least require a determination that the United States cannot sufficiently threaten the adversary with conventional weapons to deter an attack.

It must also involve an assessment of what the adversary’s capabilities actually are. Does it have the capability to destroy the United States or its allies, or significantly impede our military capabilities? Take North Korea, for example, with two nuclear tests but little to show in terms of deliverable nuclear weapons, does that require a nuclear option?

We must also carefully examine whether threatening nuclear use against an adversary will assist U.S. interests in the region. There might very well be scenarios where it is in the U.S. national interest not to put a regional proliferator in the nuclear crosshairs if doing so is likely to stiffen the adversary’s determination to proliferate or build up its arsenal.

In the case of regional adversaries, I don’t find the nuclear option very useful and think we would be much better off using conventional options to the extent military threats are necessary. We certainly don’t need to draw up intrinsic nuclear strike plans against regional adversaries to make the point of deterrence, and flagging the nuclear option in peacetime has few real benefits.

Take Iran, for example. What does a nuclear option give us? Why is the nuclear option necessary to deter Iranian use of WMD to an extent that conventional forces cannot do? I assume it is the rubble that deters, not whether it glows in the dark. What is the evidence that holding the nuclear sword over Iran gives us anything other than excuses that the Iranian leadership can use in public to portray the United States as the aggressor and justify its own programs? And even if Iran did attack with WMD and we retaliated with nuclear weapons, our overwhelming conventional forces could very well mean that any nuclear strike would be condemned as overkill and unnecessary.

My recommendation is to focus the nuclear mission, almost exclusively, on the large nuclear adversaries: Russia and China.


This brings me to the second area where I think a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons is possible: how we plan. Scholars and planners are fund of saying that we must target what an adversary values the most. But that certainly depends. Iran values mosques very much, but that doesn’t mean we target them.  What is it necessary to target to deter sufficiently?

The current strategic war plan, OPLAN 8010, is said to incorporate more elements of national power than nuclear weapons compared with previous plans. The attack structure has been changed to enable less reliance on deployment of large number of nuclear warheads.

But the plan is still focused on force-on-force scenarios and holding weapons and facilities at risk across broad categories of targets: military forces, WMD infrastructure, military and national leadership, and war supporting infrastructure. Although modified, this is surprisingly similar to how we planned during the Cold War. Russia and China are the clear focus, but executable strike options against regional proliferators were added to the plan in 2003.

The Major Attack Options that used to dominate the Cold War SIOP war plan are gone, but for each of the six adversaries in the plan, a range of strike options have been drawn up to provide the National Command Authority with responses varying in size and objectives based on the circumstances.  The nuclear options consist of Emergency Response Options (ERO), Selective Attack Options (SAO), Basic Attack Options (BAO), and Directed/Adaptive Planning Capability (DPO/APO) options.  The size of the options range from hundreds of warheads in preplanned options that take months to modify to a few warheads in adaptive options for crisis scenarios that can be drawn up or changed within a few hours.

This is option-hungry nuclear planning. Why does nuclear deterrence today still depend on planning such a wide range of options against such a wide range of targets in such a wide range of countries?

I don’t think it has to be that way, and I think we need to explore how to transition out of the highly dynamic nuclear counterforce warfighting posture to a pure secure retaliatory capability. Nuclear deterrence in the 21st century will not be about winning nuclear wars by depleting warfighting assets but about ensuring sufficient retaliatory capability to deter nuclear attack in the first place. That retaliation capability cannot be threatened by anything else but a large Russian nuclear attack.  So how quickly and how far it is possible to move down this path obviously depends to some extent on changes in Russia’s nuclear posture.

Moving away from a dynamic counterforce posture would challenged us to reexamine many of the core elements of the current planning and strategy, ranging from amputating one or more legs of the Triad, adjusting and ending the practice of having forces on alert, and removing one or more target categories from the strategic war plan. The need to challenge excessive planning assumptions is not just a political issue but also a practical necessity: A bomber squadron focused on the nuclear mission is a squadron unavailable for conventional missions. And an $80 billion plus new SSBN program forces us to think in new ways about the nuclear posture.

A reduced nuclear mission would still ensure that the United States could retaliate against a nuclear attack and continue to provide a nuclear umbrella over allies, but at the same time end the dynamic planning that continues to characterize the nuclear posture.  Without such changes I find it hard to see how the United States and Russia can significantly reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons and move convincingly toward deep cuts and eventually, perhaps, even nuclear disarmament.

Thank you.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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