Nuclear Weapons

Ending Nuclear Counterforce

04.13.09 | 6 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Last Wednesday, 8 April, the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) jointly released FAS Occasional Paper Number 7, From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence — A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons.  As part of the release, my coauthors, Stan Norris of NRDC and Hans Kristensen of FAS, and I held a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment, where each of us presented results of our research that is covered in the paper.  This essay summarizes my comments on that panel.

There are three things we describe in this paper.  First, we are proposing a new set of military missions for nuclear weapons—actually the “set” is just one mission, second, we are describing what that mission would look like, and, third, we are describing one way to actually get that single mission properly implemented.

There is much talk these days about reducing numbers of nuclear weapons, and numbers are bandied about, fifteen hundred, or a thousand, or six hundred.  There can be a factor of two or more between deployed and total warheads and some discussion distinguishes between the two.  When the United States and the Russians obviously have more nuclear weapons than they need, just cutting gross numbers makes sense.  But those of us advocating cuts in the United States are already starting to see that we are getting pushback from the military as numbers approach one thousand.  The military argues that they cannot go to lower numbers because, if they do, they will not be able to fulfill their missions.  And they are right.  They can’t.  If we want the United States to get to lower numbers, to get close to a thousand and to go below, we have to not just talk about reducing the numbers of weapons but to strip away the missions for nuclear weapons.

What we are proposing here is not particularly novel, we are proposing that the missions for nuclear weapons be reduced to one:  to survive a nuclear attack and retaliate, to deter that nuclear attack in the first place.  That should be the only mission.  What is new in our report is that we have gone into considerable detail to describe exactly what that means and what it requires.  And, perhaps even more important, what it does not require.

I will not get into a long discussion of deterrence here;  I have discussed that elsewhere and in our current report but, briefly, it is important to point out that nuclear weapons are always described as being for deterrence.  In fact, one could define “deterrence” as whatever it is that nuclear weapons do.  We even call our nuclear weapons the “sea based deterrent” or the “land-based deterrent.”  What we are describing in our report are the consequences of actually restricting their use only to deter nuclear use.

The report describes not only what the mission for nuclear weapons ought to be but also discusses explicitly what missions have to be given up, and what that means.  We sometimes tend to think that the missions for nuclear weapons come about naturally because of their unique and extreme nature.  But the missions for nuclear weapons do not automatically follow from the laws of physics.  We should keep in mind the majority of the missions historically held by nuclear weapons have gone away.  We have a debate going on in the United States about missile defense but no one is talking about missile defense as a nuclear mission, but it used to be.  Sea control was a nuclear mission, as were antisubmarine warfare, antitank attack, and air defense.  These were all once nuclear missions that are no longer assigned to nuclear weapons because of superior conventional alternatives.

While the language we use, our euphemisms, fools us into thinking that nuclear weapons are already restricted to this thing called deterrence, whatever that is, that was not true during the Cold War and it is not true today.  The one mission that today drives nuclear numbers, the day-to-day deployment of nuclear weapons, and the so-called “requirements” for nuclear weapons, such as yield, responsiveness, reliability, flight time, and all the other demanding performance characteristics, is the counterforce mission, that is, the ability to attack and destroy on the ground enemy (and that mainly, but not entirely, means Russian) nuclear weapons.  During the Bush administration the list of targets expanded to include other non-nuclear targets in non-nuclear countries.  It is this ability, to carry out a surprise, disarming first strike on short notice, that is the most demanding mission for nuclear weapons and sets the most stringent requirements for the arsenal.

One of our recommendations is to specifically, and explicitly abandon the counterforce mission.  It is worthwhile to think through the consequences of giving up that mission because I think that will be one of the highest political hurdles.  We can imagine that, during some future crisis, perhaps even a conventional war with Russia, the Russians are about to use their central nuclear forces to somehow affect the outcome of the crisis.  Perhaps the Russians would hope to shock the United States by attacking an American city.  The United States is now keeping the option of attacking first, to try to destroy as much of the Russian forces on the ground as possible to reduce the damage that they could inflict on Americans.  What our report argues is that we should abandon that mission.  Superficially, this seems not to make sense.  Why should we remove that option from the president?  How can it be advantageous to unilaterally give up the capability to perhaps save millions of American lives?

Giving up this capability will, however, improve the security of the United States, for three reasons.  First, the circumstances under which the president will use this capability are extremely unlikely.  The consequences of even a blunted Russian nuclear attack will be, by far, the greatest disaster in American history.  So the president will have to make a choice between the certainty of having a nuclear war—certain because he would start it—and the potential risk of being attacked first by the Russians.  We believe that the combination of, on the one hand, the high confidence in the military intelligence needed to know with certainty that the Russians are going to attack combined with, on the other hand, the utter lack of confidence in whatever other military and diplomatic options remain, will be so rare that the president is unlikely to ever use the capability.

Even so, if the benefits could be potentially huge, then even if they are very unlikely, there perhaps is some overall advantage.  But benefits always have to be compared to costs.  And there are costs.  Countering this latent, potential, hypothetical benefit, the United States and the world run risks every day.  The Russians, and the Chinese, know that their forces are vulnerable.  The Russians can try to counter this with tactical measures, such as launching on warning of a U.S. attack, which substantially increases the likelihood of launching upon a false alarm.  They might also predelegate launch authority to lower levels of authority during a crisis.  And US capability affects their forces structures.  U.S. military and intelligence leaders have stated in Congressional testimony that they believe a major motivation for Chinese modernization and their moving to mobile systems is their sense of vulnerability to U.S. first strike.  If the Russians believe they need X weapons for an effective deterrent and believe that a U.S. first strike will be, say, 90% effective, then they need to start with 10 times X weapons to have the deterrent force survive that they think they need.  So every day, by maintaining this capability that will probably never be used, creates new dangers that go on, day-by-day and, now, decade-after-decade.  Finally, now that negotiations with the Russians are back on the table, it will far easier to negotiate limits on Russian weapons if the United States gives up the ability to carry out a first strike.  If the Russians think they need X weapons as a deterrent force and have 10 times X because United States is targeting them, then giving up the ability to target the weapons and getting a 90% negotiated reduction in Russian weapons clearly works to the U.S. security advantage.  By giving up a first strike capability the United States will increase the likelihood that it can negotiate down to a level that it would have otherwise hoped to get to through a first strike.

Opponents of reducing nuclear missions will claim that the United States is unilaterally making itself vulnerable thus making this one of the most difficult steps to sell politically.  We try to forcefully answer those objections in the report and show how a move to a minimal deterrent doctrine will make the United States and the world safer.