Nuclear Weapons

Entrenched Views of the Defense Science Board

12.15.06 | 6 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Hans Kristensen has just posted an excellent analysis of the new Defense Science Board (DSB) report Nuclear Capabilities. The report presents what is known to the military as a “target rich environment” so we might make a few more comments over the next couple of days.

I want to focus here on the section, starting on p. 2, entitled “Some Entrenched Views on Nuclear Capabilities.” I will leave to the reader the analysis of the word “entrenched.” This section of the DSB report sets up some straw men and then knocks them down. But the straw is a bit tougher than they think.

The authors start by pointing out that “Contrary to expectation, as the Cold War wound down, nuclear issues have become more, not less, complex as the nation moved from the dangerous, but slowly evolving, set of challenges characterizing the Cold War to the more complex, rapidly changing, and still dangerous, challenges in this century.” Statements like this are often made and repeated and they reflect a breathtaking amnesia about the Cold War. During the height of the Cold War Minuteman deployment, we were bringing a new silo online every day. Can the authors forget the sense of urgency, even emergency, in getting strategic nuclear submarines out to sea, the development of US and Soviet defensive missile systems, the deployment of short and intermediate range nuclear missiles and cruise missiles in Europe, the frightening uncertainty created by mobile Soviet systems, and the relentless, unending buildup of Soviet nuclear warhead numbers up until the last days of the Cold War? The august membership of this particular Defense Science Board has experience stretching well back into the Cold War but they seem to have forgotten it. What, exactly, are the “…more complex, rapidly changing, and still dangerous, challenges in this century” in a nuclear context? Almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, North Korea tested a nuclear explosive, Iran is trying to develop nuclear materials capability, and India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons. None of these developments is welcome, but to describe today’s nuclear world as “rapidly changing” in comparison to the Cold War is simply nonsensical.

The first “view” they counter is that “Lower numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons are preferable regardless of the starting point, with zero as the ultimate goal.” They counter this view with “The objective for U.S. nuclear capabilities should be to ensure that the U.S. capability is a powerful force for peace. ….. Filling that role in the post-Cold War era requires credible, sustainable capabilities that include reliable, safe, and secure nuclear weapons.” Even if this were true, which I do not believe, the requirement does not mean we need anything near the numbers of weapons the authors have in mind and discuss later in the report. (The report does not include many numbers but the graphs make clear that only minor reductions in current arsenals are desired.) In the post Cold War world, the size of our nuclear deterrent forces should be tied to the size of the stakes involved in any conflict that we are trying to deter. By that standard, I would rewrite the second sentence in the quote above to read “…Filling that role in the post-Cold War era requires credible, sustainable capabilities that include twenty reliable, safe, and secure nuclear weapons.” Is there anything that the report has said thus far that proves that version wrong? Attacking an extreme position to discredit all intermediate positions is a good rhetorical ploy but arguments against zero are not arguments for large numbers. Moreover, under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty the United States has actually committed to zero, although no one can say when that will happen and apparently no one in the United States government any longer takes this commitment the least bit seriously.

The second view is that U.S. nuclear programs induce other nations to seek nuclear weapons and solutions. They counter this with two contradictory responses, first that our nuclear programs have little effect on other nations because they are going to build nuclear weapons whether we do or not and, second, if we do not maintain a robust nuclear program, it might encourage other countries to pursue nuclear weapons. Hmmm.

The third view is “Non-proliferation is a more important value than nuclear deterrence in a post-Cold War era.” The report responds that “The holders of this view assume they can predict the intentions of sovereign nations into the distant future with confidence. So long as there remains, in the hands of other than a completely reliable and trustworthy friend, WMD capable of inflicting intolerable levels of destruction on the United States or its allies, the assured ability to deter such an act remains the first priority in meeting the fundamental first responsibility of a democratic government…”

Their counterargument is a logical muddle often presented by nuclear advocates. First, the view does not assume any ability to predict anything into the far future. Nuclear advocates treat nuclear weapons as though they are some lost art of medieval stain glass manufacture. They argue that we might need nuclear weapons in a hundred years and we won’t be able to build them unless we are building them every year from now until then, therefore we need to be constantly building nuclear weapons every day for the next hundred years, starting today. But we went from nothing to a nuclear bomb in two years in the early 1940s using slide rules. The idea that somehow we will loose the “art” of building nuclear weapons is absurd. The idea that the United States, with the world’s most sophisticated, complex, versatile, responsive economy will somehow be unable to keep up with events in, say, Russia, is even more absurd. Indeed, it is nuclear advocates who keep reminding us that nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented,” except, apparently, in the DOE weapons complex, where they are forgetful.

But the greater problem with the rebuttal is the muddle about deterrence. Deterrence is such a part of nuclear thinking that “deterrence” is, by definition, what nuclear weapons do. We have become confused by our own convoluted language. In discussions of nuclear missions, “deterrence” often becomes, in part, a euphemism for blowing things up and killing people. The other side of the problem is that nuclear advocates seem to present the problem as though only nuclear weapons can deter. If North Korea used a nuclear weapon against the United States, U.S. forces, or against South Korea or Japan, I am confident that we would not allow the regime to stand. The United States would invade and occupy North Korea. We might or might not use nuclear weapons but that is really beside the point as far as deterrence is concerned. So not only can we restrict nuclear weapons to deterring nuclear attack, we don’t definitely need in all cases to deter even nuclear attack with nuclear weapons.

The fourth view is “Nuclear weapons should deter only nuclear threats.” The authors respond that, “Deterring nuclear threats is, by itself, an adequate reason to sustain a credible nuclear deterrent. But, there is a convincing case that, in the modern world of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) proliferation, U.S. nuclear deterrent capabilities have a broader purpose.” All I ask is that they explain to me how this threat is going to be deterred and then how many nuclear weapons it will take. If North Korea used chemical weapons, I agree that would be an intolerable aggression that we would have to respond to. Now, explain why we need the four to six thousand multi-hundred kiloton weapons, with two thousand of them on ready alert, that we will have under SORT to deter that North Korean chemical attack.