Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Doctrine and Missing the Point.

01.08.10 | 7 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The government’s much anticipated Nuclear Posture Review, originally scheduled for release in the late fall, then last month, then early February is now due out the first of March.  The report is, no doubt, coalescing into final form and a few recent newspaper articles, in particular articles in Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, have hinted at what it will contain.

Before discussing the possible content of the review, does yet another release date delay mean anything?  I take the delay of the release as the only good sign that I have seen coming out of the process.  Reading the news, going to meetings where government officials involved in the process give periodic updates, and knowing something of the main players who are actually writing the review, what jumps out most vividly to me is that no one seems to share President Obama’s vision.  And I mean the word vision to have all the implied definition it can carry.  The people in charge may say some of the right words, but I have not yet discerned any sense of the emotional investment that should be part of a vision for transforming the world’s nuclear security environment, of how to make the world different, of how to escape old thinking.  As I understand the president, his vision is truly transformative.  That is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  His appointees who are developing the Nuclear Posture Review, at least the ones I know anything about, are incredibly smart and knowledgeable, but they are also careful, cautious, and, I suspect, incrementalists who might understand intellectually what the president is saying but don’t feel it (and, in many cases, fundamentally don’t really agree with it).  A transformative vision not driven by passion will die.  As far as I can see (and, I admit, I am not the least bit connected so perhaps I simply cannot see very far) the only person in the administration working on the review who really feels the president’s vision is the president.  Much of what I hear from appointees in the administration has, to me at least, the feel of “what the president really means is…”   If the cause of the delay is that yet more time is needed to find compromise among centers of power, reform is in trouble because we will see a nuclear posture statement that is what it is today neatened up around the edges.  But if the delay is because the president is not getting the visionary document he demands, delay might be the only hopeful sign we are getting.

Now, onto the possible content of the review:  The main question to be addressed by the review is what the nuclear doctrine and policy of the United States ought to be.  This has sparked a secondary debate about just how specific any declaration of policy should be and the value of declaratory policy at all.

Some hints coming out of the administration suggest that the new review may explicitly state that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons be specifically limited to countering enemy nuclear weapons, what we and others have called a “minimal deterrence” doctrine.  Currently, the United States claims that chemical and biological weapons may merit nuclear attack and that could go away with the current review.

Most reports leaking out from the review participants hint that the NPR almost certainly will not include a declaration that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.  The current U.S. policy is to intentionally maintain ambiguity about how and when we might use nuclear weapons, to keep the bad guys guessing.  The new review could keep that basic idea and still be a little less ambiguous around the edges.

Some question the value of having a declaratory policy at all.  For example, if a no-first-use policy can be reversed by a phone call from the president, what does it actually mean?   As Jeffrey Lewis argues, if having a declared policy causes an intense drilling down into what-ifs, it can increase suspicion and do actual harm.  (Although the example Lewis offers raises questions about whether China should have a no-first-use policy and is not particularly relevant to whether the U.S. should.)

A bigger problem with any declaratory policy is figuring out what it actually means.  Do we agree on what “no first use” means?  I think it means that we will not be the first to explode a nuclear weapon.  But, for example, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Lieber and Press argue that the United States could be justified in using nuclear weapons if an adversary first “introduced” nuclear weapons into a conflict, where “introduce” might be to explode one, but might also include putting them on higher alert, moving them, or simply implying their relevance to the contest.  So a nuclear war-planner and I could agree on a no-first-use policy and have differing, almost opposite, views of what that meant.

But if statements of doctrine don’t mean anything, then why the big deal?  Why would the nuclear establishment invest any political capital fighting for or against them?  While it is true that doctrinal statements are always taken with a huge grain of salt by other nations (just as the United States applies a steep discount to statements coming from others), they do make a difference in the domestic debate.  In the previous administration, the Department of Energy went to the Congress with a request to build a new facility to build the plutonium cores or “pits” for 250 new nuclear warheads every year.  This made no sense whatsoever;  it was completely out of synch with our own plans for future nuclear forces and Congress voted it down because the DOE was not remotely able to justify its request.  The DOE proposal went down to 125, then 80, and some current variations on the basic proposal are for a dozen or so, which actually makes some sense.

So doctrine and declaratory policy are important in very concrete ways when they can affect force structure decisions, including the numbers and types of weapons we have, their capabilities, and how they are deployed.  Moreover, these are the sorts of changes that other nations will see and pay attention to.

The uncertainty of the link between words and weapons is what causes wariness on every side of the debate.   Foreign governments might not believe our declarations but such declarations might form the basis for changes in the U.S. nuclear force structure, with all the implications for budgets and personnel, weapons, bases, and jobs back home.  That is why the nuclear establishment is resisting.  On the other hand, those who desire fundamental and profound change could be completely hoodwinked by nice sounding words that allow the status quo to coast ahead on its own momentum.

The danger I see is that, if discussion is so tightly focused on what we say, then too little attention will be given to what we do.  If we take our declarations seriously, they should have profound effects on the nuclear posture but I can imagine big changes in the review with little real physical change actually resulting.  For example, if we take seriously a no-first-use policy, our deployment of forces could be radically different.  Reentry vehicles could be stored separated from their missiles, missiles in silos could be made visibly unable to launch quickly, for example, by piling boulders over the silo doors.  Much of the ambiguity in any verbal statement of doctrine is squeezed out when we discuss the concrete questions of what the forces look like.  The nuclear war-planner and I might have effectively opposite definitions of “no first use” but we would agree entirely on what it means to piles boulders on our ICBM silo doors.

What I would hope to see come out of the NPR is not simply a statement of no first use but a plan for, for example, taking our nuclear weapons off alert.  We will certainly hear that nuclear weapons are for deterrence, perhaps that they are only for deterrence.  But that has become utterly meaningless because the definition of deterrence has been warped to the point that it can now be defined as whatever it is that nuclear weapons do.  Indeed, nuclear weapons are often simply called our “deterrent.”  Michele Flournoy, the current Undersecretary of Defense in charge of the NPR process, wrote a report while at CSIS describing how U.S. nuclear weapons should be able, among other things, to execute a disarming first strike against central Soviet nuclear forces, the better to “deter.”  When a word has that much flexibility, I don’t care whether it gets included in the posture statement or not but I do care whether we mount our nuclear weapons on fast flying ballistic missiles or on slow, air-breathing cruise missiles.

If we take seriously some of the statements that might come out of the review, then we can start to imagine radically different force structures.  For example, if the requirement for nuclear preemption is removed and the number of nuclear targets is substantially reduced, then new ways to base nuclear weapons become feasible.  We could, for example, store missiles in tunnels dug deep inside a mountain where the missiles would be both invulnerable and impossible to launch quickly.  We could invite a Russian to live in a Winebago on top of the mountain to confirm to his own nuclear commanders that we were not preparing our missiles for launch.

These are things the world can see.  Indeed, if we have no interest in a first strike capability, we have every incentive to invite the world to come in and see for themselves.  These are the types of changes that need to occur in the U.S. nuclear force structure and, if they do, debate about the words in the review is less important.