Nuclear Weapons

Presidential Candidates Need to See Beyond Warhead Numbers

07.30.08 | 7 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen and Ivan Oelrich

Barack Obama has put forward an inspiring nuclear security policy that promises to reinstate nuclear disarmament as a central goal of U.S. national security and foreign policy. This vision has been shared by all presidents since the Cuban Missile Crisis, except for George W. Bush.

If he is elected the next president, Obama’s policy would be a refreshing break with the gung-ho and divisive policies that have characterized the current administration.

Even so, it is important to consider the intent of Obama’s policy and look ahead to how it could be implemented and even improved.


The Role of Nuclear Weapons

The part of the policy that deals with existing nuclear weapons (versus proliferation) is very much focused on numbers. When both the United States and Russia clearly have far, far more nuclear weapons than either could conceivably need, it is tempting to ignore details and just make big cuts in numbers.  But to move the process convincingly toward diminishing the salience – and eventually toward abolition – of nuclear weapons it is necessary to develop a vision for what role the nuclear weapons should play in U.S. national security policy. Short of some very general statements, Presidents traditionally leave this matter to the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council. This practice has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past as policy and military planners transformed vague presidential guidance into excessive and dangerous nuclear postures.

Other than a pledge to negotiate with Russia about ending high alert of nuclear weapons, there is nothing in Obama’s policy that suggests the role of nuclear weapons would be any different under him than under Bush or Clinton. Clearly, this is a shortcoming of his proposal. Statements from Senator McCain are even more worrying:  he has said he will ask the military for a review and to report back on the minimum number needed, implying quite clearly that the military, not the president, will make important decisions about what role nuclear weapons ought to have.

The (first) Bush and Clinton administrations significantly changed the role of U.S. nuclear weapons from deterring and destroying Soviet and Chinese nuclear and large-scale conventional forces to deterring use and acquisition of all forms of weapons of mass destruction in all adversarial countries with such capabilities. Moreover, in response to 9/11, the Bush administration rushed forward a highly aggressive preemption doctrine that included nuclear strikes.

To change the role of nuclear weapons requires direct, sustained intervention by the next president. Therefore, both Senators Obama and McCain need to think hard about what his guidance would be on such issues as:

* Should the United States abandon its current policy of deterring all forms of weapons of mass destruction and only use nuclear weapons to deter use of nuclear weapons?

* Should the United States adopt a no-first-use policy or is it still necessary to retain the option to strike first?

* Should the United States retain counterforce targeting, return to countervalue targeting, or develop another concept for what facilities to target with nuclear weapons?

* Should the United States significantly lower and change the damage expectancy required for nuclear strikes?

* Should the United States abandon its policy of being capable of holding all potential targets at risk or is a more limited range sufficient today?

* Should the United States discontinue the practice of having nuclear weapons operationally deployed – including operating daily under a fully executable plan – or could sufficient deterrence be retained by a far less operational posture?

* Should the United States complete the 1991-1992 reductions and withdraw the remaining tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and instead rely on long-range weapons to provide a nuclear umbrella to our NATO allies?

No to No-First-Use

Defense Secretary William Cohen of the Clinton administration rejected a no-first-use policy. Will an Obama administration be any different?

If the next president doesn’t address such fundamental policy issues in his first guidance, the outcome of the next Nuclear Posture Review will almost certainly be little more than status quo at lower levels, leaving in place a posture of excessive nuclear capabilities that the United States doesn’t need but which locks it into a warfighting deterrence posture that works against a vision for deep cuts and disarmament.

The End Goal

The component of Obama’s policy that deals with deep nuclear cuts and disarmament comes with important caveats. One is a pledge to “maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist,” a position the Bush administration also shares, but which presents a particular conundrum for a policy that seeks nuclear disarmament: if all nuclear weapon states insist on having nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons exist, how can we ever get to zero? That would leave U.S. nuclear policy (and nuclear disarmament) hostage to any country that had just one nuclear weapons, even if our conventional capabilities are more than sufficient to deter anyone who can be deterred (Iran and North Korea being obvious examples).

At some point in the process, some of the nuclear weapon states – eventually all – have to be prepared to relinquish the weapons. This is not unheard of; Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Ukraine have already gone to zero.  A “disarmament-president” has to think this conundrum carefully through.

Getting to deep cuts and certainly to global elimination of nuclear weapons might require wholesale revision of the role that military forces play in the world. The national security of the United States – and many other large military powers – is deeply rooted in a military posture aimed at threatening other countries if they do things we don’t like.

“As Long As
Nuclear Weapons Exist”

Would an Iran with a few nuclear weapons prevent the United States and others from going to zero even though they have overwhelming conventional capabilities?

It is very hard see why other nuclear powers – some of which are our or other nuclear powers’ potential adversaries – would agree to move beyond deep cuts to actual nuclear disarmament as long as the United States pursues military superiority and unconstrained forward offensive operations. Would Russia and China agree to deep nuclear cuts when we’re developing conventional prompt global strike long-range weapons with hard target kill capability that can threaten their remaining forces?

Would Japan agree to the United States eliminating the nuclear umbrella as long as China modernizes and builds up it conventional capabilities? Would Israel agree to disarmament as long as they are surrounded by conventionally armed potential enemies?

Many government and military officials therefore effectively dismiss disarmament by saying: not until there is peace and brotherhood among men. In other words, certainly not in our lifetime or that of our children. Obama’s policy to some extend acknowledges this with a second caveat by talking about the “long road” toward elimination of nuclear weapons.

Ideally, these threats and insecurities must be addressed in a broader context of the relations between states and of the legitimacy of force but, no, all the world’s security problems do not have to be solved before we can consider the elimination of nuclear weapons. Three points are important particularly from a U.S. perspective.

First, there is no need to give some fifth-rate country like North Korea a veto over U.S. nuclear policy. North Korea may very well be developing nuclear weapons to deter the United States but that does not mean the United States, with overwhelming conventional military superiority, needs to have nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, even North Korea’s nuclear use.

Second, the nuclear disarmament of the big nuclear powers will make the nuclear disarmament of troublesome regimes like Iran and North Korea easier, not harder. Some Iranians talk of their nuclear program making them a “world power,” a conceit that would be completely laughable except the established nuclear powers do, in fact, often attach such significance to simply owning nuclear weapons. Delegitimizing nuclear weapons reduces their appeal. North Korea provides a different example: the United States, China, and Russia publicly claim that North Korea’s nuclear weapon program is intolerable, a concern that has only slowly impressed itself on the North Koreans. But imagine that China, the North’s only real patron, had eliminated its own weapons; would the Chinese tolerate their tiny neighbor’s nuclear program then?

Third, and probably most important, while global nuclear disarmament may depend on significant changes in the world’s attitudes toward the use and legitimacy of force, working toward nuclear disarmament can do much to bring about those very changes. Short of willingness to jumpstart the process by taking bold unilateral steps like big reductions in warhead numbers and success in changing the mindsets of all the nuclear powers and their allies, the “long road” might be very long indeed.

Despite these shortfalls, the nuclear policy Obama has put forward would, if it became U.S. policy, be a huge step forward in restoring traditional U.S. nuclear policy priorities and curtailing the role and salience of nuclear weapons in the world. By addressing the issues we have described, it could even be the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.

Background: Obama’s Plan for a 21st Century MilitaryMissions for Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War