Nuclear Weapons

Talks at U.S. Strategic Command and University of California San Diego

08.12.12 | 7 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen

It’s been a busy week with two talks; the first to the U.S. Strategic Command’s Deterrence Symposium on August 9, and the second to the Public Policy and Nuclear Threats “boot camp” workshop at the University of California San Diego on August 10.

STRATCOM asked me to talk on the question: Will advanced conventional capabilities undermine or enhance deterrence. My panel included former STRATCOM Commander General James Cartwright, former SAC CINC General Larry Welch, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon. The panel was chaired by Rear Admiral John Gower of the U.K. Ministry of Defense. My speech is reproduced below. The video of Panel #7 is available later at the STRATCOM web site.

UCSD asked me to speak on New Directions for U.S. Nuclear Strategy. My panel included Daryl Press, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, and Anne Harrington, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. A copy of my briefing slides is available here.

Speech: USSTRATCOM Deterrence Symposium 2012

Hans M. Kristensen
Federation of American Scientists
August 9, 2012

The question for this panel – Will advanced conventional capabilities undermine or enhance deterrence? – is a difficult question to answer for several reasons. First, “advanced conventional capabilities” is a very broad definition that can include everything that’s better than what we had last year. Second, deterrence is a subjective condition that doesn’t come in one shape or form but depends on actors and scenarios.

So at the outset, I’ll say: Whether advanced conventional capabilities will undermine or enhance deterrence depends on what kinds of adversary we seek to deter, with what, in what scenario, and for what objective.

Unfortunately, “deterrence” is one of the most overused and abused terms. It is still widely associated with nuclear weapons, which are often called “the deterrent force” or “the strategic deterrent,” or the SLBMs, which are referred to as “the sea-based deterrent.” National leaders have been busy after the end of the Cold War reminding us that deterrence is not just nuclear but a much wider host of capabilities and scenarios.

For purpose of this talk, I will focus on advanced conventional weapons such as Prompt Global Strike (PGS), how they might effect deterrence, how they are different from nuclear weapons, whether they can be used as strategic deterrents – perhaps even replacing nuclear weapons?

Currently, much of the public debate on advanced conventional capabilities has focused on speed: that very quick strikes are needed to knock out targets in rogue states or non-state actors armed with weapons of mass destruction. Part of that perception is rooted in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and its promotion of a New Triad with a seamless string of Global Strike capabilities ranging from nuclear, to non-nuclear, to non-kinetic effects.

This led to the Global Strike mission assigned to STRATCOM in 2003, at first a designated prompt Global Strike plan known as CONPLAN 8022, but later an integrated plan known as OPLAN 8010-08: Strategic Deterrence and Global Strike, which is currently in effect. The name reflects the dual mission of providing deterrence and, if that fails, Global Strike (or counterforce war fighting).

Compared with the old SIOP, the new plan includes “more flexible options to assure allies, and dissuade, deter, and if necessary, defeat adversaries in a wider range of contingencies.” So despite the challenges of tailoring deterrence to today’s world, it would seem that out strategic war plan has already been tailored to a considerable extent.

For the purpose of deterrence, despite significant advances in conventional weapons, nuclear weapons are still in a completely separate category because of their immensely destructive capability and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

But for war fighting, the Global Strike mission appears to accept that advanced conventional weapons can serve some missions that previously were only available for nuclear weapons. I have heard knowledgeable people say that up to 30 percent of the target base potentially could be covered with PGS weapons. But for all the talk of the urgency and importance of this mission, the weapons have been slow to emerge.

But what strikes me about the quest for PGS weapons is that it appears to be motivated less by deterrence and more by an expectation that deterrence will fail, and that new capabilities are therefore needed to destroy time-critical targets without having to resort to nuclear weapons.

Adversaries and allies alike have all seen the United State after the Cold War repeatedly being willing to use its ever-improving conventional forces in scenarios ranging from brief and limited punitive strikes to massive use of force over extensive periods of time to decisively defeat even large adversaries. In all of those cases, deterrence obviously failed despite our overwhelming capabilities; otherwise it wouldn’t have been necessary to strike.

PGS weapons would add to the toolbox and an adversary would obviously have to work around the capability. But it is much harder to predict whether – or to what extent – that would deter the adversary from taking action more or better than current capabilities would.

In the public debate the mission is almost entirely focused on regional and non-state adversary scenarios. Planners spend a lot of time trying to get inside the heads of these adversaries to understand what they value so we can figure out what to hold at risk to deter them. But if they’re already set on taking hostile action and know that they would be turned into rubble, why would PGS matter for deterrence?

Regional adversaries already bury their time-critical assets. Just look at North Korea where everything seems to live underground. Why has Iran focused its ballistic missile posture on mobile launchers? It’s a lot cheaper and simpler to build silos. China is no different; it’s hard to find a high-priority base that doesn’t include underground storage and their entire mobile missile modernization program is a reaction to someone holding their silos better at risk with more capable weapons.

All of these adversaries are already trying to work around our targeting capabilities. So why do we think that hitting them a little faster or a little better would strengthen deterrence? It seems more likely that PGS would push them even further toward more prompt launch capabilities. More trigger-happy postures could in fact weaken deterrence and increase the risk of mistaken, inadvertent, or even deliberate escalation. Keir Lieber made a similar argument yesterday.

What if the mission includes holding Chinese ASAT launchers a risk? China’s demonstration of an ASAT capability appears to have triggered a requirement for a quick-strike conventional capability to protect our eyes and ears in the sky.

Targeting ASAT missiles on DF-21 launchers is only a hairbreadth away from targeting other road-mobile launchers, whether for conventional DF-21C medium-range ballistic missiles, DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, or even nuclear DF-31A missiles.

And how about using unmanned aerial vehicles with Hellfire missiles to hunt down Chinese mobile launchers?

Chinese planners would obviously have to assume that strikes would come quickly, that it could be preemptive, and that the risk to their nuclear launchers were increasing. In fact, they would have to conclude that a strike against their nuclear deterrent could come before the conflict had escalated to nuclear use.

Then suddenly the deterrence question changes dramatically. Add to that that some of the enablers for making PGS possible would require improvements to ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) and C3 (Command, Control, Communication) systems that would probably also significantly improve the capability of nuclear forces. Russia and China will probably detect these improvements and compensate for them in their own nuclear planning.

Add to that an advanced ballistic missile defense system that could take out some of the surviving weapons, and we could end up significantly exacerbating a budding and counterproductive nuclear competition with Russia and China. Whether we agree or not, Russia is already making this argument in Europe and China has warned against it.

The point here is not that we should simply give in and capitulate to Russian and Chinese concerns. The point is that we better think carefully about these side-effects before rushing to acquire more advanced conventional capabilities for what in any case is argued to be a very limited niche mission against small adversaries that won’t be able to provide an existential threat. And these are very expensive systems. So they better be essential and not just good to have.

In summary, in some limited scenarios, such as escalation, advanced conventional capabilities might enhance deterrence by providing senior leaders with additional non-nuclear options for signaling or striking. But it is hard to predict, to say the least. In other scenarios they may do exactly the opposite and weaken deterrence by triggering use-it-or-loose-it postures and deepen nuclear competition.

So to answer the panel question of whether advanced conventional capabilities will undermine or enhance deterrence, I’d say the answer is: probably yes.

For additional background on the Global Strike mission, see: Hans M. Kristensen, Global Strike: A Chronology of the Pentagon’s New Offensive Strike Plan, FAS, March 2006.

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.