Nuclear Weapons

What’s Wrong with What’s Wrong with the Nuclear Posture Review

04.11.10 | 9 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

On Tuesday, the Secretary of Defense released the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  I was quite disappointed in the document, thinking it is timid and gradualist.   So you can imagine how distracting it is when I am part way through writing a blog trashing the new doctrine for not going far enough that I see a flurry of articles about how the new doctrine goes way too far.  So now I have to divert my valuable time to defending the NPR.  (I will still finish the other blog, promise.)  Some of the criticism is simply inane but most comes from not reading, or perhaps not even caring what’s in, the actual report.  Still, it is probably a preview of the assaults to come.

Let’s begin with Sarah Palin, who said, “No administration in America’s history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today. It’s kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, ‘Go ahead, punch me in the face and I’m not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me.’”

Where does one start? Let’s begin with the big picture:  Nuclear weapons are, by far, the most destructive instruments in human history, able to blow down entire cities within seconds, to kill millions at a shot, to end—quite literally—human civilization as we know it.  Is a playground quarrel between a pair of schoolchildren a useful analogy?  If we really wish to pursue the analogy then it would be more accurate to say that the NPR’s doctrine is equivalent to a child’s saying, “Even if you punch me, I will punch you back and perhaps beat you unconscious, I may even kill you, but I will not use a hand grenade to do it.”  I believe that a no-hand-grenades-on-the-playground policy is something that many parents would endorse.

Ms. Palin is apparently assuming that by sometimes forgoing nuclear retaliation we remove all options.  The NPR, in fact, states very clearly that countries that attack us with chemical or biological weapons will be met with devastating conventional attack.  Moreover, the “negative security guarantees” that she is describing have long been an explicit or implicit part of U.S. nuclear doctrine.

A similar theme appeared when Sean Hannity interviewed Newt Gingrich on the NPR and other issues.  In Hannity’s introduction, he says, “The Obama administration declared yesterday that the president plans to, well, depart from these precedents [of other Presidents’ nuclear policy].  Now, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the president will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state, even in the event of a chemical or biological attack.”

This is not at all what the NPR says.  The NPR specifically excludes states, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, that are not meeting their Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations.  Without explicitly listing their names there could not be a clearer reference to Iran and North Korea.  So even if Iran never actually takes the final step of building a bomb, it is on the nuclear target list because we have declared that it is not in compliance with their NPT obligations.  Moreover, the NPR reserves a big caveat:  if future developments in biological weapons increase their effectiveness, then the United States will revisit this policy.

Like Palin, he later says, “So what he’s [Obama] saying here is that the United States will not even in self-defense, if there’s a biological, a chemical attack or a crippling cyber attack of some kind, that we’re not going to respond.”  By Mr. Hannity’s definition, the United States did not “respond” to Pearl Harbor until it bombed Hiroshima.

Mr. Gingrich responded, in part, with “I would love to see a White House reporter ask the simple question. If there was a biological attack, which killed over a million Americans, is this president really saying we would not retaliate?”  Again, “retaliate” means apparently only nuclear retaliation and such a biological attack is, in any case, explicitly exempted (p. 16).

(These comments also show the dangers of the promiscuous use of the term “weapons of mass destruction.”  We now call cyber attacks and truck bombs “WMD” and conflate them with nuclear weapons that can blow down cities.  This bundled term confuses more than it enlightens and should be eliminated from any discussion of national strategy.)

Mr. Hannity goes on to say, “Now, beyond that, the United States will not develop any new nuclear weapons.”  I wish I could agree with his interpretation here but I cannot.  The NPR says that “The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads.”  It states that warheads will be maintained by Life Extension Programs, with a strong preference for refurbishment and some replacement but each warhead will be considered on a case-by-case basis and some nuclear components could be replaced with components from different warheads not necessarily in the current stockpile.  By my definition, that would be a “new” warhead but not by the NPR definition.  The only restriction is that nuclear components would have to have to be based on tested components but that would not, I believe, disqualify the recent Livermore Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) design.

John Bolton writes that “The Nuclear Posture Review is deeply troubling in many respects, starting at the conceptual level with its unfounded assertion that the need for American nuclear deterrence has declined.”  It is difficult to imagine what the definition of “need” is here.  During the Cold War, nuclear “deterrence” included the threat of a disarming first strikes against Soviet central nuclear forces to deter a conventional attack on NATO by Soviet tank armies poised west of Berlin.  The growing capability of conventional weapons is making nuclear weapons obsolete for most missions.  Can anyone believe the need for nuclear deterrence has not declined?  (Perhaps he means it has not declined in the last few years?) Russia and the United States still have a couple of thousand nuclear weapons pointed at each other but not because of any conflict existing today but because of momentum left over twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

Keith Payne worries that declaring that a policy of not threatening nations in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty implies that the IAEA board of governors, which determines question compliance, will determine U.S. nuclear policy.  As Frank Gaffney puts it, “The paramount question is: Who will determine whether a state is complying with the treaty?”  Well, if he were really interested he could always ask that question and, indeed, it has been asked of the authors of the NPR and the answer is that the only thing that matters is whether the United States, not the IAEA, believes the nation in question is in compliance.

Charles Krauthammer muddles historical analysis and the current doctrine.  He writes that “During the Cold War, we let the Russians know that if they dared use their huge conventional military advantage and invaded Western Europe, they risked massive U.S. nuclear retaliation.”  Seeing that the lack of such attack proves that deterrence worked, he argues that we should, therefore, not change our doctrine.  But the part of the doctrine relevant to his example would not change, the United States can still attack Russia, a nuclear power, with nuclear weapons and, in fact, the NPR makes clear that Russia is our largest nuclear target.  In cases where the doctrine would change—forgoing attack on non-nuclear nations—the deterrence story is not so clear:  Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq were not deterred even by America’s unilateral possession of nuclear weapons so his historical analysis seems at best to be irrelevant if not contradicted.

After explaining that the new doctrine would exempt NPT-compliant nations from nuclear attack, he writes “This is quite insane. It’s like saying that if a terrorist deliberately uses his car to mow down a hundred people waiting at a bus stop, the decision as to whether he gets (a) hanged or (b) 100 hours of community service hinges entirely on whether his car had passed emissions inspections.”  It is the analogy that is so over the top as to be insane but it brings up the question of why the U.S. might have different responses under different circumstances.  If we tone down his childish exaggeration, criminal penalties do, in fact, vary depending on circumstances.  For example, many states have more severe penalties for a crime if the perpetrator had a gun, even if the gun was not used.  Why?  Because society has an interest in discouraging gun violence, so we make having the gun, and the potential for gun violence, cause for a greater penalty.  (Now one could turn that around and say with indignant incredulity that we are giving a criminal some sort of reward for not using a gun even though he committed the very same crime rather than greater punishment for using a gun but clearly these amount to the same thing.)  Most people would agree this policy makes some sense.  Similarly, is it not in the interest of the United States to discourage nations from acquiring nuclear weapons?  And isn’t it reasonable to create incentives?  In this context, Mr. Krauthammer misrepresents the meaning of NPT compliance when he writes “If it turns out that the attacker is up to date with its latest IAEA inspections, well, it gets immunity from nuclear retaliation.”  This is, of course, wrong.  Iran is “up to date with its latest IAEA inspections” but it is not compliant with the NPT.  “Compliant with the NPT” is a surrogate for not having a nuclear weapons program and discouraging that is in the greater, long-term interest of the United States.  This sort of wild exaggeration and cavalier misrepresentation does a disservice to the national debate about a serious topic.

At least he does not make the mistake of implying that no nuclear response equals no response at all when he says, “Our response is then restricted to bullets, bombs and other conventional munitions.”  I will simply remind the reader that this would describe, for example, the Second World War.

I could go on (and, alas, on) but I will close with a Washington Times column by Jeffrey T. Kuhner.  His article is also filled with wild exaggeration and I will only cite one of his points.  The NPR supposedly puts unacceptable limitations on the maintenance and modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons.  He writes, “Moreover, the NPR stipulates that the United States will not modernize its nuclear weapons systems; rather, Washington will rely upon its aging warheads and nuclear infrastructure. China and Russia have gained a decisive advantage in pursuing innovative nuclear weapons technology.”  This is flagrant misrepresentation of what is actually in the document.  The NPR clearly states that weapons will be maintained and even upgraded.  The only stipulation being that we will only use nuclear components with a proven test pedigree, a prudent design philosophy that most weapons designers fully support, including the directors of all three weapons labs.  Moreover, the Pentagon is already in the early planning stages for new ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber. The budget for the national labs is increasing.  And to his last point, Mr. Kuhner should ask any U.S. weapons designer or military nuclear specialist whether they would trade the Russian arsenal for America’s.  The answer will in all cases be no.  (And China?  Please.)

I have presented this sample of objections to the NPR because this may be, I am afraid, representative of the “debate.”  We can only hope for a more mature discussion of the issues.  I strongly recommend Peter Feaver’s op-ed in the New York Times.  I know Peter and he is a thoughtful, intelligent, and absolutely reasonable fellow and he does not support Obama’s NPR.  But he argues that, while the NPR goes in the wrong direction, it is, on balance, a fairly modest document that, regardless of what direction it goes, does not go very far at all from past positions.  I agree, which I say with some regret because I wanted it to go further.