Friday, January 04, 2008

America's Nuclear Policy

By Cernig

Just before Christmas, Cheryl Rofer of WhirledView proposed a "blog-tank" approach to discussing what U.S. policy on nuclear weapons should be. It's a pressing issue which hasn't been given much attention in the mainstream media - despite having the largest effective nuclear arsenal on the planet by a long chalk the U.S. doesn't actually have a policy on their employment. (Post Cold War, it was discovered that up to 80% of Soviet missiles and warheads were unuseable at a given time due to design flaws and maintenance failures, while the U.S. force ran at around 80% readiness - it's unlikley the intervening years of Russian paucity have improved matters any for their force.) It was that lack that stalled and has perhaps killed the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. Cheryl is keeping a summary of the ongoing discussion here.

I've been meaning to do a post on this for days now, but the Bhutto assassination broke and took up a lot of my free blogging time. My apologies to Cheryl.

However, Jason Steck set out a nuclear policy position which is not a million miles away from mine the other day. In a must-read post, Jason points out that nuclear doctrine as it presently exists turns on the faulty notion that nukes are at all useful. Indeed, Jason says, "Nuclear weapons in actuality provide very limited contributions to U.S. national security. The reason is that nuclear weapons are politically and militarily virtually unusable." He argues that this means the US should stop treating nuclear weapons as a security blanket, since the only way in which the US could use nukes would be in retaliation against an attack by another WMD-equipped state (not, you will note, state-less terrorists).

I agree with this wholeheartedly. I've written before that trying to apply the Cold War assumptions of nuclear retaliation to assymetrical stateless actors is like running with nuclear scissors. it's far more likely that you'll fall and injure yourself or some innocent in a messy way than accidentally stab the one murderer in a crowd.

Jason suggests a posture based around a minimum deterrent force, I assume involving only a couple of hundred warheads, "prioritizing deployment on submarines which are impervious to any comprehensive first strike or pre-emptive attack." I think that's a good first step but would then move on to a "Virtual Swords" concept as explained by Jeffrey Lewis. Dr Lewis quotes an article from a friend of his which notes this isn't a new idea:

In January 1990, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a pair of defense industry consultants wrote a paper outlining a new approach to meeting military needs in the post-Cold War world.

Rather than a pipeline constantly churning out new weapons, Ted Gold and Rich Wagner wrote, the United States should develop the industrial research and manufacturing capability to build weapons if needed.

We do not need a huge arsenal, they argued. Instead, we could deter future enemies merely by showing that we have the capability to build new weapons when we need them. The essay was titled “Long Shadows and Virtual Swords.”

Fast-forward to Dec. 18.

In a Washington, D.C., news conference, the man in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing process seemed to be echoing Gold and Wagner.

“Because our nuclear weapons stockpile is decreasing, the United States’ future deterrent cannot be based on the old Cold War model of the number of weapons,” said Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. “Rather, it must be based on the capability to respond to any national security situation, and make weapons only if necessary.”
And adds:
it seems to me that, at some point, we need a bipartisan consensus on what the labs are supposed to do in post-arms race world. And that requires a vision of what it is that nuclear weapons do in that world.

Now, don’t get me wrong — a “virtual swords” concept should not be an excuse to fund an infrastructure better sized to a nuclear weapons stockpile of 10,000 than 1,000 (see the Modern Pit Facility). And my politics are not those of Gold and Wagner. But I can see how prudent investments in our defense industrial base, most importantly the people, can provide a hedge that enables deep reductions in our bloated nuclear stockpile that could safely number in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of weapons.

I would argue that NNSA officials failed to secure Congressional support for a variety of multi-billion dollar initiatives — including funding for the Modern Pit Facility, Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Reliable Replacement Warhead — precisely because these programs were conceived, articulated and implemented as part of a stockpile that looks liked a smaller version of the Cold War stockpile, instead of a stockpile based on the reality that much of the deterrent benefit from our nuclear stockpile is existential in nature.
It seems to me that even the Russian Bear would find it impossible to eradicate America's ability to build weapons to respond in kind to a strike - especially if the technology, expertise and facilities to do so were well distributed instead of centralised. It isn't an instant response that deters - it's the certainty of one coming eventually. In that respect, keeping a stockpile of actual weapons is unnecessay and even counter-productive since it means a belligerent "ready alert ad infinatum" posture.

Jason, again, explains succinctly why such a posture is a bad thing.
Because the U.S. is by far the most powerful country in the world, it tends (whether it wants to or not) to provide the very definition of what constitutes a “powerful” or “developed” country. Other countries seeking to obtain so-called “great power status” tend to imitate the “great powers” that already exist. After all, what better way to achieve the global status and respect accorded to a “great power” than to share in all of the same characteristics that others granted that status have? And as long as the United States continues to define it power in nuclear terms, it is unsurprising that imitators will try to do the same. Such considerations were certainly present in India’s drive to make its nuclear weapons capability real. Furthermore, the weapons thus produced are often not secured as safely as the U.S. nuclear force. The U.S. already must contend with grave scenarios of “loose nukes” emanating from the former Soviet Union or from a future jihadist Pakistan and falling into the hands of terrorist groups that would be impossible to deter in the traditional sense. It simply makes no sense to provide an unintentional encouragement for other states seeking a quick road to “great power” status with a route that ultimately just produces new threats to the U.S. This is not to say that all nuclear proliferation is driven by imitation of the United States, but it is foolhardy to produce even a limited incentive towards nuclear proliferation unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
The much-touted Missile Defense Shield, which the neocon think-tanks pushing it readily admit is only a first step to a space-based and far larger network, should be seen not as a defense but as a provocation. Post Cold War, we discovered that the Soviets never wanted to attack America and always thought the American encirclement of the USSR was a clear threat of an attack on the Motherland. Russia - the only nation against which the current massive U.S. arsenal is conceivably deployed, now finds itself in the same position, and to them such a missile defense shield looks like a hedge against retaliation for an American first-strike. The Russians want any such shield to be an international co-operative venture, which is the only way to ensure it doesn't undermine rather than enhance deterrence. Failing that, it should be scrapped too.

All of which would leave plenty of money free for the real challenge - cleaning up and securing loose nuclear material and weapons which could be stolen or bought be a stateless actor. To that end, I would greatly increase the size and scope of the IAEA to include clean-up and policing of nuclear sites under an international peacekeeper remit, stop withdrawing from arms control treaties such as START, and hand various plans for nuclear fuel cartels to the international community to run for the benefit of all.

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