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Thinking About the Unthinkable

Priorities for the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

11:00 PM, Mar 2, 2009 • By THOMAS M. SKYPEK
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Almost fifty years ago, the legendary defense strategist Herman Kahn published his classic work on nuclear strategy, On Thermonuclear War (1960), followed just two years later by a popularized rendering entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962). An iconoclast and one of America's unsung Cold War heroes, Kahn argued throughout his career that it was the responsibility of the United States government to think creatively, honestly, and unemotionally about the prospects of nuclear war. Today, the need for an honest and open debate on the role of nuclear weapons continues, and the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) presents an ideal forum. While competing priorities such as the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and a deteriorating economy at home have decreased the attention paid to the issue of nuclear strategy, its importance remains undiminished.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Defense Department has conducted two comprehensive reviews of U.S. nuclear strategy. The first NPR was conducted in 1994 during the Clinton administration and was plagued by infighting between the Pentagon's civilian and military leadership. The 1994 review failed to result in any major policy shift, leaving Washington's Cold War nuclear posture largely intact. The second comprehensive review was conducted by the Bush administration throughout 2001 and was submitted to Congress in December of that year. It marked the first real departure from Cold War thinking on nuclear strategy. The 2001 NPR called for significant reductions in the number of deployed warheads as well as a modernized force structure. The Cold War Triad, which consisted solely of offensive strike systems including bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), was supplanted by a New Triad. The New Triad folded the offensive strike systems into one leg and incorporated advanced conventional munitions; passive and active defenses formed the second leg of the New Triad while a responsive defense infrastructure formed the final leg. This new construct codified the value of strategic defenses and the importance of human capital management.

The 2009 NPR will be the first major opportunity for the Obama administration to articulate a new vision for U.S. nuclear strategy. The congressionally-mandated review will be conducted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in consultation with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It will be submitted concurrently with the Quadrennial Defense Review--the Defense Department's forward-looking appraisal of strategy, programs, and resources--in December 2009. The NPR will examine a variety of issues ranging from arms control and nonproliferation to missile defense and the issue of nuclear modernization. It will address broad policy questions on the overall role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and the force structure required to maintain a credible deterrent in the twenty-first century. Issues related to stockpile security, targeting doctrine, and weapons employment will also be addressed.

Attempts to influence the upcoming NPR have begun in earnest. In November 2008, the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-of-center think tank, released a study entitled "Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review: A Roadmap." The study's authors, Andrew Grotto and Joseph Cirincione, outline a series of priorities for the upcoming review. The fundamental premise of the study is that current U.S. nuclear posture hampers nuclear nonproliferation efforts. This premise is based on the faulty assumption that U.S. nuclear posture is the primary driver of nuclear proliferation. The reality is that states acquire nuclear weapons for a variety of reasons including the significant political benefits derived from possessing a credible deterrent.