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Our Nuclear Posture

Under the Obama administration? Supine.

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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During the course of the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq fired 88 Scud missiles at targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. All of them were armed with conventional warheads. This despite the fact that Iraq then possessed large stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, after the war, U.N. chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus found that Iraq had armed 25 missile warheads and 166 bombs with biological weapons. None of them were used, even as the Iraqi military faced the overwhelming might of a U.S.-led international coalition in a war Iraq was sure to lose.

Our Nuclear Posture

So what stayed Saddam Hussein’s hand? As the Iraqis tell it, they feared an American nuclear response. They had reason to.

In the run up to the war, senior officials—from President George H.W. Bush on down​—made a series of barely ambiguous and sufficiently ominous threats to Iraqi leaders. The president sent a letter to Saddam which informed the Iraqi tyrant that “the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons. .  .  . The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.” Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was equally blunt: “Were Saddam foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. response would be absolutely overwhelming and it would be devastating.”

The Iraqis took those threats seriously. Four years later, Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz told Ekeus that Iraq had been deterred from using its WMD because it interpreted these (and other) American threats as promises of nuclear retaliation. 

This episode is arguably the most successful example of deterrence in action in recent history. Could the United States repeat that performance if we had to? Not if we were to follow the letter of the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, released (after many delays and much hype) last Tuesday.

Among the changes to American nuclear strategy announced in the review, the United States has now promised not to threaten or use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack by a nonnuclear state. It is the worst element of a document that could in fact have been much worse.

The arms controlling left had high hopes for this report. Indeed, many of them—studded throughout the National Security Council staff, the State Department, and in civilian positions at the Pentagon—helped to draft it. But despite the numerous items on their extensive wish list, what they got were mostly stocking stuffers. They sought a pledge that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons; a declaration that the “sole purpose” of the American nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks; elimination of one leg of the “strategic triad” of nuclear-armed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers; a pledge to withdraw the few remaining forward deployed American nuclear weapons from Europe; “de-alerting” more of our nuclear forces—and this litany is by no means exhaustive. They got none of it.

Much of what they did get turns out to be something like a cheap, Canal Street knockoff of the object of their desire. Consider the pledge to renounce the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological threats. It is immediately followed by a caveat: “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”

So will we or won’t we? To say that the policy is now muddled would be an understatement. Who knew that Obama was a believer in strategic ambiguity?

This caveat pointedly does not apply to chemical weapons, however. Hence a repeat performance of our Gulf war deterrence of Saddam would seem to be off the table. Or is it? The Nuclear Posture Review for the first time links two formerly separate policies: “negative security assurances” (promises not to attack nonnuclear states with nuclear weapons) and implicit or explicit threats to wield nuclear weapons in response to nonnuclear attacks. The United States has always reserved the right to respond to conventional or chemical-biological warfare (CBW) attacks with nuclear weapons. Now, apparently, we won’t even threaten a nuclear response to biological (unless we decide otherwise; see above) or chemical attacks if the attacker is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in good standing. Got it?

Iraq signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the treaty’s first year (1968); hence, had the new policy been in place at the time of the first Gulf war, we could not have made the threats that we actually did use to good effect. But wait! Was Iraq “in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations”? If not, then the assurance would not have applied. We now know, thanks to the war and the inspections that followed, that Iraq maintained a secret and extensive nuclear weapons program. We realized little of this before the war, when the threats were made. So would they have been allowed or not?

In any case, why the two concepts are now linked is not clear. One of the rationales for the United States’ forswearing the development of biological and chemical weapons (apart from their inherent repugnance) was that our nuclear arsenal remained the surest guarantee against CBW attack. Well, not if we explicitly renounce the use of nuclear weapons in such circumstances.

Also, the point of the negative security assurance is to encourage regimes to live happily without nuclear weapons. This is not entirely fanciful. Tom Reed and Danny Stillman, in their history of nuclear weapons The Nuclear Express, tell how the reluctance of some of the former Soviet republics to return to Russia the legacy weapons of the USSR was overcome. Some Ukrainian generals were invited to StratCom headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, whereAir Force brass, poring over maps of their guests’ country, explained in vivid detail what it meant to be on the American target list in the event of nuclear war. The Ukrainian visitors turned white, returned to Kiev and recommended that all nuclear weapons in their country be repatriated to their motherland.

So, if promises not to use nukes against the nuclear-chaste encourages states to swear off nukes, how does promising not to use nukes against CBW-capable states discourage the development of the latter weapons? Wouldn’t that rather encourage it? If the clear consequence of being nuclear-armed is to place your country on the American nuclear targeting list, why shouldn’t the clear consequence of seeking, possessing, or using CBW not be the same?

No doubt the Obama officials who drafted this document believe that its many caveats, exceptions, and trapdoors leave sufficient flexibility for the president to do whatever he may think he needs to do in any contingency. And they may be right. But that misses a larger point. Deterrence is not always, or even mostly, effective in the midst of a crisis. It is also a function of an enemy’s impression of how far its intended victim can be pushed, and how hard he might push back if pushed too far.

By that standard, the new policy is a failure. It amounts not so much to strategic ambiguity as to strategic obfuscation. The new policy is deliberately designed to sound softer than the old, but is also qualified to the point that the new softness will appear to any semi-careful reader to be highly questionable. What is the real policy? It’s impossible to say simply from reading the report. What will an enemy take away from it? That we deeply desire to cultivate a reputation for dovishness while we reserve the right to revert to hawkishness at a moment’s notice. Whom is this supposed to scare or impress, much less deter?

Thankfully, the truly bad news pretty much ends there, at least in the Nuclear Posture Review. There is however a bit of bad news in the New START treaty, the text of which was finally released after Thursday’s Prague signing ceremony. The administration has repeatedly sworn that the treaty places no constraints on missile defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: “Missile defense is not constrained by this treaty.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The treaty places no constraints on our missile defense plans—now or in the future.” Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher: “There is no limit or constraint on what the United States can do with its missile defense systems .  .  . definitely, positively, and no way, no how.”

And yet, there is this in the treaty’s preamble:

Recognizing the existence of the inter-relationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the parties .  .  . 

There are two possible ways to interpret this: (1) Who cares? It’s just the preamble. (2) It is the first-ever formal linkage between offensive and defensive systems and an implicit promise to limit the latter in the future. Russian president Medvedev’s foreign minister believes interpretation Number 2. “Linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out in the accord and is legally binding,” Sergei Lavrov said. He would appear to be at least partly right. The linkage is there for all to see, though it’s a stretch to say that the preamble language is legally binding.

Linkage, however, is bad enough. For two decades, the United States has deliberately refrained from designing missile defense systems that could counter the Russian (or Chinese) nuclear arsenals. Moscow’s response has been to unceasingly complain about a system deliberately limited so that their huge arsenal could easily overwhelm it. Now we have the worst of both worlds: a missile defense system designed not to defend against a Russian strike but nonetheless formally linked to Russia’s nuclear posture. Worse, the Russian foreign minister has hinted that his country may invoke the treaty’s otherwise standard withdrawal language if “the U.S. strategic missile defense begins to significantly affect the efficiency of Russian strategic nuclear forces.” Given that the Russians publicly insist (though cannot possibly believe) that virtually anything we do on missile defense affects their strategic forces, this was not encouraging news.

It gets worse. Article V, paragraph 3:

Each party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein.

Now, this is a constraint. On its website, the White House asserts that “the Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs.” Possibly the administration could fall back on the “current or planned” qualifier to insist that, since we do not currently plan to reuse retired SLBM or ICBM launchers for missile defense, this limitation is not really limiting. But it might be. The treaty after all calls for steep cuts in delivery vehicles. Absent this provision, we might have reused those retired launchers in the missile defense program. The treaty forbids that. Expect this provision to cause serious problems in the ratification debate, and also to undermine—justifiably—the administration’s credibility. Republican senators Jon Kyl and John McCain have already noticed: “While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions.” Translation: We were misled.

In the Nuclear Posture Review, there is some good news, though one has to be willing to parse to find it. One of the marquee items on the arms controllers’ wish list was a pledge not to develop any new nuclear weapons. Since the United States has been out of that business for more than 20 years, why make this a priority? The issue is the reliability of the existing stockpile. Nuclear weapons are complicated; the older they get, the less sure you can be that they still work. One way to know is to test them, but there is no appetite in this country to resume testing (which we unilaterally halted in 1992). Another option is to do what we are doing now: conduct an extensive maintenance program to identify problems and replace degraded components. But that doesn’t yield certain knowledge; it only raises confidence.

Yet another way would be to make more warheads. That’s what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wanted to do when he was serving in the prior administration and reportedly still supports. It’s also what every Republican senator plus Joe Lieberman says will be the price of ratification of the New START treaty.

But the Nuclear Posture Review emphatically says “the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads.” Game over, right? Well, it depends on the meaning of “new.” The approach favored by Gates—called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)—would use existing fissile material, parts stripped from decommissioned weapons, and design specifications that were developed decades ago. If a skilled mechanic were to build a car using spare parts, old steel, and blueprints from a 40-year-old file cabinet, would it be a new car? In one sense, yes. In another sense, no.

Arms controllers emphatically answer “Yes!” to that question. While it might appear that they have won the day, a careful reading reveals a few escape hatches. First, the document specifically renounces “new military missions” and “new military capabilities” for the arsenal. But that is like a Catholic ostentatiously pledging not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. He has to do that anyway. Nobody is talking about building a new warhead for a new mission. The last time such a proposal was floated—the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” advocated in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review—it was quickly scuttled owing to intense opposition. The mission of the RRW would be the same as the mission of the warheads in our current strategic arsenal. Moreover, the report specifically allows for the “replacement” of nuclear components—language malleable enough that it could be stretched to look a great deal like RRW.

At a press briefing at the Pentagon the day the report was released, National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D’Agostino and Joint Chiefs vice chairman General James Cartwright seemed to confirm this interpretation. Here is the general: “Nobody has ever removed from the commander or anyone else in that chain the ability to stand up and say, ‘I’m uncomfortable; I believe that we’re going to have to test, or I believe that we’re going to have to build something new.’ That’s not been removed here.” And D’Agostino: “So what we want to do is .  .  . create a position or a point in time where we say, if we have to go to that replacement category whereby—because we think it’s the only way or one of the best ways, to achieve the aims that we have—safety, security, reliability, and no underground testing—then we have the flexibility to do that.”

Ellen Tauscher, perhaps the most determined RRW opponent in the administration, stood by mute. So who really won that fight?

The answer would appear to be Gates. He is almost certainly the reason why the arms controllers lost so many key fights, and a living example that sometimes engaging with those with whom you disagree can make a bad policy better or at least less bad. Would that he could have saved us from the dismal policy of strategic obfuscation and the formal linkage of missile defense to Russian strategic forces. But it would be ungrateful to complain. At least about Gates.

Michael Anton served in national security positions in the recent Bush administration.

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