An interview with Joshua Pollack

By Joshua Pollack | August 25, 2009

What can be expected from the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)?

It's unwise to ask too much of any formal, coordinated review, whether it's the Nuclear Posture Review, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), or the forerunners of the QDR–to say nothing of the new QDR-like activities at the State Departments and Department of Homeland Security. In any bottom-up product of this sort, a series of organizational interests must be accommodated, so the track record of these affairs isn't terribly exciting. They aren't an ideal mechanism for delivering a fundamental rethink of strategy that leads to sweeping changes in the choice of policy instruments or their management. Mostly, they wind up prescribing what already exists.

But they do offer novel justifications along the way, which point to shifts in larger visions about the nature of national power and national security. In the NPR's case, that means evolving ideas about how nuclear weapons connect to the national interest. In this respect, we should anticipate changes from the last NPR in 2002.

How else will the upcoming review differ from the Bush administration's 2002 NPR?

At the core of the 2002 NPR was the view that U.S. nuclear forces and their supporting infrastructure should be sustained largely as is into the indefinite future. Some new force types also were proposed in order to deter all potential enemies, including enemies that don't yet exist, based on the theory that nuclear threats besides Russia may need to be addressed by means other than nuclear strikes. The 2002 NPR envisioned no binding constraints on U.S. strategic nuclear forces; reductions were modest and described as subject to periodic review. The idea of a "responsive infrastructure" pointedly included maintaining readiness to return to nuclear testing, in case it's someday deemed necessary–a sort of Selective Service card for the Nevada Test Site. Over the long-term, all options were open.

The 2010 NPR will be very different in tone. It must square with President Barack Obama's vision for taking "concrete steps" toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. So unlike 2002, it won't deliver a portrait of a superpower nuclear arsenal maintained into perpetuity. It will deal with nonproliferation, arms control, and foreign perspectives. But it won't deliver sweeping changes to force structure or posture; in particular, anyone expecting the NPR to recommend deep cuts in nuclear forces or the de-alerting of forces is liable to be disappointed.

What should the NPR advise?

By force of circumstances, it must be conservative in some respects and forward-looking in others. Let's set aside bureaucratic politics and consider the larger scene. The NPR coincides with the U.S.-Russian START follow-on talks, the launch of a renewed effort at Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification, and preparations for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

START and CTBT are arguments for caution. Bringing two nuclear treaties before the Senate doesn't create the best moment to press for far-reaching changes in forces and posture. The need to move quickly to maintain the transparency and verification measures embedded in START also means that a variety of substantive issues must be left for the next round of negotiations.

At the same time, if the United States is going to win broad international support for a significantly strengthened nuclear nonproliferation regime next year at the NPT Review Conference, it's important to set the right tone now and avoid anything suggestive of a view of nuclear weapons as a way of dominating other states. First, this means that anything perceived as involving new warheads or capabilities becomes a very sensitive matter. Second, declaratory policy–what we say about the purposes of the arsenal, including the circumstances under which it might be used–matters a great deal. Talk is cheap, but it's not trivial.

When the time comes, which part of the nuclear triad is liable to be eliminated first?

A few months ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates opened this discussion by remarking publicly that it was time to contemplate knocking out one of the legs of the triad. But he said that it wouldn't be the bombers. It certainly won't be the submarine-based missiles, either, as these are the most survivable component of the strategic nuclear force. That leaves the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which is interesting, since Gates started his career in public service as an intelligence officer at an ICBM base! But all sentimentality aside, the ICBMs have some competitive disadvantages that make the choice almost inevitable. First of all, they can't be moved or hidden, so they're vulnerable to the Russian arsenal, which is large and accurate. Second, to reach most places in the eastern hemisphere besides Russia, they'd have to overfly Russia, and that could be a problem. These two considerations complicate efforts to define their continuing role. If we didn't have them already, it's doubtful that we'd build ICBMs today.

When does bilateral arms control stop and multilateral arms control begin–and the same for nuclear disarmament and conventional disarmament?

Multilateral arms control is already proceeding, in the form of CTBT ratification efforts and Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty talks, which are now on the agenda of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. When third countries such as China join the U.S.-Russian arms reduction process is harder to say.

One question, at least in my mind, is when to engage the Chinese on non-nuclear strategic issues, including anti-satellite weapons, non-nuclear strategic missiles, and missile defenses. Enough of these issues need to be addressed in the second round of the START follow-on talks that there's a case to be made to wait before broaching them with Beijing. But I'm of the view that it hurts more to wait. The Taiwan Strait is far more likely than any other imaginable situation to implicate Washington in a great power conflict. The interactions of emerging non-nuclear strategic systems–U.S. and Chinese–create a sort of bridge between the use of conventional weapons and the use of nuclear weapons. This becomes a more serious problem the longer it goes unaddressed.

I'm absolutely not predicting an armed conflict between these two major trading partners. It's vanishingly unlikely. But both sides continue to prepare for one anyway. That creates a great deal of mistrust and makes it more difficult to cooperate in other areas where the two sides' ability to work together is essential.

What's the most significant challenge to the nonproliferation regime today?

Enrichment with vacuum centrifuges is the biggest single headache today, but by no means the only one. It's so hard to detect clandestine centrifuge plants that very intrusive safeguards become necessary. So do other forms of international cooperation, such as collaborating in strengthening export controls, monitoring financial transactions, participating in the interdiction of suspicious shipments, and enforcing tough measures against violators. But there isn't strong enough consensus that these are good ideas. If a strengthened nonproliferation regime is viewed as an attempt by a few states–most of all, the United States–to lock in advantages in power and prestige, the effort seems likely to founder. But if a strengthened nonproliferation regime is seen as the cornerstone of international security, whose benefits are widely and evenly distributed, it should win support.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Topics: Uncategorized

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments