The Nuclear Posture Review, now and later

By Joshua Pollack | January 6, 2010

The long-awaited report of the third Nuclear Posture Review is now scheduled for delivery to Congress on March 1. According to a recent New York Times article, the posture review will consider the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to be equally as important as the nuclear deterrence mission. It remains to be seen how this combination will be accomplished, but these choices will form the substance of what could be a refreshing departure from tradition.

There is nothing new about any of the three ideas, taken separately. Deterrence is the core mission of strategic nuclear forces. The prevention of nuclear proliferation is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And preventing terrorism with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons has been a sustained concern of the U.S. government since at least the mid-1990s. Since 2004, when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1540, keeping WMD out of the hands of “non-state actors” has been, in principle, a global priority.

If the overwhelmingly powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal sufficed to check the spread of nuclear weapons and the potential for nuclear terrorism, then our concerns about these problems wouldn’t be growing today.”

Connecting nonproliferation to deterrence isn’t entirely new, either. A 2009 Strategic Posture Commission report stated that extended deterrence, in the form of guarantees to the allies of the United States and the Soviet Union, “strongly inhibited” nuclear proliferation during the Cold War. The same report also tied counterterrorism to nonproliferation, anticipating “the imminent danger of nuclear terrorism if we pass a tipping point in nuclear proliferation.”

Indeed, one way to link deterrence, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism would be to assert, without much further elaboration, that each mission supports the next, in the order above. But this reasoning makes for cold comfort. If the overwhelmingly powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal sufficed to check the spread of nuclear weapons and the potential for nuclear terrorism, then our concerns about these problems wouldn’t be growing today.

Fresh thinking is needed.

The Times reports that the posture review will call for added support for collecting intelligence on would-be nuclear smugglers or terrorists and for advancing the science of nuclear forensics. While the timing of the review means that it cannot affect these programs in the fiscal year 2010 budget, it could have an influence in future years.

Still, there are at least two ways that the posture review might quickly and usefully address the threats of nuclear proliferation or terrorism. Neither requires any special technology or innovation. Both are simple, straightforward ideas involving traditional aspects of nuclear posture–nothing too exotic or complex.

The first proposal concerns declaratory policy, an issue I discussed in my October column. According to a Los Angeles Times article, an internal debate is raging over whether to recommend making a statement that the U.S. nuclear arsenal exists solely to deter attack against the United States and its allies. Making this type of announcement comes at little, if any, price and would strengthen Washington’s hand in its efforts to reinforce the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would underscore that U.S. nuclear weapons do not play any coercive role that could be seen as legitimizing proliferation.

The second proposal concerns the security of U.S. nuclear weapons. A 2008 Air Force blue-ribbon review observed that security at the NATO air bases designated capable of hosting tactical nuclear weapons “varies from country to country in terms of personnel, facilities, and equipment,” and in most places was well short of Defense Department standards. It recommended the consideration of “consolidation of resources,” implying a withdrawal of bombs from less secure facilities. Carrying out a consolidation could help to keep U.S. nuclear weapons away from criminals or terrorists.

There are undoubtedly other ways of trying to address proliferation and terrorism, but some of them should be avoided. One particularly counterproductive idea would be to return to a proposal featured in the 2001 nuclear posture review: to acquire and deploy conventionally armed “strategic strike systems,” either in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This idea has found little favor in Congress. Regardless, a 2008 report of a panel of the National Research Council called for a conventional modification of the submarine-launched Trident missile deemed capable of delivering strikes anywhere in the world against “fleeting targets” such as WMD smugglers or terrorists, even in as little as an hour’s time.

With counterterrorism and counterproliferation as features of the posture review, this idea may seem attractive at first glance. But for reasons I examined in detail in a Bulletin article last year, the conventional Trident concept would be, at best, beside the point. Experience with pursuing “high-value targets” has shown that the most persistent difficulties do not involve range, speed, accuracy, lethality, or any other weapons-system characteristic. The main challenge is correctly identifying the target. This point isn’t lost on anyone associated with the USS Vincennes-Iran Air 655 disaster of 1988 or the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Nor must it be explained to the commanders in Afghanistan who have imposed restrictive rules of engagement on the use of air power after multiple incidents involving civilian casualties.

The development of reliable intelligence on a fleeting target is a painstaking, time-consuming process that requires assets in theater. A prime example is the successful pursuit of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq. When this sort of high-quality intelligence cannot be had, as in the pursuit of Pakistani Taliban commander Beitullah Mehsud, it is possible to end up shooting at the wrong target, even repeatedly. If anything, relying on long-range strikes would compound the difficulty of correctly identifying targets, since it allows no possibility of pre-attack visual confirmation. Using ballistic missiles also would magnify the consequences of error.

As unorthodox as it may be to incorporate nonproliferation and counterterrorism into a nuclear posture review, the idea could be a net gain for national security. If the drafters make the right choices in deciding how to pursue it, the posture review might have a lasting and constructive legacy.

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