A complex nuclear situation, in a complicated world

By Robert Gallucci | August 8, 2016

Editor's note: What follows is the text of an address given at the Asahi Shimbun Symposium in Nagasaki, Japan, late in July 2016.

Ladies and gentlemen, just two months ago, President Obama noted, in his speech in Hiroshima, that it has been 71 years since “death fell from the sky” onto that city. And today we observe that the instantaneous, catastrophic death of an atomic bomb fell on this city, too, just three days later.

President Obama said that it was important to commemorate, to mourn, to think about what it must have been like that terrible day in Hiroshima. Today, we should do the same in Nagasaki. Some here may even be able to remember—or, more likely, cannot forget—what it was like so many years ago.

I cannot remember. I was not born until six months later, but most of my adult life has been shaped by those events nonetheless. Much of my education and most of my professional life has been devoted to study and work to understand and prevent another detonation of a nuclear weapon anywhere on the planet. I was 15 years old, a high school student, when I checked out a book from the public library: Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War. I was horrified—and mesmerized—as I came to understand the magnitude of the energy released when the bonds that bind atoms together are broken. I would learn that this can happen suddenly, in a fraction of a second, in a nuclear explosion, or over years in a nuclear power plant. As it turns out, notwithstanding the common phrase, “peaceful nuclear energy,” used to describe the operation of nuclear power plants, special care must be taken whenever man plans to harness the binding energy in atoms, even if the goal is only to boil water to drive a turbine and produce electricity.

Arms control and disarmament. From the beginning, world leaders understood that a new era had begun. The incredible explosive power and radiation effects of nuclear weapons, when combined with penetrating intercontinental delivery systems of bomber aircraft and ballistic missiles, would soon make the people of every country in the world vulnerable to annihilation. True defense was not possible in 1945. Indeed, it is still not possible. Pause, please, and think about that. No government in the world can defend its population by denial, by preventing sophisticated ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons from causing the death, in seconds, of millions of its citizens.

Instead, governments have embraced deterrence, the promise of retaliation, as a way to deal with the threat and discourage attack. Deterrence is actually a curious concept with some perverse characteristics, about which I will want to say more. But for now, suffice it to say that deterrence offers no hope of physically protecting a nation’s population, only the hope that a potential attacker will be dissuaded from launching his missiles by the knowledge that his country would inevitably be destroyed in a counterattack. Deterrence is, therefore, as much psychological as physical, and nations that depend on deterrence for their security, as we do, are betting that they understand foreign leaders’ risk propensities and tolerance for pain, as well as their belief in the credibility of the threat to retaliate. I note, parenthetically, that one may wonder if our faith in the rationality of world leaders in the midst of crisis is based on much evidence from history; but that is a topic for another day.

At the same time, the instinct of many, inside and outside of government, was not to rely on deterrence indefinitely, but to limit and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminated us. Inside government, efforts were focused on arms control, usually meaning negotiations between governments to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war and its consequences if it did occur. Think here about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the Soviet Union and the United States, known as SALT, and later bilateral agreements right up to the most recently negotiated New START, the strategic arms reduction treaty between Russia and the United States. Think also of multilateral agreements, the long struggle to ban nuclear testing, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, with more than 190 members, aimed at preventing more countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Outside of government, movements arose over the decades of the Cold War aimed at the total ban on nuclear weapons, and most recently, in this post–Cold War world, the “nuclear zero” initiative has been advanced. Almost a decade ago, two former US secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, a former secretary of defense, William Perry, and an influential former US senator, Sam Nunn, argued strongly for the total abolition of nuclear weapons, asserting, among other things, that unless abolition is effectively embraced by those governments with nuclear weapons, many more countries will eventually possess them, and the world will become a much more dangerous place for us all.

Then, at the beginning of his first term in office, in a speech in Prague, and then again, near the end of his second term in office, in his speech in Hiroshima, President Obama presented a vision of a world without nuclear weapons. He did so in part, I think, to legitimize the abolition of nuclear weapons as a genuine policy objective of the US government. He wanted to move it from mere rhetoric and a formal, but non-enforceable, obligation captured in the NPT, to a plausible, obtainable goal for which world leaders should strive. So now, it is fair to ask, how have we done—and by “we” I mean particularly, but not exclusively, the United States—in pursing that objective, and what can we expect in the future?

In very gross terms, and just considering total numbers of nuclear weapons of all kinds, at the height of the Cold War, there were roughly 60,000 nuclear weapons in the world, more than 99 percent of which were in the Soviet and American arsenals, in about equal numbers. Today, counting deployed, stockpiled, and “retired” weapons, there are probably about 16,000, with about 95 percent in US and Russian hands, again, in about equal numbers. So, over perhaps 50 years, the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has been reduced by about three-quarters, mostly as the result of decisions in Moscow and Washington.

What should we think about that? Perhaps we should consider this important progress toward a goal of fewer nuclear weapons and even toward nuclear zero. Unambiguously, we want to believe that it is “good news,” though having thousands of nuclear weapons in the hands nine governments is still, for most of us, not exactly great news.

For us, today, in this city, it is tempting for me to simply join the call for more aggressive disarmament, to praise my president for what he has accomplished from the Prague agenda, and lament the failure not to accomplish more of it. For example, President Obama committed to a new treaty with Russia, setting lower limits on deployed strategic nuclear weapons, and he delivered with New START. He wanted to have international sanctions that would penalize violators of standards on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and we have seen more comprehensive sanctions applied to North Korea in recent years. And he emphasized the dangers of nuclear terrorism and thus the need for better nuclear security for all countries holding fissile material. This resulted in four Nuclear Security Summits, two in Washington and one each in The Hague and Seoul, which greatly improved security arrangements, particularly to protect highly enriched uranium.

The report card would also show that a number of other proposed moves have not been made. The United States has still not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; there has been no discernable progress toward a treaty that would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons; and there is no nuclear fuel bank to undercut the rationale for additional national uranium-enrichment programs.

There are, of course, good reasons why these goals have not been realized, and they have nothing to do with the sincerity with which the president enunciated them: At no point during the president’s tenure have there been the required votes in the US Senate to ratify the test-ban treaty; a fissile material cutoff treaty has been blocked by just those countries it would aim to restrain, Pakistan and India; and no enthusiasm for the creation of an international fuel bank has been shown by those countries who hold uranium-enrichment technology or may aspire to it in the future.

So, we can continue this way. We can argue for bigger reductions in nuclear weapons arsenals until we all reach zero. One might ask, “How could that not be the sane, rational course?” Would it not mean that there would be less risk of a nuclear detonation as a result of an accident, or an unauthorized order to launch, or a miscalculation by some inexperienced political leader? In fact, would not the abolition of nuclear weapons mean that catastrophic, instantaneous death could not again fall from the sky? Indeed, as has been said, if we fail at abolition, do we not accept and legitimize the future use of nuclear weapons in war? Why not disarmament to abolition?

Deterrence. Ladies and gentlemen, I teach a course to undergraduate and graduate students at Georgetown University entitled, “Nuclear Weapons and International Security.” I want my students to come away knowing a bit more about the connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy; about the thermal, blast, and radiation effects of nuclear weapons; about the complexity of deterrence in the 21st century; about why states acquire nuclear weapons; and about how to reduce the risk of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. I want them to understand that all these questions are complicated, many are marked by paradox and thus more complicated than the simple call for disarmament would suggest. And if we do not analyze the implications of achieving the goals we set, our policies could end up increasing rather than decreasing the dangers we fear.

To deal with this complexity, we might begin by recalling that along with President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons came a commitment to ensure that as long as the United States had nuclear weapons, they would continue to be safe, secure, and effective. He also committed to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in America’s national security strategy, and to not introducing new nuclear weapons or assigning new missions to US weapons.

This sounds reasonable enough. But it has been interpreted as permission to proceed with a planned renovation of the US intercontinental ballistic missile force and the eventual introduction of new ballistic-missile submarines and manned bombers, as well a new air-launched cruise missile and new variations on an existing nuclear-weapon design, requiring roughly a trillion dollars over the next three decades to be devoted to America’s strategic nuclear weapons arsenal: safe, secure, and effective. This program is designed, among other things, to give a future American president more nuclear options in a crisis, with less collateral damage, thus increasing the plausibility of a decision to use them. In other words, by making US nuclear weapons “easier” to use, the credibility of our deterrent is enhanced, and the likelihood that they will have to be used is reduced. It is this sort of deterrent logic that connects the planned investment in strategic nuclear forces with the object of maintaining their effectiveness.

It also, arguably, lowers the “nuclear threshold”—the point in an escalating crisis when the use of a nuclear weapon may appear appropriate to the threat. The paradox is clear: By making the use of a nuclear weapon plausible, easier for a decision maker to elect, deterrence is supposed to be enhanced, and the likelihood of use reduced.

This type of thinking becomes even more salient when dealing with the “extension” of the deterrent threat, as when the United States extends a nuclear umbrella to an ally—particularly an ally that has no nuclear weapons but may confront a state that does. The United States maintains alliances with a number of countries where this is exactly the case. America’s commitment to its NATO allies in Europe, and to those countries in Asia with whom it maintains bilateral treaty commitments, such as Japan, requires it to honor its defense obligations, plausibly to include the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary. The challenge of being credible about the threat to use nuclear weapons is obviously exacerbated when a nation proposes to put its own population at risk to defend an ally’s population. Credibility, in that circumstance, is the measure of effectiveness.

De-emphasizing nuclear weapons also sounds good, but it has meant, among other things, the pursuit of conventional weapons technologies that would allow a strike at an adversary’s strategic nuclear forces—its deterrent—without resort to nuclear weapons. Needless to say, the development of this type of capability by one country makes other countries worry about the viability of their deterrent forces, and can lead them to increase and enhance those forces. New conventional weapons technologies in Russia, China, and the United States may have this effect upon each other.

A similar calculation is made by countries that confront new ballistic missile defenses. Some in the United States argue that defense, even only partially effective defense, is good policy for America or any other country, and should not be regarded as threatening. But as the United States deploys such defense to reduce the threat from new nuclear-weapons states armed with ballistic missiles—for whom deterrence may not be thought effective—other countries see that defense as denying them their capacity to deter an attack. And again, the result may be a decision to increase and enhance their strategic nuclear forces in response. In Asia, US ballistic missile defense deployments, and plans to share the capability with its ally, South Korea, have caused concern in Beijing. Similar anxiety has arisen in Moscow in response to US ballistic missile defense plans in Europe aimed at countering a possible future threat from Iran. Thus, the result of purely defensive deployments aimed at reducing a threat from one source may lead to an increase in the threat from another.

Today, the United States believes that it would be better off if agreement could be reached to eliminate so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Fifty years ago, when NATO thought it needed to threaten nuclear war to deter what it perceived to be a conventionally superior Warsaw Pact, America embraced tactical nuclear weapons as an acceptable way to bridge the credibility gap between conventional forces and strategic nuclear weapons. We Americans thought it more credible to propose to fight a limited nuclear war than a strategic nuclear war. We eventually re-evaluated that calculation, in part because we lost confidence that any nuclear war would remain limited. Today, Russia has embraced the first use of tactical nuclear weapons as a way to deal with NATO’s conventional superiority. Pakistan has done likewise to counter India’s superior conventional force capability. Clearly, tactical nuclear weapons lower the “nuclear threshold”—which is a good reason to want to eliminate them, and also the reason some countries, such as Russia and Pakistan, value them so highly.

So, one might ask, how do we deal with the insecurities of a world that looks all too much like Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, complicated by perverse deterrent calculations that have accompanied the development of nuclear weapons?

Trade-offs. We should recognize, I think, that in most of these cases there are no risk-free options. There is no free lunch, as we like to say in New York. Our task is to figure out how to calculate the risks and, most important, how to manage and reduce them.

For example, a government can decide to enhance the effectiveness of its strategic nuclear forces by planning to launch them if ever the nation is thought to be under attack. Or, even more provocatively, the decision to launch could be made automatic and even sooner, if a launch is planned whenever there is even a credible warning of an attack. Both of these postures—launch under attack and launch on warning—require that nuclear forces be maintained on alert, and arguably enhance deterrence by reducing doubt in a potential attacker’s mind that he will suffer retaliation. But we might find that the risk of error, that no attack is actually coming or under way, is just too great to adopt this way of enhancing deterrence. I would, in fact, conclude just that, and would oppose maintaining nuclear forces on alert.

Another example goes to the enthusiasm some have for very small-yield nuclear weapons. The United States has for decades had weapons in its arsenal that could yield only a few tenths of a kiloton, equivalent to a few hundred tons of TNT. The appeal of such a weapon would be to increase the number of circumstances in which a nuclear weapon could credibly be elected for use; the risk is that as the yield is suppressed, the so-called “firebreak” between conventional and nuclear weapons is blurred, opening the door to continuous escalation. Again, for me, the risk is too great for the United States, or any other country, for the gain in flexibility.

A final example has to do with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles—or MIRVs. Russia has apparently decided that it wishes to enhance the deterrent effectiveness of a portion of its intercontinental ballistic missile force by “MIRVing” its missiles. But these fixed, vulnerable systems are destabilizing because they enhance the value of striking first in a crisis, and for this reason, the United States decided to “de-MIRV” its intercontinental ballistic missile force. For me, the provocative character of such “MIRVed” missiles makes them a poor choice as a way to enhance deterrence.

As we think about the risks associated with various near-term choices governments may make with respect to nuclear weapons, one of the most important will be the calculations in Moscow and Washington about how much lower they can agree to go in numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, assuming the current international political situation remains essentially unchanged. It is easy to argue that we should aim for stability at the lowest level possible, but that calculation must take account of the demands of extended deterrence, the asymmetry in numbers of tactical nuclear weapons, the intentions of new or potentially new nuclear-weapons states, and the absence of China, at least so far, from these discussions. My view is that, notwithstanding these concerns, significant negotiated reductions could be accomplished without undercutting stability, and would be desirable from both the military and political perspectives. Indeed, President Obama has proposed an additional one-third reduction below the New START levels, but, so far, Russia has been uninterested.

Nuclear terrorism. My remarks, until now, have been about nation states and nuclear weapons. I want to turn now to the topics of nuclear terrorism and nuclear power.

At least in the United States, it is common for presidents and candidates for president to assert that the greatest threat to the national security would come from a non-national group, armed with a nuclear weapon, wishing to commit an act of terrorism in an American city. While concerns about that scenario have been with us for many decades, it is only since the end of the Cold War that they have replaced the specter of a nuclear exchange between nation states as the principal threat.

No one in America seems to doubt that there are homegrown terrorists, as well as terrorists from abroad, who quite plausibly would detonate a nuclear explosive device in an American city, if they could get their hands on one. Recall the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168 people and was perpetrated by two Americans, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, committed by Al Qaeda and killing nearly 3,000 people. I would note that Japan had its own terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo, that launched fatal attacks 20 years ago against Japanese citizens using sarin gas, and dreamed of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device, going as far as making efforts to acquire the necessary nuclear material to build one.

The threat of nuclear terrorism has a different character than the threat arising form nation states launching a nuclear attack. As noted earlier, no one has any real defense against a nuclear strike conducted with ballistic missiles, but we have developed deterrence, as unsatisfactory as it may be, as a way to address that threat. Terrorism is also not amenable to any defense in which we should have confidence, but for a different reason than a ballistic-missile attack. The terrorist’s delivery system almost always involves an unconventional mode of attack, from a military perspective, such as a bus, train, truck, car, boat, or civilian airliner, all of which are regarded as essential means of transport in modern societies. But unlike a potential attack from a nation state, a terrorist attack may not be discouraged by deterrence, the threat of retaliation. Terrorist attacks are often conducted by those who are suicidal, and directed by those who do not have territory or a population that can be put at risk. Simply put, terrorists may value the deaths of those they wish to kill more than preserving their own lives or the lives of their followers. Such individuals and groups are with us today—ISIS comes to mind—and they are not good candidates for deterrence.

The issue with nuclear terrorism, then, is not whether there are groups who wish to do great harm to innocent individuals, nor the vulnerability of such open societies as exist in Japan and the United States, but whether these groups will succeed in acquiring the means to cause the catastrophic and instantaneous death unique to a nuclear explosion. Whether that is extremely unlikely to occur or, alternatively, a likely development, particularly over decades of time, is much debated among experts in international security. Some analysts have argued that terrorists might obtain a nuclear weapon by stealing one from the stockpile of one of the world’s nuclear-weapons states. Indeed, concern that this could happen is one of the reasons put forth for abolishing nuclear weapons, or at least reducing their number to as few as possible.

Other analysts, myself included, calculate that the most likely route to a nuclear explosive device by a terrorist group is by the manufacture of one—building an improvised nuclear device. The design for such a device is no longer much of a secret and has not been for quite some time. But the essential component of that device, its fissile material core, is still not easy to come by. Since acquisition of a sufficient amount of fissile material—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—is the principle obstacle to manufacturing such an improvised device, securing that material from theft, wherever it is on the planet, has become an international goal. As noted, President Obama’s initiative, and the nuclear summits that followed, did much to improve the security of this material, particularly highly enriched uranium.

The problem now, as I see it, is to stop the separation of the other fissile material, plutonium, and secure existing stockpiles absolutely, until they can be destroyed or treated as nuclear waste and disposed of. Since there is no energy or non-explosive use for highly enriched uranium—except as naval reactor fuel in some countries—ending its production, except for military purposes, has been relatively straightforward. The challenge of doing likewise with plutonium, however, is that some countries still hold out hope that it may be used as a fuel in nuclear reactors, and thus wish to create and preserve stockpiles of it for eventual nuclear power generation. Japan is one of those few countries that harbors such hopes.

We should be clear on a number of points here. How Japan, as a sovereign nation, decides to meet its energy needs is a matter for the government in Tokyo to decide. That said, the decisions it makes in a matter, such as the disposition of plutonium produced in its nuclear reactors, affects the security of other nations in northeast Asia and around the world. I have focused on the terrorist threat and the importance of limiting or eliminating the chance of terrorists gaining access to plutonium. Understand that the amount of plutonium used to visit destruction on this city in 1945 would fit in a coffee cup and weigh just six kilograms, while the nuclear plant to be opened at Rokkasho in a couple of years is designed to separate 8,000 kilograms of plutonium each year. A very small mistake could have very large consequences.

Besides the concern about terrorists getting their hands on this material, there is the precedent that would be set in this region if Japan proceeds with its current plutonium plans. China is currently making arrangements to purchase a plutonium-separation plant of comparable size to Rokkasho from France. And South Korea has been pressing the United States to allow it to build such a plant as well. This all could easily result in the separation of sufficient quantities of plutonium to support national nuclear-weapons programs in each country, a possibility that has not been lost on all three governments.

There are, then, a number of good reasons for these governments to act with restraint, to at least pause before proceeding down the plutonium path. And there are no very good reasons to push ahead, at least not for those solely concerned with the peaceful generation of nuclear power. It is true that plutonium can reduce uranium requirements in the current generation of nuclear power plants, but there is no shortage of uranium or of the facilities needed to enrich it. Moreover, the cost associated with plutonium separation facilities, and the plants needed to make special plutonium fuels, far exceed whatever savings may be realized in uranium and its enrichment. And while the need for plutonium for fast breeder reactors may at some point emerge, the promise of that technology, pursued now for 50 years, has yet to be realized. It is worth noting that the United States has close to 100 operating power plants and has not found an economically defensible reason for separating plutonium, not to fuel power reactors and not to manage radioactive waste.

Politics. As I conclude my remarks, it occurs to me that they have been relatively antiseptic or apolitical. I have wanted to focus on the complexities of international security that derive from the perversities of deterrent calculations, and the unique character of nuclear energy—whether released in a nuclear weapon or a nuclear-power reactor. What has not been addressed, and is essential to the management of the nuclear threat, is the political context in which events unfold. A brief review of a few critical cases, with prescriptions, is in order.

First, the US-Russian relationship is in profound need of reconsideration by both countries. The reset button needs a reset button. Most obviously, the United States and its NATO allies need to find ways to unambiguously convey to Russia their commitment to the territorial integrity and security of European nations, without threatening the security of Russia or its legitimate interests in the region. Russian moves in Crimea and in Ukraine, as well as gratuitous provocations elsewhere in Europe, have brought the easily anticipated responses from the West. Breaking this cycle is profoundly in the interest of both countries, and would certainly help to reduce the domestic incentives to inflate the strategic threat from the other that is perceived in each capital.

In the Far East, China has risen and America has pivoted to Asia. The challenge for both countries is to protect their political and economic interests, without having the inevitable competition between them create a threat to the other’s security, or, in the US case, the security of its allies. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere, provocations from North Korea, and concerns about the resolution of the status of Taiwan all hold the potential for confrontation. And as long as that remains true, Chinese enhancements of its strategic nuclear forces, and US ballistic missile defense deployments and improvements in conventional force projection capability, will raise concerns in Washington and Beijing about the other’s strategic intent.

North Korea’s insistence on testing and retaining its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile capability threatens those in its neighborhood—Japan and South Korea—as well as the United States. Almost all observers believe that negotiations are the only way through this dilemma, but unless the North’s nuclear and missile programs are on the table, talks would only legitimize that which the international community clearly regards as illegitimate. Until serious engagement is possible, the surest way to manage this threat is to contain it, to maintain the bilateral alliances between the United States and Japan, and the United States and South Korea—both of which depend upon the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent—while encouraging Beijing to an ever more active role in moving Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

Finally, we turn to the case that is perhaps the most worrisome of all in terms of the evident risk of military confrontation leading to a nuclear exchange: South Asia. Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear weapons program in the world. With over 100 nuclear weapons, diverse delivery systems, and fissile material production programs, it has made its nuclear weapons the preferred means to counter India’s advantage in conventional forces. India has responded to Pakistan’s build-up, but also appears to assess its nuclear capability in terms of its ability to deter China, which has both conventional and nuclear advantage. This three-way dynamic is unlikely to be broken until the civilian leadership in Islamabad can persuade sufficient numbers of its population that India represents not so much the greatest threat to its security as the greatest opportunity for its economic growth. Kashmir and terrorism will have to be dealt with, of course, but hopes will not be high for this until a political reorientation occurs, probably requiring a shift in political power in Islamabad from military to civilian leadership. While the chances of all this happening are not great, they would improve significantly if China played an active and constructive role.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been my honor to have had this opportunity to present some thoughts about security in our complex world—a world that is filled with risks and opportunities. I have wanted to argue here that many of the risks are “hard wired” into the way in which we think about nuclear weapons and the logic of deterrence, while the opportunities are largely political.

As an American who is proud of his president and his policies, I still look ahead to what might be accomplished by the next one, just six months from now. Will he or she be able to re-engage North Korea diplomatically and end the threat from its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, lead an initiative in South Asia which would substantially reduce tensions, and adopt policies that both assure China and Russia that we are prepared to discuss ways to reduce the perceived threat to their deterrent, while reassuring our allies of the reliability of our commitment to their security?

I pray that we can work together to make sure that the catastrophes of the past do not become part of our future. We need to make the world a much safer place for our children and grandchildren.

Together, we make the world safer.

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