Two sides to the coin

By Evgeny Buzhinsky, June 4, 2013

The April 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review communicates a nuclear doctrine that closely reflects the policies of the Obama administration and presents substantial strategic innovations. The report highlights the need to maintain a nuclear deterrence capability — but also de-emphasizes "the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs" and reaffirms an intention to cut the US nuclear arsenal.

The new doctrine states that the "fundamental role of US nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners." But the United States "would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners." The role of nuclear weapons in deterring conventional, chemical, and biological attacks is reduced — and the document stresses that the nuclear arsenal that the United States inherited from the Cold War era is poorly suited to challenges posed by terrorists and unfriendly regimes that seek nuclear weapons. Therefore, the document says, "it is essential that we better align our nuclear policies and posture to our most urgent priorities — preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

The US commitment "to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction" seems to mean that the United States will continue its efforts to stop proliferation of WMD through all possible means, including military options — but I feel certain that the use of nuclear weapons in this context is excluded. Nonetheless, the commitment does not strengthen international security, since the military options contemplated under the policy will most probably amount to one-sided US decisions to use force against a sovereign state or a non-state actor that is acting within the territory of a sovereign state. It does not contribute to the disarmament process (nuclear and otherwise) because US reliance on non-nuclear military options assumes that existing conventional weapons will be improved and new ones will be developed, thus giving new impetus to the global arms race. It contributes to some extent to nonproliferation processes, at least insofar as its goal is correlated with those processes.

In any event, I am confident that the overall US policy expressed in the Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that nuclear weapons may have a counterproductive influence on WMD proliferation — that is, the more you rely on nuclear weapons as means of deterrence, the more other countries might want to obtain them. Moreover, the report makes clear to me that President Obama and his administration realize that nuclear weapons cannot solve the vital problems of the 21st century: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, regional conflicts and the mass migration of refugees that might result from them, cyber wars, organized crime, and illicit drug trafficking. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy is unequivocally positive.

But there is another side to the coin. The Nuclear Posture Review fails to update policies regarding the deployment and modernization of nuclear forces and their infrastructure, and indeed the posture review's approach to modernization ensures that nuclear forces will remain a central instrument of US national security strategy for decades to come.

Regarding deployment, the report includes no substantial changes to US nuclear force structure — heavy bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — or to their alert status. And it signals a rather aggressive approach to modernization. It states that the United States plans to develop and deploy a new generation of nuclear weapon delivery systems in the next two decades, including ballistic missile submarines and land-based missiles; will replace existing nuclear-capable fighter-bombers with the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; will study whether and how to replace existing air-launched cruise missiles; will not accept limits on its missile defense program; and will preserve options for deployment of conventionally armed missiles. A subsequent White House report to the Senate in connection with New START ratification stated, "Over the next decade the United States will invest well over $100 billion in nuclear delivery systems to sustain existing capabilities and modernize some strategic systems."

The Nuclear Posture Review also reports that work on warhead life extension will proceed for the W-76 submarine-based ballistic-missile warhead; the B-61 bomb, deployed on fighter-bombers; and the W-78 warhead, deployed on land-based missiles. While the review claims that the work will "not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities," life extension of the W-76 in fact enhances the capability to hit hard targets. Also, military capability does not depend on warheads alone, and improvements to delivery systems are ongoing — for example, to the F-35's targeting, command, and control.

Meanwhile, major investments in weapons production facilities are planned, supposedly to hedge against further reductions in deployed and non-deployed nuclear warheads. The administration plans to spend $80 billion through 2020 on the nuclear weapons complex, in addition to the $100 billion intended for delivery systems.

I believe that the United States, as well as Russia and all other de jure or de facto nuclear states, should meet the real threats and challenges of the 21st century by modernizing their nuclear strategies beyond the sorts of steps envisioned in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The main thrust of this modernization would be a pair of transitions: away from individual approaches to emerging local and regional threats, and toward collectives ones; and away from "positive" control of nuclear weapons, which emphasizes the ability to utilize nuclear capabilities rapidly, and toward "negative" control, which focuses on preventing accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons or their seizure by terrorists.

The United States and other countries could help effect these transitions, and also contribute to nonproliferation and minimize terrorist threats, if they took a few specific steps. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons should be consolidated and made safer, and more reliable safeguarding mechanisms should be introduced. Operationally deployed warheads and delivery systems should be reduced in number. The time needed to achieve combat readiness for nuclear forces should be increased — to something between 24 and 72 hours. Conventional forces should be prepared to engage in combat for the first 24 to 72 hours of a conflict, until an enemy is defeated or nuclear readiness is fully established. Command, control, and early warning systems should be structured so that combat efforts can be adequately coordinated during the early stages of a conflict, while control of nuclear forces is shifting from negative to positive. It is through steps such as these that the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs could truly be reduced.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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