Reports have surfaced that sometime this week President Obama will declare that the United States is changing the nuclear strategy that has maintained the security of the Free World for half a century. The essence of the U.S. strategy was the willingness of every administration since Eisenhower to place, first, its military, but ultimately, the American people in harms way. America’s willingness to sacrifice our own in the defense of friends and allies was the glue that held together the alliances in Europe and Asia. Also, this commitment is what made our deterrent of non-nuclear threats credible in an era when we did not enjoy conventional superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The United States was willing to escalate, to use nuclear weapons first.
The key to the success of the U.S. deterrence strategy was the creation of a series of deterrence thresholds like rungs on a ladder. The idea was that at each step up the ladder the adversary was left with only two choices, either accept defeat or escalate to the next level of conflict with the attendant risk of still greater destruction. Ultimately, deterrence against a nuclear-armed adversary required that he be placed in the position of making the next to last decision, the one to unleash general strategic nuclear war. The adversary knew that by unleashing a large-scale strike against U.S. cities that this country would have no choice but to retaliate in kind. Hence, it was better not to start a fight with the United States which the adversary might win at one rung on the escalatory ladder but which it would inevitably lose as the United States raised the ante.
Now, if these reports are correct, President Obama will dismantle the successful strategy of the past fifty years. The president is reported to be planning to announce that under the new strategy U.S. nuclear weapons use would only come in response to nuclear use by an adversary. The U.S. will also withdraw its remaining tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. The United States will no longer deter non-nuclear attacks by the threat to escalate nor will it rely on its nuclear arsenal to deter attacks involving other types of weapons of mass destruction.
The new Obama strategy is based on three premises. First, that U.S. conventional power is sufficient to deter not only conventional threats but even the use of chemical or biological agents against U.S. forces, allies and territory. Second, that other nations do not need “skin in the game” to make deterrence, particularly extended deterrence that protects U.S. allies, work. Third, that nuclear deterrence is a unique political-strategic formulation, one that can be segregated from the rest of the deterrence construct. By disconnecting nuclear weapons from the continuum of deterrence the theory is that they can be rendered all-but irrelevant. Taking U.S. nuclear weapons out of the deterrence continuum will, it is assumed, motivate other nations to do the same. Nuclear weapons will only deter other nuclear weapons hence they will never be employed. As a result, nuclear deterrence can be reduced to the need to deter a nuclear first strike and the number of nuclear weapons reduced to just enough to destroy a number of enemy cities. This approach is also known as minimum deterrence.
The Obama strategy is wrong on all three counts. The reality is that conventional deterrence fails and fails often. Moreover, nations can lose a conventional war, even the United States. The only alternative to losing a war should not be to unleash countervalue nuclear strikes against an adversary thereby inviting the same on American cities. Moreover, it is doubtful that such a threat would be deterring to an adversary pursuing limited objectives.
Even if U.S. conventional forces are adequate to take up the burden of strategic deterrence, this reality will act as a spur to other nations to retain or acquire nuclear weapons. For several decades now, first the Soviet Union and now Russia has argued that a role of its nuclear forces was to deter so-called conventional attacks with nuclear equivalent effects. A policy of deterrence that does not pose the threat of a series of escalatory action fairly begs other nations to pursue a nuclear deterrent option of their own.
Recognizing the growing power of large-scale precision weapons, U.S. adversaries are investing heavily in deeply buried facilities. Many of these are directly under mountains where they are likely to be immune to even the largest conventional bombs. These facilities protect what these regimes value most highly — government leaders, nuclear weapons production, advanced weapons storage, precisely the targets that a strategy of deterrence would wish to hold at risk. If these sites are also heavily defended, they may not be even accessible to airborne attack. Nuclear weapons will be needed to provide a high certainty of their destruction.
For deterrence to work, it was important that everyone had skin in the game. The U.S. had skin because of its conventional force deployments in Europe and the Far East. Our allies had skin because of the presence of theater nuclear weapons on their soil which would be likely targets of hostile nuclear attack. Also, they would be responsible for employing some of them in the event of a decision to employ nuclear weapons. If those weapons were withdrawn the escalation ladder is broken and a nuclear exchange could take place over our allies’ heads, risking only U.S. targets but not those in allied countries. How long will the American people tolerate such a situation?
Finally, the Obama strategy erroneously assumes that nuclear deterrence can be separated from the rest of the deterrence continuum. The least likely event is a surprise nuclear attack against the U.S. homeland. This is true regardless of the prospective adversary. In reality, nuclear deterrence will come into play when adversaries commit aggression against U.S. allies and overseas interests. If the adversary avoids attacks on the U.S. homeland or perhaps even against U.S. allies it knows it will be safe from the threat of nuclear first use. This means that all the nuclear risk is on the U.S. side. Since there is virtually no ally or interest worth national destruction, deterrence itself will no longer work against an adversary who can achieve local conventional superiority or can muster even a single long-range nuclear delivery system.
Find Archived Articles: