Towards a New Deterrent

Analysis and Recommendations for the Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. Submitted by the New Deterrent Working Group, sponsored by the Center for Security Policy, to members of the congressionally-chartered Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture. The Working Group identifies the necessity of taking a series of steps if we are to avoid the systematic, if piecemeal de-nuclearization of the United States.

 

I. America’s Failing Nuclear Deterrent

The United States is at a critical moment in its history. To an extent largely unknown to the American people and even to many U.S. policy-makers, the nuclear deterrent that has been the backbone of our defense posture for fifty years is becoming obsolete, unreliable and potentially ineffective. This is the direct and predictable result of the practice of essentially “freezing” our nuclear weapons strategy and stockpile over the past seventeen years since the end of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, while weapons policies and modernization programs may be frozen, doing so does not preclude changes to the arsenal itself. In fact, to the contrary, such a nuclear “freeze” serves to ensure that the combined effects of aging and changing strategic circumstances go unaddressed, resulting in an inexorable reduction in capability and relevance to the nation’s deterrent equirements. We have even refrained from making much-needed improvements to the stockpile’s safety, security and control rather than risk having to undertake new designs that could only be validated by underground testing.

The problem is not confined to the weapons themselves. At the nuclear labs and plants operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the human and physical infrastructure essential to our deterrent is in real jeopardy. There is virtually no one left in that once-great ndustrial enterprise who has ever designed, tested, or produced a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, in he Defense Department, the importance and value of nuclear weapons have been downgraded cross-the-board. The investigation that followed a recent, unauthorized B-52 flight with six fullup nuclear weapons revealed a widespread lack of focused military attention to nuclear procedures and policy.

In short, America is years late in transforming our nuclear strategy and stockpile from a Cold War orientation to one focused on today’s adversaries – and tomorrow’s – and to the different and far more distributed threats they represent.

 

The Nuclear Threats We Face

While America largely neglected its nuclear arsenal and associated weapons complex for nearly two decades, others have taken a very different approach. Notably, Russia and China are making significant investments in the modernization of their nuclear forces. We have reason to believe hat some of these will involve highly advanced, specialized-effects nuclear weapons (known as fourth generation” weapons).

In addition, nuclear weapons technology has proliferated of late to a number of rogue states. There is reason to fear that one or more of these nations may be willing to assist terrorist organizations to acquire nuclear weapons – and perhaps to use them.

In short, more states today have active (if, in some cases, still-covert) nuclear weapons programs than ever before. Apart from the United States, virtually all of these countries – comprising roughly half the world’s population – are working to enhance their nuclear capabilities. Like it or not, there are already tens of thousands of nuclear arms around the world, and neither they nor the know-how and capability to make them is going to go away. Knowledge, once gained, cannot be washed away by treaties – let alone by unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. For generations to come, our lives and civilization will depend on effectively countering these threats.

 

II. The Failure of Non-proliferation

The accelerating proliferation of nuclear weapons technology in places like Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Syria is an indictment of the effort to prevent such a danger via arms control. The global non-proliferation regime has been steadily declining for many years, and it has now reached the point of impotence. The last Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, five years in preparation, achieved nothing. It is becoming increasingly common for non-nuclear weapon state parties to the NPT to flout their international obligations by pursuing clandestine weapons programs under the guise of civilian power activities.

The success of such rogue states is threatening, moreover, to trigger regional proliferation
cascades, which could soon become global. Some of our allies and friends who formerly relied on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” for protection could feel constrained to join these proliferators, in part as a result of their loss of confidence in our outdated arsenal and our ability and will to use it. This cascade might well lead to a world characterized by frequent nuclear weapons use, from which there is no return.

To avoid such a frightening prospect, the United States must both eliminate questions about the credibility of its deterrent and adopt a more effective approach to non-proliferation. If we are to have any chance of fulfilling these two roles and averting an unimaginably dangerous world, we will have to change significantly our policies and programs.

 

III. A Program for Recovery

America must re-establish the posture of nuclear strength which saved the West – and the world – during the half-century-long Cold War. During those decades, our nuclear posture was also the key factor in preventing renewed outbreaks of global conventional wars and the terrible costs they entail. To provide a similar insurance policy for the future, we must undertake at a minimum the following critical steps:

  • Immediate Actions: As a matter of great urgency, two initiatives are in order: First, a clear, firm Presidential statement must be issued to the effect that a credible, safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent is essential to America’s security, and will be maintained with highest priority.

Second, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) must be reestablished as a vital program in order to prevent the loss of core nuclear weapon capabilities in NNSA’s labs and plants, and to provide the optimum replacement approach for those over-age weapons in our stockpile which will be needed for decades to come. The RRW provides our only opportunity at the moment to recapture the experienced, integrated management expertise necessary to guide new nuclear weapons from concept definition to service introduction. Without RRW, this invaluable capability will, for all intents and purposes, be lost.

  • National Debate: The issue of deterring nuclear attack is one of potentially existential importance to millions of Americans. Yet, it has scarcely – if ever – been rigorously discussed in a highly visible way during the seventeen years since the Cold War ended. For the United States to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent, it will need a strong consensus reflected in solid bipartisan majorities that can be sustained over the decades required to implement that program. Such majorities can only be assured by informing and enlisting the American people.

Toward that end, we must initiate a thoughtful national debate on: 1) the nature of deterrence in this new age; 2) its role in U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy; 3) the role of nuclear weapons in this strategy; and 4) the characteristics and approximate quantities of nuclear weapons needed to provide effective deterrence today and in the future.

  • Advanced Technology: We must reestablish a continuing, robust research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) program. Today, the focus needs to be on cutting-edge technology in research, exploratory development and advanced development across dozens of fields relevant to advanced nuclear weapon designs.

This scientific approach is absolutely essential if the United States is to understand what is possible – for us and for potential adversaries – in physics, weapons effects, materials, explosives, diagnostics, etc. There is verifiable evidence that our peer adversaries are working very hard to develop new and more usable systems in order to develop leverage over the United States and further their strategic interests. If allowed to continue unchallenged, we may lose our world leadership position. At the very least, without a corresponding U.S. R&D effort, America’s deterrent cannot possibly remain commensurate with the emerging nuclear threat.

  • Military Preparedness: The Defense Department must recommit to the need to maintain for the foreseeable future both an appropriate nuclear arsenal and the competencies required to field and exercise it. This will entail preserving America’s existing nuclear weapons platforms and capabilities. It will also mean planning, budgeting and performing the long-range actions needed to contend with an uncertain nuclear future.

Specifically, the armed services must take the following steps: 1) Establish military requirements for new nuclear weapons needed for credible deterrence of today’s and tomorrow’s adversaries and threats (e.g., counter-proliferation weapons with low-yield, great accuracy, reduced-collateral-damage, reduced-residual-radiation, earth-penetration, agent defeat and intrinsic security); 2) plan, program, and budget for follow-on strategic submarines, sea- and land-based intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, bombers, cruise missiles, etc.; 3) increase emphasis on nuclear specialist personnel, on nuclear strategy and tactics and on nuclear exercises; and 4) work as a closely integrated team with the Department of Energy and NSA to revitalize and transform our nuclear weapons infrastructure. In addition, the military’s insights and expertise will be vital to informing the aforementioned national debate.

  • New Nuclear Weapons: We must adopt anew a national commitment to design, test and produce, on a continuing basis, new nuclear weapons. These activities are “performance arts”; expertise can be maintained only by engaging in them. Simply put, the extreme complexity and hazards of the work are such that there is no substitute for competent, integrated management. Such management, in turn, requires continuing, hands-on experience. While the through-put in terms of numbers of weapons may be in the tens per year (rather than the hundreds routinely in the pipeline at the height of the Cold War years), there can be no credible deterrent over time without an active pipeline that includes a “hot” production line.
  • Nuclear Infrastructure: The United States must immediately commence the comprehensive modernization of its nuclear weapons infrastructure. The measures necessary to accomplish this have been debated for years, and plan after plan proposed. Little has been done, however.

Meanwhile, our facilities become ever-more-antiquated, dilapidated and unsafe. The most urgent need is for a modern pit fabrication facility with adequate flexibility to produce several designs simultaneously, and a through-put capacity sufficient to permit the replacement of the stockpile’s obsolescent weapons at an acceptable rate.

  • Nuclear Weapons Effects: We must revitalize the Pentagon’s national program in nuclear weapons effects. The survivability of American weapons systems (conventional and nuclear), our communications/command/control/computer systems, and our intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance systems against a wide range of nuclear weapons effects depends on our successfully hardening and testing these systems. Good design and simulator testing can help, but actual underground nuclear testing is essential where survivability is mandatory. This testing practice is also indispensable for assessing and correcting the vulnerabilities of critical parts of the country’s civil infrastructure against such threats as electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
  • Preventing Proliferation: Finally, America must undertake a sweeping course-correction with respect to countering nuclear proliferation. To be fully effective, of course, there just be changes in the world’s approach to non-proliferation, not just that of this country. Still, there is unlikely to be any improvement in the utility of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology and capabilities unless and until the United States adopts a more practical strategy for contending with this threat.

Over the last several decades, the NPT has been distorted by the preoccupation of its stewards with nuclear disarmament, rather than with preventing proliferation. Apart from the steady erosion of the U.S. arsenal, this fixation has neither resulted in the appreciable diminution of existing nuclear weapons inventories around the world nor prevented a mushrooming of proliferation in nuclear wannabe states.

The forty-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty is the accepted cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime and, with some 188 signatories (out of about 193 nations in the world), provides the basis for our efforts. For the Treaty actually to be helpful, however, attention and effort must be refocused on its actual language and intent.

The NPT’s purpose is to prevent proliferation. It codifies the right of five nations – the five permanent members of the Security Council – to be nuclear weapons states (NWS) and it requires all other signatories to remain as non-nuclear weapons states. Each of the 188 signatory states has voluntarily accepted this inequality and endorsed a treaty that places no restrictions whatsoever on the five NWS as regards designing, testing, producing and reploying nuclear weapons.

Given the aforementioned hard strategic realities, the United States should redirect its nonproliferation policy along the following lines: 1) Emphasize that non-proliferation requires enforcement; 2) urge that the five NWS must accept this implicit responsibility; 3) until all live agree, be willing to act unilaterally, or in coalition, as a default action to prevent proliferation; and 4) regularly modernize our stockpile to keep it effective, safe, secure, reliable and able to enforce non-proliferation. Without these actions, the remnants of global non-proliferation will inevitably become ever-more irrelevant and ineffectual.

IV. America’s Choice: Weakness Or Strength?

In conclusion, a national decision between weakness and strength is required now. Adopting the former by continuing the seventeen-year-long, post-Cold-War status quo can only lead to dangerous, unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. Worse yet are the prospects were we to adopt the agenda for accelerated dismantling of our nuclear arsenal being promoted as a way to “reinvigorate” the moribund non-proliferation regime. The latter idea’s champions propose, among other things, that we: cut our nuclear stockpile below its already vastly reduced level; commit irrevocably (by treaty) to forego necessary testing; and refrain from all essential nuclear modernization or replacement activities. They believe the result will be to cause our adversaries to reduce their arsenals and for the entire world eventually to abandon nuclear weapons.

Regrettably, there is no basis in past experience or in logic for these lofty hopes. To the contrary, history has clearly shown that unilateral U.S. reductions, far from causing a similar response, actually stimulate nuclear build-ups by adversaries. Second, it would be, as a practical matter, impossible to verify the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Third, reduced numbers encourage disarming first strikes. Fourth, and most importantly, the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear arms is not only unachievable, it is a utopian delusion. Nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented.”

Pursuit of such a goal by the United States would be a formula for the further evisceration of America’s deterrent and a world in which only the most dangerous states and perhaps non-state actors have these weapons – world of unimaginable horror and chaos.

For these reasons, the United States has no real choice but to adopt a policy of peace through abiding nuclear strength. The foregoing eight measures will assure such strength continues far into the future and, with it, will enhance the prospects for a world free of either nuclear war or global conventional conflagrations.

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