Sunday, December 5, 2010

“The Nukes We Need.” Dr. Strangelove Lives!

Just when you begin to feel that sanity might descend upon the earth you come across something that convinces you that you wait in vain. There was an article in the November/December, 2009 edition of Foreign Affairs, The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent, by Lieber and Press that caused the latest concern.

KEIR A. LIEBER is Associate Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. DARYL G. PRESS is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and Coordinator of the War and Peace Studies Program at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.

One would think that after 50 years of study, the conclusion that tactical nuclear weapons are worthless would have sunk in. Not so! These authors are determined to demonstrate a need for low yield nuclear weapons, perhaps even a need for more sophisticated weapons.

The authors begin with a highly dubious premise.
“The success of nuclear deterrence may turn out to be its own undoing. Nuclear weapons helped keep the peace in Europe throughout the Cold War, preventing the bitter dispute from engulfing the continent in another catastrophic conflict. But after nearly 65 years without a major war or a nuclear attack, many prominent statesmen, scholars, and analysts have begun to take deterrence for granted. They are now calling for a major drawdown of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and a new commitment to pursue a world without these weapons.”
One could just as easily claim that it was miraculous that peace prevailed in spite of the presence of nuclear weapons. Those who make such claims apparently share the same asylum as those who claim that Ronald Regan brought the Soviet Union to its knees with his support of the absurd “Starwars” missile defense system.

This supposed need for low yield nuclear weapons is also based on a premise that strains credulity.
“Unless the world's major disputes are resolved -- for example, on the Korean Peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, and around the Persian Gulf -- or the U.S. military pulls back from these regions, the United States will sooner or later find itself embroiled in conventional wars with nuclear-armed adversaries.”

“Preventing escalation in those circumstances will be far more difficult than peacetime deterrence during the Cold War. In a conventional war, U.S. adversaries would have powerful incentives to brandish or use nuclear weapons because their lives, their families, and the survival of their regimes would be at stake. Therefore, as the United States considers the future of its nuclear arsenal, it should judge its force not against the relatively easy mission of peacetime deterrence but against the demanding mission of deterring escalation during a conventional conflict, when U.S. enemies are fighting for their lives.”
The authors are telling us that we should be losing sleep over inevitable land wars in Korea, China or/and Iran. I know it was said before World War One that no one could afford a modern war, and that it would have to wind down within days, but this time such a statement would be appropriate. I expect to sleep well tonight.

This is the scenario that is of concern to them.
“The central problem for U.S. deterrence in the future is that even rational adversaries will have powerful incentives to introduce nuclear weapons -- that is, threaten to use them, put them on alert, test them, or even use them -- during a conventional war against the United States. If U.S. military forces begin to prevail on the battlefield, U.S. adversaries may use nuclear threats to compel a cease-fire or deny the United States access to allied military bases. Such threats might succeed in pressuring the United States to settle the conflict short of a decisive victory.”
The authors agree that a response involving massive destruction and death from high-yield nuclear weapons would not be productive. However they believe that it would be perfectly reasonable to respond to a tactical nuclear strike, or even the threat of a nuclear strike in this fashion.
“The least bad option in the face of explicit nuclear threats or after a limited nuclear strike may be a counterforce attack to prevent further nuclear use. A counterforce strike could be conducted with either conventional or nuclear weapons, or a mix of the two. The attack could be limited to the enemy's nuclear delivery systems -- for example, its bombers and missile silos -- or a wider range of sites related to its nuclear program. Ideally, a U.S. counterforce strike would completely destroy the enemy's nuclear forces. But if an adversary had already launched a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies, a response that greatly reduced the adversary's nuclear force could save countless lives, and it could open the door to decisive military actions (such as conquest and regime change) to punish the enemy's leadership for using nuclear weapons.”
It is hard to know where to start in discussing this statement. Remember, we are talking about a scenario in which a country is losing a conventional war to the U.S. and any allies. Presumably this limited nuclear strike or threat of a limited strike, perhaps on its own land (certainly not on U.S. territory), is to be responded to with a massive strategic response to eliminate all delivery systems, strategic as well as tactical. It is not clear how going from a threat of use to actually using large numbers of nuclear weapons is likely to “save countless lives.” That would appear to be the dumbest thing imaginable. There is also the impossibility of carrying out the described mission. Any country smart enough to build viable nuclear weapons is smart enough to know that you have to make at least some of them mobile if you ever plan on using them. Since our intelligence is not good enough to detect and locate large fixed facilities in closed countries, it is not clear how we might detect a few trucks carrying nuclear delivery systems out the hundreds of thousands that might be tooling around the countryside.

We are in the process of ramping down nuclear arsenals. It is of no value to be conjuring up new uses for nuclear weapons. Mutually assured destruction was an ugly concept, but it worked. We should stick with it, rather than attempt to make nuclear war appear feasible.

There is a nice summary of the status of tactical nuclear weapons in the world that can be found here.

The world will be a better place when we have fewer nuclear weapons—and fewer people making a living trying to argue that they are useful.

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