Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Let's talk about nukes.

The impetus to this post is Obama's new nuclear doctrine. I don't really have a whole lot to add to this conversation, other than to wonder why we haven't had a serious national discussion about this. From what I remember about deterrence theory, the main point of nukes was because we had significantly weaker conventional forces so felt we need to compensate with a nuclear deterrent. Now we have massive conventional superiority. So why do we still maintain such a large arsenal? And what could possibly be so important about it? Is it necessary to intimidate terrorists? Is our massive military insufficient to deter any rogue state? Even if they are necessary for deterrence do we even need more than a few dozen to deter, say Iran or North Korea? Maybe a couple hundred for China if you're a real pessimist about the future.

All in all, Obama's policy seems OK, though it doesn't really change anything in a truly meaningful way. What does seem obvious looking over it though is that the logic that drove the build up of our nuclear arsenal is completely out of touch with today's world. Obama is probably moving towards something more sensible but from what I've read so far it doesn't seem to embody a new strategic direction, just curb some of the most glaringly anachronistic elements.

[Edit: I thought I should add what I think the discussion we should have should be. In my view it should go something like this. We have the best possible nuclear deterrent we could build to deter the Soviet Union from invading Europe. Since this would only be possible if the Soviets had a time machine they planned to invade us through once we foolishly disarm, we have to accept the fact that our current nuclear deterrent isn't particularly well suited to deter any security threats more probable than this scenario. So we need to have a conversation about how nuclear weapons fit into our overall structure of military deterrence not involving threats out of science fiction novels. We need to decide who they are meant to deter and how our nuclear force structure needs to be designed and do it. Continuing to successfully deter the Soviet Union is not a rational use of this expenditure. Though there are an awful lot of Cold Warriors who seem to think we are living in a science fiction novel, since this is the only rational defense of the current force structure.]

Anyways, here are links to fuller discussions on the policy on the NYTimes:
An editorial
and the full article.

Here's a more serious paper from, which has always been my favorite easy web source for security information. They sound serious enough I rarely feel the need to go elsewhere anyway. This paper is a bit dated but I had to confirm I remembered deterrence theory correctly (nobody spends much time on this stuff anymore) and thought others might be interested in something a bit more detailed. First paper I found, there might be better, or not.

Some gems from this paper by Edward A. Corcoran (2005):

"Although terrorists pose a nuclear threat, the use of nuclear weapons against them appears impractical, to say the least. Not only are there no appropriate targets, but many terrorists seek martyrdom and would see a US strike on a Muslim target as a positive step toward turning the Muslim world against the United States."

"The United States could significantly reduce its strategic nuclear forces without any loss of deterrence and with an overall gain of security."

"The US nuclear arsenal contains an assortment of weapons which are not pertinent to the contemporary threats facing the nation. In particular, there are minimal military requirements for the large number of strategic weapons still in the stockpile."

"All in all, the greatly changed nature of the challenges facing the nation in the post-9/11 world demand a very basic review of our entire national strategy. A hard look at the continuing utility of strategic nuclear weapons needs to be a key part of any such review."

I've got nothing to add after that. It's dated, and there are plenty of other papers on the subject but it really is time to up the game and actually talk about this stuff.

Of course there are at least two sides to every story. Quoting Fox isn't fair, but it's fun:

Will Obama's Nuclear Policy Make us Safer? by Gordon G. Chang

I'm really just not sure what the nuclear policy has to do with rogue states really. Our conventional forces are more than a sufficient deterrent, what on earth do nukes add? And what's with the focus on Chinese weapons? We've got more than enough for MAD well into the future.

Obama's Scary Nuke Plan by KT McFarland

From the article:"How can Iran take President Obama seriously about the possibility of a retaliatory nuclear attack when he doesn't even have the backbone to impose unilateral crippling gasoline sanctions, which even his Democratically-controlled Congress is pushing for?"

While we're proposing crippling gasoline sanctions I'd like to also propose crippling rutabaga sanctions. If all we need to do is declare something crippling to make them so sanctions would be far more effective. I'm unaware of anywhere they've done much though, with the arguable exception of South Africa, so let's just admit sanctions tend not to do anything about security issues and stop being silly.


  1. Honestly, I think our current nuclear policy (and for the last 10-20 years) stands more as a negotiating position than as a deterrent. The idea seems to be to have the ability to magnanimously offer our much poorer nuclear competitors 10 for the price of one warhead reductions which will leave the leaders looking like fierce bargainers.

    With countries like Iran and North Korea, where we're really defending neighbors, the nuclear deterrent is probably maximally effective although clearly not particularly effective.

  2. Doug, that's a good take on the negotiations. I just wonder if it would be cheaper to unilaterally cut the arsenals and then offer our negotiating partners 50% of the savings as bribes instead.