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Preparing for the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review
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November 2000

By Janne E. Nolan

America's nuclear future has recently received political attention in the presidential race and among a small but vocal minority in the Congress. Though differences abound on the best way to proceed with strategic reductions, the role that missile defenses should play, and the requirements for maintaining the nuclear arsenal, one interesting point emerges: both campaigns and both sides of the aisle agree that the United States must undertake a review of its nuclear posture and must do it soon.

When asked whether he would be willing to reduce U.S. strategic forces, Republican presidential nominee Governor George W. Bush said, "As president, I will ask the secretary of defense to conduct an assessment of our nuclear force posture and determine how best to meet our security needs." Democratic nominee Vice President Al Gore has agreed, saying, "For the United States to go to lower levels requires a thorough re-examination of the official nuclear doctrine which to this point guides our military in its planning. As president, I would initiate such a review and engage deeply in the process."1

Even if the next president did not want to act, he would have to. An amendment to the fiscal year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Clinton signed October 30, requires the incoming administration to complete a formal nuclear posture review (NPR) by December 2001, the first such review in over six years. In addition to analyzing the role of nuclear weapons in American military strategy and identifying the requisite funding requirements for a nuclear deterrent, the bill urges the executive branch to answer fundamental questions that have not been fully answered in the five preceding decades of the nuclear age. For example: what is the relationship of nuclear deterrence policy, targeting strategy, and arms control?

The existing bipartisan consensus on the need for a review will not make the process painless. Experiences going back to the Eisenhower administration show that neither the zeal of a new administration nor a congressional directive will suffice to solve the complex and long-standing questions of how much deterrence is needed, for what objectives, and at what cost—questions that have never been fully debated, let alone satisfactorily answered.


The Inertia of Nuclear Policy

During the Cold War, a broad anti-Soviet consensus allowed disagreements about the political and military objectives of U.S. nuclear policy to be sublimated under the rubric of deterrence, a sufficiently open-ended and abstract concept that can accommodate multiple, even contradictory, goals. But even at the height of the Cold War consensus, decision-makers never formulated clear guidelines about what should be targeted, for what reason, or with what level of destructive force in a way that reflected political as well as military judgments.

Successive presidents have imposed changes in stated policy—from massive retaliation in the l950s, to assured destruction and flexible response in the l960s and early l970s, to countervailing strategy under President Carter, to "prevailing" in a nuclear war under Presidents Reagan and Bush, to the current doctrine under President Clinton, which is simply a modified version of the latter. These apparent innovations, however, have done little to alter the basic premises of American nuclear war plans. Since l950, nuclear weapons have preoccupied thousands of scientists, war planners, and officials with one fundamental problem: How can we make nuclear weapons accurate enough, precise enough, small enough, and flexible enough that their effects can be contained for use in combat? How can we attack our opponents' military forces so perfectly as to disarm them before they can retaliate effectively?

Targeting opposing nuclear forces under exacting war-fighting scenarios, a policy known as "counterforce," requires very accurate, prompt, "hard-target kill" weapons that can destroy missiles and bombers even when they are mobile or in hardened shelters. A triad of land-, air-, and sea-based weapons—the product of very conservative estimates of what would be required to retaliate after a disarming Soviet first strike—is, in turn, still considered the only guarantee of a credible "nuclear fighting force," as Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) put it. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union and any credible threat of deliberate attack from Russia, prompt counterforce remains the sacrosanct principle of American nuclear strategy.

These "scientific" challenges of war planning make up the structural reality of nuclear policy, for which the public debate about the character of deterrence, arms control, or particular weapons serves largely as a political sideshow. As the former Air Force chief of staff under President Kennedy, General Thomas D. White, summarized it,

Such relatively reassuring terms as "mutual deterrence," "stability," "no-cities counterforce," "second-strike counterforce capability," and other quasi-military shibboleths…have created an atmosphere and mislanguage that is dangerously deceptive.

To White, it was "defense intellectuals" living in a "weightless dreamland" who set about to create public smoke screens obscuring the realities of nuclear war.2 White was pointing to the long-standing schism between political declarations about nuclear forces and the reality of operational plans to develop and use those forces for military objectives should deterrence fail.

Every president since Eisenhower has sought innovations in nuclear doctrine to reassure the public and to demonstrate his command of nuclear security. The message has been essentially the same: the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal to deter adversaries; our forces need only be strong enough to survive an attack and to retaliate because that is the guarantee that deterrence will never fail. During the Cold War, the public and even many officials assumed that a nuclear conflict would be one deadly spasm, a catastrophe beyond imagination.

Political authorities also have used doctrinal change to suggest that a nuclear war could be managed and controlled, as seen in concepts like flexible response, or that one could "prevail," even in a protracted nuclear conflict, as suggested under Reagan. But publicly revealed changes in doctrine have always been superimposed, with modest effect, on an enduring and largely secret effort to design weapons and related systems to demonstrate their usability. The better the force, it is argued, the less likely it will need to be used.

The idea that the United States would absorb an attack before launching its own weapons, current "declaratory" policy, or that a nuclear war could be conducted "flexibly" has never tracked well with operational imperatives. Uncertainties about the survival of command, control, and communications systems under attack, for example, undercut the soundness of such a policy for military planners. They need precision, promptness, and decisive destructive effects, not complex "options" or "calculated ambiguities." As former Pentagon official Leon Sloss put it, "Lots of options make planning more difficult. The military doesn't believe that limited nuclear options will ever be executed, and they fear losing forces before they launch them."3 Recent efforts to alter targeting plans for greater flexibility have changed some of what Sloss describes, but the core mission of nuclear weapons—based on centralized plans for prompt and massive attack—has endured for over 50 years.

The current debate reveals no significant discontinuities with the past, the demise of America's central adversary notwithstanding. The United States is spending about $20 billion annually on the maintenance of nuclear forces, including several thousand weapons aimed at an estimated 2,200 Russian targets, as well as plans for strikes against China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and so-called non-state actors. Counterforce strategy, reflected in the Navy's plans to spend over $5 billion in the next decade to improve Trident missiles' hard-target kill capability against Russian missile silos, for example, is alive and well. And the fiscal year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act, the same bill that has called for a thorough review of U.S. nuclear posture, has just reaffirmed that "it is in the national interest of the United States to maintain a robust and balanced triad of strategic nuclear vehicles."

One central reason for the absence of post-Cold War change in the nuclear force posture has been the failure of the president to challenge the assumptions driving nuclear planning, a sphere that has traditionally eluded presidential attention. Nuclear targeting and attack planning have evolved over the last 50 years into a highly specialized occupation, based on specific skills, computer models, and databases to which only very few could have access, let alone oversight. The extreme political sensitivity of nuclear operations—the guts of deterrence—required that authority for war plans be delegated to a decision-making apparatus designed specifically to avoid excessive political intrusion or publicity. The sheer complexity of the nuclear architecture, in turn, assures a certain degree of autonomy from less expert officials. And, as has been demonstrated in countless episodes, this is not a sphere in which amateurs are welcome, no matter what formal titles they hold.

The president has ultimate authority for launching nuclear weapons and is responsible for drafting the nuclear guidance given planners to draw up war plans. Most presidents, senior White House aides, and even secretaries of defense, however, would be hard pressed to describe how various "options" would be executed in a war, with what weapons, and to what end. As summarized by an officer charged with carrying the "football"—the briefcase the president would use to get at nuclear launch codes in a crisis—"Not one President in my time [from Johnson to Carter] ever had more than one briefing on the contents of the football, and that was before each one took office, when it was one briefing among dozens" even though the material "changed constantly." No president ever had the combination: "If the guy with the football has a heart attack, they'd have to blow the whole thing open."4

Not surprisingly, planning objectives—targets to be covered, with estimated damage expectancies—have influenced the structure and level of forces thought to be required far more than political debates about whether the United States. can ever commit to the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. As was true throughout the Cold War and remains true today, the determination of what numbers of weapons are desirable, at what levels of alert, against which targets, is not only up to the president or his political advisers. This tradition of delegated authority is likely to be a significant factor in determining the outcome of any future review.


Attempts at Innovation

Two recent attempts to change operational policy—one under President Bush and one under President Clinton—help illustrate the kinds of challenges that a future nuclear posture review is likely to confront.

The Bush Legacy

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in l989, the number of targets in the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)—the blueprint for a nuclear war—was about 12,500, directed against a full range of Soviet military and "war-supporting" installations.5 Recognizing that many of the SIOP targets were being rendered obsolete by changes in the Soviet bloc and by pending START reductions, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney began to ask questions about targeting plans. Realizing that his aides were not informed about such details, he appointed General Robert Herres, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct a targeting review, which Herres concluded after 18 months.

Cheney, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell, were reportedly appalled by what was revealed. They quickly surmised that the SIOP was not only out of date but also devoid of any apparent logic. According to one account,

Cheney concluded the SIOP was not a nuclear war plan…. It seemed like a jumble of processed data…. Every time the Pentagon had bought a new nuclear weapons system to match the Soviets'…[U.S. Strategic Command] had simply found targets for the added warheads and rearranged the SIOP math formulas. This had gone on for years, as captains and majors who wrote the SIOP rotated in and out.6

Despite efforts to develop systems and software to devise and coordinate precise attacks, officers charged with covering different target sets had developed models to direct multiple weapons to the same target, with no apparent knowledge of what other programmers were doing. Some industrial centers in Moscow, for example, had multiple weapons allocated to individual factories despite the fact that they were closely clustered. Ten-warhead MX missiles, with a damage radius of three miles, were targeted on areas less than a mile apart. And notwithstanding the admonition of Strategic Command (STRATCOM) that the United States would never target populations, nearly 40 weapons were allocated to hit Kiev alone.

Cheney's review revealed the enduring schism between political and operational realities, the product of years of vague guidance and the remoteness of the planners from the world of policy. Cheney promptly directed the elimination of thousands of targets from the SIOP and eventually oversaw a radical restructuring of the planning apparatus. Former Soviet republics were removed entirely; many leadership, industrial, and war-supporting targets were reduced to reflect the collapse of communism; and any planned strikes against nuclear installations or transportation links were consolidated on Russian territory. Methods of "adaptive targeting" to devise flexible options for global application were devised, in anticipation of new regional threats.

Cheney's targeting review provoked no public sign of discord from the bureaucracy or the planning community, a rare achievement which reflects the discipline and unanimity of purpose that characterized Bush's national security team. Cheney, Powell, and national security adviser General Brent Scowcroft not only brought personal stature and credibility to the challenge, but also clearly spoke for the president. All three successfully used their clout with the uniformed military to defuse hawkish opposition, both in the Pentagon and the Congress, and were astute "inside players" who knew they could count on the president and one another in the face of opposition.

Aides to Bush are unanimous in their admiration for his leadership style. "President Bush never let an important issue drop into the bureaucracy," said one. Nor did he lose interest in directives he issued to his subordinates. He is praised for being involved in what aides call the "heavy lifting" of foreign policy, working directly and tirelessly with congressional and foreign leaders to set the stage for positive reception of U.S. initiatives. By the time Bush left office, START I had been concluded (halving each sides' deployed strategic forces to 6,000 accountable warheads) and START II (which further cut future levels to 3,000-3,500 deployed warheads) had been signed. The end of the Cold War seemed to have transformed, in a very short time, the challenge of nuclear weapons from the need to prevail in a nuclear conflict to a new set of concerns about the safety of the former adversary's arsenal—a challenge to be undertaken by deepening cooperation with Russia.

The Clinton Legacy

It was against this backdrop that the new Clinton administration undertook a formal review of the nuclear force posture. The climate of cooperation with Russia suggested to many that nuclear weapons were on the wane—soon, perhaps, to become relics of the Cold War. As the nuclear posture review soon revealed, however, the Soviet Union's demise did not mean that Cold War politics in Washington were over—far from it.

The review was conceived as a White House-sanctioned Pentagon study to be carried out under the direction of civilian officials in cooperation with military officers. The NPR was to define the utility of nuclear weapons in American strategy and to articulate the criteria guiding the future size, character, safety, and potential use of nuclear forces. Spearheaded by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the review tasked the bureaucracy with re-examining every aspect of the nuclear posture. Did the United States need a triad? Why should we rely on counterforce targeting when the threat of Soviet surprise attack had disappeared? Why did we still rely on preplanned targeting and a policy of first use? Why were any weapons on alert? As Russia struggled to consolidate control over its nuclear arsenal, Carter was most preoccupied with promoting safety over hair-trigger alert policies—away from what he saw as a de facto doctrine of launch on warning to a policy of "nuclear reassurance."

Until Aspin resigned in January 1994, Clinton appointees foresaw a genuine effort to create a nuclear tabula rasa, a base from which creative thinking and ambitious reform proposals were bound to emerge. But the review failed to challenge orthodoxy in any significant way; indeed, it may have inadvertently reinforced it. Opponents saw the NPR as a zealous assault on established lines of authority by l990s-version Whiz Kids who were no more popular now than they were in the l960s under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. For others, who felt that Russia's future was still uncertain and that it was premature to reduce nuclear vigilance, there were genuine policy differences. In the end, however, the NPR collapsed from bureaucratic inertia and the absence of presidential leadership. By delegating authority for a sensitive and complex undertaking to working groups largely made up of mid-level officials in the Pentagon, the outcome was practically a foregone conclusion. And at the first sign of congressional controversy, when Thurmond called hearings to demand why STRATCOM commander Admiral Henry G. Chiles was allowing Carter to discuss abandoning the triad, any serious effort to recast the force posture was essentially over.

What had begun as an effort to subject the nuclear posture to wholesale scrutiny had evolved into a pro forma exercise that assembled findings and conclusions from the consensus views of the working groups. Senior officials turned to other pressing priorities, not least the denuclearization of the former Soviet republics and the challenges posed by deteriorating relations with Russia. A domestic climate that had seemed open to challenging Cold War orthodoxy early in the administration was in reality deeply divided over the desirability of devaluing nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, regardless of international changes. Most importantly, this initiative had been launched before there was a chance to resolve more fundamental questions, such as how to interpret changes in Russia and China, whether partnerships with former adversaries were possible or even desirable, and how nuclear deterrence would be adapted to cope with emerging proliferation threats.

Absent consensus even within the Pentagon, the former crusaders sought refuge in the status quo. The public version of the review consisted of 37 pages of charts and diagrams recommending that there be no significant changes in the nuclear posture of Clinton's predecessors. Forces would go no lower than START II levels, nuclear weapons would be retained in Europe at current levels, and there would be no serious alteration in U.S. operational policies, including the policy of first use. Secretary of Defense William Perry was provided with several rationales for the decision to avoid major departures from the past, including an apparent disparity in the pace of dismantling U.S. and Russian forces mandated by START (which, it was alleged, could lead to U.S. "numerical inferiority") and the danger of a potential resurgence of an adversary "still armed with 25,000 nuclear weapons."7

The NPR ushered in the policy of "hedging," in particular a commitment to retain a reserve force at START I levels for rapid reload in the event of crisis. This policy turned into a legislative albatross for the administration when Congress voted to prohibit any cuts in U.S. strategic forces until the Duma approved START II—a policy that remains, in the National Defense Authorization Act even though Russia ratified the treaty this spring. Despite urging by the Joint Chiefs, the centrist congressionally appointed National Defense Panel, and others that unilateral reductions in U.S. forces were prudent and fiscally important, the administration remained paralyzed to change.8


The Future

Some lessons can be drawn about how to conduct a nuclear posture review, which may help the new administration avoid the controversies and setbacks of previous efforts:

• The imperative of presidential leadership: No administration can hope to achieve an outcome other than ratification of the status quo if the president does not make it clear that he has a large stake in the outcome and remains involved.

• Clear lines of authority: Designated representatives of the president have to be seen as having his full backing—including the right to invoke his support should it prove necessary.

• A strategy for the bureaucracy: Efforts to reform organizations cannot be consigned to the bureaucracy, which can be guaranteed to offer lowest common denominator recommendations that typically reject innovation. The results of countless commissions and formal reviews attest to this.

• Military cooperation: Any review that appears to be a civilian assault on military prerogative, however high-minded, is doomed to fail. The military has been asked to be the guardian of nuclear operations for decades now; its support and expertise is essential.

• A congressional strategy: Many of the mediating institutions in the congress, like the Senate arms control observer group and several arms control-related caucuses, have been eliminated since the l994 election. Similar mechanisms, which allow for select, bipartisan discourse between the executive branch and Congress, are essential before a major initiative is launched. There is a steep learning curve for acquiring expertise and sound judgment about nuclear operations.

• Clear, articulated goals: No fundamental reform can succeed if it is either overly ambitious or subject to constant revision and hedging in the face of political opposition. Familiar in congressional politics, a "split the difference" strategy to solve policy disagreements may be a reasonable approach to achieving consensus on, say, budget line-items for Social Security, but it can prove disastrous when applied to fundamental questions of strategy.

• A realistic appreciation of the challenges: Past efforts to influence nuclear operations include many more failures than successes. As discussed, this has not changed with the passing of the Cold War. Any administration will have to take these challenges fully into account before initiating an ambitious review.

The new president is likely to face many of the same challenges faced by predecessors, and some new ones as well. The current nuclear debate is fraught with partisan division and divergent opinions. Never particularly coherent, the logic of nuclear deterrence seems now to be even more difficult to articulate, let alone to serve as a basis for forging a new post-Cold War consensus about the rightful role of nuclear weapons. Is the United States prepared to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states? Do we need to design new weapons for such missions? Will strategic defenses supplant nuclear rivalry or simply intensify it in Russia, China, or among regional powers? What, in fact, is our current nuclear doctrine?

There are organizational as well as substantive obstacles. Despite efforts to reorganize the planning community over the last decade, current arrangements still inhibit active linkages between policy-makers and defense planners, to the detriment of both. Notwithstanding innovations to make nuclear planning more "flexible," centralized plans for prompt and massive attack against Russia are still the centerpiece of American deterrence. At a time when the Russian nuclear infrastructure, including its command and control system, is deteriorating rapidly, maintaining such a posture implies more nuclear risk than nuclear security. Even with lower numbers of weapons being considered for START III, however, "maximum target coverage" of Russia is still the dominant consideration. The attention paid to maintaining this behemoth competes with other priorities, not least the kind of conventional force modernization which the Joint Chiefs agree is urgently needed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the new president, however, underscored by the congressional timetable, will be managing competing policy priorities—especially considering the complexity, high risk and limited political payoff of nuclear policy innovation. The likelihood that other initiatives will impinge on this undertaking is very high, particularly in the first months of a new administration.

There are other reasons to be concerned about the review's relatively short timeframe. The learning curve for managing nuclear operations is steep, and few new appointees can be expected to have sufficient expertise. Devising a congressional strategy takes time. Defusing opposition in the bureaucracy takes time. Even before that, the president must have a good idea of the outcome he seeks if he is to issue clear directives. Absent agreement in the Congress or the bureaucracy about the direction of nuclear policy, defining the scope and terms of the review in a way that can feasibly be implemented may prove the most daunting task of all.

The appointment of a special group of senior and respected advisers to draft a charter for a presidential review may be the best option. Such a group could provide the legitimacy and political cover needed to defuse opposition or to protect the president from controversy. This too, however, would require the president's attention, time, and clear commitment, as well as the ability of the group to mediate the competing voices in Congress, the executive branch, and the "expert" community. Widely respected and much admired, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs General John Shalikashvili is currently assessing prospects for future Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Perhaps he might be ready for a new challenge?



1. See Arms Control Today, September 2000.

2. Cited in Janne E. Nolan, Guardians of the Arsenal (New York: Basic Books, l989) p. 30.

3. Cited in Guardians, p. 258.

4. Two military participants involved in Cheney's review, interviews by author, August 1997. See also, Janne Nolan, An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).

5. For further discussion, see Hans Kristensen, "Targets of Opportunity: How Nuclear Planners Found New Targets for Old Weapons," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 1997, p. 22-28.

6. David B. Ottaway and Steve Coll, "Trying to Unplug the War Machine," The Washington Post, April 12, 1995, p. A1.

7. Cited in Bill Gertz, "The New Nuclear Policy: Lead But Hedge," Air Force Magazine, January l995, p. 36.

8. For more information, see National Defense Panel, "Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century," Department of Defense, December l997.


Janne E. Nolan is director of international programs at the Century Foundation.