The Muddle of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Strategy

Nuclear Transformation: The New U.S. Nuclear Doctrine. By James Wirtz and Jeffery Larson

Nuclear Weapons and Strategy: U.S. Nuclear Policy for the Twenty-First Century. By Stephen Cimbala

Nuclear Inertia: U.S. Weapons Policy After the Cold War. By Tom Sauer

Jack Mendelsohn


Can anyone say for certain what U.S. nuclear weapons strategy or employment policy might be? In a post-Cold War arena laden with new challenges and uncertain responses, the United States seems to have pursued a particularly egregious series of contradictory positions.

For example, both the Clinton and Bush administrations endorsed a strategic arms reduction dialogue with Russia at the same time that they sought to undercut the process by junking the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Allowing ABM defenses to run free made it certain than neither Russia nor the United States would agree to truly low levels of strategic offensive weapons and, in addition, that China would feel obliged to pursue, if not intensify, its own modernization program.

The Clinton administration reaffirmed earlier U.S. pledges not to use nuclear weapons to attack non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But at the same time, it kept open the option to use nuclear weapons, even in nuclear-weapon-free zones, in response to a chemical or biological weapons attack. The Bush administration expanded this latter option and, following the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), made pre-emption and preventive war an explicit policy response to potential nuclear, biological, and chemical threats from other states. Both administrations also found new reasons why nuclear weapons remained vital to U.S. security while they sought to keep the rest of the world denuclearized.

The administration of George H. W. Bush virtually swept tactical nuclear weapons off the security map with its Presidential Nuclear Initiative in 1991, a singularly successful effort to avoid nuclear anarchy at the operational level as President Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were slipping into the dustbin of history. However, the administration of George W. Bush seeks to explore new small-yield and earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, even though we have not in the past and are not likely in the future to be able to provide the “exquisite” intelligence required to target these new weapons against hidden, mobile, or buried targets. Moreover, despite administration claims to the contrary, any earth-penetrating nuclear weapons of sufficient yield to do the job against deeply buried targets are likely to create substantial fallout and kill thousands of noncombatants.

Into this policy morass step three books, Nuclear Transformation: The New U.S. Nuclear Doctrine, Nuclear Weapons and Strategy: U.S. Nuclear Policy for the Twenty-First Century, and Nuclear Inertia: U.S. Weapons Policy After the Cold War, which attempt to sort out the dilemmas of post-Cold War nuclear strategy. In varying degrees, all three books fail in this task, sometimes because the policy itself is too opaque or confusing and sometimes because the analyses do not add any further insight or information to the existing historical or critical record.

James Wirtz’s and Jeffrey Larsen’s book, Nuclear Transformation, is probably the best of the three titles under review. An edited volume, one of a generally excellent series produced by these authors, it is focused on the 2001 NPR. Although it has several chapters of interest mixed in with some tortured efforts to make sense out of the policy, the book’s basic flaw stems from the editors’ underlying assumption that the NPR “offers a reasonable, albeit far from perfect response, to [current] political, technical and strategic challenges.” It is very difficult to organize a pep rally for a system than will not work (ABM), a policy that cannot be implemented (pre-emption), and a weapon that cannot be used (nuclear “bunker-busters”).

Marc Trachtenberg, in his opening article on the historical background, argues that the Bush administration’s adoption of a pre-emptive/preventative “strategy was not quite as extreme as it was made out to be,” because “preemptive strategies [have been] so common historically.” Although not inaccurate, it does overlook the moral, political, and diplomatic implications of publicly endorsing pre-emption. NSC-68, a 1950 White House strategy document that formed the basis for a hard-line U.S. policy during the height of the superpower confrontation, at least had the good sense to acknowledge that “[i]t goes without saying that the idea of ‘preventive’ war—in the sense of a military attack not provoked by a military attack upon us or our allies—is generally unacceptable to Americans.”

Moreover, NSC-68 continued, “a surprise attack upon the Soviet Union, despite the provocativeness of recent Soviet behavior, would be repugnant to many Americans. Although the American people would probably rally in support of the war effort, the shock of responsibility for a surprise attack would be morally corrosive. Many would doubt that it was a ‘just war’ and that all reasonable possibilities for a peaceful settlement had been explored in good faith” (emphasis added).

A much more realistic appraisal of the policy contradictions, and one of the two or three best studies in this book, is given by Steve Fetter and Charles L. Glaser in their chapter on the new nuclear missions outlined in the NPR. They point out the practical and tactical difficulties in using nuclear weapons against chemical and biological agents and against deeply buried or mobile targets. They argue that, “[b]y emphasizing the possible uses of nuclear weapons, the NPR weakens the taboo against using nuclear weapons.” They conclude, wisely I believe, that “the NPR raises more questions than it answers, and it overstates the extent of new roles for U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Dennis Gormley, in his chapter on conventional force integration into global strike forces, puts the best face possible on the NPR by stressing that it calls for increased dependence on non-nuclear solutions as the counterforce capabilities of conventional forces improve. Gormley argues that in most cases “retaliatory nuclear use is a decidedly difficult and dubious form of retaliation” and that the most important implication of the 2001 NPR “is the quiet transformation now taking place to achieve non-nuclear solutions to what have previously been nuclear missions in support of U.S. national security policy.” He refers back to Paul Nitze’s 1994 article suggesting the U.S. re-examine its long-standing reliance on nuclear deterrence.[1]

Gormley admits that “little if anything” has happened to date regarding the actual integration of nuclear and non-nuclear forces, although Congress authorized the Pentagon in 2003 to establish a plan for “developing, deploying and sustaining” a prompt global strike capability. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force have begun work on the project.

There are two chapters spelling out the effects and implications of the NPR, one by Larsen and one by Jeffrey Knopf. Taking the Thomas Schelling definition of arms control as reducing the chances, consequences, and costs of war,[2]

Larsen argues that the Bush administration’s “new foreign and defense policy remains surprisingly in line with the traditional tenets of arms control.”

Knopf has a somewhat less sanguine view of the impact of the NPR in one of the best chapters in Nuclear Transformation. He believes the NPR “could actually increase the likelihood of nuclear proliferation.” He believes, correctly in my view, that the NPR “reduces the sense of differentiation between nuclear and conventional weapons,” that it “defers indefinitely the goal of nuclear disarmament,” that it “contradicts the nuclear [use] taboo” and that it “violates existing negative security assurances.”

The remaining chapters deal with other aspects of implementing the NPR, including command and control issues and international reactions. Many of the authors make a valiant effort to distill some sense out of the NPR and the new “triad”—active and passive defenses, a continuum of conventional and nuclear offensive strike forces, and a responsive infrastructure. But like “junk” science, junk strategy defies realistic analysis, and the chapters quickly begin to read like wish lists rather than reality checks.

Stephen Cimbala’s study, Nuclear Weapons and Strategy: U.S. Nuclear Policy for the Twenty-first Century, is an academic’s analytic look at strategy and policy. Its main arguments, as summarized by the author himself, are that:

[T]he present international system is dangerous…nuclear weapons are part of that danger, and…they can be especially dangerous in the following ways: (1) [they] can be used for coercive bargaining or war by rogue states (2) nuclear deterrence [commingled] with information warfare…can contribute to accidental or inadvertent nuclear war; (3) the spread of nuclear weapons is…more to be feared than welcomed; (4) nuclear deterrence has moved…into a more complex and potentially self-defeating paradigm for the 21st century; (5) nuclear deterrence may be superseded by…advanced technology weapons, including missile defenses and long-range conventional strike weapons, but the promise of post-nuclear technologies has often run far ahead of their performance; and (6) the psychology of national leaders and nonstate actors is as relevant to the likelihood of nuclear war as is the spread of nuclear weapons or the effectiveness of deterrence systems.

Cimbala reaches these conclusions, which are neither very surprising nor very controversial, in a theoretical and somewhat ponderous way, peppering his chapters along the way with figures and tables to try to structure and rationalize a generally quite fugitive reality. To his credit, he does appreciate the incalculables of national and international politics and finds that classical Cold War deterrence was “too putatively rational and insufficiently political.” He cites an apparent conversation with arms control expert Raymond Garthoff to the effect that, during that period, “states or leaders that refused to behave according to the models were dismissed as delinquent and logically flawed. One U.S. government analyst, attempting to explain the Soviet decision to place nuclear capable missiles in Cuba in 1962 despite U.S. intelligence forecasts to the contrary, argued that U.S. forecasters had not failed: Khrushchev had, by acting illogically!”

Nuclear Inertia: U.S. Weapons Policy After the Cold War, by Tom Sauer, is a valiant, scholarly effort to track the reasons why the United States did not shift from a maximum to a minimum deterrent posture after the collapse of its major rival and the end of the Cold War confrontation. The book, which I had in manuscript, reads very much like a Ph.D. thesis, which it was, and contains several misleading statements. For example, Sauer claims that the United States has a “neither confirm nor deny” policy with regard to the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. Although narrowly correct regarding naval surface vessels, the United States and NATO have made a point since the 1960s of stressing that air-based and, at one time, land-based U.S. nuclear weapons are present in half a dozen allied counties to “share the risk” and link the defense of Europe to the United States’ overall deterrent.

Despite the impressive list of advisers with whom Sauer worked and the numerous interviewees he contacted, the book relies heavily on secondary sources and fails to add much new information on or analytic insight to the disappointing history of U.S. nuclear policy in the post-Cold War period. All of the reasons deduced by Sauer to explain nuclear inertia remind one of the famous quote by Harold Macmillan who, when asked by a journalist what the greatest problems were he had faced as prime minister, said simply, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Sauer could have provided a more penetrating and original evaluation of the lost opportunities of the last decade and should have focused on the failure of President Bill Clinton and the White House National Security Council to make the case for a break with past policies in the wake of the collapse of our only peer adversary.

Still, Nuclear Inertia is useful as a synthesis of the historical record on the bureaucratic, political, and military opposition to the Clinton administration’s effort to design a national security policy in the 1990s. Sauer’s book, and the two others under review here, show clearly how poorly served we have been by what passes for strategic thinking in the 21st century; how ill-conceived, if not downright dangerous, our response to the new challenges of nonstate threats has been; and how difficult it is to institute major changes in policy without strong and knowledgeable political leadership.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.

Jack Mendelsohn, a former deputy director of the Arms Control Association, is an adjunct professor at the Elliott School at George Washington University and the School of International Service at American University.

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1. Paul H. Nitze, “Is It Time to Junk Our Nukes?” The Washington Post, January 16, 1994.

2. Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, l961).