Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Obama's Nuclear Posture Review: Nothing new--and that's the problem

Barack Obama announced on Monday, 5 April 2010, a substantial revamping of US nuclear strategy, presumably to "substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons."

There's just one problem: Judging by the excerpts of the "new" strategy published by the New York Times, there is very little that is substantively "new" about the strategy.  The United States has been trending towards a more limited strategic mission for nuclear weapons for decades.

The Department of Defense' Nuclear Posture Review from 1995 summarized the role of nuclear weapons in US military strategy thus:
The U.S. National Security Strategy states: "We will retain strategic nuclear forces sufficient to deter any future hostile foreign leadership with access to strategic nuclear forces from acting against our vital interests and to convince it that seeking a nuclear advantage would be futile. Therefore we will continue to maintain nuclear forces of sufficient size and capability to hold at risk a broad range of assets valued by such political and military leaders." Recent international upheavals have not changed the calculation that nuclear weapons remain an essential part of American military power. Concepts of deterrence and survivability must adapt to the new international environment, yet continue to be central to the U.S. nuclear posture. Thus, the United States will continue to threaten retaliation, including nuclear retaliation, and to deter aggression against the United States, U.S. forces, and U.S. allies.
Alliance relationships are an important element of U.S. security. Through forward basing and power projection capabilities, overseas U.S. military presence -- including nuclear capabilities -- helped promote regional stability, avert crises, and deter war. In recent years, there has been a dramatic reduction in both the overall size of the U.S. military presence abroad and in the nuclear capabilities deployed overseas. Yet maintaining U.S. nuclear commitments with NATO, and retaining the ability to deploy nuclear capabilities to meet various regional contingencies, continues to be an important means for deterring aggression, protecting and promoting U.S. interests, reassuring allies and friends, and preventing proliferation. Although nuclear capabilities are now a far smaller part of the routine U.S. international presence, they remain an important element in the array of military capabilities that the United States can bring to bear, either independently or in concert with allies to deter war, or should deterrence fail, to defeat aggression. Thus, the United States continues to extend deterrence to U.S. allies and friends.
Obama's "new" pledge to the world is this:
The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing 'negative security assurance' by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. This revised assurance is intended to underscore the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT and persuade non-nuclear weapons states party to the Treaty to work with the United States and other interested parties to adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.
How does this alter substantially the deterrent role of nuclear weapons outlined in 2005's Joint Publication 3-12: Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations?  Looking at that document (which though officially "cancelled"--meaning removed from the public domain, was never officially renounced as a guiding strategic document for the US military), it doesn't:
Deterrence. US nuclear forces deter potential adversaries by providing the President the means to respond appropriately to an attack on the US, its friends or allies. US nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential adversary leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world. Thus, US nuclear forces deter potential adversary use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and dissuade against a potential adversary’s development of an overwhelming conventional threat.
Thus, even after Obama's "new" strategy is implemented, the role of US nuclear weapons is still to dissuade other nations from acquiring or using nuclear weapons.  Note the fine parsing of Obama's wording: only states who are a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance are promised immunity from nuclear strike.  That wording puts not only the non-signatory nations such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh on the wrong side of Obama's promise, but also signatory states such as Iran, who quite arguably is already in flagrant violation of the Treaty. Russia and China remain nuclear states and, thus, even in Obama's "new" strategy, are vulnerable to nuclear attack.

The one shift that is substantial is a refining of the language regarding weapons of mass destruction.  JP3-12 hedged by referring to that broad category of weapons, which includes biological and chemical weapons in addition to nuclear weapons.  Obama's strategy limits nuclear weapons use to response against nuclear weapons; biological and chemical attacks and/or threats will be dealt with conventionally:
In making this strengthened assurance, the United States affirms that any state eligible for the assurance that uses chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response - and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable.
Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and US capacities to counter that threat.
However, even that is not a new policy.  "Prompt Global Strike" has been a strategic initiative of the United States since 2006, and envisions fitting conventional explosives onto ballistic missiles:
U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. James Cartwright has said he needs a prompt global strike capability to hold fleeting targets at risk. He would like a conventional weapon that could arrive on target within one hour of an order to launch, a capability currently offered only by nuclear-armed missiles. A conventional alternative would make U.S. threats more credible against targets such as a terrorist leader staying briefly at a safe house or a North Korean nuclear missile being readied on a launch pad, defense analysts say.
Obama's "new" strategy is to refrain from using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states--restating long-standing US nuclear doctine--and to pledge "devastating conventional military response" against non-nuclear threats or attacks--restating "Prompt Global Strike" from the Bush administration.  In short, Obama's "new" strategic doctrine is the same as the "old" strategic doctrine.

That is what is most troubling about Obama's announcement of the doctrine, because by making his announcement he breached one of the longest-standing principles of nuclear deterrence: ambiguity.  As JP3-12 states explicitly:
The US does not make positive statements defining the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons. Maintaining US ambiguity about when it would use nuclear weapons helps create doubt in the minds of potential adversaries, deterring them from taking hostile action. This calculated ambiguity helps reinforce deterrence. If the US clearly defined conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons, others might infer another set of circumstances in which the US would not use nuclear weapons. This perception would increase the chances that hostile leaders might not be deterred from taking actions they perceive as falling below that threshold.
Obama's new policy is to formally publish what was previously unpublished: the terms and conditions of a US nuclear strike--which is a strategically absurd thing to do.  The danger of the new policy is not that the United States is less armed, but that a threshold of bad behavior is being set which avoids the extreme response of nuclear attack, when deterrence is the only real strategic value of nuclear weapons.  To quote Robert McNamara in his 1967 "Mutual Deterrence" speech:
No sane citizen, political leader or nation wants thermonuclear war. But merely not wanting it is not enough. We must understand the differences among actions which increase its risks, those which reduce them and those which, while costly, have little influence one way or another. But there is a great difficulty in the way of constructive and profitable debate over the issues, and that is the exceptional complexity of nuclear strategy. Unless these complexities are well understood rational discussion and decision-making are impossible.
Obama's overplaying of a minor clarification in US nuclear weapons policy does not present as an action which will reduce the risk of nuclear war or US nuclear strike.  By carving out a set of permissible bad behaviors, he creates the potential risk that a malefactor on the world stage--be it a nation such as Iran or a trans-national entity such as Al Qaeda--will back the US into a corner where only a nuclear strike will remain a viable option.

Obama would do well to remember the goal of deterrence is the elimination of all bad behavior by all parties.