The need for clarity in American nuclear deterrence policy
Published on March 12, 2018
Nuclear retaliation is once again in the news and a priority for the military in terms of strategic planning. The most important question - to what type of events should the United States respond with the "nuclear option?" That is always worth examining, but even more so now as the world swiftly changes.
Cyber weapons - the great equalizer - are at the forefront of Asymmetric Warfare. North Korea is believed to have a 6000-strong cyber attack unit. A vicious cyber attack can bring a nation to its knees.
International terrorist groups have demonstrated a desire to attack nuclear targets in Europe. Iran may yet be on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. North Korea already has.
To what types of events do we plan on retaliating using nuclear weapons? This is what is driving the current policy-making debate. Publicizing the U.S. plans to strike back with nuclear weapons is part of the deterrence principle, and it has worked thus far against nation states.
It reminds me of a discussion I had two decades ago when I kicked over a "bees' nest" at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Pennsylvania by asking about our plans for retaliation against an attack on our nuclear power industry.
I attended an open meeting on nuclear weapons policy given by Dr. John M. Weinstein, Chief of the U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System Support Staff at the White House. I was there as a civilian having never served in the military. The closest I ever got to important nuclear systems was sneaking into a radar site in Thule Greenland. The building housed the computer systems for the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning Line).
Right before the conference on that January 1998 morning at the U.S. Army War College the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken. Bill Clinton's cuts to nuclear weapons were unpopular, and there was some hope that political pressure on the President might force him to reverse those cuts. Among some in the room there was already hope of impeachment proceedings.
Of particular concern amongst attendees at the conference was the military's need for new low-yield nuclear weapons, which would cause less collateral damage and provide more flexibility in terms of responding to an attack by a foreign adversary. The worry was that a third world nation might get its hands on a nuclear weapon from the former Soviet Union and use it against a U.S. Target. Striking back with a full scale nuclear bomb might not make sense to the world. That was the day I was introduced to the "Dial a Yield" concept.
The strength of this warhead could be altered with a simple adjustment shortly before its detonation. This would be done by varying the amount of tritium or deuterium injected into the nuclear chain reaction. A small amount meant a lower yield. More importantly "Dial a Yield" made it possible for a single nuclear warhead to replace numerous warheads in the US arsenal of various sizes bunkered around the world. Another benefit for strategic planners was that the right size weapon was more readily deliverable to almost any place on the earth. Without it, Dr. Weinstein specified that at least 20,000 nuclear weapons were needed to maintain U.S. response capabilities requiring the various sizes.
Near the end of the discussion, I asked the fateful question. If one of our nuclear power plants were attacked would the United States use nuclear weapons to retaliate against the nation responsible? I noted, in support of the seriousness of my question, that Cuban jets were known to have the coordinates for Florida's nuclear power plants programmed into their flight navigation systems.
My question caused a noticeable buzz in the room amongst the seventy or so officers present. There was real excitement on the faces of these men. I'm not talking about a Dr. Strangelove drama in the "war room," but it sure seemed that I had kicked over a bees' nest judging from the commotion generated by my question. After the meeting, several of the men told me with smiling faces that they were very happy I had asked the question.
I never did get a direct response to the query. It was clear why. We had no answer. There was no policy.
Twenty years on the need for clarity in regard to our policy concerning the use of nuclear weapons is all that more pressing. The world is changing. Threats are multiplying. We need to have thought through in advance when and why we will use nuclear weapons, and, just as importantly, we need to make sure our enemies know our policies in advance. The time to consider these matters is not after the crisis occurs.