The Goldilocks Arsenal

How many nukes is the "just right" amount?

U.S. Government
U.S. Government

On Wednesday, May 16, just days before the leaders of NATO countries meet in Chicago to discuss the future of the military alliance, retired Gen. James Cartwright, former head of U.S. nuclear forces, dropped his own bomb: a report arguing that the United States could reduce the number of nuclear weapons it deploys by two-thirds and the number of warheads it keeps in reserve by nearly 90 percent. Calls for lower numbers are not new, certainly not from groups dedicated to nuclear disarmament like the one Cartwright worked with — and not even among former heads of Strategic Command.

But Cartwright’s report is still dramatic — not because the quantities are so much lower than the arsenal the United States currently fields, but because they would force the United States to step across a line that separates existing nuclear doctrine from one that it has done its damnedest to avoid for decades, shifting from "counterforce" toward "countervalue." If that distinction sounds abstruse to those outside the rarified world of nuclear strategy, the truth is that the distinction Cartwright has drawn is actually profound — operationally, politically, and even (some will argue) morally. Cartwright is challenging the nuclear status quo in a way that few Washington elites with such credibility on the subject have dared to do.

To most people, nuclear deterrence equals mutual assured destruction (MAD) — the idea that peace is maintained because any significant exchange of nuclear weapons would effectively destroy all participants. But MAD is in fact just a condition of the nuclear age, not a policy. Even during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara explicitly said that U.S. nuclear capability would be designed to absorb a strike and respond in kind, the actual war plans still took a counterforce approach — that is, they called for launching missiles and dropping bombs on the Soviets’ missiles and bombs before they could use them. And even when President Richard Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, effectively acknowledging the persistence of MAD, he also increased funding for the first-strike, multiple-warhead missiles known as MIRVs to assure doubters that America would retain an advantage in offensive nuclear forces. In other words, for 60 years or so, the United States has prepared to fight and win a nuclear war.

This posture rightly strikes most people as preposterous: Common sense tells us that a nuclear war cannot be "won" in any meaningful sense because only a handful of weapons can do civilization-shattering damage. And, to be sure, commanders in chief as distinct as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have acknowledged that a nuclear war must never be fought for precisely that reason. But their rhetoric has always been belied by America’s force structure. Destruction may have been mutually assured, but, in the event of a crisis, the U.S. plan was — and is — to take out as many of the enemy’s weapons as possible in a first strike in the hope of eliminating or at least limiting its ability to retaliate. That’s why the United States built so many thousands of nuclear warheads during the Cold War: You only needed a few to retaliate with devastating consequence, but you needed a lot if you hoped to reliably destroy every enemy silo, airfield, submarine base, command center, and the like to prevent a retaliatory strike.

Unfortunately, a truly decapitating first strike was never really possible (especially in an era of hard-to-target nuclear submarines), and the prospect of limiting retaliation to just several hundred or thousand warheads was never particularly comforting. But there was always a case to be made that, if a crisis veered toward war, the United States would need targets for its weapons, and the logical targets were the enemy’s nuclear weapons, because they posed the greatest threat. In other words, if the United States had to fight a nuclear war, then it might as well try to win. Some even argued that preparing to wage nuclear war made war less likely by making its conduct credible rather than "unthinkable." So, over the years, some of the smartest strategists in the United States developed increasingly complex theories of limitation and escalation and the operational plans (and weapons) to carry them out.

But, in truth, this was a case of sophistry masquerading as reason: A nuclear war would have been so devastating that "victory" would have had no meaning.

Even so, war-fighting doctrine remained. When Jimmy Carter — a former nuclear-submarine officer — mused that he could envision a force that relied on only a few hundred submarine-launched ballistic missiles for retaliation, he was pilloried by conservatives and the military establishment. And the end of the Cold War didn’t change that. However dramatic the cuts they contained, neither START I nor START II altered American nuclear doctrine. With the Moscow Treaty, President George W. Bush proclaimed that the United States had moved beyond Cold War thinking. But critics fairly pointed out that the only conceivable target necessitating 1,700 to 2,200 weapons was Russia’s nuclear arsenal. And, despite President Barack Obama’s rhetoric about a world free of nuclear weapons, the same is true of the New START agreement, which is reducing deployed warheads to 1,550. (Full disclosure: I worked on Senate approval of New START.)

But in taking another quantitative leap downward — to 450 deployed warheads and another 450 in reserve — Cartwright is actually proposing a significant qualitative shift. By suggesting that the United States limit its deployable weapons to several hundred, he has explicitly chosen a number that would eliminate the U.S. ability to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike against Russia — i.e., one that could theoretically destroy all its nuclear weapons and eliminate its ability to retaliate. In fact, he has not only picked a number that undermines counterforce, but he is also suggesting doing away with all intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — the leg of the nuclear triad most associated with preemptive strike. And, if that were not enough, he is suggesting taking all nuclear weapons off high alert, increasing the time it takes to launch them from a matter of minutes to between 24 and 72 hours. Although such forces could still be used to target enemy forces, they could no longer serve the preemptive counterforce function they once did. Instead, their greatest utility would shift primarily to destroying larger, softer targets — economic hubs, military-industrial facilities, population centers, and the like — in retaliation for an enemy strike. As Cartwright told me, this would represent a "significant departure from our existing posture." It’s much closer to a "countervalue" strategy.

There is a lot to be said for such a change — assuming it’s done in conjunction with the Russians, as Cartwright suggests — but the hurdles are significant. Politically, even the New START numbers — though only modestly lower than the status quo when Obama took office — were touchy because Republicans worried about just such a doctrinal shift. In response to concerns that lower numbers would take the United States away from a counterforce strategy, the Obama administration had to assure lawmakers that New START’s numbers had been chosen because they jibed with existing nuclear doctrine — i.e., counterforce. Beyond the issue of doctrine, Cartwright’s plan risks messing with far more mundane matters. Senators from states housing the ICBM bases he seeks to eliminate would revolt at the notion that land-based missiles be scrapped, which is why the Senate’s resolution of advice and consent to the New START agreement makes a point of noting the importance of keeping all three legs of the triad.

Perhaps the biggest land mine, however, is Cartwright’s acknowledgment that the move would require limits on missile defenses. Although his report emphasizes the utility of regional missile defenses, Cartwright also asserts that Phase IV of the Obama administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach — the Europe-based system designed to counter threats from Iran — could threaten Russia’s arsenal. And, because the country wants to drop our numbers and alert levels in conjunction with Russia, missile defenses will have to be on the table, lest Russia feel that the United States could launch a nearly decapitating first strike and mop up Russia’s remaining forces with a missile defense system. Given that the merest hint of limits on missile defense nearly scuttled New START’s chances of Senate approval, this alone probably renders the proposal politically DOA, at least for now.

Ironically, some critics will also make a moral case against lower numbers. After all, the accompanying change in doctrine shifts emphasis from military to civilian targets (though, to be honest, even a purely counterforce strike would kill millions of civilians). What’s more, given that a government’s primary duty is to protect its people, conservatives have long argued that deliberately leaving the American population at risk is morally abhorrent, which is why they have traditionally supported war-fighting strategies combined with robust missile defenses in an attempt to render the United States invulnerable. Liberals have, of course, have tended toward disarmament as the way out of this quandary: If there are no nukes, no one can be killed by them. However, given the difficulties of getting to and verifying abolition, the emerging centrist wisdom has been to "move toward" a world free of nuclear weapons and deal with various challenges as they arise — a position famously supported by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry.

Obama has embraced this track — most notably in his 2009 Prague speech — and conservatives have been all too happy to jump on him for it. Even New START, despite its modesty, provoked all sorts of angry talk about the supposed folly of unilateral disarmament, with Sen. Jon Kyl going so far as to offer an amendment saying that the United States must never proceed down a path toward zero nuclear weapons. So any policy that revives the disarmament meme is likely to be milked for all its worth by the president’s opponents, particularly in a year when Republicans have objective trouble portraying the man who had Osama bin Laden killed as weak on defense. Cartwright, who was considered one of Obama’s most trusted military advisors, has released his report as the president is contemplating further reductions to the U.S. arsenal — some of which are reportedly low enough to require the same sorts of doctrinal adjustments that Cartwright has embraced. Why the president would risk providing ammunition to his critics by announcing that decision this year is unclear.

Yet making the decision is certainly the right thing to do. As Cartwright notes, with the understatement peculiar to documents on nuclear strategy: "The capability in peacetime or crisis circumstances to deliver many hundreds of nuclear warheads to targets in any prospective aggressor country in retaliation to a nuclear attack satisfy reasonable requirements of nuclear deterrence even under worst-case Cold War-like conditions." He is simply saying what most Americans intuitively understand about the post-9/11 world: There is no conceivable situation in which American interests would be served by a preemptive nuclear attack using more than 1,000 weapons. What’s more, maintaining such a large arsenal diverts scarce resources from other defense needs while undermining the cooperation the United States needs abroad to fight the real nuclear threats of the 21st century: proliferation and terrorism. Cartwright’s position is the right one, and the presidential pursuit of his recommendations would give real meaning to the phrase strategic command.

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