Jeffrey Lewis

It’s Not You, It’s Me

America's nukes are designed to comfort us, not scare the enemy.


When Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter took the podium on March 1 to discuss the initial impact of sequestration, he said something very interesting. The Defense Department, Carter explained, would, at least for now, "strictly protect" two missions: The first, understandably enough, involves ongoing operations in Afghanistan. The second floored me. Given the remit for my column, you can probably guess what it is. Carter indicated that, for now, nuclear deterrence will be sequestered from sequestration.

It will not surprise you that I think this is an unwise policy decision, at least if protecting the nuclear mission requires further cuts elsewhere. As an indicator of how the Obama administration thinks about nuclear weapons, it is even worse. The very notion that nuclear deterrence should be exempt from sequestration helps illustrate the incredibly convoluted and confused thinking that underpins the U.S. approach to nuclear weapons.

Carter gave two examples of the sort of cuts that sequestration will entail, both relating to the operations and maintenance of U.S. military forces: The Navy will begin deferring maintenance on the fleet, and the Air Force will defer training, reducing the number of hours pilots get in the air. Why protect the U.S. strategic deterrent from such reductions? What’s so fricking special about nuclear weapons, anyway?

Part of the answer goes back to Albert Wohlstetter, who, in the 1950s, articulated the notion that for deterrence to succeed, the United States would have to pay very close attention to the details — that deterrence is fragile. So, over the years, U.S. policymakers have asserted that deterrence hangs by the slender threat of miscellanea such as missile throw-weight.

Why would deterrence depend on such things? We have tended to think about deterrence as a calculation — imagine Leonid Brezhnev awaking each morning to subtract the costs of invading Western Europe from the benefits, cursing his luck, and then lighting a cigarette. The notion that deterrence requires spending time with the inner mental life of dictators great and small has derailed countless conferences, spawned terrible policy ideas, and generally kept Jerry Post on retainer.

But policymakers don’t actually think that way. Wohlstetter was no fool. His Delicate Balance of Terror is predicated not on any particular model of Soviet behavior, but on its absence — as well as on the absence of any sort of certainty that might make the balance of terror "automatic." His approach was quintessentially one of what we might call self-assurance — the notion that policymakers can use rational examination of objective factors to choose policies, forces, and postures that optimize, but do not ensure, a very delicate balance of terror. In practice, this meant more, more, more. Bigger numbers, lots of forces on alert, plenty of diversity in the stockpile. It is an interesting question why, if we do not know what deters the Soviets, we would choose to cover all our bases rather than just concluding that the entire enterprise is bankrupt. Suffice it to say, you don’t end up as secretary of defense if you pick the blue pill.

Wohlstetter’s legacy is that U.S. policymakers go to great lengths to satisfy themselves that they have done everything they reasonably can and hope that deters the baddies. Robert McNamara, for example, famously attempted to cap the size of the U.S. nuclear force by thought-experiment, imagining a series of 1-megaton thermonuclear weapons dropped sequentially on the Soviet Union. He stopped at 400 equivalent megatons not because he concluded that Khrushchev failed to care about Target #401 in the same way he cherished Target #400, but because the damage curve leveled off. Four-hundred megatons might not be enough, but after that there wasn’t anything left to destroy. McNamara was satisfying himself that we simply couldn’t do more. What the Soviets thought was anyone’s guess.

This is still, more or less, how U.S. policymakers talk about the problem if you push them hard enough. I once sat in on a meeting at the Pentagon where a friend and colleague gave a senior official a very tough time over how, precisely, a small reduction in the reliability of warheads might change the calculations of an adversary. Even if the Russians knew our nuclear warheads were "only" 70 or 80 percent reliable, my friend pressed, how would this alter Russian calculations? Why don’t we insist on equally high reliability standards for missiles? My colleague’s incredibly persistent questioning produced an interesting response. The senior official argued that the problem was not deterrence, per se, but self-deterrence. We would be less confident in a crisis, he thought, if we didn’t have some undefined faith in our nuclear stockpile. It was the closest I have ever seen a senior U.S. official to admitting that much of what passes for "deterrence" is about self-assurance.

That brings us back to sequestration. Ash Carter presumably does not believe that the Russian army will hurl itself onto Poland if the ICBM force reduced its readiness rate to 80 percent. And, presumably, Carter agrees that North Korea will continue engaging in all manner of nasty behavior, irrespective of the number of hours a B-2 pilot gets in during the third quarter of FY2013.

So we are left with the notion that Carter and other U.S. officials fret we will go weak in the knees if we do not fully fund the nuclear enterprise. It is strange that the Obama administration can talk about seeking the security of a world without nuclear weapons at the same time officials are terrified to reduce the flying time for B-2 pilots. But when Defense Department officials talk about deterrence, they are really attempting to convince us, as well as themselves, that they have done all they can.

If the Obama administration is serious about transforming our nuclear posture, that transformation needs to start with being honest that we have, at least in some important ways, been fooling ourselves all these years. We’ve talked about frightening our enemies when what we’ve really meant is giving ourselves a dose of courage.

Our attempts to get inside the hive-mind of our adversaries have been failures — despite all the buzzwordery surrounding "tailored deterrence." The policy legacy of these efforts is downright embarrassing, starting with Keith Payne and Colin Gray’s 1981 suggestion that we simply target every KGB office in the Soviet Union because a grateful populace will revolt in the wake of nuclear attack. (Greeted as liberators!) Their infamous essay "Victory Is Possible" (courtesy of FP) is actually a lot less insane if you see it as corrective to the despair of policymakers contemplating the futility of nuclear war. Well, it’s a little less insane at any rate.

Two admittedly anecdotal tales ought to serve as a caution about our ability to get inside the head of our adversaries. Certain deterrence aficionados assert that transcripts captured after the invasion of Iraq demonstrate that our nuclear weapons did deter Saddam from using chemical weapons against either Israel or coalition forces. This is the part they don’t tell you: Saddam had wildly inaccurate views about U.S. and Israeli nuclear weapons. Saddam had a long argument with his advisers, who tried to convince him that Israel did not have U.S.-supplied Pershing missiles. He was wrong, but his advisors understandably did not persist. Worse, a former Iraqi commander stated that Saddam had dispersed his forces in response to the deployment of nuclear-armed Pershing missiles to Saudi Arabia — although the United States was in the process of eliminating the Pershing force under the terms of the 1987 INF Treaty with the Soviets. Saddam may have been deterred by nuclear weapons we did not have and, in fact, had verifiably eliminated under the nose of Soviet inspectors. Deterrence worked! Sort of.

The other case is more worrisome. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a U.S. defense contractor completed a massive two-volume study entitled Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985 based on extensive interviews with former "Soviet military officers, military analysts, and industrial specialists." The study is the most persuasive evidence that we dramatically overestimated the requirements to deter the Soviet Union. It also gives us a famous story about Brezhnev’s hand "trembling" during an exercise when he had to authorize a nuclear use. The downside of our narcissism is that our efforts to assure ourselves blinded us to real paranoia in the Soviet Union, particular in the early 1980s. The Reagan administration, having campaigned on the notion that Jimmy Carter’s weakness had provoked Soviet assertiveness, undertook a variety of activities to remedy the situation, including very aggressive efforts to test Soviet air defenses. The rocky period that we now call the "War Scare of 1983" hit its nadir in 1983 during a NATO command-post exercise called Able Archer. This was the most dangerous period of the Cold War after the Cuban Missile Crisis — and no one in Washington noticed because they were staring at their belly buttons, arguing about the Midgetman.

If the Obama administration intends to transform U.S. nuclear forces, rather than simply make incremental reductions, the president has to grapple with this much darker legacy. The fact that the nuclear enterprise is exempted for now from sequestration suggests he has not done so. Indeed, the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear disarmament has struck me as fundamentally backward. Consider the president’s stated goal of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons: That might feed the president’s ego as a historical figure, but it inflates his role in the process. Moreover, it suggests further reductions would be unwise. If nuclear weapons play such an important role in our security right now, why would we choose to reduce it?

In fact, the relationship is the opposite. It is the broader changes in technology and society over the past few decades that are responsible for reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons: Technology is improving conventional forces, and we can no longer imagine credible scenarios in which using nuclear weapons would be consistent with our aims in the world. This has nothing to do with Barack Obama’s leadership, nor could Mitt Romney have reversed this trend even if he wanted to. The role of nuclear weapons is decreasing as a function of external factors, not pretty speeches.

Doing the right thing, then, doesn’t mean doing everything we can, but consolidating and aligning our nuclear forces, policy, and posture with the limited role that nuclear weapons still credibly play.

In other words, what the Obama administration needs, to paraphrase Mike Watt, is some validation. Well, go ahead. You have my permission.

The decision to exempt nukes from sequestration suggests the president isn’t intellectually there yet. Whatever he says on a dais in Prague, it’s business as usual at home.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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