Courtesy Reuters

Unclear Nuclear Logic?

By Frank Procida; Peter Huessy

To the Editor:

The shift in U.S. nuclear policy advocated by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal ("The Logic of Zero," November/December 2008) might make sense for a number of important reasons -- not least among them safety, cost, and reducing the risk of annihilation through miscalculation. But it would be naive to expect any of the authors' recommendations to alter the decision-making of the rogue states that are currently pursuing nuclear technology. Assuming it were feasible, even the complete elimination of the United States' nuclear arsenal would almost certainly have little positive effect on Tehran's or Pyongyang's proliferation, as the same complex set of internal and external factors now driving their policies would persist, as would their perceived vulnerability to U.S. conventional superiority. The less drastic measures the authors call for, such as Washington's accepting international oversight over its own fissile material, far from enhancing the likelihood of reaching agreements with rogue states, would probably barely register in negotiations.

Moreover, the authors' primary vehicle for preventing further proliferation, an airtight accounting and monitoring program, although certainly welcome, fails to address the fundamental weakness in the nonproliferation regime that they themselves highlight: the universal right to enrichment and reprocessing technology. The beefed-up safeguards the authors promote would make it easier to detect diversion and cheating, but it is unclear how their system would prevent a state from jettisoning inspectors and beginning a weapons program after mastering the necessary technology. Indeed, the primary problem with Iran at the moment is not its lack of transparency but rather that it is developing a latent weapons capability it can pursue once it decides to eject the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspectors. Unless the UN Security Council shows a greater willingness to take the consequences of proliferation seriously -- a prospect that is uncertain at best given its indifferent responses to North Korea's own attempt at breakout and Iran's continued intransigence -- even a strengthened monitoring system will not help combat the nuclear threat.

It would be more beneficial to address the enrichment and reprocessing conundrum directly by limiting the rights of states to acquire these technologies. An international or multilateral fuel bank would be a prerequisite for such a policy, but even so, it is hard to imagine nonnuclear states, particularly members of the Nonaligned Movement, accepting further limits on their sovereignty. That the authors do not explicitly argue for such a restriction suggests that they understand the difficulty of reaching agreement on this point, even assuming that the nuclear powers begin taking concrete steps toward disarmament. The Nonaligned Movement's opposition is not the only obstacle here; the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel that exists ostensibly to limit nuclear proliferation, has yet to ban sales of enrichment and reprocessing technology to countries not already possessing it, presumably because of the parochial economic interests of some members.

The authors are correct to emphasize the threat posed by the nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons and the need to confront it with aggressive action. They also effectively communicate that the problem transcends any individual state and must be handled in a multilateral manner. But it is unclear whether U.S. leadership will be enough to get U.S. allies and other key countries to place nonproliferation imperatives above narrow political calculations and economic goals. Regrettably, it may take a catastrophic event for individual states to recognize that it is in their enlightened self-interest to accept limits on their sovereign rights and to deny themselves short-term political and economic benefits.

National Intelligence Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

To the Editor:

Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal recommend that the United States eliminate its nuclear-armed land-based ballistic missiles, which now comprise 450 rockets in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. They claim that the remaining sea-based nuclear deterrent and some small number of bombers, amounting to no more than 1,000 warheads, including reserves and stockpiles, are sufficient to maintain nuclear deterrence. They conclude by asserting that U.S. allies will also rethink nuclear weaponry and work together with the United States to rid the world of the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea.

None of their assertions is borne out by today's proliferation environment. In fact, their proposals would make the world less safe and deterrence far more difficult to maintain. Eliminating the United States' land-based Minuteman missiles would leave the United States with four submarines at sea and the remainder at two bases in Georgia and Washington State. One remaining base would be home to the nuclear bombers. Daalder and Lodal would reduce the U.S. arsenal from a target set of nearly 500 distinct aim points today to seven targets. Should an adversary be able to find U.S. submarines at sea, the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be rendered useless. Over time, U.S. submarines could be attritted, to say nothing of a cruise-missile attack on the United States' two submarine bases, which would eliminate the current Trident missiles altogether. One bomber base could also be eliminated using conventional cruise missiles, especially if U.S. planes were not kept on high alert.

Daalder and Lodal are wrong when they argue that the United States' land-based missiles are vulnerable to attack. The world they are talking about -- the height of the Cold War -- is gone. As Larry Welch, former commander of the Strategic Air Command and former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, has explained, the end of the Cold War, along with the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaties and the Moscow Treaty, have so reduced Russia's deployed nuclear forces that they no longer threaten the survival of the U.S. land-based missile force.

In order to attack the United States' 450 Minuteman missiles and their associated silos and launch-control facilities, an adversary would have to attack the United States with over 1,000 warheads. Such an attack is outside the capability of every nation of the world save Russia, and even it would be hard-pressed to undertake one once the Moscow Treaty is fully implemented. Such a hypothetical attack could not by its nature come out of the blue. Russian forces would have to be placed on very high alert, an action that U.S. satellites would immediately detect. In turn, this early detection would allow the United States to protect its nuclear forces, making them impossible to attack simultaneously in a first strike. The synergy between intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles is what gives deterrence its strength and viability, a foundation Daalder and Lodal would destroy.

The ICBM leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, the most survivable and stabilizing one, is a critical and viable element of the United States' deterrent. The American people have recently supported a nearly unanimous consensus in Congress to complete the refurbishment of these land-based missiles that has been undertaken over the past two decades, a job that is nearly complete.
Should the United States make the wrong-headed decision to eliminate its land-based missiles, its adversaries, such as Iran and North Korea, will thank the United States for its thoughtlessness and continue their nuclear programs. It would be radically less difficult for nuclear-armed adversaries, present and future, to strike the United States first and eliminate its capability to deter. There is no evidence whatsoever that China or Russia would stand down a single one of its nuclear-armed rockets should the United States follow the advice of Daalder and Lodal. In fact, such an action might very well encourage the growth of other nuclear forces, as nations see an opportunity to become a peer competitor with the United States.

Senior Defense Consultant, National Defense University Foundation, and President, GeoStrategic Analysis

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.