THE COUNTERFORCE FANTASY
Keir Lieber and Daryl Press ("The Nukes We Need," November/December 2009) argue that to deter the growing number of nuclear-armed states against which it might have to fight a conventional war, the United States should develop a new generation of accurate low-yield nuclear weapons. They contend that "the least bad option in the face of explicit nuclear threats or after a limited nuclear strike may be a counterforce attack to prevent further nuclear use."
It is true that for the United States to maintain nuclear deterrence, the president must have credible options to respond to nuclear threats or attacks. Lieber and Press rightly assert that the capability to destroy enemy cities with high-yield weapons is not enough. But their argument for new counterforce capabilities attacks a straw man. The United States already has the flexibility to carry out low-yield counterforce attacks, and there are no plans to eliminate this. The B-61 nuclear bomb has a variable yield that can be set quite low and is highly accurate, especially when carried by the stealth B-2 bomber. Cruise missiles with low-yield warheads have similar capabilities. Even long-range ballistic missiles can be targeted to minimize collateral damage.
Lieber and Press go beyond urging low-yield counterforce capabilities and propose a bizarre and dangerous nuclear strategy for the United States: to develop the capacity for attacks against a threatening enemy that would prevent the enemy from launching any subsequent nuclear attacks. These disarming strikes would be launched even if the enemy had attacked an isolated military target, such as a carrier battle group at sea. Astoundingly, the authors also propose preemptive nuclear attacks against "explicit nuclear threats." The states against which such attacks might be used include Iran, North Korea, other new nuclear powers, and even China.
Lieber and Press provide a detailed analysis of how such an attack would have a more than 95 percent chance of destroying all of China's fixed silo-based intercontinental missiles, with less than 700 fatalities. (Much of
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