Courtesy Reuters

Shades of Black

By David J. Trachtenberg

To the Editor:

John Deutch correctly notes the potential utility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a more militant China or a revanchist Russia. He is also correct to point out that the U.S. nuclear umbrella has aided nonproliferation by limiting the "nuclear ambitions of other countries." Moreover, he accurately states that "the possession of [nuclear] weapons by current nuclear powers does not directly influence the ambitions of states or terrorist groups that already want their own."

Deutch, however, mischaracterizes the results of the Bush administration's 2002 nuclear posture review (NPR). The most erroneous of his contentions is that the NPR "unwisely treats non-nuclear and nuclear strike capabilities as part of a single retaliatory continuum." In fact, while the "new triad" of strategic forces envisioned by the NPR calls for tailored and precise nuclear and non-nuclear strike capabilities, there remains a clear line of demarcation between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. In particular, the political implications and ramifications of using nuclear weapons vis-à-vis using non-nuclear weapons are significantly different. The U.S. president is the only person authorized to direct the use of nuclear weapons. The reasons for this are well understood, and the NPR did not recommend any change in the way decisions regarding the employment of nuclear weapons are made. No such presidential decision would be taken lightly. Nor would the mere existence of low-yield nuclear weapons make a president any more likely to use them, since a decision to cross the nuclear threshold ultimately rests on weighty political, rather than military or technical, judgments.

Nor, contrary to Deutch's assertion, has the administration "proposed work on a new warhead -- a low-yield 'robust nuclear earth penetrator.' " It has requested funding for a study of the technical utility of repackaging an existing weapon in order to defeat hard, deeply buried targets. As potential adversaries move more of their weapons activities underground, studying how best to hold these targets at risk is a sensible course of action. Of course, developing such capabilities would not be a unilateral executive-branch decision, as Congress holds the purse strings.

DAVID J. TRACHTENBERG

Senior Vice President for Corporate Support, National Security Research, Inc., and member of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum

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