US must update its strategic nuclear doctrine

The next president will have to face up to a series of military and defense issues.

September 11, 2012 11:20
Obama speaks at Nuclear summit, Seoul

Obama speaks at Nuclear summit, Seoul_370. (photo credit: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

During the 1950s, America first began to codify various rudimentary doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was clearly bipolar, and the conspicuous enemy was the Soviet Union. Thoroughly tempered by a shared knowledge of the carnage that had overwhelmed the planet from 1939 to 1945, it was, at least strategically, a far simpler world.

Then, American national security was openly premised on viscerally primal threats of “massive retaliation.” Over time, especially during the Kennedy years, that explicit policy of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) was nuanced by more subtle threats of “flexible response.” But the absolute clarity of distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys” was never a policy issue, and was never in any real doubt.

Today, in an increasingly "multipolar" world, there are many complex and sometimes intersecting axes of global conflict. Among other things, we must now fashion our national nuclear strategies with a carefully considered view to multiple and interdependent centers of power. This still includes Russia, which, mistakenly, had assumed diminished importance in American strategic calculations after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Even after the entry into force of New START between the US and Russia (2011), Moscow has continued to reinvigorate its production of certain intercontinental ballistic missiles, and assorted supporting infrastructures. A new ICBM, aptly nicknamed "Satan," is scheduled for deployment in 2015. In part, this strategic development represents a predictable Russian response to heightened fears that America will push ahead with its plans for expanded ballistic missile defense in Europe, unnervingly close to Russia's borders. In Russian calculations, such plans are indisputably offensive, because they threaten to undermine an historically basic nuclear deterrence rule: Nuclear adversaries, this tacit rule stipulates, must maintain a condition of mutual vulnerability. Always.

Should this rule now also apply to North Korea and Pakistan? What about a soon-to-be nuclear Iran? Or would the concept simply not be relevant to states that might deviate from more traditional expectations of rationality in world politics?

For now, aside from Russia, Washington's primary strategic focus is on an already-nuclear Pakistan, and on a nearly-nuclear Iran. In both cases, there are more-or-less plausible fears of enemy irrationality. In such situations, where leadership elites in Islamabad and/or Tehran could sometime value certain presumed religious obligations more highly than national physical survival, the logic of deterrence might fail.

Such frightful scenarios are improbable, but they are not inconceivable. It follows that any updated US strategic doctrine will have to include several thought-based and detailed responses to these particular narratives, and also to more broadly-outlined generic prospects.

What, too, should we expect to happen in an already-nuclear North Korea? Many serious questions remain about the nature, intent, and direction of the current regime in Pyongyang, especially its likely adherence to decisional rationality. In the past, North Korean strategic interests and expectations were played out secretively across the globe, not only in Russia and China, but even in such places as Iran and Syria.

Can America count on China and Japan as helpful allies in this potentially volatile theatre of geopolitical conflict? Here, a major differentiation is needed. Japan, yes. China, it will be easy to conclude, not at all.

Other major strategic problems face us today. These significant difficulties may be essentially unrelated to what is happening in Russia, Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea, and may only be indirectly connected to the belligerent intentions of other states. Such problems could stem, in part, from the effectively uncontrolled growth of certain virulently antagonistic sub-state guerrilla, and/or terrorist organizations. To deal purposefully with these ongoing and potential sub-state adversaries, our strategic doctrine will also have to hold their primary state sponsors accountable. As a practical matter, this will require very far-reaching patterns of shared government and military intelligence information with all our pertinent allies.

In retrospect, from the standpoint of reducing long-term risks of anti-American terrorism, we may soon have to acknowledge that both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were largely beside the point. Already, anti-American Jihadist insurgents are operating, sometimes with absolute impunity, in Pakistan, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon, Yemen, Chad, Niger, post-Gaddafi Libya and even an utterly chaotic Syria. Shall we now be expected to prepare for ground wars on all, or most, of these still-developing fronts?

The hazards that we face in the Middle East and Africa can never be diminished by any conventional "boots on the ground" strategy of conflict. We ought never to have sustained such long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can never defeat enemy theocracies by undertaking an enervating  strategy of protracted occupation, unless we are genuinely willing to become permanent occupiers. Such a willingness, it goes without saying, would be foolish, domestically corrosive, and ultimately self-defeating.

Also, what shall we now do about cost-effectively linking our preferred forward strategy (offense) with our homeland strategy (defense)? In military parlance, how should these indispensably reinforcing strategies become suitable "force multipliers" or "synergistic?"

In the past, insurgent adversaries were sometimes able to confront us with serious threats in assorted regions of conflict, but they were never really able to pose a catastrophic hazard to the American homeland itself. Now, however, with the steadily expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly, even well-armed nuclear terrorists – we could sometime have to face a dire strategic situation that is militarily unprecedented, and historically sui generis. In a different but similarly threatening nuclear scenario, insurgent groups could target operating nuclear reactors. Such a unique specter, as former State Department official, Professor Bennett Ramberg, has insightfully pointed out, could even produce the first radiological war in history.

From the start, all US strategic policy has been unhesitatingly founded upon an underlying assumption of rationality. Always, we have assumed that our enemies, both states and terrorists, will inevitably value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences.  Going forward, this assumption can no longer be taken for granted.

How, then, shall we deal with ominously unique sets of expectations? To be sure, our national strategic doctrine must plainly acknowledge that irrationality is not the same as madness, and that irrational adversaries could still remain subject to certain aptly-altered forms of deterrence. This is because such irrational enemies could still display preference orderings that are both consistent and "transitive."

Confronted with Jihadist enemies, both states and terrorists, we must quickly understand that our primary and usual threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions could fall on deaf ears. Significantly, this holds true whether we would threaten massive retaliation (MAD), or, instead, the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal that are included in so-called nuclear utilization theory (NUT). In either case, any gainfully updated US strategic nuclear doctrine will have to include careful re-examination of all alternative targeting doctrines, and also the extent to which any such doctrines should be made public.

The main focus of examination here would concern differences between the primary targeting of enemy civilians and cities ( “counter value” targeting), and primary targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures ( “counterforce” targeting). In reality, of course, the tactical lines between counter value and counterforce would be indistinct and "blurred," but any updated US strategic doctrine would still have to prescribe appropriately nuanced and sensibly-categorized policy options.

Historically, most Americans don’t realize that the essence of “massive retaliation” or MAD was always an unhidden plan for counter value targeting. Nor would these fellow citizens likely feel comfortable with any open policy reaffirmations of MAD in the future. At least in those circumstances where enemy rationality could still be reliably assumed, credible American nuclear deterrence policies might require updated and modified strategies of mutual assured destruction.

 At first, such partially-resurrected targeting doctrines could sound barbarous or inhumane, but if the only alternative were a less credible US nuclear deterrent, then more explicit codifications of counter value might, at least in certain circumstances, become the best available way to prevent or limit future American casualties from nuclear war or nuclear terrorism.

At the same time, to suitably enhance the credibility of deterrence in less than authentically existential circumstances, the United States will have to: (1) build a whole new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons, and (2) fashion a corollary strategy for their optimal use.  Our existing over-age stockpile of high-yield Cold War-era weapons now lacks both operational reliability, and threat credibility. Would we ever really employ an inherently "dirty,"  500 KT, surface-burst nuclear weapon against states that have dealt us anything less than genuinely mortal harms? More importantly, would states with anything less than an existentially annihilatory intent against us actually believe that we would ever execute such an unbounded threat?

To properly augment those high-yield nuclear weapons that may still be doctrinally and operationally reliable, we will also need to proceed with the design, production, and testing of more usable, low-yield/high-accuracy nuclear weapons. More specifically, as an example, to optimize our changing nuclear deterrent, we will require low-yield, reduced-residual-radiation earth-penetrators. Over the past decade, such very specialized weapons, capable of reducing collateral damage, could have proven distinctly helpful as a deterrent to what has been an unhindered Iranian nuclearization. Further, constructed expressly as counter-proliferation weapons, such earth-penetrators could already have helped us to destroy deep underground enemy bunkers, and to neutralize certain enemy biological/ chemical agents.

Finally, in shaping an improved US strategic doctrine, our best thinkers will have to recognize and identify critical connections between law and strategy. Under international law, which is expressly part of the law of the United States (see, inter alia,  art. 6 of the US Constitution), certain forms of preemption or defensive first strikes are known formally as anticipatory self-defense. When would such protective military actions be required to safeguard the American homeland from diverse forms of WMD attack? How could these necessary military actions be rendered compatible with both international law and American law?

In the end, American strategic planners will have to recognize vast structural and synergistic changes that have taken place since the Cold War, most notably the conclusive end to a neatly bifurcated nuclear world, a world once buttressed by opposing alliances, sometimes on "hair trigger." Today, our present and prospectively nuclear enemies typically maintain, or are likely to maintain, markedly smaller nuclear arsenals (the Russian case may be less clear), but the relevant relationships between them, both state and sub-state, are also more complex, interpenetrating, and difficult to decipher. Considered together with expanding core ambiguities about rationality and irrationality in global decision-making, and also about the prospective reliability of adversarial command and control systems, these far-reaching changes should be factored into a more coherent and fully comprehensive national strategic doctrine.

This call is not for implementing a narrowly political or partisan agenda, but rather for fulfilling a broadly American national obligation.

For America, now more than ever, strategic doctrine is an indispensable  "net." Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is elected in November, only he who "casts," will "catch."

The writer has published many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including some of the earliest scholarship on nuclear terrorism. His work has appeared in Special Warfare and Parameters, publications of the US Department of Defense,  International Security (Harvard), World Politics (Princeton), and in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence. In Israel, Professor Beres served as Chair of Project Daniel, a senior private commission on Israeli nuclear strategy. Professor Beres is the author of
Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy  (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986).

Related Content