Center for Arms Control

Nuclear Weapons

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

When less is not more

Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on March 12, 2012

Article summary below; read the full text online.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, a defining feature of US nuclear strategy has been the quest for credible ways to strengthen deterrence -- including the ability to actually win a nuclear war, which of course would reduce constraints imposed on US foreign policy by the spread of nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, American policy makers worried that the threat of a massive nuclear strike against Soviet cities would lack credibility and even encourage aggression. Moscow might correctly calculate that no American president would launch a nuclear attack -- particularly to defend allies -- knowing that such a strike would in return cause the destruction of the US homeland at the Soviets' hands. In the 1960s, President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger sought to get around this "self-deterrence" problem by developing "limited nuclear options." The idea was that, in signaling to an enemy the limited nature of a nuclear attack, escalation could then be controlled and nuclear threats could be made more credible, thereby buttressing deterrence. Successive presidents have sought to mimic the Nixon administration's efforts to escape the grim reality of deterrence, but, like Nixon, found that they were no less vulnerable than before.

Fast forward to the turn of the millennium and the George W. Bush administration's effort to develop capabilities PDF "to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets (HDBT), to find and attack mobile and relocatable targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage." According to the Bush administration, these new capabilities were necessitated by the potential spread of WMD to rogue states and the fact that existing high-yield warheads are ill-suited to deal with post-Cold War threats. Though a Republican-controlled Senate ultimately scuttled these programs, proponents of the US government acquiring the capability to destroy both the nuclear forces and the leaders of smaller nuclear-armed adversaries -- known as "counterforce" -- remain committed and vocal, both inside and outside of government.

Last month, for example, Exchange Monitor Publications and Forums held their fourth annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, a high-profile conference with participants from across Washington, including a number of former Bush administration and nuclear laboratory officials; they warned of the dangers of self-deterrence and extolled the virtues of low-yield weapons. Similarly, in a much-discussed 2011 Foreign Affairs article, Professors Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argued that US nuclear delivery systems are far more accurate than they were during the Cold War, making it possible to now conduct low-yield successful nuclear counterforce strikes.

The new case for strengthening counterforce. According to Lieber and Press, the spread of nuclear weapons means that the United States will likely find itself in a conventional war with a weaker but nuclear-armed adversary, who, facing a superpower, will have strong incentive to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. In these circumstances, an arsenal comprising solely high-yield weapons might not seem flexible enough to avoid massive collateral damage -- and therefore not credible to a 21st-century adversary. Lieber and Press argue that, in order to establish credibility, the United States must retain and modernize its lowest-yield and most accurate weapons in order to destroy an adversary's nuclear forces without mass casualties.

In addition to preventing weaker adversaries from brandishing a nuclear threat, counterforce proponents argue that augmenting low-yield options could deter rogue states from initiating conventional provocations against the United States or its allies. For example, by possessing low-yield counterforce options that could deny North Korea both a nuclear retaliatory capability and its leadership a secure place to hide, the United States would have less to fear from North Korea's conventional incitements -- such as the 2010 attack on the South Korean Cheonan warship. Instead of Americans worrying that a strong US response to such an attack could trigger a dangerous escalation by North Korea, the United States would have more foreign policy options. And, without a secure nuclear retaliatory capability, North Korea may simply be less likely to make such provocations to begin with.

However, like Cold War-era efforts to get around deterrence, these proposals rest on a number of flawed assumptions. As the Obama administration prepares to make critical decisions about the future of the US nuclear arsenal, it would do well to ignore calls to develop new low-yield counterforce options, as they would actually increase the probability of nuclear war and undermine US nonproliferation goals.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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