On September 14, with many thanks to the National Security Archive and Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Library, a group of documents describing Carter’s plans for nuclear war were declassified. Presidential Directive 59 (PD-59), entitled Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy, was controversial following its summer 1980 release. PD-59, also known as the countervailing strategy, sought to strengthen deterrence of the Soviet Union by holding at risk the Soviet Union’s ability to wage nuclear war and maintain its power, refining selective nuclear strike options, providing the President with both a full range of pre-planned options for nuclear use and the flexibility to adapt its nuclear strike plans depending on the situation, and demonstrating the US ability to engage in a protracted nuclear conflict if necessary. Whether this strategy actually strengthened deterrence remains contested.
In his recent post at Foreign Policy, the National Security Archive’s William Burr stresses that the drafters of this document “did not believe deploying weapons in this way would necessarily result in apocalypse — they believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war.” In a September 26th rebuttal, Former Secretary of Defense under President Carter Harold Brown retorted that “the effort to understand [previously highly-classified documents] well after the fact — and out of context — brings to mind the efforts of children who want to know what grown-ups are saying behind closed doors.” Brown argues that he was under no impression that a limited nuclear war could be controlled or that victory in a nuclear war was possible, but nevertheless still believed that it was necessary to provide the President with options.
Brown ends his article with a link to a declassified report he delivered to Congress explaining the reasoning behind PD-59. “Deterring nuclear war–making that unlikely possibility even more remote–is therefore our highest national security priority.” He explained that PD-59 was designed with the purpose of convincing the Soviets that it would be folly to begin a nuclear conflict with the United States. Actual Soviet perceptions of this document are unclear.
It has been over 30 years since Carter’s original plan was released and the ensuing decades have seen significant changes to the US nuclear war plan and stockpile size. But these changes have been more quantitative than qualitative in nature; they have not escaped the bounds of a Cold War mentality.
We averted a nuclear war with the Soviet Union when it collapsed over 20 years ago. The danger of nuclear use still looms, but the destruction of the United States is no longer an immediate concern. Why then have we not made more progress in altering our stance toward Russia and other countries in terms of nuclear targeting, arsenal size, and alert posture? Change can be slow process, but in this case it shouldn’t be that slow. The United States does not need to plan to aim at such a wide variety of targets. We don’t need weapons targeted at Russia ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, we need to reassess how much damage is feasible, even in military planning. Is reducing a target to dust necessary to accomplish the aims of warfare? Couldn’t the same goal be accomplished with less extreme damage requirements?
Obama stated in his Prague 2009 address that “to put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” The actual changes that go into effect will of course be highly classified, but the fact that he has ordered a review of nuclear guidance is a step in the right direction. In analyzing the outdated thinking that continues to drive American nuclear policies Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris sum it up nicely,
“The oversized arsenal reflects the fact that U.S. military planners base targeting calculations on Cold War assumptions, including that U.S. forces must be able to destroy enemy nuclear forces and a wide range of other “strategic” assets in order to be credible.”