As I hinted at yesterday, Gen. Chilton’s performance at last week’s Defense Writers Group Breakfast was not only noteworthy for his outlandish statements on the relevance of nuclear weapons to deterring cyber attacks. In response to a question …
Update: Apparently the issue of using nukes in response to cyber attacks is so outlandish that both Travis and I posted on it at the same time!
Gen. Chilton is at it again. During a Defense Writers Group breakfast last Thursday (May 7) he told reporters that the U.S. should reserve the right to respond with nuclear weapons in the event of a devastating cyber attack against U.S. computer networks.
“I think you don’t take any response options off the table from an attack on the United States of America,” he proclaimed. “And I don’t see any reason to treat cyber any differently. I mean, why would we tie the president’s hands? I can’t. It’s up to the president to decide.”
There’s no nice way to say this so I’ll just say it: Threatening a nuclear response in the event of a cyber attack is bat-shit crazy.
First, some background. The idea of not taking any response off the table is known as “calculated ambiguity,” and it has become part of the taken-for-granted of post-Cold War U.S. nuclear policy. Until recently, calculated ambiguity has almost always been discussed in the context of chemical and biological weapons, not cyber attacks. However, the growth in the number of real and alleged cyber hacks, together with claims that the U.S. is vulnerable to attack from weapons designed to produce electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects, have prompted some to reexamine what threats might merit a nuclear response.
In addition to Chilton, James Schlesigner, former Secretary of Defense and Vice-Chairman of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, has also jumped on board the “you hack, we may nuke you” train.
At last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Strategic Posture Commission’s final report Schlesinger stated:
The ambiguity to which you refer deals not with a nuclear attack on the United States but with other types of attacks. For example, the possibility, and I stress the possibility, of EMP attack. Cyber warfare, there is no defense against a sophisticated cyber warfare attack. And the Russians and the Chinese and perhaps others have developed cyber offensive capabilities. We may need to use a nuclear response to such things, biological warfare.
The Commission seemed to be of two minds on the issue of calculated ambiguity. On the one hand, the report argued that the U.S. “should retain calculated ambiguity as an element of its nuclear declaratory policy,” presumably even against cyber threats. On the other hand, the report recommends that “[t]he United States should underscore that it conceives of and prepares for the use of nuclear weapons only for protection of itself and its allies in extreme circumstances.” At one point the report even states that nuclear weapons would only be used as a “last resort.”
In my view there is only one legitimate purpose for nuclear weapons: to deter, or perhaps respond to, the use of nuclear weapons by another country.
The idea that a U.S. president would even consider, let alone authorize, consigning millions of people to their deaths because hackers shut down the northeast is so ludicrous I have difficulty even writing it down. Second, so long as the U.S. insists on maintaining a declaratory policy of calculated ambiguity, other nuclear armed nations may be prompted to adopt such a policy as well.
Finally, and most importantly, retaining the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical, biological, or cyber attack increases the likelihood that the U.S. would actually use nuclear weapons in response to such attacks. As Scott Sagan has written:
The central argument is that the current nuclear doctrine creates a “commitment trap”: threats to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack are credible, because if CW or BW are used despite such threats, the U.S. president would feel compelled to retaliate with nuclear weapons to maintain his or her international and domestic reputation for honoring commitments. (“The Commitment Trap: Why the United States Should Not Use Nuclear Threats to Deter Biological and Chemical Weapons Attacks.” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4, Spring 2000, pp.85–115.)
P.S. Apparently Gen. Chilton commented on some other issues close to the heart of yours truly. Stay tuned for more info.
As promised, below are some additional comments on the final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which was released yesterday (May 6)
According to the Commission, “ballistic missile defense capabilities can play a useful role in support of the basic objectives of deterrence, broadly defined, and damage limitation against limited threats.” While I object to the Commission’s broad definition of deterrence, I think the report paints a fair and balanced picture of the ballistic missile capabilities of Iran and North Korea – much fairer than what one often sees from the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing outfits. In addition, the report is clear that the deployment of long-range missile defenses should be contingent on their “demonstrated effectiveness and the projected threat from North Korea and Iran” and must take “into account the legitimate concerns of Russia and China about strategic stability.” Clearly the proposed European deployment, which the Commission does not address, does not pass any of these tests.
The report also states that “opportunities for missile defense cooperation with Russia should be further explored” and calls on the U.S. to “work with Russia and China to control advanced missile technology transfer.” These are welcome suggestions.
However, the report should have been more explicit about what form this cooperation should take. For example, it could have called on the U.S. and Russia to resume work on the Joint Date Exchange Center (JDEC), the facility built in Moscow as a center for the United States and Russia to share their global missile launch warning information in real time. The report alludes to the Center, but not by name, and it does not describe it in any detail.
Moreover, it should have recommended full Russian and U.S. implementation of the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), which calls on its 128 participating states to “exercise maximum possible restraint” with respect to missiles capable of delivering biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.
China’s No First Use Policy
The report states that China “continues to announce a policy of no-first use of nuclear weapons. But some Chinese officials have made statements indicating that this commitment may be conditional.” Um, not exactly. These statements have mostly originated with Chinese academics, not Chinese military/government officials. The U.S. intelligence community has for decades pointed to these statements to predict that China is rethinking its no-first-use policy. However, advocates of these views are a minority (at best) within the Chinese leadership. For more on this issue, see here.
Finally, be sure to check out the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s response to the report. They rightly attack the Commission for giving NNSA a blank to check to pursue Complex Transformation and free itself from DoE regulation and management.
Ever wonder why there is the perception that NNSA and STRATCOM have about as much credibility on stockpile maintenance and modernization issues as a screen door on a submarine? As Jeffrey Lewis and I explain in a recent piece published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, one reason is vacuum tubes.
Last fall, STRATCOM commander General Kevin Chilton sat down with The Wall Street Journal, one of the nation’s most reliable suppliers of nuclear misinformation. The goal of his visit: to convince the paper’s Editors that U.S. nuclear weapons have more in common with ’57 Chevys than they do with, well, nuclear weapons. Chilton pulled out a vacuum tube to illustrate is point.
According to Chilton, “This is the technology that we have . . . today.” He then took out a microchip, explaining to the credulous editorial board that, by withholding funding for the RRW Program, Congress has prevented the nuclear weapons complex from replacing outdated vacuum tubes with modern solid-state electronics.
While few would deny that our nuclear arsenal is aging, Chilton’s account is complete nonsense.
First, vacuum tubes are not used in the physics package of a single nuclear weapon design. In fact, vacuum tubes are currently used in only three modifications of one type of nuclear weapon: the B61. Second, the Energy Department has routinely replaced radars without nuclear testing or redesigning the physics package. Most recently, in 2006, Sandia planned to replace the remaining vacuum tube radars in the B61. However, NNSA canceled these latest ALTs, which would have resulted in the removal of the last vacuum tubes from the U.S. nuclear stockpile, because the U.S. Air Force preferred replacement to life extension.
While we focused our fire on Gen. Chilton in our piece, he is by no means the only culprit in this little charade. NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino told a similar story to Congress at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee in April 2007. In making the case for the so-called RRW2 to replace the B61, D’Agostino alluded to vacuum tubes as a key example of the “several aging problems associated with the B-61.”
General Robert Smolen (USAF, Ret.), former Deputy Administrator, Defense Programs, NNSA, has been even more explicit in pointing to vacuum tubes as evidence of the need for the RRW. At a hearing of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee in March 2008, Smolen argued:
“…we have a B-61 built in the 1960s. We’re in the process of trying to refurbish that….We still have a lot of non-nuclear components that are tubes that we’re concerned about….[A]s the stockpile continues to age, if we are faced with continually doing life extension programs, and if some of the materials we need to do that are unavailable and we have to remanufacture new ones, then we continue to build on the uncertainty which may sometime in the future have the lab directors question whether or not, in light of all the changes, they would be able to certify those weapons.” (emphasis mine).
Of course, the Wall Street Journal could care less that they’ve been played for fools. Chilton’s story fits squarely within their long-standing editorial position: the U.S. nuclear arsenal is on the verge of collapse. Congress, however, is not likely to be so forgiving.
If Gen. Chilton and other nuclear weapon hawks hope to convince Congress, the American public, and the rest of the world of the merits of their cause, they’d be wise not to make arguments that have absolutely nothing to do with the modernization debate. Harping on about an obscure nonnuclear component that is not contained in the physics package of any of our nuclear weapons and continues to function reliably will make it more, not less, difficult for NNSA to rebuild its broken bond with Congress and make its case for strengthening the U.S. nuclear infrastructure.
President Barack Obama has made it clear since the beginning of his administration that negotiating a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia is a high priority.
In this new analysis, I lay out the enormous momentum building for a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires at the end of the year. I also foreshadow the political challenges in getting a new treaty through the Senate.
Here are five primary challenges I see in the future.
1. There is a short period of time available to complete all the details of an agreement (and there are many issues to be negotiated), produce the paperwork needed to go to the Senate, hold hearings, and find Senate floor time before the December 5 deadline. This may require a modest “first round agreement” by the end of the year that can then be bolstered by a “second round agreement” in 2010 or beyond.
2. So far this year, Republicans in Congress have met most of Obama’s initiatives with united opposition. It is not clear whether that attitude will extend to the START follow-on treaty.
3. Early indications suggest that Senators and former Republican officials who may support a modest follow-on treaty may not endorse reductions to 1,000 deployed nuclear weapons or fewer in a second stage of negotiations.
4. The startup of the negotiations has been slowed by key appointees only now taking their positions in the Obama administration. Moreover, the exodus of nuclear experts from government over the past eight years has resulted in a dearth of qualified officials available to implement Obama’s initiatives.
5. It is difficult for grassroots organizations to organize support for a treaty that has not yet been negotiated.
For more info, see our continually updated START Resource Center.