Study Calls for New U.S. Nuclear Weapons Targeting Policy

Click on image for PDF-version of full report.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Federation of American Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council today published a study that calls for fundamental changes in the way the United States military plans for using nuclear weapons.

The study From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons recommends abandoning the decades-old “counterforce” doctrine and replacing it with a new and much less ambitious targeting policy the authors call Minimal Deterrence. [Update: see Washington Post - Report Urges Updating of Nuclear Weapons Policy]

Global Security Newswire reported last week that Department of Defense officials have concluded that significant reductions to the nuclear arsenal cannot be made unless President Barack Obama scales back the nation’s strategic war plan. The FAS/NRDC report presents a plan for how to do that.

The last time outdated nuclear guidance stood in the way of nuclear cuts was in 1997, when then President Clinton had to change President Reagan’s 17-year old guidance to enable U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to go to the START-III force level that the Bush administration subsequently adopted as the Moscow Treaty force level.  The series of STRATCOM force structure studies examining lower force levels is described in The Matrix of Deterrence.

Resources: Full Report | US Nuclear Forces 2009 | United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Limit Early | Press Conference Video

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8 Responses to “Study Calls for New U.S. Nuclear Weapons Targeting Policy”

  1. 3.1415 April 8, 2009 at 9:51 am #

    Your report sets a very lofty goal for the United States. However, it avoids analyzing the obstacles between this report and Mr. Obama’s signature. The difficulty lies not in analyzing how many people a counterforce strike might kill, but in understanding why many key people involved in making nuclear policies do not like your recommendations. A thorough and open analysis of the political landscape, with names and quotations, would be far more revealing and put the public pressure on where the pressure is long due.

  2. Tom Karas April 9, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    I personally find the analysis and recommendations highly persuasive. I do have a question about the proposed elimination of SSBNs in the 2025 force structure. I assume that this postulates agreement with Russia to roughly symmetrical forces–i.e. ~200 single-RV ICBMs. That being the case, there would be little hypothetical advantage to a Russian reversion to counterforce targeting, as it costs them a missile to destroy a missile (though attacking bombers on the ground might pay off in warhead to warhead ratios.) As we approach low numbers, however, some will argue that cheating (say concealing 50 or 100 additional warheads–maybe on ALCMs?) could result in a disarming first-strike capability, leaving the attacker with a unilateral remaining nuclear threat. If the U.S. learned of this capability before it were used, I guess the U.S. could resume a launch-on-warning posture, but that doesn’t seem as secure as having a force as inherently survivable as SSBNs.

    In extension of the above, might not the Russians suspect the U.S. of retaining a counterforce capability? (Indeed, even today, some Russians argue that U.S. precision-guided conventional weapons might be able to do the job.) I guess that might be mitigated if the Russian ICBMs were mobile and unlocatable. And might not Russian anxieties about latent U.S. capabilities tempt them to cheat on a low-numbers agreement?

    I realize that at these numbers, we are talking about an international environment of reduced threat perceptions. On the other hand, we would still be in the realm of feeling the need to keep some nuclear weapons because other states have them, so we really wouldn’t yet be out of the subtext of nuclear threat and counterthreat. It seems to me that robustly survivable retaliatory capabilities would help keep the situation more stable.

    Your thoughts on this issue would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Robert Threadgill April 9, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    Not too long ago during the Bay of Pigs, we’re so close to a war! It’s great that we’ve kept our guard up for building up to military today! Countries around the world realize this! Why are we trying to take a risk in supporting a measure that will allow whoever to fire a missile towards this country? A reduction isn’t the answer in order to defend us! Do you think that other countries that hate us and want to destroy us would like us to reduce our weapons, in order to get the upper hand! Mr. Obama, should learn that He needs to keep our enemies close to keep a eye on what/how they want to destroy us! Let freedom ring to keep us strong and a leader, not a follower/socialist country!!!!!!!!

    Reply: I normally try to limit comments on the blog to analysis and factual information, but your comment captures – with all due respect to you as an individual and your right to have an opinion – exactly the mindset that I think crated the Bay of Pigs in the first place, fueled a crazy nuclear arms race the world barely escaped in one piece, and which has been preventing it from moving beyond Cold War planning for the past two decades.

    The point of our study – and all other proposals I have seen to reduce nuclear forces – is not to disarm unilaterally but to reduce together with other nuclear weapon states and try to build a bilateral and global security that does not require nuclear weapons or rely on threatening other countries with them. In fact, even the sharply reduced nuclear posture we recommend on the long and difficult road toward elimination is still extraordinarily powerful and capable of inflicting substantial pain on any adversary that would attack us with nuclear weapons. That’s basic deterrence, but one that is intended to remove many of the drivers that continue to create more and more capable nuclear weapon systems. The net benefit would, we conclude, in fact increase US national security rather than undermine it. HK

  4. Distiller April 13, 2009 at 10:25 am #

    The paper doesn’t make enough distinction between tactical and strategic. An important military target, a node or multiplier, is still a tactical target – strategic only applies to population centers. Using a tactical nuclear warhead is something completly different than a limited, or full strategic strike. Politically and militarily.

    Make no mistake: Strategic nuclear weapons will *always* primarily be targeted at cities – “minimum deterrence” wouldn’t change a thing. About 160 in Russia, maybe 100 in China, maybe 50 in Europe. And for these targets (esp especially for the huge Chinese cities) a certain yield is needed – best the W88 – since the number of MIRVs available is limited.

    The problem today is that the boats are too big with too many missiles with too many warheads and the silos are too vulnerable. Before “minimum deterrence” can start, it needs a huge investment to replace the current forces and drastically improve their survivability. New boats, new SLBMs, new road-mobile ICBMs, better C3, better post-strike ISR & analysis capability, …

    I cannot agree on the inclusion of aircraft delivered systems, be they free-falling, or cruise missiles. The value of such systems is counter-strike; but they are slow and their combined reliability is comparably low, and they give away signs of activity.

    And I also cannot agree on the elimination of SSBNs. From the survivability standpoint they are essential.

    And finally dropping tactical weapons would also be a very bad idea, since they give a flexible option below the strategic threshold, and leave only the strategic complex as a binary choice. And without tactical warheads large conventional wars would again be possible.

    But a good paper for discussions!

  5. sean wilson April 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm #

    An interesting proposal despite my personal disagreements with the force structure.

    Ive been reading some of Herman Kahn’s works lately. We cannot assume that 1 million casualties is a sufficient enough deterrent by simply mirror-imaging our values on potential adversaries. The USSR and PRC, as have other authoritarian and “hostile” regimes the ability/ willingness to absorb enormous casualties.

    A question. Starting with the assumption that nuclear weapons are here to stay (unless a new and more deadly weapon system emerges); might dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons also serve to create greater instability than intended?

    For instance, it can be argued that our nuclear superiority over the PRC is one factor that deters a PRC effort to re-take Taiwan. Furthermore, it might also be argued that fear of getting into a direct conflict with the U.S. over Georgia in the 2008 conflict severely limited Russia’s goals and prompted a quick resolution.

    Also if nuclear arsenals are reduced to a fraction of their current levels (yes, I agree more can be done to reduce the current arsenal), might this also reduce the taboo of using them? For instance if each side possessed only a few hundred weapons (tactical and strategic) the spectre of nuclear war might lose some of its more nightmarish qualities and could potentially lead to a more “casual” outlook on their employment (think 1946-1958).

    And if the arsenals are reduced to a fraction of their current size, would not a leader and military be more apt to place them on higher alert to avoid losing them in a worst-case first strike? Its not as if STRATCOM or the JCS are going to advocate reducing the number of nuclear weapons to ridiculously low levels AND then reduce their alert posture. To do this I think would constitute dereliction of duty of the highest order.

  6. sean wilson April 29, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    With respect to the force levels I think the U.S. should go the other route. Ditch the ICBM force since fixed siloes are too vulnerable. Keep the bomber force at about 100 a/c (dual use) and plus up the SSBN force to 18. That leaves 9-12 operational at any one time, with 6-9 in port, refit, etc.

  7. loupgarous August 10, 2009 at 7:52 am #

    I think that it would be in the best interests of ALL nuclear-armed nations to go entirely to submarine launched strategic nuclear missiles as delivery systems. This would be a much more efficient means of reducing the number of targets for the nuclear counterforce mission while dramatically increasing the deterrent value of each nuclear-armed nation’s nuclear arsenal (since with current technology a cruising SSBN is the least accessible target on Earth).

    With a relatively small nuclear arsenal, each nuclear-armed nation on Earth could enjoy the ability to deter attacks on its homeland while moving counterforce targets away from its territory. The nuclear targeting on each homeland would be much more countervalue in nature (apart from military leadership, logistic and assembly sites which would still presumably be targets in a hypothetical nation’s nuclear targeting plan). The moral repugnance of countervalue targeting could be used as a tool for bringing all nations to the bargaining table more effectively for eventual nuclear disarmament.

    I remain pessimistic about the efficacy of nuclear disarmament in a real world – one in which the Soviet Union could sign the Biological Weapons Convention in the early 1970s, then proceed to build a multi-billion dollar biological weapons manufacturing and development capability soon afterward, continuing to do so until the defection of two deputy directors of this empire of death in the early 1990s.

    Russia is effectively controlled by a man who is on record as calling the demise of that government the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” It seems, then, as though relying on a government controlled by Mr. Putin to abide by daring new arms control initiatives would be a mistake. This guy actually MISSES the good old days when the Soviet Union systematicaly violated solemn undertakings not to make biological weapons as a matter of national policy.

    In a geopolitical environment of that nature we need a durable, hard-to-counter, hard-to-destroy nuclear deterrent on which we can rely to dissuade potential cheating on nuclear arms treaties. SSBNs more closely fit that description than land-based missiles or bombers.

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    [...] of non-strategic nuclear weapons.The outlines of a minimum deterrence posture are described in an April 2009 report issued by the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. [...]

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