Not Getting It Right: More Bad Reasons to Have Nuclear Weapons

A recently released report, U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century:  Getting It Right, by the ad hoc New Deterrent Working Group with a forward by James Woolsey, is an interesting document.  I believe this report is significant because it might typify the arguments that will be used against arms control treaties in the upcoming Senate debates.

Much of what is written in support of existing nuclear policies is such a logical muddle that one hardly knows where to start in a critique.  As a statement of the pro-nuclear position, this paper is clearer than most so worth addressing.  It makes the errors that others do when arguing for nuclear weapons, specifically, making statements about the “requirements” for nuclear weapons that imply missions left over from the Cold War, but the report is particularly blunt in its demands and might serve as a good example of the pro-nuclear arguments.  The report is almost seventy pages long, so I can’t touch on every point in a blog and I think I will leave the arguments about nuclear testing for a separate blog to follow.

The report starts out with one fundamental mistake contained in almost every discussion on nuclear weapons:  It conflates nuclear weapons with deterrence.  Nuclear weapons are so thoroughly equated with deterrence—they are often simply called “the deterrent” —that we seldom stop to think about the details of how this deterrent is supposed to work.  What is being deterred, whom, how, for what purpose?  If we do not know what nuclear weapons are for, what their missions are, what their targets are, then it is impossible to pin down what their performance characteristics ought to be.

Uncertainty, Reliability, and Safety

The report argues that we need nuclear weapons in part because the world and the future are very uncertain.  The report admits no one knows the answers to any of the questions above so the United States simply has to make certain that it has sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons with a variety of capabilities and hope for the best.  The problem with this approach is that planning for uncertainty is never finished;  we never reach an endpoint.  For example, the heading on p. 25, “U.S. nuclear weapons are deteriorating and do not include all possible safety and reliability options” is not only true but always will be true.  The “deteriorating” fear has been refuted:  parts in weapons age, and these parts are being replaced when needed so the weapons remain within design specifications.  This is not cheap or simple but neither is it impossible and can continue for decades.  But admittedly, nuclear weapons do not have “all possible safety and reliability options.”  There are, no doubt, “options” no one has even thought of yet.  So how much reliability and safety is enough?  When can we stop?

The answer depends on the missions for nuclear weapons.  If nuclear weapons had only the mission of retaliating against nuclear attack, to inflict sufficient pain to make such an attack seem pointless in the first place, then one could plausibly argue that 90% reliability is adequate.  If the United States needs to destroy, say, ten targets to inflict sufficient pain to deter, then which ten is not absolutely critical and it could fire at eleven targets and accept that one might escape.  Even if the United States wanted to use nuclear weapons to attack and destroy stocks of chemical and biological weapons, it could fire a nuclear weapon at the target and, if one in ten does not go off, it could fire off another bomb an hour later.  It is not as though we will not know whether a nuclear bomb actually went off, that will be pretty obvious.  If, on the other hand, the United States wants to conduct a surprise, disarming first strike against Russian central nuclear forces, destroying its missiles on the ground, then there is a huge difference whether the attack is 90%, 95%, or 99.9% successful.  If the Russians have a thousand warheads, that is the difference between 100, 50, or 1 surviving, obviously significant.  So, to say that nuclear warheads need a certain reliability, specifically a high reliability, is to imply certain missions.  But these are missions that nuclear advocates rarely want to acknowledge explicitly because they know what a hard sell it will be while “reliability” seems like an obvious, inarguable good quality to have.

What about safety?  Certainly we should have nuclear weapons that are as safe as possible and no effort should be spared to make them safer, right?  In fact, the Working Group does not agree.  The safest nuclear weapons are the ones that do not exist, so ultimate safety calls for nuclear abolition, an option explicitly rejected by the Working Group.  If we are going to have actual nuclear weapons, they could be made safer by storing them disassembled.  If we need assembled warheads, they could be made safer by removing them from their missiles.  Warheads on missiles could be made safer by taking the missiles off alert.  All of these options are explicitly rejected by the Working Group.  What the report really means when it says we should have “all possible” safety options is that we should fund the National Labs at high levels forever but not change deployments one iota in the interest of safety, hardly my definition of “all possible.”

How Much Is Enough?

The rest of the report makes claims that are unproven and often unprovable and sets requirements for nuclear weapons that sound as though the Cold War never ended.  I understand that even in a report of seventy pages not every statement can be fully analyzed and supported but, even so, there are a score of amazing claims for nuclear weapons that are supported mostly by lots of quotes.

The report makes the error of discussing the numbers of nuclear weapons in terms of reductions, specifically since the Cold War (p. 11).  All references to reductions imply the Cold War is a benchmark by which current arsenals are measured.  But the world has been turned on its head since then and comparison to Cold War numbers is neither relevant nor enlightening.  (The Navy also has fewer battleships than it did in World War II.  The point is?)

The report states (p. 11), “In a number of cases, a robust American nuclear arsenal has proven to be effective not only in deterring attacks on the United States and its allies from adversaries using weapons of mass destruction.”  This may be true but it is very hard to know.  Failures of deterrence are obvious but, if some action does not happen, then why did it not happen?  Was the action every really considered?  Was it considered but rejected for some other reason?  Or was it deterred?  Arguments about the effectiveness of deterrence are inevitably going to be speculative and based on absence of evidence.  As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out while Secretary of Defense, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  There is no doubt that deterrence is real in many cases, it really works in many cases, but it is very difficult to be certain when and where.  We should all (me included) be very cautious when making arguments about deterrence.  I believe that general discussions of deterrence almost always go off the rails.  When we talk about deterrence, we should at least try to use concrete examples for discussion.  In the case of nuclear weapons, going to some example, any example, almost always demonstrates that the arguments in favor of nuclear weapons are simply incredible.

The report states (p. 12), “In short, the available evidence suggests that an American nuclear deterrent that is either qualitatively or quantitatively insufficient will have the effect of encouraging the very proliferation of nuclear forces we seek to prevent.”  This might be tautologically true if the definition of “insufficient” is chosen to make it true.  But there is no “available evidence” for the simple reason that the “American nuclear deterrent” (note again how nuclear weapons are thoughtlessly referred to as the “deterrent”) has never been anywhere near “insufficient” since 1945.  So exactly when was this experiment conducted?  Later (p. 51) the reports states, “To the contrary, history has clearly shown that unilateral US reductions, far from causing a similar response, actually stimulate nuclear buildups by adversaries.”  What can they be talking about?  Russia, Britain, France, and China went nuclear while the U.S. arsenal was expanding or just plain huge.  The nuclear arsenal of the United States declined from its peak because of the retirement of thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons made obsolete by modern precision conventional alternatives.  Did South Africa, India, Israel, Pakistan, or North Korea really go nuclear because of “unilateral US reductions”?  These confident statements are based on a “history” of some parallel universe.

The report asserts that China has “its own extensive military modernization program.”  China, with a growing economy is naturally increasing its overall budget but its nuclear ambitions continue to appear quite restrained.  Hans Kristensen has written extensively on this.

Hydronuclear Alert

The report asserts that Russia is conducting hydronuclear tests, that is, nuclear weapon tests with very small nuclear yields, tests that the United States would consider in violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban.  This is a common claim from pro-nuclear people, based, apparently on highly classified reports that are repeated here in this unclassified document.  Some of the authors of the report have or had security clearances so any claim to the contrary is met with “if only you knew what I know.”  All I can say is that I have asked people who do know what the authors know and apparently the evidence is unclear, specifically, the United States does not have good enough detection capability to prove that the Russians are not conducting such tests.  If the Russians are conducting such tests, and the pro-nuclear lobby has already let the cat out of the bag, the intelligence community should present testimony in Congress confirming the tests.  As far as I know, they have not done so.  Even so, note that the fuss is about a treaty that the United States has not ratified.  Upon ratification, the United States and Russia (and perhaps China) could agree in parallel to place instruments at each other’s tests sites and resolve this ambiguity.

Nuclear Weapons Ready to Fly.

The report advocates, even assumes, an aggressive nuclear stance, with weapons constantly ready to go.  For example, (p. 15):  “Finally, the continued credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent precludes de-mating of warheads on operational systems or otherwise reducing the alert rates or alert status of U.S. forces.”  Again, we should apply this general statement to a few concrete examples.  First, by arguing against reducing alert rates they are endorsing current alert rates.  While the report objects to the term “hair trigger alert,’ U.S. nuclear weapons are, in fact, ready to launch on a few minutes’ notice.  At any given moment, many are deployed on submarines off the coast of China and Russia, atop missiles just a few minutes flight time from their targets.   Do they really mean that an enemy will not be deterred if these conditions are relaxed?  We have to imagine a scenario in which the leader of China, Russia, or maybe North Korea want to use nuclear weapons against the United States but, knowing that they will be hit back 40 minutes later are deterred.  Then their head of military intelligence comes in and reports that the American nuclear bombs won’t arrive until eight hours later, or perhaps the next day, or whatever, and as a result the enemy leader says, “Well, in that case, let’s attack.”  Perhaps someone else can think of a case in which this is plausible but I cannot.

Later (p. 59), the report does try to give some further justification for high alerts:  “They [nuclear weapons] must be known to be ready and useable to have deterrent effect. No START follow-on agreement can be deemed in the national security interest if it would require downgrading of that condition and, thereby, potentially leave the United States vulnerable to coercion based on the threat of second or third strikes before we could respond to an attack.”  This actually makes some sense but we have to think about what it really means.  It means keeping a constant counterforce attack capability.  The statement above says that, if Russia (in the context of START, we are talking about Russia) attacks the United States with nuclear weapons, the next act of the United States should be to attack all remaining Russian nuclear weapons so they can’t do any more damage.  That sounds plausible but let’s think this though.  The Russians can safely assume the Americans will be more than a little upset after a nuclear bomb has gone off.  The Russians will know that their vulnerable weapons could be attacked so they would either disperse their weapons to make them invulnerable or they would use them.  It might be that keeping a counterforce capability results in the Russians throwing everything they can throw at the United States in the first wave, actually increasing the damage to the United States in a contest that would otherwise have smaller stakes.  I have written elsewhere how high U.S. alert rates make reductions in nuclear forces more difficult for Russia.  Moreover, the report completely neglects the costs of high alert rates, not just the financial costs but the risks of accidental nuclear launch, either by the United States or Russia, and the danger of Russian mitigating tactics, and the loss of escalation control.  The authors fail to imagine that the United States and Russia might negotiate mutual force postures that include weapons off alert that are mutually invulnerable, creating a much more stable nuclear environment.  The authors seem to believe that a Cold War Lite is the only way the world can be.  They cannot see over the hill into the next valley.

The report makes a series of other remarkable and unsupportable claims, but I want to address those in a separate blog about nuclear testing.


8 Responses to “Not Getting It Right: More Bad Reasons to Have Nuclear Weapons”

  1. Paul July 9, 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    What I always find very interesting but barely discussed is that all sides on this debate always assume a countervalue strategy.

    Without going into the depths of nuclear strategy and attack options — even the “reduction”-side always implies in its arguments (as above), that the United States would launch an counter-population or counter-city strike as retaliation.

    Your argument (for example) is: the leader of country X will be deterred by US nuclear forces either on hair-trigger alert (40 minutes) or off-alert (next-day). But how is he deterred at all? (Same argument with safety/reliability).

    Let’s say leader X decides to fire a nuclear missile at the Guam military base. Will he be really deterred if the US would fire a nuclear missile at his military bases? Or rather at his industrial (read: population) centers?

    All arguments somehow never get into the actual dynamics of targeting. Almost everywhere it is said “even a handful of missile are enough for deterrence”. But this always implies a countervalue strategy which wound end up killing thousands of defenseless civilians.

    Or am I totally off-track here?


  2. Pierce Corden July 9, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    Dear Ivan,

    I scrolled through the stuff, especially about testing. More of the same. I know of no basis for claiming cheating at 20 KT. How can Woolsey assert that Russia is carrying out low-yield testing at NZ? For sure, if they are, it is despite their agreement to zero.

    You are promising a separate assessment of what they say about nuclear testing. They do seem to endorse resuming testing now.

    It would also be useful to say more about modernization; we are surely doing so with delivery systems, and actually DOE would like to do some with warheads, without testing (not something I’d think advisable).

    Best regards,


  3. Page van der Linden July 9, 2009 at 6:28 pm #

    Very short observation: I’ve only just started scrolling through the white paper, but it’s like a big ad for the RRW. I wonder if that will re-surface sometime in the next few Congresses? Thoughts?

  4. Rosa July 10, 2009 at 11:38 am #

    I think the Obama administration has taken a positive first step in opening a dialogue about non-proliferation at the G8 summit. This video has more background As the video points out, the agreement as it is now is not effective. It deals only with vertical proliferation, this is a misstep in my opinion. While it is important for the U.S. and Russia ( who collectively hold 95% of the global nuclear arsenal) to reduce stockpiles, and secure remaining weapons systems, it is far more important to prevent emerging nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea from receiving nuclear technology from Russia. The focus must be on horizontal non-proliferation.

  5. yousaf July 10, 2009 at 10:04 pm #

    RRW will be detrimental to our security:

    That will not stop Cold Warriors for advocating tricking Congress into funding it:

    “Give it a new name, he seems to be suggesting, and try again to get Congress to fund it.”

  6. josh keegan August 10, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    argh! Tell me if i’m way off here.. But isn’t this all way screwed up anyway..? The fact we delved into this nuclear science and it’s use in weaponry has sealed our own coffins.. Simply because: “NUCLEAR WEAPONS SPAWN THE NEED FOR NUCLEAR WEAPONS”. So we obviously will have to start doing our best to back track, because arming ourselves more will only cause these flagged nuclear countries to increase their stockpiles. But is it all too little too late now? We can never be sure who the enemy’s are, and what they posess. Western countries need to drop out of this arms race… Have we learnt nothing from previous wars?

    If we abandon nuclear weapons, we may within a number of days all be blown up by our enemies who can see we are defenceless or more likely unable to retaliate. But if we continue to grow the number of weapons we have, the threats will grow, as will the war climate until we are all either dead, or cast into a Nuclear Winter… to soon die…


  7. Lyle Brecht August 20, 2009 at 7:16 am #

    The U.S. is at a crossroads. For more than fifty years it has engaged a Deterrence Doctrine based on the strategic game of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) developed in the early 1950’s. MAD, in both its strong and weak forms, relies on producing deterrence of the First Use of nuclear weapons through the promise of a devastating counterattack with nuclear weapons. However, after fifty years of collected data, it is apparent that this game strategy is unwinnable. Only a failure of leadership and lack of vision propels us to continue playing this unwinnable game. Some of my thinking on this topic is at:

  8. Nick February 25, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    As a European I would like to add my 2 cents in this discussion.
    I believe we (the west) have no right to deny any country the right to create and own nuclear weapons.
    In fact, the US is not only arrogant but ignorant in its attempts to assure that Iran does not acquire a nuke. What the US effectively is saying to Iran is: you are not responsible enough as a country to have a nuclear arsenal. Now nothing is more insulting than being told that you are not responsible enough, its as if Iran is a little kid who is not allowed to play with the other big countries in the world. This only gives the Iran government extra arguments to brainwash their own people that the west is out to get them. And how can you blame Iran for wanting a nuke when their neighbouring country (Iraq) was recently invaded for the same reason of allegedy having weapons of mass destruction. Simple fact is if Iran has a nuke the US loses its dominance in the area, therefore losing its control on the largest oil supplies in the world.
    Why do you think it is that Russia has no problem with selling nuclear capability to Iran? The cold war may be over but world politics have not changed.

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