On Point: Nuclear Posturing


by Austin Bay
April 6, 2010

The release of the Obamaadministration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) begins several weeks of U.S.-ledarms control and nuclear weapons-related diplomacy.

The multi-tentacled diplomaticenterprise is the immediate context for understanding the newly releaseddocument. The NPR is meant to frame the signing of a new U.S.-Russiaarms-reduction treaty and a subsequent arms summit (scheduled for next week) astransformational steps toward a new global arms control regimen.

But reading the NPR, and scrutinizingits abundant hedges, reveals that the Obama administration's nuclear armspolicy isn't so different from that of the Bush administration.

Since the Manhattan Project, everyadministration has conducted nuclear policy reviews of some type, whetherformal or informal. At the operational level, U.S. intelligence, military andsecurity agencies should be conducting posture assessments on aminute-by-minute basis. The reason is obvious: Nukes are dangerous. Theirterrible existence, however, ensured a cold peace on Europe's central frontduring the Cold War, which is a historical achievement far superior to armscontrol Edsels like the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) or medieval attempts toban or discourage use of the crossbow.

Obama's NPR claims to reduce thepossibility of nuclear war by narrowing what Cold Warriors called "thegray zone of escalation" created by "flexible response." Inoperational terms, these phrases meant several things, but the strategic goalwas to riddle a bad actor's mind with doubt as to when and where the U.S. woulduse nuclear weapons.

This worked during the Cold War --thank goodness. The geopolitical world has changed, but human psychology hasnot. The NPR, in a squishy fashion, recognizes this. The NPR touts America'snew assurance that it will only use nukes to counter a nuclear attack, but thenit hedges, saying this Hope and Change assurance could receive an"adjustment" after a biological attack. So get it straight, BadActors. America will only use nukes if a bad actor uses nukes, unless we adjustour assurance.

Kim Jong-Il won't see this as change.

U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenalsremain large, so further cuts make sense. Refusing to modernize weapons,however, does not, and the NPR supports "life extension" for currentnukes. That's good. Obama, however, refuses to build new weapons.

That decision entails risk. In myopinion, the U.S. needs a class of small-yield deep-penetrator nuclear weaponsthat can pierce a couple of hundred meters of mountain to take out rogue stateand terrorist caches of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This weaponis designed for a very limited, very specific situation, but one where its usewould forestall far-greater global havoc.

The U.S. is developing precision,deep-penetration conventional munitions that may be able to reach these buried,hardened targets. We don't know the future, however, so having nuclear andconventional options makes sense. Introducing nuclear doubt into the mind of adeep bunker-dwelling rogue dictator regarding the effectiveness of the graniteabove him is a useful type of deterrence.

In the U.S. arsenal, precisionmunitions and other improved conventional weapons have replaced small nuclearweapons. Cold Warriors knew smart bomblets individually targeting 100 Soviettanks were militarily and politically superior to a tactical nuclear weapontargeting an "area" with 100 tanks. Smart weapons are another reasonnuclear arsenals can be cut -- but this is a product of weapons replacingweapons, not diplomatic poetry.

So what purpose does the NPR reallyserve? Think of the review as a soliloquy followed by scripted treaty andsummitry theatrics. The last scripted scene in this dramatic series willfeature President Obama and his media claiming all's well that ends well,likely staged on a midsummer's night.

But that will not be the last scene. Ina World of Bad Actors -- criminals, terrorists, rogue states and major powerssusceptible to dictatorial subterfuge by 21st century czars and commissars --bad scene will follow bad scene. The imminent Iran scene, for example. Noarms-control treaty will stop the Khomeinists' quest for a nuke. That takes asuccessful internal democratic revolution, a crippling economic and politicalblockade of the likes never before imposed or attacks on Iranian nuclearfacilities. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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