by Austin Bay
April 6, 2010
The release of the Obama
administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) begins several weeks of U.S.-led
arms control and nuclear weapons-related diplomacy.
The multi-tentacled diplomatic
enterprise is the immediate context for understanding the newly released
document. The NPR is meant to frame the signing of a new U.S.-Russia
arms-reduction treaty and a subsequent arms summit (scheduled for next week) as
transformational steps toward a new global arms control regimen.
But reading the NPR, and scrutinizing
its abundant hedges, reveals that the Obama administration's nuclear arms
policy isn't so different from that of the Bush administration.
Since the Manhattan Project, every
administration has conducted nuclear policy reviews of some type, whether
formal or informal. At the operational level, U.S. intelligence, military and
security agencies should be conducting posture assessments on a
minute-by-minute basis. The reason is obvious: Nukes are dangerous. Their
terrible existence, however, ensured a cold peace on Europe's central front
during the Cold War, which is a historical achievement far superior to arms
control Edsels like the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) or medieval attempts to
ban or discourage use of the crossbow.
Obama's NPR claims to reduce the
possibility of nuclear war by narrowing what Cold Warriors called "the
gray zone of escalation" created by "flexible response." In
operational terms, these phrases meant several things, but the strategic goal
was to riddle a bad actor's mind with doubt as to when and where the U.S. would
use nuclear weapons.
This worked during the Cold War --
thank goodness. The geopolitical world has changed, but human psychology has
not. The NPR, in a squishy fashion, recognizes this. The NPR touts America's
new assurance that it will only use nukes to counter a nuclear attack, but then
it hedges, saying this Hope and Change assurance could receive an
"adjustment" after a biological attack. So get it straight, Bad
Actors. America will only use nukes if a bad actor uses nukes, unless we adjust
Kim Jong-Il won't see this as change.
U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals
remain large, so further cuts make sense. Refusing to modernize weapons,
however, does not, and the NPR supports "life extension" for current
nukes. That's good. Obama, however, refuses to build new weapons.
That decision entails risk. In my
opinion, the U.S. needs a class of small-yield deep-penetrator nuclear weapons
that can pierce a couple of hundred meters of mountain to take out rogue state
and terrorist caches of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This weapon
is designed for a very limited, very specific situation, but one where its use
would 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 and
conventional options makes sense. Introducing nuclear doubt into the mind of a
deep bunker-dwelling rogue dictator regarding the effectiveness of the granite
above him is a useful type of deterrence.
In the U.S. arsenal, precision
munitions and other improved conventional weapons have replaced small nuclear
weapons. Cold Warriors knew smart bomblets individually targeting 100 Soviet
tanks were militarily and politically superior to a tactical nuclear weapon
targeting an "area" with 100 tanks. Smart weapons are another reason
nuclear arsenals can be cut -- but this is a product of weapons replacing
weapons, not diplomatic poetry.
So what purpose does the NPR really
serve? Think of the review as a soliloquy followed by scripted treaty and
summitry theatrics. The last scripted scene in this dramatic series will
feature 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. In
a World of Bad Actors -- criminals, terrorists, rogue states and major powers
susceptible to dictatorial subterfuge by 21st century czars and commissars --
bad scene will follow bad scene. The imminent Iran scene, for example. No
arms-control treaty will stop the Khomeinists' quest for a nuke. That takes a
successful internal democratic revolution, a crippling economic and political
blockade of the likes never before imposed or attacks on Iranian nuclear