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On Point

Nuclear Posturing


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 our assurance.

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 facilities. 

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