OPINION: Nuclear Taboos Make Armed Conflict More Likely


Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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Nuclear disarmament and nuclear modernization supporters have a difficult time talking to each other, largely because one side speaks a language made up of euphemisms and concealment.

This is illustrated by the clever adoption of nuclear taboos by the disarmament community designed to stop nuclear modernization under the apparent guise of improving U.S. security.

Unfortunately, these “nuclear taboos” are described with language that camouflage — rather than clarify — the intentions of disarmers, as well as hide the strange assumptions behind such policy choices.

There are five key nuclear taboos:

  • First is the push for total disarmament including serial and unilateral reductions of U.S. nuclear arms irrespective of the strategic balance.
  • Second is the fanciful idea that nuclear weapons are “for deterrence” only and not for “warfighting.”
  • Third, the use of low yield nuclear warheads as part of deterrence is thought of as dangerous even though the U.S. nuclear arsenal has contained low-yield weapons for multiple decades. Low-yield weapons are rejected even if explicitly designed to deter or counter an adversary — such as Russia, for example — from threatening the first use of low yield nuclear weapons in a conflict.
  • Fourth is the ban on the first use of nuclear weapons. Such a policy should be adopted say the disarmament folks despite long-standing U.S. policy to reserve the right to use such weapons first, especially in light of possible biological, chemical and cyber attacks against the United States or its allies that could kill millions.
  • And fifth, the deployment of missile defenses is a taboo for two reasons: It is supposedly contrary to the goal of lower levels of nuclear weapons including disarmament. And inconsistent with keeping strategic stability which is defined as the absence of incentives to use nuclear weapons in a crisis.

Let’s review each of these taboos.

Unilateral U.S. reductions to as low as 300–700 total warheads have been proposed under the assumption that in the post-Cold-War environment, deployed nuclear weapons numbers are unimportant for strategic balance or stability. Russia has 2,500 or more deployed strategic nuclear weapons, but the new disarmament mantra apparently is, “Who cares?”

This idea of minimal deterrence (keeping only a few hundred warheads) also involves a new assumption (not usually explicit) that the Chinese level of deployed warheads — assumed to be roughly 300 — is perfectly acceptable for the United States to adopt, as well.

This despite America’s extended deterrent responsibilities, as well as being the leader of the free world.

The push for disarmament also leaves largely unstated how nuclear-armed North Korea, Pakistan, India, Russia and China, would actually reduce their nuclear stockpiles even though in these nuclear-armed countries their total stockpiles of nuclear weapons are unknown including their yield, number, area deployed, nuclear policy and strategy.

On top of which all have explicitly rejected going to zero nuclear weapons including going to any lower levels of nuclear warheads from current levels.

As for deterrence, to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is thought of perfectly achievable through threatening retaliation. That has been USA deterrent policy for decades.

But there is a new taboo which precludes any actual use of nuclear weapons should deterrence fail.

In a letter signed by former defense secretary William Perry and California Gov. Jerry Brown, a whole host of supposed nuclear experts reject explicitly the idea of ever responding to the use of nuclear weapons against the United States with nuclear weapons of our own.

Such a policy of using nuclear weapons second is described in the letter as “warfighting” and to be rejected because further escalation could not be controlled once nuclear weapons were initially used.

A natural response to such a policy prescription is what good then is deterrence if the threat of nuclear retaliation is explicitly taken off the table?

This is even a radical departure from past policy favored by the disarmament community. Many dissenters supported retaliating only against an attacker’s cities with a nuclear strike but not an attacker’s military capability including nuclear assets.

Attacking an enemy’s remaining nuclear assets in a retaliatory strike was described as dangerous and “warfighting.” (Apparently killing millions in a counter-city busting strike will not be considered “warfighting” by the receiving country!)

The assumption of advocates of not “warfighting” is that holding at risk an adversary’s weapons is bad form. It is assumed such threats in a crisis will make the bad guys worry about being disarmed, heightening the impulse to go first in a crisis.

In reality, Russia and China have nuclear forces which are highly survivable to any preemptive strike, making any impulse to go first in a crisis highly dubious.

Now, the policy appears to be no retaliation at all, even against an adversary’s cities, leaving deterrence as mere bluff.

What about the development of low-yield nuclear weapons? These are also thought of as highly unstable under the assumption such weapons would be considered more usable than very large nuclear weapons.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

The low-yield weapons are designed to give an American president multiple deterrent threats to place on the table against adversaries which in my view makes our deterrent more credible.

The American effort today would not build more total weapons but replace one for one some in our inventory with low-yield warheads.

In addition, the low-yield options being proposed are also a matter of a better and timelier platform to deliver the weapons, not adding to the current deployed force. In short, getting to the target on time is as important as getting there with the right weapon.

As for the potential first use of nuclear weapons, our adversaries, such as Russia, have threatened the first use of nuclear weapons against the United States and our allies over 30 times since 2009.

Most importantly, the Russian nuclear first use policy was adopted in April 2000 by then Presidential chief of staff Vladimir Putin. It is designed to be the leading edge of aggression, not a response to stop aggression, a huge difference.

Finally, as to missile defense, here the disarmament community and Vladimir Putin agree that the United States withdrawal in 2002 from the ABM treaty has upset the strategic balance and undermined arms control.

Well, in a word, “Poppycock!”

The Bush administration exited the ABM treaty in 2002 and then proceeded to sign in 2002 with President Putin the Moscow treaty to reduce strategic deployed nuclear weapons from 6,000 to 2,200 on each side — a nearly 70-percent cut.

This success was contrary to most projections by opponents of missile defense. Even more surprising to these critics was the supplemental and further nuclear reductions under the New Start treaty of 2010 where nuclear warheads were reduced to 1550, a further 30-percent cut.

Missile defense, in fact, helps nuclear reductions by making much more difficult and less sure any first or pre-emptive strike against the United States. This is particularly true about small-scale threatened strikes against the United States and its allies, especially as such strikes are designed to blackmail or coerce the United States to stand down in a crisis.

Missile defense allows a president to shoot down and intercept such strikes and thus stand tall and not yield to such threats.

When carefully examined, these five nuclear taboos, enthusiastically endorsed by the disarmament community, make strategic nuclear deterrence more difficult to sustain and actually make armed conflict more likely.

For these reasons, the nuclear taboos should be deep-sixed and become the very nuclear taboos themselves.

Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.