Nuclear Deterrence in the Post Cold War Era

In a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine (November-December 2009 issue) titled “The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent,” Keir Lieber and Daryl Press discuss nuclear deterrence in the 21st century.  Their piece is timely as the Obama administration is concluding a Nuclear Posture Review and the president has called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. 

Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press say that policymakers and analysts must ask the following fundamental questions before they decide what America’s deterrent force should look in the future:

1. What enemy actions are to be deterred?

2. Under what circumstances might those actions be taken?

3. What threats might a US president wish to issue?

4. Does the proposed arsenal give the president the ability to carry out those threats?

Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press believe that the US should primarily focus on deterring nuclear escalation during a conventional war because the odds of a nuclear sneak attack by Russia (which defense planners feared most during the Cold War) are very low, and potential regional adversaries (such as China, North Korea and Iran) already possess or may soon possess atomic weapons.  They warn that hostile powers might use nuclear weapons against American military forces or US allies in a region of conflict if they fear regime change or want to stave off a major defeat and force a cease fire.  To counter this threat, they propose maintaining an arsenal of low-yield nuclear warheads and highly accurate conventional bombs that would be capable of taking out enemy launch platforms (this is often referred to as a “counterforce” strategy because it is designed to destroy military targets rather than cities) without inflicting massive civilian casualties.

The authors claim that high-yield nuclear warheads would not offer a credible deterrent during conventional crises because it is unlikely that an American president would be willing to destroy an enemy city or a large number of civilians unless a US city were attacked, and therefore foreign leaders would not consider American threats of nuclear retaliation in response to an in-theater nuclear strike to be credible.  They insist that a president must have better options than launching a horrific counterassault or letting enemies initiate nuclear war without paying a steep price for their actions, and they say that the ability to employ low-yield counterforce weapons would save lives and enable the US to carry out regime change if a conventional fight escalated into a nuclear one.

The arguments in favor of maintaining low-yield nuclear warheads for deterrence, and warfighting purposes if necessary, are compelling.  If American military forces or American allies were attacked with nuclear weapons the president would almost certainly be forced to retaliate with the Bomb or destroy the regime that launched the attack.  But overthrowing a government that possesses additional atomic weaponry with conventional forces would be very difficult and costly in terms of military fatalities, and killing large numbers of civilians with a high-yield device would pose major ethical dilemmas for policymakers and might be considered a disproportionate response.  Using less powerful nuclear weapons against enemy weapons platforms and troop concentrations would be a more acceptable form of punishment and more effective militarily.

There are a few issues related to deterrence that Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press fail to address.  One is the development of missile defense systems.  Proponents of missile defense claim that it will deter enemies from attacking the US, but opponents argue that missile defenses are unreliable given the technologies available and superflous because traditional deterrence strategies are still effective.  There are also differences of opinion among those who support spending large amounts of money on anti-ballistic missiles; some advocate building a system capable of defending the continental US from ICBMs, while others believe that theater missile defense is more appropriate for the nuclear threats that America is likely to face in the forseeable future.

A second unaddressed issue is the creation of new “bunkerbuster” Bombs that could destroy underground nuclear facilities where nuclear weapons are developed or stored.  Perhaps they would be included in the new generation of counterforce weapons that the authors propose developing, although they do not explicitly mention them.  Nuclear bunkerbusters are controversial because some policymakers and analysts are concerned that building them would undermine efforts at non-proliferation because they would make the US look hypocritical when it argues that other countries should eschew nuclear weapons.

An additional topic that is not discussed in the article is nuclear testing.  There is currently a self-imposed ban on testing nuclear devices in the US, but members of the scientific and analytic communities claim that the American nuclear arsenal is unreliable because the weapons in it have not been tested in decades.  They propose lifting the ban, but supporters of the ban want to keep it in place for the same reason that people do not want to develop bunkerbusters.  The effectiveness of the kind of low-yield warheads that Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press believe the US should use as a deterrent might be questionable without further testing, which could make a president wary of relying on them in a crisis.

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