Archive for the ‘Weapons Proliferation’ Category

Iran’s Underground Tunnels

January 6, 2010

Iran has constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels to shield its nuclear facilities from attack, according to Western and Iranian officials.  The US and Israel have raised the possibility that they will bomb Iran’s atomic sites if the Islamic Republic does not reach a diplomatic agreement with the West that would inhibit the country’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels; although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated publicly that airstrikes would only set back Iran’s nuclear program one to three years, and it appears that President Obama will not pursue a military solution to the impasse even though he has not ruled it out.  Western officials believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iranian leaders deny. 

The modern tunnel system has been under construction since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its development has accelerated under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has extensive experience in tunnel building in and out of government.  Iran’s efforts have been assisted by Western engineering firms, including Terratec and Herrenknecht.

The existence of the tunnel system raises two problems for military planners.  One is that it conceals Iran’s nuclear sites and complicates the efforts of intelligence analysts to locate them for targeting purposes; the late discovery of atomic plants in Natanz and Qum, which were largely found as a result of information provided by the National Council of Resistance on Iran, a group of expatriate opponents of the Iranian regime, demonstrates the limits of US intelligence gathering capabilities and the  IAEA monitoring regime .  A second issue is that it makes it very difficult for air forces to destroy the facilities whose positions are known because bombs would have to penetrate thick layers of rock to destroy their targets. 

Pentagon officials are trying to find a solution to the second problem.  They are developing a new “bunker-buster” bomb, which has been named the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, that is 10 times more powerful than current models.  During the Bush administration there was talk of creating penetration weapons that would be armed with nuclear warheads to increase their destructive power.  It is unlikely that the Obama administration or future Democratic ones will pursue that path, but there is a significant possiblity that Republican administrations, which are generally more hawkish, will try to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Some analysts argue that doing so would encourage further nuclear proliferation and undermine global security, but proponents believe it will have the opposite effect because hostile regimes will conclude that their arsenals could not be protected.

There is also a chance that Israel will develop more sophisticated tunnel-destroying bombs, including nuclear ones.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Iran’s underground facilities cannot be destroyed with the conventional weapons that his country possesses.  Israel, which in the past has attacked nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, might seek more powerful bombs to enhance its preemptive/preventative strike capabilities.  If Israel choses that option it would increase the likelihood that Israel will take what it considers preventative military measures against Iran, which has expressed a desire to wipe out the Jewish state.

The discussion about bunker-buster bombs and preventative war  raises the issue of deterrence.  Some policymakers believe that the Cold War model of deterrence, the basis of which was the threat of nuclear retaliation if foreign powers used atomic weapons against the US, is outdated in a post-Cold War world filled with hostile regimes who seek nuclear weapons and have ties, or might develop ties, with terrorist groups.  Such thinking is flawed because it would be foolish for a government to give terrorists such powerful weapons that could be traced back to their source and precipitate a nuclear counterattack against the offending state; and foreign leaders, who want to stay in power and stay alive, are aware of this.  There is no reason to believe that classical nuclear deterrence is no longer a valid strategy.

A related controversy is missile defense.  Some officials and analysts claim that missile defense systems are needed to deter other nations from building nuclear-tipped missiles and using them against the US or American interests overseas, and they also say that it would be a critical defense capabily in the event of an attack.  Others point out that such technologies are expensive and unproven and the risk of being attacked is minute.  The necessity of a missile defense system designed to thwart nuclear strikes depends on the effectiveness of classical deterrence and the likelihood of a first strike by an adversary.  The odds of an opponent intentionally starting a nuclear war are incredibly low, as is the possiblity of an accidental missile launch, so the usefulness of a national missile defense system for the US is dubious; although theater missile defenses against conventional warheads, which the Obama administration has embraced, could be useful in future conflicts.


Nuclear Deterrence in the Post Cold War Era

December 14, 2009

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.

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on

The One Percent Doctrine

December 10, 2009

In an op-ed piece published yesterday in the New York Times, Tom Friedman argues that the US should adopt former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” when it comes to climate change.  Mr. Cheney’s doctrine applied to national security threats, and he advocated taking preemptive military action against potential aggressors, such as Saddam Hussein’s regime, if there was a one percent chance that hostile elements would attack the US or American interests abroad.  Mr. Friedman says that America should implement measures to combat climate change even if there is only a slight possibility that greenhouse gas emissions will have disastrous effects if unchecked (it should be noted that Mr. Friedman believes that the odds of CO2 threatening the planet are much higher than one percent).

There is a consensus among the scientific community that global warming is real and man-made, and that the international community needs to take major steps to cut emissions in order to avoid serious climate problems; therefore the US and other countries, including developed and developing nations, should implement policies that will mitigate pollution even if it slows economic growth for a while.  But the world should only take such drastic actions because the likelihood of global warming being severely problematic is much higher than one percent.  The one percent doctrine should not be embraced as a guide to policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.  Doing so would create unnecessary conflicts and bankrupt America.  There might be a one percent chance that China will attack Taiwan; does that mean the US should preemptively attack Chinese naval and air forces?  There is probably more than a one percent probability that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons; does that mean the US should bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?  If there is a one percent chance that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not well secured should the US invade Pakistan and try to seize control of its nuclear facilities?  All of those actions would be very destabilizing and costly, and would almost certainly prove counterproductive.  The world is a dangerous place and all nations will have to live with a certain amount of risk, including the US.  The question policymakers have to ask is how much risk is acceptable; a reasonable conclusion would be that one percent is tolerable.