Ghost Dance at the Apocalypse

Feb. 1, 2007

In 1946, Bernard Brodie wrote, “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them.” The famous strategist was describing deterrence—using nuclear arms solely for the purpose of preventing war. In time, the US embraced Brodie’s idea.

Deterrence was then, and is now, a bleak, unloved concept. The urge simply to get rid of nuclear weaponry never faded away. Even in the deepest Cold War, activists pushed to dump deterrence and work toward global nuclear abolition.

In the wake of the Cold War, anti-nuclear sentiment has intensified, extending to pillars of the establishment. In 1998, President Jimmy Carter and retired Gen. George Lee Butler, former head of Strategic Air Command, joined the no-nukes movement.

De-nuclearization has a superficial appeal that is not hard to comprehend. The very existence of these doomsday weapons presents tremendous risks. Moreover, deterrence theory is mysterious. How does one know it is working? What happens if deterrence fails?

For all that, one is hard-pressed to deny that deterrence has proven effective. Washington and Moscow, although locked in a 45-year-long superpower rivalry, always acted with extreme caution when dealing with each other. Their behavior reflected the ever-present threat of nuclear escalation.

However, deterrence today is still taking its lumps, and from truly surprising critics.

The latest to get in the queue are none other than Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz (former Secretaries of State), former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, and retired Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

These four prominent defense experts, in a stunning Jan. 4 Wall Street Journal essay, urged the US to undertake a big effort with other nations to create “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

This, they wrote, would require a cut in US warheads, elimination of short-range nuclear weapons, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a halt in production of fissile material, and so forth. US “leadership” was said to be vital.

The initiative looks like a dud. It was widely dismissed as naive, even strange, for men of such experience. The next day’s Journal carried a sharply critical letter. Its title: “Four Pollyannas of the Apocalypse.”

To us, the four more closely resemble some of the 19th century Plains Indians, who performed the Ghost Dance out of conviction that doing so would restore the lost world of their ancestors. You can go through many rituals, but you cannot wish away the realities of the nuclear age.

That, precisely, is the view that comes through in a December report by another group of national security veterans—a Defense Science Board task force co-chaired by John S. Foster Jr., former head of Pentagon research, and retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, a former Air Force Chief of Staff.

The unclassified 41-page study, “Nuclear Capabilities,” concludes that the US has lost its “national consensus” about its deterrent but needs to formulate a new way to state “the need for and role of nuclear weapons.”

According to the prestigious panel, US efforts to maintain its nuclear weapons are being impeded by opposition from “an influential segment” of Americans—read: anti-nuclearists and arms controllers—with “entrenched views” about deterrence and nuclear proliferation.

In a particularly important passage in the study, the DSB presents not only the “entrenched views” but also alternative views which, in DSB’s estimation, “need to be much more widely understood.”

Entrenched view 1: “Lower numbers of US nuclear weapons are preferable, regardless of the starting point, with zero as the ultimate goal.”

Alternative view: “The desirability of a nuclear-free world is irrelevant” because it’s not possible to erase technology that has been widely understood for decades. The worst outcome would be for the US to end up with a deterrent that is inadequate in the face of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Entrenched view 2: “US nuclear development and sustainment activity causes other states to seek … nuclear weapons.”

Alternative view: Countries acquire WMD out of calculations of national interest, “not because they mimic the United States.” If anything, the credibility of US capabilities has led some nations—friend and foe—to forgo their own nukes.

Entrenched view 3: “Non-proliferation is a more important value than nuclear deterrence [of Russia and China] in a post-Cold War era.”

Alternative view: No one can predict the long-term behavior of Russia and China. We have serious differences with both. In light of this, “it is naive to believe that nuclear deterrence is no longer essential to the long-term security of the US.”

Entrenched view 4: “Nuclear weapons should deter only nuclear threats.”

Alternative view: Reserving nuclear deterrence for nuclear threats would mark “a dramatic change from established practice” and is unwise, given the growth of severe chemical and biological threats that must be deterred.

Entrenched view 5: “Deterrence will work reliably without any new nuclear capabilities.”

Alternative view: Most of today’s weapons are well beyond defined service lives. It will not be possible to sustain the current weapons without replacing some old warheads with new warheads.

The report comes at a good time. The Bush Administration wants Congress to fund “Complex 2030,” a collection of facilities needed to resume nuclear weapons production for the first time in 15 years. Moreover, it wants to begin building several RRW-1 Reliable Replacement Warheads as part of a full weapons program.

Congress should support these initiatives as an urgent measure. Deterrence is still worth keeping, even in a dramatically changed world.