Meltdown of the Nuclear Critics

June 1, 2002

Classified excerpts of the Bush Administration’s Nu-clear Posture Review hit the newspapers in March. Soon, all hell broke loose. Not since the woolly days of the nuclear freeze movement 20 years ago had the world seen such a torrent of criticism directed at strategic weapons policy.

Never mind that most of the information revealed in the leaks could have been inferred from the unclassified summary of the NPR released weeks earlier. Never mind that many of the Bush recommendations echoed ones that the Clinton Administration presented in its own 1994 nuclear review.

No, overheated analysts concluded that Bush officials had proposed changes in planning which, if implemented, would make it substantially more likely that someday–perhaps soon–a nuclear weapon would be used in anger somewhere in the world.

“Mr. Bush needs to send that document back to its authors and ask for a new version less menacing to the security of future American generations,” huffed the New York Times in an editorial titled, “America as Nuclear Rogue.”

It asserted: “If another country were planning to develop a new nuclear weapon and contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state. Yet such is the course recommended to President Bush.”

Some commentary was overwrought to the point of hysteria. It was as if, having lapsed into a pleasant dream state at the end of the Cold War, a host of anti-nuclear activists had awoken and were shocked, shocked to discover that the US nuclear arsenal had not simply melted away.

Thus Robert Scheer, a veteran anti-military voice whose column appears in the Los Angeles Times, held that the review was akin to “an infantile tantrum born of the Bush Administration’s frustration in making good on its overblown promise to end the terrorist scourge.”

Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory saw it as nothing less than “a farewell to arms control and nonproliferation, the work of doomsday planners who have at last succeeded in selling their idea that nuclear weapons are no different from the conventional kind and equally useful in combat.”

Thomas Oliphant, in the Boston Globe, opined that the most significant aspect of the NPR was its “almost casual breaking of long-standing policy taboos about the unthinkable.”

Not to be outdone, Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment concluded, “Nuclear weapons are no longer the weapon of last resort but weapons of first choice. … The nuclear nuts have seized control of the policy apparatus.”

Out of Retirement

First prize in this category must surely be awarded to a master of the genre, writer Jonathan Schell, whose popular 1982 book, The Fate of the Earth, explained at great length why nuclear weapons are not healthy for children and other living things. Now writing for The Nation, Schell maintained, “Other countries are looking on with alarm–fearful that a monster, driven mad by righteous fury and dizzy with its own power, is rising out of the ashes of Sept. 11 to bellow destruction to the world.”

Some analysis was, to put it charitably, imprecise. Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, lamenting possible development of “cute nukes” (her phrase for smaller, earth-penetrating weapons proposed by the NPR), talked about the “dear, departed days of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction).” Of course, for the United States, MAD is not a policy but a condition, one that exists due to the nation’s vulnerability to attack by long-range strategic weapons, of which Russia–notwithstanding its new political relationship with the US–still has a few. It is not a “doctrine” that can be changed at an administration’s whim and not one that any sane person would want to adopt anyway.

Some reaction was simply unparseable. For example, local anti-nuclear activist Victoria Mares-Hershey, writing in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, emitted the following words: “In reality, that is the potential of integrating nuclear weapons whatever their physical appearance and semantical reference into the volatile world we are walking on today.”

To quote White House fixture Helen Thomas, whose own Hearst column breathlessly held that President Bush is seriously considering using nuclear weapons in his war on terrorism, “Where would it all end?”

Where, indeed

The Bush Administration’s Nuclear Policy Review was the first such consideration of US strategic doctrine since Clinton’s study in 1993-94. An unclassified summary was unveiled at the Pentagon Jan. 9. The Bush NPR proposes a so-called New Triad composed of strike forces (nuclear and non-nuclear), missile defenses, and a revitalized national nuclear weapons infrastructure.

This New Triad would require many fewer warheads than is true of today’s force, according to the NPR. Per Bush’s agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, operationally deployed weapons could be reduced to between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next 10 years.

In January, DOD officials said that the basic point was to shift from Cold War “threat-based” planning to new “capabilities-based” planning. J.D. Crouch II, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, explained the approach: “What are the kinds of capabilities that we need to counter the potential adversaries or the capabilities of potential adversaries that are either extant today or that will emerge in the years to come?”

Given the events of Sept. 11 and Bush’s references to the “axis of evil” and Weapons of Mass Destruction, a reasonable person could easily have deduced from Crouch’s words that the Pentagon is thinking about how nukes might be used to deter or counter rogue states.

There was little comment on this theme upon the initial release of NPR. Instead, most criticism focused on another issue: “warhead warehousing.” Weapons withdrawn from service would not necessarily be destroyed, under NPR plans. If needed, they could be used in the future to build up the US strategic arsenal, said officials.

Naming Names

Then, in early March, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and published some classified details from the NPR study. Thus the vague phrase “potential adversaries” was replaced with a list of specific countries. According to the NPR excerpts, the US needs to keep a range of contingencies in mind when sizing the nuclear force. Among them are possible hostile actions by Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria. “All sponsor or harbor terrorists, and all have active WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] and missile programs,” reads the NPR.

The response was swift and dramatic. Critics across the nation interpreted this as a new targeting initiative on the part of the White House. The review “expands the list of countries considered potential nuclear targets,” said the New York Times editorial on the subject.

The reaction raises at least three large points:

1. The Clinton Administration, which rarely disappointed arms controllers, was moving in the same direction, per its own Nuclear Posture Review results.

2. President George H.W. Bush, in the run-up to the Gulf War, left open the possibility of a US nuclear response to Iraqi use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

3. Do critics seriously think the Pentagon has never drawn up plans to use nuclear weapons against any nations other than the Soviet Union, Russia, and perhaps China? Considering the nature of the Baghdad regime and the decades of tense standoff on the Korean peninsula, Iraq and North Korea in particular have certainly been the subject of some degree of nuclear planning.

A reasonable analysis of the context would lead one to the conclusion that the Bush plan in this respect is, in fact, status quo–and simply reflects the direction in which US strategic policy has been moving for years. Despite this, James O. Goldsborough of the San Diego Union-Tribune was moved to write that “a radical militarization of the country is taking place, and this new nuclear posture is part of it.”

Sacred Moratorium

Perhaps the second most-criticized aspect of the Bush NPR concerns its open discussion of the possibility of developing new nuclear warheads. Such work, as critics rightly note, would likely create a requirement for new underground nuclear tests, ending Washington’s 10-year unofficial testing moratorium.

Specifically, the NPR urges an advanced concepts initiative that would possibly include “modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility in the stockpile; improved Earth-Penetrating Weapons (EPWs) to counter the increased use by potential adversaries of hardened and deeply buried facilities; and warheads that reduce collateral damage.”

Current earth-penetration capability resides in the B61 Mod 11 gravity bomb, which is limited in number and effectiveness, notes the review. A more effective warhead would allow many buried targets to be attacked with a much lower yield weapon than a surface burst would require. “This lower yield would achieve the same damage while producing less fallout (by a factor of 10 to 20),” notes the NPR.

Again, the January release of the unclassified version of NPR hinted at this proposal. Perhaps critics thought that the earlier call for a “revitalized” nuclear infrastructure referred to dismantlement facilities.

In any case, the response of critics was to denounce the thinking about “mini-nukes” as both unnecessary and indicative of a dangerous mind-set. Some warned of a return to the bad old days of the nuclear arms race. Helen Thomas was particularly distraught: “If we forge ahead and develop the bunker-busting nukes, are other nations like Russia and China going to just stand by? Are they going to refrain from trying to produce similar weapons? I don’t think so.”

The problem with that statement is that Russia is desperately trying to reduce spending on nuclear arms. Given the nature of the Russian economy, the possible agreement between Presidents Bush and Putin on deep cuts in overall warhead levels, and the warming relations between the two countries, few expect Russia to try to match the US in earth-penetrating weapons.

China? Well, it is already building up its nuclear forces–and for reasons that have little to do with worry over possible new engineering work at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

Furthermore, this is far from the first time that an administration has openly mused about possibly developing a new low-yield, earth-penetrating warhead. The weapons designers at the Department of Energy have long had lists of advanced concepts initiatives that they would love to begin, given the green light.

As far back as 1992, DOE budget documents listed an earth-penetrating warhead as a weapon in the first, notional stage of design–along with a very low yield warhead capable of destroying the chemical or nuclear warhead of an attacking missile with assurance.

“There will be requirements for new nuclear weapons in the future. We cannot with confidence say now what they will be,” wrote John H. Birely, then deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy.

The program to modify the B-61 into interim earth-penetrator status was started during the Clinton years. It entered the stockpile in 1996.

The critics worried a lot about the NPR’s supposed negative effect on worldwide nonproliferation efforts.

Take, for example, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). In a March 12 floor speech, he looked at the NPR and conjured up this unflattering image of America: “The town drunk is not going to be very credible preaching [nuclear] temperance.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara also was worried sick about this problem and was moved to write about it (with Thomas Graham Jr.) in the Los Angeles Times: “Should the … Nuclear Posture Review … become official policy, we can expect nuclear weapons to spread around the world. We will live in a far more dangerous world, and the United States will be much less secure.”

Save the Threshold!

The theme underlying much of the new criticism of the Bush NPR, from its warhead plans to its contingency lists to its possible targets, is this: In making the nation’s atomic arsenal more usable, the Administration is lowering the threshold to nuclear war.

“With the NPR, the US emphasizes nuclear weapons not as devices of deterrence, but as weapons of war, and thus erodes the norms against nuclear use,” said a statement from the San Francisco anti-nuclear group Global Security Institute.

In response, the Administration contends that an adversary will, in fact, be less likely to attack the United States with Weapons of Mass Destruction if it believes a nuclear response is a live possibility. In this view, drawing up plans and producing weapons designed for specific tasks does not erode deterrence; it has precisely the opposite effect.

Does this dispute sound familiar? It should. It is one that dates to the early days of the nuclear age–and in most respects, the pro-credibility side (or warfighters) prevailed in the policy debate long ago.

It was McNamara, as President Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, who rejected extensive military nuclear war planning in favor of a minimum deterrent approach. All the US needed, in his view, was an arsenal that could ride out a Soviet first strike and then respond strongly enough to destroy a certain percentage of Soviet industry, population, and military might.

The Air Force never really believed in this approach, with its implicit targeting of civilians and its all-or-nothing, spasm-response characteristics.

Subsequent administrations didn’t buy it, either. Under President Nixon, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger said he wanted a more credible strategy, more options, and a different mental attitude toward nuclear weapons. He pushed for development of an arsenal better suited to attacking hardened Soviet silos, as opposed to soft targets such as cities. This continued under President Carter and his Defense Secretary, Harold Brown, who called it a “countervailing strategy.”

The height of deterrence through consideration of nukes as weapons of war might have been reached with the introduction of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe 20 years ago. These were designed to counter similar Soviet weapons, primarily the SS-20, and make it clear that the US really might use nuclear weapons to halt an attack on Western Europe. The result? The INF Treaty, the first–and so far only–such pact to eliminate an entire category of nukes from the face of the Earth.

The Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review does project unprecedented change, in some respects. What exactly would addition of conventional weapons to the nation’s strategic targeting plans entail? How would strategic defenses mesh with the remaining nuclear arsenal, if they ever actually come to pass? (And if you don’t think that’s a puzzle, consider this thought problem: A rogue state fires a nuclear missile at the US, and defenses successfully shoot it down. Is any further military response required? If so, what should it be?)

However, most of the criticism has had a rote quality about it. It’s as if they have dusted off all their stories from the era of the nuclear freeze and replaced the words “Ronald Reagan” with “George W. Bush.”

Critics have tended to ignore the report’s historical context and read large political motives into proposals that are not as dramatic as they are made to seem. As Molly Ivins said, “Thinking about nuclear weapons is sort of like looking directly at the sun: If you do it for more than a split second, you go blind.” Apparently so.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent articles, “The Strength of the Force” and “The Combination That Worked,” appeared in the April 2002 issue.