Defending the Deterrent

June 1, 2009

Sir Thomas Inskip, a stalwart in Britain’s pre-World War II government, achieved a small place in history as a result of some unfortunate words he uttered on Aug. 3, 1939. He asserted, “War today is not only not inevitable, but is unlikely.”

Within a month, Germany smashed into Poland, and the war was on.

Miscalculation on the Inskip scale may be memorable, but the basic problem isn’t rare. Predicting future military matters always has been hazardous. Complexity and human unpredictability play big roles. As was true in the case of Sir Thomas, however, blindness to danger can have another cause: simple wishful thinking.

That point came forcefully to mind with the release, on May 6, of America’s Strategic Posture, a new nuclear strategy study, the work of a commission headed by former Secretaries of Defense William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger. If ever there was a welcome antidote to the current wave of wishful thinking about nuclear weapons, this 158-page paper is it.

To those seeking abolition of nukes, the commission had this to say: “The conditions that might make possible the global elimination of nuclear weapons are not present today.” Further, it warned, the creation of such conditions “would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.”

America, the report went on, will for a very long time need a credible deterrent. That means keeping up the triad of Air Force ICBMs and manned bombers and the Navy’s strategic submarines. This will cost money, said the commission, as will modernization of the stockpile and renovation of US nuclear laboratories.

It is hard to believe that such talk went down well with President Barack Obama, who, in a blazing April 5 speech in Prague, called on the US— “the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon”—to lead the world toward full de-nuclearization.

The official White House text reads, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’ (Applause.)”

It’s a shame the President didn’t wait to hear from the panel, a bipartisan group of twelve strategic heavyweights, which was created by Congress in 2008. He might have benefited from some of its unpopular but realistic conclusions. Among them:

¦ The US must continue to safeguard its security by maintaining “an appropriately effective nuclear deterrent force.”

¦ The US requires a stockpile of nuclear weapons that is safe, secure, reliable, and credible.

¦ The US could make further reductions in its stockpile, if this were done while also preserving the resilience and survivability of US strategic forces.

True, the panel agreed the US “should continue to lead international efforts” to prevent proliferation, reduce the level of nuclear stockpiles, secure residual nuclear weapons and fissile material, and more. Also true, Obama in Prague promised to keep “a safe, secure, and effective arsenal,” both to “deter any adversary” and “guarantee that defense to our allies.”

For all that, the contrast between the commissioners’ cautiousness and Obama’s rhetorical flourishes could not have been clearer.

Particularly noteworthy was the commission’s view on “extended deterrence”—that is, extension of the US nuclear umbrella to the nation’s allies.

The credibility of this security guarantee, in both Europe and Northeast Asia, has kept nuclear-capable nations from seeking their own arsenals. The panel warns that any weakening of the US deterrent could actually encourage proliferation. That is, more nations might go nuclear should they lose confidence in the true reliability of US nukes or Washington’s willingness to use them. This is the polar opposite of what Obama wishes.

The panel might have helped Obama with his Prague pledge to “begin the work of reducing our arsenal.” The commission reports that the US arsenal at its 1967 peak contained 32,000 weapons but today has about 5,200 operational warheads. Only 2,000 are fitted on long-range launchers.

The commission report came along at a propitious time, given the range of challenges that confront the nuclear deterrent.

According to many reports, Obama wants to replace the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (which expires this year) with a new regime imposing a ceiling of roughly 1,000 operational strategic nuclear warheads apiece on the US and Russia.

The Obama Administration also dropped plans for a new Next Generation Bomber. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates informed the Senate Armed Services Committee he would wait to see the outcome of forthcoming US-Russia arms talks. Only then, Gates warned, would he be able to know “whether we still need a triad.”

Finally, the future of the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead—the Pentagon’s preferred solution to dangers posed by an aged stockpile—is in doubt. In fact, the Department of Energy reports that its technical work on the RRW “ceases” in 2010.

For the first time in history, the deterrent faces a serious threat to its long-term existence, and is in need of defending.

We hope that our President, though filled with a passionate desire to rid the world of the curse of nuclear weapons, comes to recognize the importance of realities expressed in this new report. Maybe there’s something to be said for disarming ourselves, for demonstrating goodwill to the likes of Iran and North Korea, but we doubt it.

As the case of the hapless Thomas Inskip demonstrated, wishful thinking doesn’t get you very far in a world of real enemies with real military power. A wise nation looks to its own deterrent, because it will conclude that it should do everything possible to deter wars and not have to fight them at all.