Why We Still Need Deterrence

July 1, 1998

Edward L. Warner III, assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, is the Pentagon’s senior official for the handling of US strategic nuclear affairs. On March 31, 1998, Warner delivered a major statement on nuclear deterrence to the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, portions of which are presented here.

The Need Still Exists

“Nuclear deterrence has always been a controversial subject, fostering much debate over the years. While the end of the Cold War has fortunately decreased the intensity of this debate, the issues of nuclear force posture and nuclear deterrence continue to be debated by individuals and groups who question the need for nuclear weapons in today’s world, and, in some cases, call for the complete elimination of these weapons. …

“However, we are not yet at the point where we can eliminate our nuclear weapons. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to need a reliable and flexible nuclear deterrent—survivable against the most aggressive attack, under highly confident, constitutional command and control, safeguarded against both accidental and unauthorized use, and capable of inflicting a devastating retaliatory response should deterrence fail.”

“Gravest Threats”

“We will need such a force because nuclear deterrence remains an essential element to deal with the gravest threats. As stated in the Secretary’s [Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen] 1998 Report to Congress, the United States must retain sufficient strategic nuclear forces and theater nuclear systems to help deter any hostile foreign leadership with access to nuclear weapons from acting against US vital interests and to convince such a leadership that seeking a nuclear advantage would be futile. We believe that these goals can be achieved at lower force levels and are accordingly taking the lead in additional strategic arms reductions.”

Why Deterrence

“In view of all of the reductions we have already made and the steady progress of arms control, the question of why we need a nuclear deterrent at all following the Cold War is relevant.

“The Clinton Administration answered this question in the Nuclear Posture Review. The NPR recognized that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the embarkation of Russia on the road to democracy, the strategic environment has been fundamentally transformed. Conventional forces can and should play a larger share of the deterrent role.

“Nevertheless, nuclear weapons continue to play a critical role in deterring aggression against the US, its overseas forces, and its Allies and friends. This is the case because the positive changes in the international environment are far from irreversible, and the threat posed by Weapons of Mass Destruction in the hands of rogue states has grown.”

Theater Nukes Needed, Too

“The NPR reaffirmed that we need not only a strategic nuclear deterrent but also flexible, responsive non-strategic nuclear forces. Maintaining the capability to deploy nuclear forces to meet various regional contingencies continues to be an important means for deterring aggression, protecting and promoting US interests, and reassuring Allies and friends. As stated in the NATO Strategic Concept, the US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe provide an essential political link between the European and North American members of the Alliance.”

The Question of Russia

“Russia has made great progress toward the creation of [a] stable market democracy, and we do not regard it as a potential military threat under its present or any reasonably foreseeable government. We have made wise investments in the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, and we share with the current Russian leadership (and most other Russian centers of influence) a determination not to let our relations return to a state of hostility in which these weapons would again be a threat.

“Nevertheless, Russia still possesses substantial strategic nuclear forces and an even larger non-strategic nuclear stockpile. Because of significant degradation in its conventional military capabilities, Russia appears to be placing even more reliance on its nuclear forces.

“Russia’s new National Security Concept, promulgated in December 1997, states that ‘Russia retains the right to use all available forces and means, including nuclear weapons, if armed aggression launched against it threatens the very existence of the Russian Federation as an independent, sovereign state.’ It also states that ‘the main task of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is to ensure nuclear deterrence, which is to prevent both a nuclear and conventional large-scale or regional war, and also to meet its allied commitments. To accomplish this task, the Russian Federation should have a potential of nuclear forces which can guarantee that planned damage will be caused to any aggressor state or a coalition of states.’

“We cannot be so certain of future Russian politics as to ignore the possibility that we may once again need to deter the nuclear forces of a hostile Russia should the current policy of democratic reform be replaced by a return to aggressive authoritarianism. We do not believe that such a reversal is likely and we are working hard to avoid it. Nevertheless, it is prudent to maintain a secure and capable nuclear force as a hedge against it happening.”

No “Undeterrables”

“Even if we could ignore a future threat from Russia, there is a range of other potential threats to which nuclear weapons are a deterrent. China has a significant nuclear capability, and its future political orientation is far from certain. In addition, the number of rogue states with actual and potential WMD programs is considerable.

“We do not regard these states as undeterrable, either in their incentives to acquire a WMD capability or to use it. We believe that the knowledge that the United States has a powerful and ready nuclear capability poses a significant deterrent to proliferators. If any nation were foolish enough to attack the US, its Allies, or friends with chemical or biological weapons, our response would be swift, devastating, and overwhelming. As Secretary [William J.] Perry said in 1996, we are able to mount a devastating response without using nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we do not rule out in advance any capability available to us.”

“Indispensable” to US Security

“The US nuclear deterrent also helps to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons among our Allies and friends. The extension of our deterrent to those nations has removed any incentives they might have to develop and deploy their own nuclear forces, as many are technically capable of doing. …

“Because nuclear deterrence will remain an indispensable part of our national security policy for the foreseeable future, the US nuclear deterrent must remain credible; its weapons systems and nuclear warheads must be safe, reliable, and effective.”