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HUGHES & DAVIS: Rethinking the ‘zero option’

View that ‘less is more’ is obsolete in increasingly hostile world

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"Assumption is the father of error," or so we're told. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the Obama administration and many others are making assumptions that could lead our nation to catastrophic errors.

From the earliest days of the nuclear era, it was clear that these unfathomably destructive weapons had unprecedented implications for war and peace. So we worked hard to build our understanding of their role in maintaining our security, not on assumption and intuition, but on rigorous logic and searching analysis. Path-breaking books applied game theory, mathematical models and other analytical tools to ensure that these weapons would function as tools for maintaining a general peace, not launching a general war. Over time, thinking on nuclear deterrence became codified into the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Ironically, though its acronym, MAD, implied "insane," the underpinnings were rigorous theories that shaped the size and posture of U.S. nuclear forces.

An early assumption of the nuclear age - that "more was better" - itself was fairly quickly replaced by more sophisticated ideas. Already in the early 1960s, U.S. planners were opting for smaller, more precise and accurate missiles and warheads - a contrast with Soviet choices. By the mid- to late-1960s, a "less is more" corollary to the deterrence doctrine took hold: the notion that U.S.-Soviet agreements to mutually reduce their nuclear arsenals would enhance security.

But whether understood as MAD or in a more nuanced variation, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence was a fundamentally two-sided, symmetrical confrontation - a Mexican standoff with the biggest guns imaginable. Though a handful of other nuclear powers emerged through the 1960s - the United Kingdom, France and China - the two-sided deterrence model could incorporate them as "lesser included cases" without much conceptual or practical difficulty.

Impressive nuclear-arms reductions were achieved in this fundamentally bilateral context. From a peak of 31,255 U.S. nuclear weapons and 2,268 U.S. strategic nuclear delivery vehicles in 1967, the New START Treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 limits each side to a maximum of 1,550 actively deployed strategic nuclear weapons, and 700 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles through 2021 - an 85 percent reduction in actively deployed U.S. nuclear weapons. The assumption - the presumption - is that, just as in the Cold War years, fewer deployed nuclear weapons make the world a safer place.

But do they?

Many, of course, say yes. Beginning in 2007, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, published a series of articles that took this thinking to its logical conclusion: The United States should embrace the elimination of all nuclear weapons - a so-called "zero option" - as its ultimate arms-control goal, they said. In 2009, President Obama made the zero option the declared objective of U.S. policy. The New START reductions represent a down payment. Further cuts are in the works.

Still, what's wrong with that?

First, in case anyone missed it, the world has changed - a lot - since the 1970s and '80s. The Soviet Union has collapsed. Russia is no longer deemed a U.S. adversary, although its once-and-future-president, Vladimir Putin, often acts like one. India and Pakistan - despite dramatic U.S.-Russian arms reductions - have become nuclear powers, locked into their own bilateral MAD standoff. Israel is assumed to have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon and progressively longer-range missiles. Iran's nuclear and long-range missile programs remain unconstrained - and even the see-no-evil International Atomic Energy Agency is alarmed at the prospect of its imminent development of nuclear weapons.

In short, today's nuclear game is organized around not two-way, but multiplayer, equations. It is purely an assumption that the axioms, theorems and logic of the bilateral U.S.-Soviet deterrence equations will continue to work as well as ever - if they haven't already become counterproductive.

Second, as nuclear players proliferate, the Obama administration's instinctive response is to reassure allies and tamp down pressures on friendly countries for still further proliferation by extending a U.S. nuclear umbrella that is shrinking. Since the 1950s, these guarantees have been extended to more than 30 allies. More recently, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that such guarantees might be extended to friendly Persian Gulf states should Iran acquire "the bomb." It is assumed that U.S. nuclear forces, with delivery vehicles now at one-fourth of their peak strength, are as credible in backing these guarantees as they ever were - to a widening circle of countries.

Third, the reduced size of the U.S. arsenal may be approaching - or has already reached - levels at which it invites other countries, in particular China, to become true peer competitors. This, of course, would contradict our assumptions about the beneficial effects of arms reductions.

Finally, we have done no significant theoretical or analytic work - certainly nothing on the scale, depth or thoroughness of the 1950s and '60's research - to develop a foundation for calculating the force requirements and conditions to achieve stable deterrence in a multiplayer setting. We don't even know if multiplayer deterrence stability is possible. We just assume it is - just as we assume that greatly reduced nuclear forces will be adequate to handle any and all threats that lie ahead. This is comforting, since it permits us to assume that the next arms-reduction treaty will only enhance our own, and the world's, security. Besides, the signing ceremony will make for great press coverage.

Now, this really is MAD-ness. What should we be doing instead?

1. We should announce a pause in further nuclear arms reduction negotiations. As we implement the New START reductions, we can re-examine our nuclear force requirements in a "brave new world" with new nuclear proliferators like Iran and North Korea and unstable nuclear powers like Pakistan.

2. We should get to work now - rapidly and urgently - on doing our homework on the problems, challenges, conundrums, paradoxes and complications of achieving stable nuclear deterrence in a multiplayer setting. And we should be prepared for that research to tell us things we don't really want to hear about its implications for future U.S. nuclear force requirements.

3. We should get on with revitalizing the U.S. nuclear-weapons production capability - negotiated by Senate Republicans as the price of ratifying New START. We should ensure that we are sustaining the industrial base for our nuclear delivery systems, in case the proliferated, multiplayer nuclear environment ahead requires larger or different nuclear capabilities than our Cold War legacy forces.

4. We should resolve now that U.S. nuclear force levels have reached a plateau - and sustain them without further reductions until we have worked through the implications and requirements of the new world we're entering.

It is time to stop assuming that "less is more" for security in a proliferated world.

G. Philip Hughes, former executive secretary of the National Security Council, has held appointments in the departments of Defense, State and Commerce. Mark Davis drafted START I addresses as a White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and is author of "Digital Assassination" (St. Martin's Press, 2011). Both are senior directors of the White House Writers Group.

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