- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Misunderstandings over “deterrence” are greatly damaging U.S. foreign policy and national security. Deterrence is based upon fear. We deter someone from an action against us by instilling fear of the consequences. To be effective, our threat of deterrence must be credible. Our adversary must absolutely believe we will carry out our threat.

In the case of nuclear deterrence — since the stakes are so high — he must be confident the consequences for him will be intolerable; that we will destroy all he holds dear; that we will do so rapidly and devastatingly; and that the loss to him will be far greater than any gain from his planned action.

A classic example was our wise and effective nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. The Soviet Union threatened to destroy America by launching nuclear weapons. We deterred this by the poised readiness of thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons targeted on those assets the Soviets valued most (their leadership, nuclear weapons, military forces, etc.).

But deterrence must also be intensely dynamic. We unceasingly pushed technology to the very edge. We continuously modernized our nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. We frequently tested our nuclear weapons so we — and our adversaries — would have no doubt about their effectiveness. We continually adjusted our targeting to match the values of changing opposition leaders. Our military forces exercised constantly in the realistic use of these weapons. And our nation’s leaders often declared our absolute determination to respond to any attack with overwhelming nuclear force.

As a result, nuclear deterrence worked. It really worked. Our nuclear weapons — prepared for instant launch — prevented, for more than 40 years, use of even a single nuclear weapon, anywhere, despite countless crises and many hot wars. Nuclear weapons should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

And this was achieved in the best democratic manner. Successive presidents made the case, clearly and powerfully, to the American people. There were always opposing views, but public opinion overwhelmingly supported this strategy, leading to decades-long bipartisan support in Congress.

Contrast that with today. America faces an equally serious threat, not just from nuclear weapons but from other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well. Moreover, today’s threats are more difficult, distributed, indistinct. However, U.S. nuclear weapons can just as effectively deter rogue, failed and failing states, and terrorist organizations in sanctuary states, as they were in the Cold War if we develop a totally different deterrent strategy and totally different nuclear weapons.

Yet for 15 years no U.S. president has informed the American people, in detail, exactly how important nuclear weapons are to our future national security, and exactly how our nuclear strategy and stockpile must be transformed.

We have been frozen in time, looking backward at a Cold War stockpile of “massive retaliation” weapons which are ineffective in deterring today’s adversaries. They simply have no credibility of use. For example, North Korea and Iran continue, undeterred, in their drive to acquire nuclear weapons, quite confident we would never a use a Cold War nuclear weapon that might kill or injure thousands of innocent civilians and spread radiation widely. But new, highly accurate, very low-yield, penetrating nuclear weapons, designed for reduced residual radiation and for nuclear effects explicitly tailored to defeat WMD-type targets, would have great credibility. This is not to say these weapons would be our first choice — they would be our last.

But if diplomacy, economic measures and conventional forces were ineffective in deterring nuclear weapons proliferation to irresponsible, aggressive states or groups, it would be wise for the president to have an alternative to loss of U.S. cities.

In general, immobilization of our nuclear strategy and stockpile has been championed by those who refuse to learn from history, who are motivated by emotion rather than logic, or who seek partisan political advantage. They are wrong in most of their views. First, they’re wrong in believing the U.S. achieves “deterrence” simply by having nuclear weapons. An overaged, untested, irrelevant stockpile won’t deter current adversaries from anything.

Second, they’re wrong in believing we should think of nuclear weapons as useful only in deterring launch of nuclear weapons (as in the Cold War). Rather, appropriate nuclear weapons give us the power to deter all types of actions by our adversaries (e.g., acquisition of WMD by rogue states). Third, they’re wrong in trying to block the U.S. from designing and testing appropriate new, low-yield, specialized weapons. Nuclear deterrence is simply too important to sacrifice.

Fourth, they’re wrong in believing our designing and testing new nuclear weapons will somehow contribute to proliferation. In fact, it’s the only way to stop proliferation.

The Nonproliferation Treaty, cornerstone of global nonproliferation for 35 years, explicitly approves the U.S. (and four others) as nuclear weapons states, expected to design, test and produce new nuclear weapons as needed.

This treaty is structured as a bargain. Non-nuclear weapons states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. States with nuclear weapons agree to try to prevent all others from acquiring them. To do this, modernization of U.S. weapons for deterrence is not only allowed but implicitly required.

In summary, until we clearly understand “nuclear deterrence” in terms of today’s and tomorrow’s world our strategy is at risk.

Robert R. Monroe, vice admiral of the U.S. Navy (Retired), is a former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency and a member of the Nuclear Strategy Forum.


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