- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008



At a June 27 Washington seminar, Gen. Larry Welch, USAF (ret.), former chief of staff and commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, warned about the all-too-complacent attitude we have toward nuclear weapons and maintaining deterrence. Gen. Welch criticized the erroneous view that going to zero nuclear weapons on our part will somehow ease the strains of nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea — “Too many believethat U.S. security can be strengthened by letting our nuclear weapons capabilities wither away.”

Gen. Welch noted that believing that “the danger of proliferation and counterproliferation trumps all other considerations” results in a view that “we don’t need a nuclear deterrent at this moment.” But whatever surface appeal this has is washed away by hard reality. The capability to destroy the United States exists in the inventory of nuclear weapons in Russia, as during the Cold War. And the motivation existed to destroy the United States if the attacker could get away with it. “Now today the intent does not exist. But the capability does and the intent can change overnight,” he said.

All things must stem from this inescapable logic - of the relationship between capability and intent. Gen. Welch said that before risking the elimination of nuclear deterrence, a discussion of this relationship must be held. But “I have heard none,” he added. In fact, among those states or actors who aspire to attain nuclear weapons, which will give that desire up if we do? Answer: zero. What nation, not now seeking nuclear weapons, will do so if we sustain a reliable, safe and secure nuclear deterrent? Answer: zero. And what nation will seek to gain nuclear capabilities if it loses confidence in our nuclear-umbrella deterrent? Answer: many.

Gen. Welch emphasized: “The purpose of a reliable, safe, and secure deterrent capability is to serve as a deterrent. A retaliatory capability is essential to a credible deterrent, but it is an enabler, not the objective. If deterrence fails, we have failed in our purpose. We need to maintain a nuclear deterrent so as not to need to use it.” Thus the imperatives are reliable, safe and secure weapons and a sustainable policy that pays total attention to the nuclear enterprise. If our weapons are reliable, safe and secure, their credibility cannot be questioned and therefore we would not have to use them. These weapons are designed to be responsive and are not on “hair-trigger alert,” although some have been saying our ICBMs need to be de-alerted. In fact, “ICBMs have the most positive control under all conditions - and this never changes,” said Gen. Welch.

The general never had to worry about ICBMs. They have the most constant positive command and control and still do to this day since their status remains constant in peace or crisis. “Why change an approach that has proven totally safe and reliable in times of calm and times of crisis for more than half a century? Whoever is recommending this is not adequately considering the full consequences of their recommendation,” he said.

The strategy during the Cold War was the product of years of intense intellectual focus and debate. But “this has not been the case for the situation in the 21st century. The role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century is more complex than during the Cold War and intense policy attention is urgently needed,” said Gen. Welch.

We need to pay more attention to the nuclear enterprise. Success over time has bred the perception of indifference to this enterprise. Said Gen. Welch: “My review … showed committed individuals at the lower ranks who understood the nuclear mission’s importance despite their senior leadership’s lack of attention or understanding; however, no matter how dedicated those people are, that is at the wrong level of leadership to be focused on the nuclear enterprise.”

What about moving to significantly lower levels of nuclear weapons, such as eliminating land-based missiles? Gen. Welch - the former military commander of all U.S. nuclear forces - noted that while we know the submarine missile fleet is the most survivable, it can be attrited over time. But there is no motivation to do so while there are significant numbers of ICBMs on alert. Further, there is no motivation to attack the ICBM force. With the configuration of single-warhead ICBMs and arms-control agreements that have drastically reduced strategic warheads, ICBMs have become a stabilizing force. Without them, a pre-emptive attack may be more likely, the nuclear threshold may be diminished and the possibility for conflict increases.

Nuclear weapons are critical to U.S. security. Nuclear deterrence is job number one. Any aspirant to the presidency must explain how the U.S. nuclear enterprise will be maintained and avoid making proposals that are bumper-sticker slogans that will give the appearance of an America less than committed to its job as the leader of the free world.

Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis.

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