- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009



At the dawn of the nuclear age, strategist Bernard Brodie, noting the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons, famously wrote, “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”

For most of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers, civil and military, largely accepted Brodie’s dictum. Using nuclear weapons to deter aggression became job No. 1 for the U.S. national security establishment. While debates over deterrence, how to use nuclear weapons to protect the interests of the United States and its allies, and the degree to which it could be depended upon were intense, there was broad agreement that no Americans in their right minds wanted to detonate nuclear weapons again.

Rightly or wrongly, it had become conventional wisdom that nuclear weapons prevented direct conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union for nearly half a century. At the end of the Cold War, senior policymakers continued to express their faith that America’s possession of the massive retaliatory power of nuclear weapons would deter the growing number of dictatorial regimes possessing or seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction from using them against Americans.

In 1996, the Clinton administration’s defense secretary, William Perry, remarked: “If these [rogue] powers should ever pose a threat, our ability to retaliate with an overwhelming nuclear response will serve as a deterrent. Deterrence has protected us from the established nuclear arsenals for decades, and it will continue to protect us.”

In fact, the American deterrent is only as good as a potential adversary’s belief that we can, and will, use it to impose intolerable costs on him in retaliation for acts we find unacceptable. Unfortunately, over the last two decades, we have given potential adversaries reason to question our commitment to do so. Whether it was national neglect of defense in the 1990s, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or all four, nuclear deterrence ceased being job No. 1 after the Cold War. Our strategic infrastructure has begun atrophying.

Political resistance has precluded development of a more reliable nuclear warhead and the modification of existing warheads for post Cold War targets. We have no programs to replace strategic nuclear delivery missiles, while other platforms steadily age. There’s a joke in the Air Force that tomorrow’s B-52 bomber pilots will fly the same aircraft their grandfathers flew in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent incidents highlight the consequences of such inattention. In 2006, the Air Force inadvertently shipped strategic nuclear delivery components to Taiwan and in 2007 unknowingly and mistakenly flew nuclear weapons across the country.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly held senior officials accountable and created a task force that recommended several corrective actions. However, a sustained commitment by senior leaders is necessary to ensure the capabilities and credibility of America’s strategic deterrent, not to mention the nuclear umbrella relied on by some 30-plus nations.

The Obama administration will be tempted to forgo its obligations to strategic deterrence and pursue instead the long-held hope that it is possible to ban nuclear weapons altogether. Indeed, it is a hope shared by many. The United States made significant cuts in its arsenal after the Cold War, leaving just the 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed weapons enshrined in the Moscow Treaty of 2002.

Yet, despite U.S. leadership in cutting its arsenal over the last two decades, the world is moving in a different direction. Russia and China continue modernizing their capabilities. Pakistan and North Korea both demonstrated nuclear weapons capabilities, predictably surprising long-range U.S. intelligence forecasts. Iran remains committed to acquiring nuclear capabilities, despite multiple rounds of diplomatic talks, protests and sanctions. Despite their rhetoric to the contrary, they all recognize that the nuclear genie is out of his bottle and cannot be put back in.

Whether we like it or not, mankind has unleashed the power of the atom. Until defenses give us the power to render the consequences moot, deterrence offers a path to manage responsibly the threat of that knowledge combining with evil intentions and committing great harm. With that in mind, we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to ensure that our deterrent is reliable, credible and robust.

Eric Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute and held senior staff positions with the House Armed Services and Science Committees, in addition to serving in the Defense Department and NASA. The views expressed are his own.

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