- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009


President Obama gave a powerful speech in Prague in April stating that his ultimate goal is the elimination of nuclear weapons, recognizing that several steps will be necessary and only when geopolitical conditions are favorable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Obama’s attitudes and ideas about nuclear weapons are well-formed and apparently of long standing. According to a recent New York Times article, they can be traced to his student days at Columbia University in 1982 and 1983, when there were almost daily front-page headlines about Euromissiles, nuclear winter, a nuclear weapons “freeze,” the “Star Wars” missile defense and a million people demonstrating in Central Park.

As president, he is in a position to act and over the next months a series of initiatives will unfold. The two most immediate challenges are crafting a Nuclear Posture Review that serves his goals and ensuring that all interested parties throughout the government are on board.

Key departments and agencies are busily at work fashioning the review that will determine the size, composition and capabilities of the future nuclear stockpile and complex that supports it, and provide an underlying rationale for why the United States possesses them. The timeline is to have the work finished by the end of the year. From this review, the president will craft a policy that will be transformed into presidential directives, which in turn become nuclear war plans, budget requests, and the rhetoric of diplomacy and foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War there have been two reviews, in 1994 by the Clinton administration and in 2001 by the George W. Bush administration.

At the crux of the review is the question of targets and strategy. Targets are among the most sensitive and secretive topics surrounding nuclear weapons. What are the weapons aimed at and how much damage might they do if they were ever used? The real targets are known only to a few handfuls of people, those charged with designing the U.S. nuclear war plan. That plan - formerly called the SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) and now OPLAN 8010 - and the assumptions behind it strongly affect the size and composition of U.S. nuclear forces.

For decades, the central mission for U.S. nuclear weapons has been “counterforce,” that is the capability to destroy an enemy’s forces and weapons (especially nuclear arms), its command and control facilities and its leaders. The pursuit of counterforce has been a powerful engine of the arms race. If Mr. Obama has any hope of realizing his goals, the counterforce mission will have to be abandoned and replaced with a much less ambitious and qualitatively different doctrine.

The traditional alternative to counterforce has been a “countervalue” strategy, that is targeting cities and civilians, but that won’t do. An innovation of this review must be to avoid both strategies and must establish a new target set that ensures the prospect of sufficient destruction to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies.

Restricting the targets to a nation’s “infrastructure,” located at some distance from cities, could provide a transitional framework for deterrence. These targets - oil refineries, electrical nodes, heavy industrial factories and the like - are the sinews of modern functioning societies. Specific target types in past reviews were described (leadership bunkers, war-making assets, missile silos) and equated with deterrence. Infrastructure targets can serve the same purpose and function. Without gratuitously attacking cities or preemptively knocking out opposing military forces the destruction of key elements of a nation’s infrastructure can afford sufficient deterrence of an attack by any rational adversary. It can be done with relatively few low-yield weapons.

Nuclear weapons are of no value in dissuading terrorists with apocalyptic philosophies and goals, who may seek to acquire such weapons, and this is one of Mr. Obama’s arguments in favor of moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material.

Powerful constituencies throughout the government would rather continue with things as they are, albeit at lower numbers. Radical change of the kind proposed here is threatening to entrenched interests and there will surely be resistance to Mr. Obama’s proposals. It is unclear at this point whether the outcome of the review will reverse decades of tradition or whether the status quo will prevail.

Over the next six months we will witness whether Mr. Obama’s goal of a transitional nuclear paradigm has a chance of becoming a reality through reorienting the fundamentals of nuclear doctrine and strategy. The immediate objectives of achieving ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, securing vulnerable nuclear material around the world, and moving toward a smaller arsenal are practical steps on a path toward a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Robert S. Norris is senior research associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington and co-author of a recent report, “From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons.”

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