[Point]Counterpoint: Strategic Deterrence & Arms Control

It’s About Now, Not Then

By Dave Patterson

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This the War Room!

General “Buck” Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed!

Muffley: You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.

“Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” 1964

In 1964, Hollywood produced several movies designed to influence moviegoers to be anti-Pentagon and anti-Defense, and ended up having exactly the opposite effect. Moviegoers, being smarter than the average Hollywood producer, determined that national security in a nuclear age was serious business and that the movie industry was simply naïve and out of touch. If one hangs around long enough, what was old, is new again. I’ve been remiss in engaging Dr. Greg Treverton, in SMA’s Point[Counterpoint] series, having missed the opportunity to comment on his article “Rethinking Strategic Deterrence,” but would like to remedy that now by commenting on both that article and Greg’s latest, “Extend New Start? Yes!,” since the nuclear question is a common theme. With “Rethinking Strategic Deterrence” Greg is, arguably, on the mark in making the point that strategic deterrence is complex and multifaceted. And I will readily admit that our current President (and all of Congress, I submit) does not have “functionally related observable differences” (FRODs) on the tip of his tongue. And, I totally agree that President Jimmy (don’t call me James) Carter knew the concept backwards and forwards. Had President Carter had an equally strong grasp of foreign policy, domestic economics, and the indicators that an embassy is about to be overrun, he could have had a second term. But, I digress.

What the United States is faced with in securing its national security interests is, as Greg points out, “the geometry of deterrence is much more complicated.” However, holding to treaties like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty when only the US is abiding by it, becomes nothing more than gratuitous symbolism—certainly not deterrence. This is particularly true when there is more than one potential nuclear competitor. China was not party to the INF and has been developing intermediate nuclear missiles undeterred by neither the spirit nor the essence of the INF.

The Defense Secretary’s preface to the February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) gives us some idea of what the US is up against. Secretary Mattis points out, “Today, Russia is modernizing these weapons as well as its other strategic systems. Even more troubling has been Russia’s adoption of military strategies and capabilities that rely on nuclear escalation for their success.” With regard to China, the Secretary explains, “China, too, is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces.” In terms of the variety of global competitors the NPR describes the US strategic threats, where, “North Korea’s nuclear provocations threaten regional and global peace, despite universal condemnation in the United Nations. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain an unresolved concern. Globally, nuclear terrorism remains a real danger.” Despite the nascent efforts at talks to easy the nuclear tensions with North Korea, on these points, the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy are in complete agreement.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was signed 8 April 2010 in Prague by Russia and the US became the standing agreement on strategic nuclear arms on 5 February 2011, and replaced the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Key provisions of New START include, as Greg points out, 1,550 warheads and bombs with each strategic bomber counting as one warhead, maybe “pedantic” but not trivial. The 1,550 number is down 74 percent from the START I. Heavy bombers with a nuclear mission, ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles are capped at 700. Further, New START does not limit new types of ballistic missiles and consequently the sharing of telemetry data for test launches mandated by START I is not required. Additionally, current and planned US ballistic missile defense programs do not seem to be constrained by New START. With what appear to be modest inspection protocols and the effective National Technical Means the US employs, New STAR would appear somewhat benign when compared to START I. So, what’s the rub?

With Russia and the US the only participants in the treaty, once again the agreement is painfully symbolic. China has expressed no interest in being part of the agreement and why would they? China is on an ascendant trajectory in its nuclear arsenal build up.

This fact makes even more crucial the need to see nuclear weapons in terms of an “American Grand Strategy.” Francis Gavin, in the January 2019 Texas National Security Review article “Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy,” makes the point that nuclear weapons have, since they were first introduced, played a “central but often unappreciated role” in the US grand geopolitical strategy. Gavin describes a grand strategy as, “a purposeful and coherent set of ideas about what a nation seeks to accomplish in the world, and how it should go about it.” So, what is this American grand strategy as it pertains to nuclear weapons? Put simply, and as Gavin explains, “…to ‘resist’ the elements of the ‘nuclear revolution’ that limit America’s freedom of action in the world and expose it to vulnerability.” Consequently, the US has endeavored “to eliminate its vulnerability and promote freedom of action through policies and behaviors that often appear to be in tension or even contradictory.” The US has in the past seemed to be of two minds: activism—treating nuclear weapons as the preeminent element of a grand strategy—and abstinence—eschewing nuclear as practically “unusable” and “repugnant.” The abstinence road is possible only when the world’s leader is the world’s nuclear weapons leader. America does have step up on the moral ladder, in that the US has exhibited “‘exceptional’ behavior with the bomb.”

The obvious logic attends. If the US is a major geopolitical player, if not the principal geopolitical player, and China is the rising contender to that position, but not a participant in the New START agreement, of what broad strategic value is the New START agreement? Some, I suppose, would contend that it is a symbol of America’s desire to curtail the ubiquity of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. But, symbolic agreements in a nuclear age are a slender reed in a windstorm.

Published on May 9, 2019 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow