Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2002

The Iranians are apoplectic. The New York Times is indignant. The Arms Control Association is in a dither. And the Russians and the Chinese are demanding answers. What has gotten so many parties riled up? Why, the leak of portions of the Bush administration’s highly classified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), of course.

Most of the anger has centered upon the allegation that the United States is developing contingency plans for using nuclear weapons against seven states—China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Syria—that have developed or might be developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, "by targeting these seven countries, some of which are new targets, the U.S. is increasing, not decreasing, possibility of using nuclear weapons in its policy."

But critics also have expressed concern over passages which indicate that the United States is contemplating the development of a new generation of smaller nuclear warheads designed to put at risk hardened, deeply buried targets. Paul Richter, the Los Angeles Times writer who broke the story last weekend, notes that arms-control advocates believe the development of such weapons "could signal that the Bush administration is more willing to overlook a long-standing taboo against the use of nuclear weapons except as a last resort. They warned that such moves could dangerously destabilize the world by encouraging other countries to believe that they, too, should develop weapons."

In one respect, the furor over the NPR is much ado about nothing (or at least about very little). In fact, the Pentagon is constantly planning for a wide array of contingencies. There are operational plans for every eventuality for which a scenario can be developed. This is common sense: No one wants to be surprised. This is one reason that European criticism has been muted, at least so far.

Besides, planning for a contingency can contribute to deterrence. In general, our ability to deter is a function of an adversary’s perception of our capability and will, though there is inevitably also the wild card of uncertainty. As a rule, the more realistic the plan, the more it enhances deterrence.

This raises the issue of whether the United States should develop a new generation of nuclear warheads. As illustrated above, the conventional wisdom—informed as it is by the Cold War ideology of arms control—says no. According to this view, there is a "firebreak" between nuclear and conventional weapons and nothing should ever be done to reduce that firebreak by making it possible to contemplate the actual use of nuclear weapons. Such reasoning underlay the arms-controllers’ objection to the deployment of the enhanced radiation weapon, the so-called "neutron bomb," in Europe during the Cold War. The arms-controllers argued that by lowering the threshold of nuclear-weapons use, the United States was making war—including nuclear war—more likely.

But this reasoning is flawed. During the Cold War, the objective of the United States was to deter war with the Soviet Union, not just nuclear war. Our Communist adversaries found that so long as the nuclear threshold remained high, they could operate beneath it. The clearest example of such an asymmetric response happened as a reaction to the "New Look" defense policy of the Eisenhower administration, which relied primarily on long-range, strategic nuclear air power—"peoples’ wars" or "wars of national liberation." The Kennedy administration replaced the New Look with Flexible Response. Even under that policy, however, had the Soviets ever come to believe they could operate beneath the nuclear threshold with impunity, they might have gambled that a massive conventional assault in Europe could succeed.

By increasing the uncertainty faced by Soviet planners, however, the enhanced radiation weapon strengthened deterrence, as did many other weapons and systems that arms-controllers criticized—for instance, the extremely accurate D-5-submarine-launched ballistic missile equipped with the W-88 warhead and a "hardened," very robust command-and-control system designed to function even in the event of a protracted nuclear war. These systems enhanced deterrence by signaling to the Soviet leadership that the U.S. possessed both the capability and the will to use nuclear weapons, and that Soviet planners could not be certain of the outcome.

A similar dynamic is at work in the new NPR. Since the end of the Cold War, defense planners have questioned whether the Cold War model of deterrence will work against our likely adversaries in the future. What will deter a Saddam Hussein or an Osama bin Laden from using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons?

Many analysts have concluded that the weapons in the current nuclear arsenal are too powerful to be used against even an adversary who employs WMD. Besides, they argue, nuclear weapons are not necessary today. The United States can deter the use of WMD by relying on enhanced conventional weapons such as fuel-air explosives (FAE), like the thermobaric weapon employed recently in Afghanistan. These weapons can generate extremely high over-pressures capable of destroying hardened and deeply buried targets.

But the array of targets such weapons can threaten is limited. Accordingly, an adversary has an incentive to harden and bury installations so that they cannot be destroyed by enhanced conventional means—assuming that U.S. planners will judge the use of high-yield nuclear weapons to be disproportionate. The only way to threaten such targets would be to use lower-yield nuclear weapons delivered by extremely accurate means.

During the 1980s, critics were never able to understand that the development of a nuclear war-fighting capability enhanced deterrence rather than undermining it. By reducing the nuclear firebreak, the United States increased uncertainty among Soviet planners, in turn making it less likely that they would risk the consequences of launching a conventional or nuclear attack. The same principle seems to be at work with the new NPR.

Which leads one to wonder if the leak of the NPR was really unintentional. After all, this administration has gone out of its way to prevent leaks. And the likely effect of the leak will be to enhance deterrence, by signaling a willingness on the part of the United States to use nuclear weapons in an unexpected way, should that ever become necessary. This would accordingly make potential adversaries less likely to believe they can operate under the nuclear threshold.

Perhaps the Office of Strategic Influence is not really dead.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.