by John Wohlstetter
What has President Obama accomplished with his twin nuclear thunderbolts regarding the April 6th Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] & the April 8th New START Treaty?
Put simply, President Obama has “done in” strategic nuclear policy -- what in business is called “betting the company.” If he gets a bad result from any of a half-dozen nuclear gambles, he is likely to roll geostrategic snake-eyes, either in the form of a nuclear conflict, or a nuclear confrontation that results in America standing down.
The President has drawn the wrong lessons from history: he fantasizes about the achievability of Utopian disarmament in the future, placing America and its allies in a far more perilous present.
Why is a “best case” wager on supreme U.S. national security imperative for the next 65 years?
(1) Because the NPR no longer regards Russia as America's adversary. The NPR states that "prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically." Yet in 2008, Russia invaded an American ally, Georgia, which had sent troops to fight alongside American forces in Iraq. Recall that Russian PM Vladimir Putin in 2005 called the collapse of the former Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Further, in June 1999, American and Russian forces converged on Pristina, capital of Kosovo, and nearly exchanged fire.
(2) Because the NPR assumes that China will ultimately restrain its nuclear programs. Yet the NPR admits that there is a "lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs—their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them." We are therefore merely guessing that China might follow suit.
(3) Because the NPR makes Utopian assumptions about what international action and arms agreements can achieve. The UN has never yet stopped a serious violator of nuclear norms. Strong sanctions take time and a coalition of the willing, manifestly not the case today. Rogues see American arms cuts as a weakness.
(4) Because the NPR believes further reductions in nuclear arms will, in a decade or two, make the need to test, design and build weapons obsolete. Otherwise the NPR would call for harvesting the knowledge of an aging group of weapons designers and developing new design talent to build weapons safer and more reliable than existing models.
The NPR concedes that the U.S. cannot do what it did in 1945—make a nuclear weapon on its own—before 2021 at the earliest.
And the NPR concedes that attracting talent to the Labs has been difficult—without grasping that when weapons design is slighted, weapons designer talent goes elsewhere.
As for testing: as nuclear inventory ages, the tests upon which designs were validated recede in relevance, because of retrofits to extend their useful life. The more modifications that are made, the less reliable tests will be. As for relying solely on computer software models to determine how hardware will behave, one should adopt Ronald Reagan’s celebrated maxim for dealing with the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.”
(5) Because the NPR assumes that removing nuclear retaliatory threats -- as opposed to chemical and biological attacks -- in no way diminishes the ability of America to deter such strikes. Although conventional munitions are indeed vastly more capable, due to extreme improvements in accuracy, yet for volume and rapidity of response, nuclear weapons remain without equal—as well as for the fear they instill. On the eve of the Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker warned Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz that if Saddam Hussein were to use chemical or biological weapons against the coalition, the United States could retaliate with nuclear weapons. Four years after the Gulf War ended, Aziz publicly stated that Iraq’s fear of nuclear retaliation was the reason it did not use chemical or biological weapons during the conflict.
(6) Because while the NPR acknowledges massive prior arms reductions by America & Russia, it also urges further deep reductions to set an example for others to follow -- despite decades of examples of being ignored by adversaries & rogues. This is a simple case of the fanatical redoubling of futile efforts. It also leaves precious little margin for error if the administration miscalculates how other nations will behave. China may plausibly aim to exceed our strategic deployment, then challenge us for domination of the western Pacific. Like the Soviet Union in the 1970s, a growing arsenal may well lead China to take greater geopolitical risks.
When, in 1966, President Clinton sent out the Seventh Fleet after China fired missiles over Taiwan, a Chinese general warned that Chinese missiles could reach Los Angeles. If China was bold then, it will be bolder given a superior strategic position. Should a China in 2020, armed with more nuclear warheads than America, sink an American aircraft carrier with a nuclear-tipped missile, will America respond or stand down?
An America with clear nuclear superiority is far less likely to face such a crisis—precisely the deterrent effect that deep cuts can severely weaken.
The New START Treaty ignores these assumptions. It sharply cuts American strategic nuclear forces. Deployed strategic warheads are cut 30 percent, from 2,200 to 1,550; deployed launchers (land- and sea-based missiles, plus long-range bombers) are cut 50 percent, from 1,600 to 800.
The treaty also constrains America’s conventional warhead options: Article II limits deployed "warheads" on ballistic missiles, and "nuclear warheads" on heavy bombers. Thus conventional warheads mounted on missiles count identically as if nuclear.
Moreover, the administration makes clear that even the new levels—which are reportedly ten percent below the minimum baseline levels desired by the Pentagon— are prelude to further deep cuts. “Under 1,000” warheads is next; such has been the openly proclaimed goal of the administration’s chief arms negotiator. This second round would come with the U.S. already at levels of deployed weapons not seen since the Eisenhower administration. For all his claims that “nuclear zero” may not be achieved in his lifetime, President Obama seems intent on getting nearly there during his tenure in the Oval Office.
We have seen this movie. The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, as well as both the 1930 and 1936 London Naval Conferences, set limits on naval ship size for the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan. Historian Robert Kaufman’s Arms Control During the Pre-Nuclear Era cites a maxim of the day: “Big ships cause big wars, little ships cause little wars and no ships cause no wars.” Arguments made in favor of the 1922 Treaty echoed those made 50 years later during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) of the 1970s: weapons (“chips” in 1970-speak) can boost bargaining leverage, let us set an example others can follow, fewer arms are always safer.
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who had been defeated by President Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 election by Wilson’s slogan “He kept us out of war,”said of arms limitation: “How was it possible to stop this mad race? By an international agreement for the limitation of armaments.”
Staunch conservative President Herbert Hoover went even further: He created the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy -- his arms control touchstone -- and sought actual reductions in arms.
In 1938, Japan formally broke out of the naval limits one year after attacking China in a dress rehearsal for the Pacific War. The naval accord limited, with a few grandfathered exceptions, battleship tonnage to 35,000. This effectively limited naval guns to a maximum of 16 inches bore-width. But the Japanese had begun building, in 1934, what would prove to be the two largest leviathans ever to ride the high seas: the 70,000-ton monsters Yamato and Musashi. They carried 18.1-inch guns, the largest ever mounted on a ship. These huge guns could hurl a 3,200-pound projectile—a full half-ton heavier than a 16-inch shell—26 miles with unmatched accuracy.
Four decades later, the Soviet Union deployed 10-warhead SS-18 first-strike ICBMs, far larger and more lethal than any missile in America’s arsenal, taking advantage of the fact that the first SALT accord limited launchers, but not missiles, because without on-site inspection, America could only use its surveillance satellites to count silos.
President Obama’s policies are, in the words of the great American sage Yogi Berra, “dÃ©jÃ vu all over again.” Unless these policies are reversed, we can only hope that the final inning of this latest strategic contest ends as the Cold War did, and not as the interwar arms agreements did --in serial ghastly carnage from Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Tokyo fire raid, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
John C. Wohlstetter is founder of the issues blog "Letter From The CapitolSM," author of "The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us," and is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute. He is a Trustee of the Hudson Institute.