Facing Another Kind of Cliff

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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including "Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics" (The University of Chicago Press, 1980); "Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy" (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1983); "Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy" (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986); and "Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat" (Westview, 1987). In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel.

Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

For newly re-elected President Barack Obama, there will be no more urgent policy concern than U.S. strategic doctrine. In the past, despite growing mega-security threats to the United States, including robust expansions of Russia's nuclear arsenal, the president has not paid such doctrine any conspicuous attention. During the just-finished election campaign, both candidates briefly touched upon certain potential nuclear threats from Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, but all of these off-the-cuff references were to specifically isolated and singular perils.

At no time were these references expressed in terms of any systematic and comprehensive American nuclear strategy.

Now, Mr.Obama should plainly understand and openly acknowledge that nuclear weapons are not a problem in themselves. In fact, as he may readily learn from documented military history, weapons have never been more or less destabilizing simply because of their capacity to destroy. There is, therefore, no point to a president demonizing nuclear weapons as such.

In the past, Barack Obama has favored “a world free of nuclear weapons." This high-minded objective remains wrongheaded on all counts. It is an improbable and undesirable goal. It could never be achieved. It should never be achieved.

Without nuclear weapons, certain vulnerable states (e.g., Israel) might have absolutely no way to deter existential enemy aggressions.

Now, the United States will need to work diligently toward a different strategic objective. This goal should be a world that will be less susceptible to all forms of total war and nuclear terror. It ought not to be an utterly idealized world, a world without nuclear weapons.

This is a moment for reinvigorated and nuanced national military thinking. It is not the time for blithely accepting a patchwork quilt of disconnected and "seat-of-the-pants" strategic policies. For the future, ad hoc and disjointed U.S. responses to individual threats will not be satisfactory. They could even be an invitation to military disaster.

In essence, we presently require a codified plan for national security that could deal capably not only with various jihadist adversaries, both state and sub-state, but also with prospective and still-formidable nuclear foes in Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, and possibly a post-coup Pakistan.

During the 1950s, the United States first began to institute various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was generally much simpler. Global power distributions were tightly bipolar, and the obvious enemy was the Soviet Union.

At that time, American national security was premised on a core strategic policy of “massive retaliation.” Later, especially during the Kennedy years, that narrowly-limited stance was modified by something we had then confidently called “flexible response.”

Today, a much more complex geopolitical world reveals multiple, inter-penetrating, and sometimes synergistic axes of conflict. Significantly, there are now almost four times as many countries as there were in 1945. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia is once again an indisputably major security concern. Earlier on, in the post-Soviet era, the Russian threat had initially been downgraded on the hierarchy of U.S. strategic worries.

Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is fearful of possibly still-planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe. In his view, an entirely orthodox perspective on nuclear deterrence, such active defenses would jeopardize the indispensable threat logic of "mutual vulnerability." Nonetheless, it appears that President Obama might still favor an expansion of these provocative, costly, and problematic American missile defenses. Here, it should be kept in mind, even under the most optimistic assumptions, such interception systems could allow substantial "leakage."

To shape an aptly improved U.S, strategic doctrine, President Obama will need to reconsider fundamental matters of nuclear targeting. Among other things, such a reconsideration would examine certain basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting), and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting).

Originally, the essence of “massive retaliation” and its corollary, MAD, had been countervalue targeting. Presently, in those relatively promising circumstances where enemy rationality might still be reliably assumed, effective U.S. deterrence could once again require readily recognizable policies of countercity targeting. In circumstances where we would appear to face non-rational state adversaries, however, purposeful deterrence calculations could prove markedly different and more difficult.

Unless President Obama begins to give U.S. strategic deterrence the attention and resources it requires, we will place ourselves at a renewed national risk of assorted large-scale enemy attacks.

Science is a method of reaching conclusions. In any science, including national nuclear strategy, generality is a necessary trait of all meaning. Accordingly, this is not the time for an American president to revive the deceptively pleasing resonance of a "nuclear weapons free world." Nor is this the moment to focus on individual nuclear threats as if they were somehow singular and unique.

It is the proper time to forge a comprehensive and informed U.S. strategic doctrine.

This demanding task belongs on the front burner. More specifically, it will have to address still-impending prospects for American preemption, as well as improved methods for distinguishing adversaries (state and sub-state) according to whether they are presumed rational, irrational, or “mad.” It will need to consider certain more-or-less intersecting elements of nuclear deterrence, active defense, and cyber-warfare. And it will have to examine such elements within the far broader and more subtle questions of pertinent international law, including authoritative criteria for (1) "anticipatory self-defense;" and (2) nonproliferation regime enforcement.

Within the Department of Defense and wider U.S. defense community, a protracted lack of emphasis on nuclear strategy and tactics has already left our military unprepared for some of the most flagrantly existential scenarios. To suitably confront this deficiency, one generated, in part, by continuing involvement in non-productive and unwinnable wars, the president needs to commission a largely re-imagined Nuclear Posture Review. Among other things, this new and thorough assessment should emphasize certain new program designs for advanced nuclear weapons; modernization of needed nuclear infrastructure facilities; and more consciously precise calibration of American nuclear strength to different levels of plausible enemy threat.

Today, the U.S. faces not only a fiscal cliff, but also a strategic one. Although the former has garnered all the attention, the latter is actually much more worrisome. If we go over the strategic cliff, the consequences could include far worse than impaired economic growth and recession.

They could include catastrophic and possibly unprecedented military harms.

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