Faith of their Fathers


Ghost Dance of the Oglala Sioux, Frederic Remington
Harper’s Weekly, December 1890.

When one ponders the fate of Cold War-era nuclear arsenals, it is tempting to think that they have outlived all usefulness.   The Soviet Union rusted out on the ash heap of history, and there are few nation-states today that can afford to develop and maintain credible, survivable nuclear strike forces.  Where is the utility in keeping these expensive, unemployable knickknacks from a bygone era?

Robert S. Dudney, Editor-in-Chief of the AFA’s Air Force magazine, tries to justify the modernisation of these weapon systems in the February 2007 editorial, and takes a well-deserved swipe at some eyebrow-raising nay-sayers.

…deterrence today is still taking its lumps, and from truly surprising critics.

The latest to get in the queue are none other than Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz (former Secretaries of State), former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, and retired Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

These four prominent defense experts, in a stunning Jan. 4 Wall Street Journal essay, urged the US to undertake a big effort with other nations to create “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

This, they wrote, would require a cut in US warheads, elimination of short-range nuclear weapons, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a halt in production of fissile material, and so forth. US “leadership” was said to be vital.

The initiative looks like a dud. It was widely dismissed as naive, even strange, for men of such experience. The next day’s Journal carried a sharply critical letter. Its title: “Four Pollyannas of the Apocalypse.”

To us, the four more closely resemble some of the 19th century Plains Indians, who performed the Ghost Dance out of conviction that doing so would restore the lost world of their ancestors. You can go through many rituals, but you cannot wish away the realities of the nuclear age.


Mr. Dudney also does us the favour of reproducing a big chunk of the December 2006 Nuclear Capabilities report by the Defense Science Board, but unfortunately he leaves the most compelling arguments aside.  The DSB feels that American policymakers have become a little hidebound in their conceptualisation of nuclear weapons, so they posit a series of five alternate viewpoints to typical policymaker attitudes.  Here’s my Cliff’s Notes version of the arguments:

Lazy Policymaker Thinking 1:
Lower numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons are preferable regardless of the starting point, with zero as the ultimate goal. Nobody actually uses nukes, and nobody likes them.  The United States still dominates a conventional-only world, so we should get rid of them.

Alternative View: A desire for a nuke-free world is nice but irrelevant.  Nuclear weapons technology has been around for decades and its widely-known technical specifics cannot be erased from history.  In order for nuclear deterrence to work, the adversary has to be under the impression that you will actually employ these weapons if provoked.  To remove an entire weapon system from consideration merely ensures that a more ruthless adversary will take advantage of your self-handicapping.

Lazy Policymaker Thinking 2: U.S. nuclear development and sustainment activity causes other states to seek their own nuclear weapons. Other nations do what the US does, because the US is cool and powerful. Nations that want to be cool and powerful try to emulate the United States.  If the cool guy rejects a nuclear force entirely, then everyone else will too.

Alternate View: Nations pursue nuclear strike systems because they are afraid of the neighbours, want to intimidate the neighbours, or want military freedom of action.  Not because they are the hero-worshipping little brother to the United States’ older, cooler big brother.  National interests trump any US influence as a role model.  Credible US nuclear capabilities and intentions have led a number of nations with sufficient technology — both allied and adversary — to forego the development of their own nuclear forces (Canada, Germany, Japan, Australia, Libya, etc).

Lazy Policymaker View 3: Non-proliferation is a more important value than nuclear deterrence in a post-Cold War era. The evil Soviet empire is long gone, and neither modern-day Russia nor China pose an existential threat.  The real problem is too many people getting their mitts on nukes, therefore, deterring countries that actually have nukes is less of a priority than preventing people from developing nukes.

Alternative View: Remind me again how we can get by with zero deterrence when more countries end up having nuclear weapon systems?  Is it morally responsible for the American government to shelve its own nuclear deterrent (which protects its own citizens) when everyone else is eagerly seeking nuclear, biological and chemical weapon systems?  By all means seek common ground with friends, and find ways to reach mutual accommodation with adversaries.  But don’t shelve the deterrent on the fairytale belief that everyone else will suddenly decide not to develop these things.

Lazy Policymaker View 4: Nuclear weapons should deter only nuclear threats. Proportional response is the only way to go.  I will only nuke someone if someone else nukes me first.

Alternative View: Deterring other nuclear powers from attacking is a reason enough to maintain a deterrent force.  But the notion that nukes only counter nukes is complete nonsense.  NATO adopted the policy of Flexible Response way back in 1967.  Flexible Response meant that a conventional-forces invasion by Warsaw Pact forces could have been countered in any way NATO say fit, including use of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.  This very uncertainty was intentional, to keep the invasion of Western Europe looking as politically dicey and unattractive as possible.  Second, go ahead and tell me what sort of conventional capabilities are an effective deterrent against a foe who realises he can perform nuclear first-strikes on your conventional warfighting apparatus, and you’ll have only submarine-launched Tomahawks to oppose him in the second round.

Lazy Policymaker View 5: Any new nuclear initiatives are unnecessary for deterrence, and would undermine the higher priority non-proliferation goal. Nuclear deterrence will work just fine even though the weapons are no longer state-of-the-art and our adversaries are building state-of-the-art nuclear forces.  The same stuff that we’ve had since the early ’80s will last us into the forseeable future.

Alternative View: Everyone understands that occasionally armies need new rifles and air forces need new planes.  But nukes are apparently exempt from this sort of tactical obsolescence.  There is no other weapon system on the face of the planet that is supposed to maintain its effectiveness while receiving minimal upgrades and no replacements.  Try running Mac OS X on an Apple IIc (or Windows Vista on an 8086) and see how far you get.  Weapon systems have finite lives and roles in relation to specific national security needs, and the current batch of nukes was developed to counter a specific threat profile that is no longer present.  This does not mean that you need no nukes; just different ones, tailored to the present (and future) security environment.

If you want to read the entire 58-page DSB Nuclear Capabilities report for yourself, you can.  I used to read this sort of junk when I was 11 or 12, to try and understand why exactly everyone was convinced that the world would end in atomic fire.  Nobody likes contemplating these things, but if you want to understand why countries try to develop these things, it’s useful to try and understand why they are valued.  Burying your head in the sand and wishing that it would all go away is no solution.

UPDATE 240556Z FEB 2007: Corrected a couple of spelling boo-boos.

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3 Responses
  1. gorthos says:

    Gotta hand it to you Chris.. I have to agree on most points..

  2. Alan says:

    Embrace your inner boo-boo making you.

  3. Chris Taylor says:

    Oh, I do! Effortlessly, even.