No. 6 - Nov.-
Dec. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 23-26

Is there still a role for nuclear deterrence?

Walter Slocombe

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
US Department of Defense


Nuclear deterrence has been the subject of much debate over the decades. Recently, it has been given prominence by respected individuals and committees who advocate a radical change - abolition of nuclear weapons soon. Their major theme appears to be 'The Cold War is over. Not only do nuclear weapons lack any utility in today's world, but they are inherently dangerous and thus should be eliminated.' In this article, the author explains why nuclear weapons still play an important role in US and NATO strategy, even while significant reductions in stockpiles have been undertaken in recent years, and why their total abolition, if understood as a near-term policy, rather than, as President Clinton has stated, an ultimate goal, is not a wise and surely not a feasible focus of policy.

Because the past has lessons for the future, a brief review of how our nuclear forces have strengthened our security is instructive. First, they provided a key means by which the United States deterred conventional and nuclear aggression by the Soviet Union. Second, the extension of the US nuclear umbrella has allowed many of our allies to forego their own nuclear weapons, even though they had the technological know-how to develop them. Third, although the East-West competition spilled over into numerous regional conflicts during the Cold War, the nuclear capabilities possessed by the superpowers instilled caution. As a result, these did not get out of hand, lest the United States and the Soviet Union be brought into direct, and possibly nuclear, confrontation.

During the period after the Second World War, the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in an intense struggle to determine whether the world would follow the road of democracy or that of totalitarianism. Nuclear deterrence, together with our alliances and conventional capability, bought us time, time for internal forces of upheaval and decay to rend the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and bring about the end of the Cold War.

The post-Cold War nuclear role

Soldiers remove the camouflage covering an SS25 "Sickle" mobile ICBM at a strategic forces base in central Russia.
(Reuters 38Kb)
But the Cold War is now over and it is important to recognise the great degree to which our nuclear deterrent has evolved from that period. The role of nuclear weapons in our and NATO's defence posture has diminished - a positive trend which we hope and expect to continue in the future. US spending on strategic forces has declined dramatically from Cold War levels - from 24 per cent of the total Department of Defense budget in the mid-1960s, to 7 per cent in 1991, to less than 3 per cent today. Moreover, we currently have no procurement programmes for a next generation bomber, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) or strategic submarine. The programmes we do have are designed to sustain the effectiveness, safety and reliability of remaining forces, and to ensure the continued high quality of our people.

The stable reduction of nuclear forces has been, and continues to be, a primary objective of the United States. The US and Russia have taken great strides in this regard in recent years. START I - the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which entered into force in 1994 - will reduce each side's deployed strategic weapons from well over 10,000 to 6,000 accountable weapons. START II, when it is ratified by the Russian Duma and enters into force, will further reduce each side's weapons to a level of 3,000-3,500. Following this treaty's entry into force, we are to enter into START III negotiations, with the goal of further reducing strategic nuclear forces to 2,000-2,500 weapons for each side. Moreover, the US has unilaterally reduced its non-strategic (or sub-strategic) nuclear weapons to one-tenth of Cold War levels.

In addition to numerical reductions, there have been qualitative changes in our nuclear arsenal. In 1991 and 1992, the US unilaterally eliminated several nuclear weapons systems (e.g., Lance, Artillery Fired Atomic Projectiles, FB-111, SRAM-A, nuclear depth bombs); halted a number of planned or on-going development programmes (e.g., Small ICBM, Peacekeeper Rail Garrison, SRAM II, SRAM-T, Lance Follow-on); took nuclear bombers off alert; removed from alert, well ahead of the required schedule, those ICBMs and strategic missile submarines planned for elimination under START I; and returned all naval surface and sub-surface non-strategic nuclear weapons to the United States. The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review then resulted in the complete elimination of a non-strategic nuclear role for the US surface Navy.

NATO's sub-strategic nuclear weapons stockpiled in Europe
Relative number of nuclear warheads (as indicated by height)

In NATO, the years since 1985 have seen the removal of all Lance, Artillery Fired Atomic Projectiles and nuclear depth bombs that had been based in Europe, and cancellation of plans for development of a tactical air-to-surface missile and follow-on to Lance. And it is worth noting, these decisions closely followed elimination of intermediate-range Pershing II and GLCM missiles from the US and Europe under the terms of the INF Treaty. Additionally, NATO agreed to further reduce its remaining stockpile of nuclear bombs for land-based Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) by approximately 50 per cent. The end result has been a dramatic shift downward in the number and type of nuclear weapons stockpiled in Europe, as this chart demonstrates.

Is nuclear deterrence still necessary?

With the end of the Cold War, we continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent both nationally and as a part of NATO. In September 1994, the Clinton Administration answered the question of why deterrence is still needed in a comprehensive post-Cold War policy update, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR recognised that, with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the embarkation of Russia on the road to democracy and a free market economy, the strategic environment has been transformed. Conventional forces, therefore, could and should assume a larger share of the deterrent role. We concluded, nonetheless, that nuclear weapons continue to play a critical role in deterring aggression against the US, its overseas forces, its allies and friends.

Why did we reach this conclusion? Most importantly, because the positive changes in the international environment are far from being locked in. As US Secretary of Defense William Cohen stated during his confirmation hearings earlier this year:

"For while the threat of nuclear holocaust has been significantly reduced, the world remains a very unsettled and dangerous place. Hostile regimes and instability threaten our interests in key regions such as South-West Asia and North-East Asia. Instability, nationalism and ethnic tensions pose dangers in Europe. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction threaten our interests, our forces, and even our homeland. . . . We need not revisit ancient history to remind ourselves that dangerous threats can arise suddenly and unpredictably."

It is important to note that, although Russia has made great progress and we do not currently regard it as a potential military threat, it continues to possess substantial military forces, a formidable strategic nuclear capability, and an even larger stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons. Accordingly, with respect to Russia, our nuclear policy is 'leading' toward further reductions and increased weapons safety and 'hedging' against the reversal of reform in Russia. It is prudent to provide a hedge against a reversal of reforms in Russia, but we do not believe such a reversal is likely, and we are working both bilaterally and through the NATO-Russia Founding Act to reduce the risk.

Even if we could ignore the Russian nuclear arsenal entirely, there are unfortunately a range of other potential threats to which nuclear weapons are a deterrent. A glance at the list of rogue states with Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programmes can only confirm this. Indeed, the knowledge that the US has a powerful and ready nuclear capability is a significant deterrent to rogue states contemplating the use of WMD. In view of this, and the fact that the positive changes in the international environment are far from irreversible, it would be irresponsible to dismantle the well-established system of deterrence before new and reliable systems for preserving stability are in place.

Don't our weapons cause others to seek their own?

A B-2 "Stealth" bomber, part of the US strategic arsenal.
(Reuters 55Kb)

What about the argument that our weapons promote proliferation, that states seek to acquire nuclear weapons in response to possession by nuclear weapons states? A more compelling case would be that proliferant states acquire nuclear weapons not because we have them but primarily for other reasons - to counter regional adversaries, to further regional ambitions, and to enhance their status among their neighbours.

Nor is it the case that once proliferation does occur rogue leaders cannot be deterred from using nuclear weapons because those leaders will not regard the costs, even of nuclear retaliation, as sufficiently great. Experience suggests that few dictators are indifferent to the preservation of key instruments of state control, or to the survival of their own regimes. Thus, our nuclear capabilities give pause to potential rogue proliferants rather than encouraging them.

More broadly, although nuclear weapons do not of themselves maintain peace, they continue to place a considerable premium on caution when one nuclear power deals with another in matters either or both consider central. And caution fosters stability.

Aren't nuclear weapons inherently unsafe?

Nuclear weapons are dangerous; they contain high explosives and fissile material. But they are not unsafe. Our nuclear weapons meet the highest standards of safety, security and responsible custodianship developed for our nuclear arsenal. Moreover, we place high priority on maintaining and improving stockpile safety. Our nuclear safety record is extraordinary. Although accidents involving nuclear weapons have occurred, the last one was almost 20 years ago. Nor has any accident ever resulted in a nuclear detonation.

The likelihood of accidents has been dramatically reduced since the end of the Cold War. Our strategic bombers and NATO's DCA are no longer on alert; our surface ships and attack submarines no longer carry nuclear weapons. The US Army and Marines have eliminated their nuclear weapons. Older weapons with less modern safety features have been removed from the stockpile. The number of nuclear weapon storage sites has been decreased by 75 per cent and weapons have been consolidated. NATO is in the process of completing installation in Europe of the Weapon Security and Survivability System (WS3) vault programme. This programme provides underground storage of air-delivered nuclear weapons in vaults within protective aircraft shelters. These vaults offer significant survivability and security enhancements. As a result of all these changes, our weapons are much less exposed to accident environments. On balance, the safety risks of maintaining a smaller nuclear arsenal are far outweighed by the security benefits that we continue to derive from nuclear deterrence.

Why not remove all weapons from alert?

Some argue that a first step to elimination is to remove all weapons from alert status by removing warheads from our ICBMs and SLBMs and placing them in a small number of storage sites. But this creates a new vulnerability: these warheads could be destroyed or made unusable through attack by a very small number of enemy warheads, thereby giving an aggressor a unique, dangerous and destabilising advantage. If de-alerting sought to address this by dispersing the weapons, they might be no more secure than they would be if deployed in a missile silo or on a submarine - and probably less so because SSBNs, ballistic missile submarines at sea, are invulnerable to either attack or interference. Moreover, if a crisis were to occur, having weapons stored separately from their launchers could generate a race to be first to re-mate the warheads with their delivery systems. This would be highly destabilising.

The United States supports early deactivation of systems to be eliminated under arms control agreements. This was the case for the START I reductions - we took systems to be eliminated off alert soon after the Treaty was ratified. Indeed, both the United States and Russia have already agreed to deactivate by the end of 2003 all systems to be eliminated under START II, by means of warhead removal or other jointly agreed steps. Furthermore, once START II enters into force, the two sides have agreed to negotiate additional reductions in their strategic forces so that by the end of 2007 these forces would have no more than 2,000 to 2,500 deployed warheads. The United States proposed and supported both of these initiatives, but we continuously review nuclear procedures to increase safety and security. What we oppose is creating new vulnerabilities to the survivability of our nuclear forces, while gaining very little of value in return.

Why keep US nuclear weapons in Europe?

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov (left) and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright after signing a protocol to START II in New York on 26 September.
(Reuters 44Kb)
A credible Alliance nuclear posture continues to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in the peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territories and in command, control, and consultation arrangements. Nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and North American members of the Alliance. The presence of North American conventional and US nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America. This will remain true after enlargement. The coverage provided by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, including its nuclear component, will also apply to new members. New members will, as do current members, contribute to the development and implementation of NATO's strategy in all its components. However, our current nuclear posture is adequate for an enlarged Alliance, and thus NATO has stated it has no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members.

Toward a safer world

Our objective is a safe, stable world. But we must develop our national security policy with the understanding that nuclear weapons and the underlying technical knowledge cannot be disinvented whether or not the US retains its weapons. In this connection, the US will continue to lead the way to a safer world through the deep reductions in nuclear forces undertaken in START and through the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction programme to assist Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union in the dismantlement of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, we will maintain a smaller nuclear force as a 'hedge' against a future that is uncertain and in a world in which substantial nuclear arsenals remain.

We will continue to strive to make the world a safer place for our children and grandchildren and, in this regard, the United States is committed to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in the context of general and complete disarmament. Until these conditions are realised, however, nuclear weapons will continue to fulfil an essential role in meeting our deterrence requirements and assuring our non-proliferation objectives.

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