QDR’s Nuclear Tea Leaves

atomic_icbm_minuteman_375Whenever the Quadrennial Defense Review – or any big government document is released – there is a search to read the tea leaves of what the new report means for US policy. These government strategy reports are often more important for what they do or do not mention – ie what will or won’t be a funding priority – than for laying out a new groundbreaking strategic doctrine.

This QDR contains some useful changes. For instance, Robert Farley has a great take on the shift away from the “long war” or GWOT formulation toward a more sensible strategic outlook and the elevation in priority of disaster response is definitely overdue. There are also a couple of interesting tidbits from the QDR related to nuclear policy.

First, this Administration is really concerned with stopping nuclear terrorism and proliferation. This isn’t really news, but the new QDR confirms the priority the Administration has given to these issues and lays out some very important tangible steps, such as investing in nuclear forensics. This is of key importance to deterring proliferation, since ensuring that the US can identify the source of nuclear materials that were used in a bomb, provides an added disincentive to countries contemplating proliferate to third party groups. As Travis Sharp notes, “There is a big, big role for the nuclear weapons laboratories in the new QDR. In order to prevent WMD terrorism.”

Second, the new QDR gives a cold shoulder to a favorite program of the neocon right – the potentially highly dangerous and destabilizing program called “Prompt Global Strike.” Prompt Global Strike is a program that calls for replacing some of our nuclear tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with conventional warheads, in order to be able to strike at “fleeting targets” of opportunity across the globe. While that may sound like an important tool, the fact is that it provides few advantages over existing capabilities and has some major downsides.

The primary problem is one of “nuclear ambiguity.” Russia and China for instance would have no idea whether an ICBM had a conventional or nuclear warhead. The launching of such a missile would also be inherently destabilizing. Remember that the Russians believed that a launch of a Norwegian weather rocket in the mid-90s was actually the West launching a nuclear weapon at them. A nuclear war was only averted because Yeltsin, a man who loved to drink, had the wits about him to contradict his military advisers’ itchy trigger fingers and halted a nuclear response – yes we were that close. Thus a policy that calls for speculatively firing ICBMs, would have significant blow back in our relations with, Russia and China, could escalate the proliferation and development of ballistic missiles, upset the nuclear balance, and in a worst case result in an accidental or mistaken nuclear launch in response. Finally, there is that whole problem of having perfect actionable intelligence.

Not surprisingly the Bush administration’s 2006 QDR was all about (pdf) Prompt Global Strike. Their QDR mentioned it six times, pledged to develop this capability, and called on Congress to grant the “broader authorities” to the executive that this capability would need. However, this 2010 QDR is much more circumspect about the system. It references “prompt global strike” just once, saying only that the “The Department also plans to experiment with conventional prompt global strike prototypes.” It seems clear that unlike the Bush administration, this is not going to be critical to the Obama administration’s defense posture.