The Debate Over Declaring What Our Nuclear Weapons Are For

ICBM-missile-siloThe Nuclear Posture Review was due out on Monday but was delayed once again, with reports that the President is pushing the NPR to go further. The question is how far.

The NPR is shaping up to be an important test of Obama’s commitment to the pledge he made last year in Prague “to put an end to Cold War thinking.” As Julian Borger reports, it is looking unlikely that Obama will live up to this pledge at least in one important area.

A major point of debate is reforming the declaratory policy – the policy that declares why we have nukes and in what circumstances we would use them. This may seem like a fairly wonky theoretical debate of little importance. But stating the reason why the US has nuclear weapons has broader implications, because it impacts the posture of other states’ nuclear forces, namely Russia. The declaratory policy of the United States has been one of intentional ambiguity. In other words, our nuclear weapons are intended to deter and respond to a nuclear attack, but we also don’t discount attacking another country with nuclear weapons before they attack us or using nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack. In essence, the current approach gives us a certain flexibility.

But as Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of the American Scientists clearly describes this flexibility also has a very dangerous downside, as it impacts how the Russians posture their forces:

The Secretary of Defense’s job is to imagine these sorts of threats and prepare for them. The problem is that preparing for them creates other dangers. Preparing for this attack on enemy forces requires our nuclear weapons to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice, it requires weapons that are highly accurate, fast flying, and very powerful… Russia, has to counter this capability by keeping its own weapons on alert, ready to launch in case we do. Ironically, keeping alive this option of attacking to reduce the damage from nuclear weapons actually creates much of the danger coming from nuclear weapons.

The crisis that would lead us to consider a first strike, high confidence that Russia is planning an attack on us, is itself very unlikely but also the president’s decision to use his first strike capability is also unlikely because he would be trading a likelihood of nuclear war for a certainty of nuclear war, certain because we would be starting it. Preparing for this potential threat, which may or may not ever arise in the future, exacerbates the day-to-day danger of accidental launch of weapons or of intentionally launching weapons in a crisis. We have to compare this great, but highly unlikely, future threat with the on-going, everyday threat of living in world with simply too many nuclear weapons always ready to launch. The problem is that we tend to become inured to the everyday threat, it becomes the wallpaper that we simply stop noticing. But it is there.

The threat of accidental launch is not some mythical notion. Having nuclear forces on a hair trigger alert is incredibly dangerous, since with the current nuclear set up the President of either country has just minutes to decide whether to launch a nuclear response. In 1995 a nuclear war was almost started because of a bureaucratic oversight. The Russians interpreted a the launch of a Norwegian weather rocket as a western nuclear launch, because the cable alerting them of the weather launch wasn’t sent up the right channels. The Russian military gave their President 10 minutes to decide to launch, fortunately sober Boris Yeltsin refused to launch a nuclear response.

The Nuclear Posture Review will not automatically solve this problem, but declaring a no-first use policy would take a significant step by laying the groundwork for coordinated de-alerting of US and Russian nuclear forces. It is past time to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” as the President declared.