The Nuclear Posture Review and the Future of the Arsenal

The right and the left in this country have achieved a state of MAD (Mutually Assured Demonization). The recent attempts by the legacy media to whip up hysteria over threats of violence to those who voted for the health bill is a case in point. There was a time, not that long ago, when these “objective journalists” would have gotten away with it. There was no comparably audible public voice on the right to oppose them. Now there is, in the form of talk radio, powerful blogs, and Foxnews. Result: They only succeeded in, once again, making themselves look silly. The Right was in their face immediately, pointing out, among other things, the gross hypocrisy in the double standard they applied to violence and threats of violence depending on whether they come from the right or the left.

Overall, this form of MAD is a good thing. The sanctimonious, condescending attitude of the journalists of yesteryear was getting very old by the time Rush Limbaugh finally appeared on the scene. However, it does have its drawbacks, in the form of increasing levels of political polarization and the associated pious posing on both the right and the left. Indeed, when it comes to the ostentatious striking of sanctimonious public poses, the right has, at long last, achieved parity with the left. Reasoned debate becomes difficult when both sides are only interested in occupying the moral high ground.

Consider, for example, the right’s overwrought response to the latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR is a document submitted to Congress each year by the Department of Defense setting forth what the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy should be. The latest version contains a watered down “no first use” provision according to which we won’t respond with nuclear weapons even if attacked with chemical and biological weapons, with the caveat that for nations that don’t play according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, everything is still on the table. Some of the other more significant provisions include:

• The United States will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

• The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.

• The Administration will study options for ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of nuclear warheads on a case-by-case basis, consistent with the congressionally mandated Stockpile Management Plan. The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.

The response Tunku Daravarajan at The Daily Beast:

I despair of this latest episode of gestural theater designed to make the U.S. look exquisitely reasonable (should we call it “Jimmy-Cartesian”?), but which in truth results in the U.S. looking flaccid, or worse, complacent. After all, who gains from a presidential posture that has, in effect, stigmatized our most potent deterrent? In terms of foreign policy—or, better put, foreign clout—the U.S. is going through a startling period of auto-emasculation.

and from Roger Simon at PajamasMedia:

Like some looney member of Code Pink, our president is abandoning the nuclear deterrent adhered to by every American president since Truman. And he is doing it in a manner that makes absolutely no sense… What are we to make of this and the man who is adopting this policy? Does he hate us? Does he hate this country? What would he do if there was, for example, a massive small pox attack on the U.S.? Send in the infantry? Call in the Marines? Try to reason with whoever did it and recommend they negotiate as the fatal disease spreads to millions of people?… Now I detest nuclear weapons as much as the next person, but this approach seems — I hate to repeat myself, but I will — deranged.

Now let’s think about this for a moment. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the ultimate reason for having a nuclear arsenal in the first place is to protect our security. What if Tunku and Roger, being human, and therefore not infallible, are wrong? What if, just hypothetically, the policy set forth in the NPR really will make us more safe, and the policy they prefer less safe. They have not limited themselves to a reasoned response to the NPR, setting forth, in their opinions, why they think it will not enhance our safety. Rather, they have villified the people who support it, accusing them, not only of being wrong, but of being crazy. When you demonize people, you make it very difficult for them to respond to your objections in a reasoned manner. Being human, they are more likely to strike back, trading tit for tat. I would even go so far as to say that, in some cases, that is the only rational way to respond. It seems rather obvious that convergence to correct policy decisions is not a likely outcome of this process of mutual demonization.

That is the reason that, as I have maintained elsewhere, when it comes to policy decisions as weighty as those relating to nuclear policy, moralistic posing, with all the associated pushing of emotional hot buttons, should be set aside in favor of some semblance of rational discussion. The goal here, I assume, is to survive. Let us, then, dispassionately consider what we should best do in order to survive.

According to Steve Schippert ant Liberty Pundits, the NPR not only does not serve that goal but is, in fact, pointless.  In his words:

There is none, really. Not beyond rhetoric and “historic” moments and – dare the Los Angeles Times say it – a “manifesto.”

No point at all – but for one critical aspect lost in all of the arguing back and forth. Clarity is dead. Nuance and the foolish self-assurance of perceived superior intellectual and/or moral capacity have rightly replaced clear understanding.

Admitting in advance my own fallibility, I beg to differ. In the first place, we have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle now for going on 65 years. I am far from believing that an all out nuclear exchange would result in the extinction of humanity, or anything close to it. It is, nevertheless, an understatement to say that it would be extremely destructive. That being the case, it would be well if, to the extent possible, we maintained a taboo on the first use of nuclear weapons.

Any first user of nuclear weapons likely would become and, it seems to me, should become, an international pariah. Roger paints a nightmare scenario in which millions of people are dying in a biological attack while our hands are tied. Given the known effects of the releases of biological and chemical agents to date, the chances of something like that happening are vanishingly small. If it did, the NPR would become a moot point, just as all our loud protestations against unrestricted submarine warfare prior to our entry into WWI became a moot point for our own submarine forces in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. A far more likely first use scenario would be an attempt at eliminating enemy stocks of biological or chemical weapons with a nuclear bunker buster, either preemptively or after an ineffective and very ill-considered attack on the United States with such weapons. This kind of first use would be very attractive to many in the nuclear weapons community. It would, however, do anything but promote our national security. Rather, it would end the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, greatly increasing the chances that we, in turn, would become the victims of a really devastating attack, not with ineffective chemical or biological agents, but with nuclear weapons.

I also agree with the other sections of the NPR that are major departures from past policy, or, at least, have been represented as such. One of these is the provision that the United States will not conduct nuclear testing. Again, there are many in the weapons community who would love to resume testing, basing their arguments on insuring the reliability of the stockpile. It would also help the national weapons laboratories solve the demographic problem they face with the retirement or impending retirement of most of the physicists and other technical experts who have actually taken part in nuclear tests, and the difficulty of attracting talented scientists to careers as custodians of an aging pile of nuclear weapons. It would also play directly into the hands of our enemies.

The United States has a huge advantage over potential nuclear rivals in its possession of above ground experimental facilities (known in the business as AGEX) second to none in the world. From the massive National Ignition Facility, with its ability to focus 192 powerful laser beams on a tiny point, to the Z pulsed power machine capable of producing bursts of X-rays at levels far beyond those of any comparable facility on the planet, to a host of other smaller but still highly impressive and technologically advanced experimental facilities, we can approach the physical conditions that exist within exploding nuclear devices more closely and for longer periods of time than any other nation can even dream of. To resume nuclear testing would be to stupidly throw away this huge advantage. At the same time, it would give our enemies all the moral authority they needed to resume testing or develop nuclear weapons themselves.

The decision to set in concrete in the NPR the decision not to develop new nuclear weapons is also a good one. The idea that the United States would do such a thing is anything but implausible. On the contrary, the National Nuclear Security Administration has been agitating for years to get the go-ahead to build the Reliable Replacement Warhead. When Congress wisely told them, not only no, but hell no, they kept up the pressure regardless. Congress has taken a lot of bad raps lately. They deserve a lot of credit for derailing NNSA’s determination to go ahead with the RRW. In the first place, the weapons in our stockpile are not fragile and unreliable. Any enemy that assumed so would be making a very grave mistake. In the second, if we developed the RRW, the pressure to test it would likely become irresistible. The idea of developing a nuclear weapon without testing it would never have passed the “ho-ho” test at the weapons labs back in the 70’s and 80’s. The claim that we wouldn’t need to test the RRW is likely wishful thinking. Again, all the objections to a resumption of nuclear testing I have cited above would apply. Finally, by building a new type of nuclear weapon we would once again sacrifice the moral high ground, handing our enemies all the justification they needed for building new weapons themselves. Again, we would sacrifice major advantages, simply to acquire a weapon that would be somewhat cheaper to maintain than those in the existing stockpile. For obvious reasons, the weapons designers at the labs would love it. For the rest of us, it would make no sense at all.

I am hardly in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, I am in favor of maintaining a powerful arsenal and assuring that the resources we need to keep it safe and reliable will always be available. However, the latest NPR is a reasoned response to the nuclear myopia that would have us sacrifice real advantages in return for extremely dubious returns. As such, it deserves our support.

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