Jeffrey LewisForget the Posture Commission, OK?

Should the Nuclear Posture Review use the the Final Report of the Strategic Posture Commission, led by Bill Perry and James Schlesinger, as a starting point?

That question was recently raised at the Huffington Post by Joe Cirincione (right), who argued that the Strategic Posture Commission (also know as Perry-Schlesinger) is not an appropriate place to start the NPR.

I’ve seen Joe make this argument forcefully in meetings. My favorite moment was once when he expressed disgust at starting with the Strategic Posture Commission:

Why would you start with that report? There are a lot of bipartisan reports around this town. Perry is involved with at least two others. I even wrote one — here.

At that point he slapped a copy of Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review: A Roadmap on the table. (Co-authored with Andy Grotto. It is a good report.)

It was pure Joe: Great theater, but in service of a very important point — to which I will return to in a moment.

Not surprisingly, the folks over at PONI disagree with Joe. Although the author doesn’t actually so say explicitly, (s)he clearly thinks the Strategic Posture Commission Report is a good place to start based on its composition, degree of consensus achieved and its reception in the “nuclear community.”

That doesn’t really, to my mind, address what I take to be the merit in Joe’s claim: The Nuclear Posture Review needs to give the President real options, not merely a single choice based on a report that has significant shortcomings.

The Strategic Posture Commission Does Not Represent a Consensus

The Strategic Posture Commission is the appearance of consensus, not the real thing. There is no consensus today among Republicans and Democrats on nuclear weapons policy. If the Nuclear Posture Review is to be anything other than a half-assed ratification of business-as-usual, the people writing it need to appreciate that there are some tough choices to be made — and that only one man has the pay-grade to make them.

Washington is awash, as Joe noted, in bipartisan efforts other than the Strategic Posture Commission — including the CFR Task Force that Perry co-chaired with Brent Scowcroft, and the op-eds by the so-called Quartet: George Shultz, Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger and the ubiquitous Dr. Perry.

That each of the efforts could involve the same person and yet look so different points to something very important about this Commission, as well as commisions in general: The wordsmithing required to bridge deep, fundamental differences between 12 idiosyncratic members does not represent a consensus that can be transported beyond those specific individuals. In most cases, it can’t even be transported beyond the agreed text — it is ephemeral. As commissioners have started paraphrasing, the “consensus” that seemed so clear has disappeared, like a shimmering mirage.

Do the Details Matter?

Those who suggest that the NPR start with Perry-Schlesinger, as opposed to Perry-Scowcroft or Shultz-Perry-Nunn-Kissinger, are simply picking the bipartisan outcome they like. But none of these documents is capable changing a simple fact: There is no bipartisan consensus today on US nuclear weapons policy.

I recently gave a talk at the UCSD Public Policy and Nuclear Threats course, in which I argued that every nuclear debate derives from one debate that dates to the inception of nuclear weapons: Do the details matter for deterrence? This is the same argument I made in my article about minimum deterrence in the Bulletin. (Why this substantive divide should break along party lines, I don’t fully grasp — although Frances FitzGerald offers an interesting hypothesis in Chapter 3 of Way Out There in the Blue.)

My favorite example of this is a slide by John Harvey, from when he was at NNSA. Block out the text, and the real argument for (and against) the RRW is clear:

That’s all there is to it, folks: Our nuclear weapons are rusty. Ok, that’s a metaphor — like the presence of vacuum tubes — but the idea that the weapons are old raises the fundamental issue: Do the details matter? Does it matter to deterrence if the weapons are rusty (metaphorically speaking)? Or if they use archaic technologies?

No one can quantify the degree to which deterrence depends on the details. This is a judgment call, a preference, a sort of article of faith.

The folks at PONI might not like Joe’s views, but you know what? He’s honest. He knows what he thinks about nuclear weapons. There is no magic phrase that will make him forget that the details don’t matter for deterrence and that the shared danger from nuclear weapons makes cooperation way more important. It is a powerful vision — and of course, one that I think is more or less spot-on. And one that animates speeches like the President gave in Prague.

The folks at PONI may not agree about the details, but that is the point. That there is no bipartisan consensus today on nuclear weapons is why the Strategic Posture Commission — and frankly any commission — represents an endpoint, not a starting point for a new beginning.

The final document represents a series of carefully worded sentences that paper over differences. But to see how quickly that consensus collapses in face of actual policy choices, look no further than the failure of the Strategic Posture Commission to agree on whether the Senate should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Or the differing interpretations about whether the actual START Follow-On meets the criteria articulated by the Commissioners. (Keith Payne says no, but other Commissioners disagree.)

The President Needs Options

So, for what it is worth, here is my advice:

If the Nuclear Posture Review is truly going, as the President has promised, “to put an end to Cold War thinking” on nuclear weapons, throw out the f’ing reports. The Strategic Posture Commission is not the Bible. No need to turn Pentagon offices into monasteries where scholars perform exegesis on the sacred text. Most the Commissioners don’t remember what they had for breakfast, let along the arcane compromises they agreed to a couple of months ago. (If you’ve actually run such a project you know how ephemeral such agreements can be.)

Instead, give the President three or four real options. Not three flavors of vanilla. Not a couple of flavors like “dirt” and “cat urine” intended to make a scoop of vanilla comparatively appetizing.

That, by the way, is the core of what Joe had to say: There is every reason to doubt, at this stage, that the Nuclear Posture Review will give the President real options. A set of real options would reflect, rather than obscure, the very different views about how much the details matter. One of those options ought to be one that Joe likes, while another should make the kids at PONI scream like teenagers at a Jonas Brothers concert.

But leave the judgment call about which one to pick, which view of nuclear weapons to endorse, to the man who, as my father likes to say, gets paid the big money: Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States of America.

I trust him to make the right choice. So does Joe. So should the people who work for him.


  1. BJR

    Viva la nueva ACW!

  2. yousaf

    I largely agree with you. I think at least part of the problem is that in trying to achieve consensus in these reports, real new thinking is often neutered. There is an implicit and unquestioned belief that consensus is somehow good.

    Perhaps one can have a bi-partisan panel (or better, a non-partisan one), and ask for 3 sets of recommendations: a consensus view and avowedly pro- and con- ones from both “sides”. This would actually throw some light on the range of thought (…or the lack thereof).

    The vanilla conclusions of most reports are a natural result of trying to achieve consensus: at the end of the day, having largely failed to agree on the issues, we can all throw up our hands and kind-of agree that the status-quo is kinda sorta tolerable for another X years.

    And I agree that the commander-in-chief, especially this one, is eminently qualified to pick among real options, since he has thought about the issues deeply for many years.

    btw, I think I prefer the pretty golden-hued legacy warhead with the purple tip. Like our enemies, I think it deters better than the other one since it has been tested. But, at the end of the day, a rational enemy who is deterrable will certainly not quibble about the reliability of our nuclear weapons.

  3. anon

    “There are a lot of bipartisan reports around this town.”

    “around this town”… I think we’ve just discovered the real problem here. The best reports are “outside” the town.

  4. Doug (History)

    Jeffrey, I couldn’t agree more about the need for options, but how can they be surfaced? Do we need one or more “red teams?”. Can the same team develop them from different assumptions? If so, is there a non-theological basis upon which to choose among the options? And if our choice is theological, have we already made it? And does it align with the answers we’re going to get from the process we have? Will this get any more clear by January?

  5. SMH (History)

    Basically, I agree with your “real option” approach. But there are some pitfall, too.
    Richard Pipes et al. wrote “Soviet Strategic Objectives an Alternative View”(Dec, 1976), much better known as notorious “Team B” report. It’s real purpose was just destabilising previous consensus. I worried whether it could return or not.

  6. anon

    “Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States of America.

    I trust him to make the right choice. So does Joe. So should the people who work for him.”

    Thats leaves me out, thank goodness 🙂

  7. FSB

    The NPR cannot be considered in isolation — it also depends how we are doing on the diplomacy front. ie. some multilateral disarmament makes sense; if it is to be unilateral, it does not.

    Perhaps the State’s QDDR and the DoD QDR and the NPR should be cross fertilized.

    Would not hurt to throw out political pork projects like NMD out the door.

  8. anon

    who chooses who gets to sit on the NPR committee?

    who are the people on it?

  9. Nick Ritchie (History)

    I wholly agree with Jeffrey, consensus is very difficult to achieve between people who assign quite different and often incommensurable meanings to US nuclear weapons based in large part on different conceptions about the United States’ role in the world and the possibilities for conflict and cooperation. We all like to talk about a posture of ‘minimum’ deterrence but defining ‘minimum’ depends almost entirely on how you define the ‘credibility’ of a specific nuclear posture (I say almost because cost always kicks in at some point) and ‘credibility’ is an abstract concept whose subjective definition depends upon the mental map of the person(s) or organisational culture concerned rather than ‘objective’ empirical data.

    Jervis put it nicely in his Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution that in the absence nuclear war many arguments about nuclear posture and strategy simply cannot be verified and remain hypothetical and based on certain sets of logic rather than evidence. It is difficult to imagine DoD/DoE presenting a smorgasbord options to the White House based on different sets of logic when the mental map of the nuclear policy community remains committed to one based on the status quo. If you could taste the logic it would be vanilla.

  10. anon (History)

    I agree completely that the SPC report should not serve as a starting point for the NPR, but its not hard to understand why the two are linked. After all, the person who is now the DASD in charge of the NPR was also listed as the “lead writer” of the SPC report. He may have had to write other people’s ideas, but we all know he has his own ideas and is quite capable of airing his views in meetings on the issues. Same is true of a current Principal DUSD, who is playing a key role in the NPR but has also been involved in several of the panel reports that came out in the last year of so. Maybe its because the nuclear weapons/arms control community is relatively small, but its not hard to find people who have participated in many (or all) of the recent studies. Its not just Perry who has gotten around alot.

    Its interesting to note that, in the past few years, after the WSJ editorial and before the SPC, the debate over the future of U.S. nuclear weapons policy was mostly between the center (CSIS report, CFR report) and the left (FAS report); the right had not only walked off the stage in the latter years of the Bush Administration, it had lost its seat in the audience in many of the newly revived discussions. So, between the center and the left, you had general agreement on issues like the value of arms control with Russia (even CTBT won support, either as a critical component or as “a bad idea whose time had come”), the value of further reductions (the center thought they should be marginal and modest; the left thought they should be deep), and the value of the “vision of a world free of nuclear weapons” (the center thought it provided some nice near-term goals, further left saw it as a valued goal in and of itself). Anyway, the range of debate had narrowed. Then came the SPC. It not only brought the right back into the debate, it gave them the front and center of the stage because the right-leaning commissioners had far greater depth of experience in nuclear weapons policy than most of the left-leaning commissioners (who were more generalists). So the report seems to have driven to the right of the debate we have all participated in over the past few years.

    Its quite possible that the NPR will move back to the center. It will probably acknowledge the goals of the left side of the debate, but it will not implement the deep reductions or force structure changes favored by the left. It will take the operational expertise of the military and feed it into marginal, modest changes in force levels. It will also come with some real changes in the arms control agenda, and possibly some changes in rhetoric and declaratory policy, too. Its easy to argue that this will be better than the rhetoric, policies, and programs of the Bush years, even though its not going to be everything that those on the left of the debate had wanted.

    To be honest, some of the more striking changes in force structure and weapons numbers can come only after some pretty striking changes in policy. And policy choices must come from the top. One can hope that the NPR offers options — this is what we can do now, with few changes in policy, but, if you change policy (i.e. pull Tridents out of the Atlantic, or slow their operating tempo and keep them closer to ports, or abandon NATO), then this is where you can go.

    I was really pleased to see Congress take an interest, when it created the SPC and the NPR, but I now think it may have been a mistake to have the SPC, when the right got to run the show, and it may have been better to just let all the private NGO products set the stage for the NPR.

  11. yousaf

    I had written this previously on the Jackson Amendment post, but it can also be thought of as a reasonable option in the NPR debate (if, of course, other nations agree to similar moves) — from the NSA:

    “Exactly these questions of “how much is enough” were raised fifty years ago in secret debate within the U.S. government, when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke argued that a small force of mainly nuclear missile-launching Polaris submarines was enough for deterrence. Burke and Navy leaders developed a concept of “finite” or “minimum” deterrence—highly relevant to today’s debate—that they believed would make the United States safer because it would dissuade nuclear attacks while removing pressures for a dangerous “hair-trigger” posture.

    In early 1960, when Eisenhower’s budget director Maurice Stans was told that the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile-launching submarines could “destroy 232 targets, which was sufficient to destroy all of Russia,” he asked defense officials, “If POLARIS could do this job, why did we need other … ICBMs, SAC aircraft, and overseas bases?” According to Stans, the answer “he had received … [was] that was someone else’s problem.” An electronic briefing book of declassified documents obtained through archival research and published for the first time by the National Security Archive shows how the U.S. Navy, tried to take responsibility for this “problem” by supporting a minimum deterrent force that would threaten a “finite” list of major urban-industrial and command centers in the heart of the Soviet Union.

    “With their capability to destroy key Soviet targets, Burke believed, the virtually undetectable and invulnerable Polaris submarines could “inflict terrible punishment” and deter Moscow from launching a surprise attack on the United States or its allies. By contrast, Burke saw land-based missile and bombers as vulnerable to attack, which made the U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship dangerously unstable. While he did not propose eliminating all strategic bombers and ICBMs, he believed that a force of about 40 Polaris submarines (16 missiles each) was a reasonable answer to the question “how much is enough?”

    And that was during the Cold War.

    Far fewer would now be needed.

  12. Nathan Pyles (History)

    Our long term goals should be set by our elected representatives, led by our president. The 2002 NPR specifically cited President Bush’s goals in the formulation of their strategic options.

    In Prague, President Obama clearly defined our long term nuclear policy objective – to improve our national security by carefully and gradually moving toward the global elimination of all nuclear weapons. This global objective has also been endorsed by other P5 leaders. Committees and commissions should now be meeting to develop the detailed strategy to best achieve this objective, not how to redefine the goal. Goal, plan, execute – in that order.

  13. Heather (History)

    It seems to be a bit of an exaggeration to suggest the SPC will be the ONLY thing or even the primary report driving the NPR, or to imply there are Pentagon monks worshipping the SPC as nuclear doctrine. The SPC may not be the place to start with the NPR, but it does capture what will be Obama’s biggest challenge in nuclear policy: balancing priorities on a spectrum of options (Sid Drell gets credit for that phrase, used in reference to maintaining the stockpile). These priorities could include NPT Article VI, reassuring allies, human capital at the Labs, etc. There are plenty of other exceptional reports to also capture this balance, or to come down on one side or another of the argument.

    In Prague Obama made it clear where he falls on the spectrum of options. He is the big cheese, however he is not the one to sign the NPR or the QDR- the man to do that has some clearly alternate views about the future of US nuclear weapons. I wouldn’t expect the NPR to repeat the Prague speech, but rather to demonstrate the balance between the two men who lead/decide US nuclear weapons policy.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a “vanilla” report. I completely agree with Jeffrey: give the President a set of options, and evaluate the risks and potential benefits of each. Therein lies the balance: Gates’ recommendations informaing Obama’s decisions.

  14. johnbragg (History)

    Anon writes “….if you change policy … then this is where you can go.”

    The big policy changes which would allow us to go lower would be 1) Second strike only and 2) Use Macnamara’s 25% killed criteria for adequate retaliation (50 warheads for Russia, 100 for China)

    That would allow us to easily cut the deployed arsenal in half for a start—7 Tridents and 300 ICBMs would give us three separate retaliatory strike forces in the 30-100 warhead range. Further cuts wouldn’t be that hard, if you have an agreement with Russia and China. (Fewer Russian warheads means you need fewer ICBMs to have a decent second-strike ICBM force)

    But how would “(i.e. pull Tridents out of the Atlantic, or slow their operating tempo and keep them closer to ports, or abandon NATO)” allow us to reduce numbers? I’m curious as to why those three were your examples.

  15. anon (History)

    For johnbragg:

    We do not structure our nuclear force by calculating numbers on the back of an envelope. We have a deployed force of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers. Right now we have ICBMs at 3 bases, with 3 squadrons per base, and we have Trident submarines at 2 bases, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic. If you start reducing delivery vehicles, you have to do it with the basing and operations in mind. If you go down to 300 ICBMs, at 2 bases, you begin to have manning, command and career path problems that are even worse (and more costly) than those you have at 3 bases. You may quickly decide that 2 bases are not cost effective, its 3 or nothing. For Tridents, there are a minimum number of boats that you need at each base to maintain current operational patterns (with 2 subs on station in each ocean, you need 5-7 at the base to support the rotation.) If you go down to 7 subs, you either have to alter the operating patterns, keeping fewer boats at sea, or you to go to one base (which you would probably do because 2 bases for only 7 boats is just too expensive.) If you go to one base, that will probably be the Pacific, because that’s where more of the threats come from these days, but pulling out of the Atlantic has target coverage implications, and some considerations for our support of NATO.

    These are the kinds of things that the military thinks about. It does not volunteer to alter its current deployment and operating patterns, but will find a way to do so if changes in policy allow for changes in deployments.

    These considerations are true whether you are shooting first, or second, and they do presume you want to retain some ability to respond promptly or to ensure survivability of Tridents. Otherwise, you could leave them sitting in port.

    We do not size or structure our force with the intent of destroying some percentage of a nations’ population. We never have.

  16. johnbragg (History)

    The details may not matter if your objective is strategic stability or balance (Dems) but they do matter if your concern is nuclear primacy (Reps)

    China’s objective has always been strategic stability, so 20 warheads each for Russia and the US pretty much guaranteed that China could take out at least one city.

    The Cold War US and the Soviets more or less believed in nuclear primacy (for the other guy at least) and so details of each sides’ strategic posture mattered greatly if some advantage could be imagined.

  17. MarkoB

    Or maybe the real difference is what the DoE and DoD want and what Congress is prepared to fund. Don’t forget that the DoE and DoD wanted a low yield EPW, which prompted the Furse-Spratt amendment during the Clinton administration. A lot of the rhetoric of that debate was then carried over to the RNEP and the ACI and later on to RRW. The way I look at it the Bush administration was a failed administration when it came to nuclear strategy; it had the strategy but didn’t get the capability set to go with it (including complex transformation). That includes when the GOP controlled Congress.

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