Michael KreponNuclear Posturing

Quote of the week:

“If deterrence were really stable… it would cease to deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they would not deter anybody.”
— Kenneth Boulding

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, as advertised, is devoid of new diplomatic initiatives to reduce nuclear dangers and endorses new, low-yield nuclear warhead designs for sea-based delivery. It also expands the scope of potential U.S. military activities by establishing the requirement for “enforceable” arms control compacts.

U.S. nuclear posture reviews have continuity from one administration to the next because acceptance of basic premises is a prerequisite to being part of the drafting process. Those who think that nuclear deterrence doesn’t matter enough to spend large sums on its upkeep, or that numbers are immaterial beyond a certain point, or that the Triad and its offshoots are not sacrosanct won’t be doing the writing and editing. Those looking for fundamental change on these matters don’t play inside baseball.

This posture statement comes at a particularly rough time, reminiscent of the transition from President Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Back then, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan killed prospects for the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. Well before the Red Army rumbled into Kabul, President Carter’s ambitious arms control agenda, which included negotiations on nuclear testing and space warfare, was already in tatters. As one who served in the Carter administration, I watched the downsizing of President Obama’s ambitions with a sad sense of déjà vu.

Then as now, Washington and Moscow’s strategic modernization programs were out of phase, so one competitor or the other – in the late 1970s/early 1980s as well as now, that would be the U.S. nuclear enclave — felt obliged to play “catch up,” even when ahead in the competition. Then, as now, there was much talk of Russian violations of treaty commitments. Some of it was true back then; this problem is far worse now.

Arms control and force reductions don’t happen in a vacuum. When the Kremlin rides roughshod over the sovereignty of neighboring countries, diplomacy to reduce nuclear force structure takes a hiatus. Here again, the parallels between Carter/Reagan and Obama/Trump are striking. Crimea hasn’t just been occupied, like Afghanistan; it has been annexed, while Russian troops help proxies to establish dominion in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere along the Russian Federation’s periphery. To make matters worse still, the Kremlin has baldly interfered in democratic elections, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Under these circumstances, Trump’s nuclear posture would not be a statement devoted to peace, love, and understanding. Like others drafted in Republican administrations, it lends the Bomb more credence in shoring up deterrence while ascribing greater risks to disregarding deterrence orthodoxy. As this litany goes, gaps must be filled and credibility shored up in the only ways challengers clearly understand – by spending large sums of money and taxing a production complex already straining at the seams.

Military leaders dutifully salute the dictums of civilian nuclear strategists while (presumably and privately) coveting resources diverted to weapons for Armageddon scenarios. Conventional and sub-conventional warfare against violent extremist groups has proven to be a crapshoot. They instinctively know that these traps pale by comparison to detonating nuclear weapons on a battlefield.

The drafters of nuclear posture statements are not encumbered by operational complexities. They can therefore seek refuge in the unreal premise that using nuclear weapons in battle will be an orderly business; otherwise, the entire exercise would lose any semblance of logic and cohesion. These civilian strategists are comfortable – or at least not terribly moved — by Kenneth Boulding’s warning that without the very real prospect of mushroom clouds, deterrence would be de-fanged.

Cutting edge nuclear deterrence, in the view of the Trump posture statement, requires “tailored strategies” and “flexible capabilities.” These are not new concepts. They sound reasonable enough until we remember Boulding’s admonition and strip the veneer off. The flip side of deterrence, as Boulding warns, is mushroom clouds. Tailored strategies and flexible capabilities require assigning nuclear weapons to targets.

The logic and cohesion of nuclear posture reviews break down when we shift from the declaratory to the operational level of nuclear deterrence. At this juncture, questions that must be avoided at all costs when writing nuclear posture statements become harder to dodge. What are the humanitarian consequences of targeting plans for nuclear weapons? And how is escalation to be controlled after these Gates of Hell are opened and the nuclear threshold is crossed?

If the defenders of nuclear deterrence and the drafters of nuclear posture statements cannot answer these questions satisfactorily, their handiwork is built on quicksand. Adding new warhead designs and targeting options only make these questions more pointed.

Because nuclear orthodoxy cannot withstand public scrutiny on the fundamental questions of humanitarian consequences and escalation control, most of us wear blinders, seeking refuge underneath the warm, fuzzy blanket of deterrence. Our personal comfort depends on presuming that deterrence is sturdy – that there is a thick barrier between deterrence and battlefield use.

But what if this thick barrier is in actuality a thin membrane that can be punctured by human error, miscalculation, and accident? The close calls we have thus far managed to survive suggest this is the case. Until we recognize how thin the margin of error is between deterrence and the appearance of a mushroom cloud, we will continue to live in this house of cards.

This recognition – that nuclear deterrence is actually fragile, despite stockpile sizes, targeting options, and redundant force structure – is growing. It becomes more obvious with each near miss due to human error and intelligence miscalculation. The threats and the proposed remedies against which Trump’s posture statement is geared seem far removed from the dangers posed by breakdowns in command and control, accidents, thefts, and the potential for unauthorized use. Nuclear dangers are not reduced if the United States builds a fortress while others build sand castles.

Where do we go from here? During the first Reagan administration, when arms reduction negotiations were suspended, when U.S. and Soviet forces were engaged in very dangerous military practices and the risk of accidents was high, a group of concerned citizens led by Senators John Warner and Sam Nunn, including Brent Scowcroft and Bill Perry, focused on the need for improved communication channels and nuclear risk reduction measures between Moscow and Washington. Underneath the superstructure of nuclear deterrence, they proposed modest but necessary steps to prevent accidents, miscalculation and the consequences of human error. (Before we co-founded the Stimson Center, Barry Blechman backstopped this initiative, and I helped with the drafting.)

These conditions are once again evident, suggesting the same remedial approach, beginning with improved communication channels and the avoidance of dangerous military practices. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former Senator Nunn have suggested the pursuit of this agenda. They argue that the foremost nuclear danger of this era is not massive nuclear attacks like those postulated during the Cold War, but “fateful errors.”

This is a very different paradigm than the one on which nuclear posture statements are constructed. Trump’s nuclear posture focuses on the strategic competition between major powers, not the appearance of a singular mushroom cloud based on human error, unauthorized use, or accident that could lead to cataclysm. One paradigm seeks safety in nuclear excess and punishment; the other in diplomacy and prevention.

This is not an either/or choice, but budgetary allocations matter greatly. It makes no sense to recapitalize the U.S. nuclear deterrent, at a cost of well over a trillion dollars, while short-changing diplomatic and preventive initiatives related to war by accident, miscalculation, and human error. Safety from nuclear dangers requires a far wider aperture than the one now on offer.

Note to readers: a shorter version of this essay was published on February 7th by Defense One.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I agree with Boulding’s subjective estimate that the probability of nuclear war, during the Cold War, was approximately one percent per annum. I disagree with his simplistic statement that nuclear deterrence logically requires that there be significant risk of nuclear war. Deterrence requires only a conditional risk of nuclear war, if (and only if) the adversary commits the unwanted act (e.g., invade Western Europe) that we are trying to deter with nuclear threats. This risk, logically, could be zero if the adversary is perfectly deterred from committing the unwanted act.

    As a practical matter, there was significant risk of nuclear war due to: 1) Deterrence failure (e.g., the Soviet Union invades Western Europe anyway). 2) Overuse or misuse of nuclear threats and casual deployment of nuclear weapons (e.g., risk of nuclear war during Cuban missile crisis). 3) Instability due to first strike advantage, tempting toward first-strike preemption. 4) Instability due to launch-on-warning policies and possible mistakes in early warning systems. 5) A few other pathways, including delusional (not necessarily insane) or judgmentally impaired leaders.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      As a cold-war survivor I think you seriously underestimate the risks. If Chelyabinsk had happened any time before the 90’s we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There were too many (well, one would have been too many) instances of a single level headed officer well below national command level deciding not to start WWIII. Also I find it telling that your example of deterrence failure uses the Soviet Union. Both the decision during the Cuban Missile crisis to force Soviet submarines, known to be nuclear-armed, to the surface, and Eisenhower’s conduct of aerial Reconnaissance-In-Force against the Soviet Union are examples of us acting contrary to deterrence. These were risks our Presidents thought worth taking. If events had turned out otherwise we might disagree. A contemporary example is the idea of giving Mr. Kim a “bloody nose”. IIRC from childhood, giving a bloody nose doesn’t necessarily mean the other kid doesn’t hit back.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Gregory, I am not sure we disagree. A 1% risk per year, accumulated over 40 years of Cold War would be 33% chance of nuclear war. A 2% risk per year, over 40 years, would be 55% chance of nuclear war; a 3% risk per year, 70% chance; 4% per year, 80% chance.

      This would be average risk per year; some years (e.g., 1962, 1983) clearly had more risk than others. Over time, even a “small” risk per year can really add up to major risk overall.

  2. yorksranter (History)

    But what if this thick barrier is in actuality a thin membrane that can be punctured by human error, miscalculation, and accident? The close calls we have thus far managed to survive suggest this is the case

    Counterpoint: that we coped with close calls suggests this is not the case. I personally do not believe in the usual war-by-accident scenarios on the grounds that if war by accident due to erroneous tactical warning (which is what they amount to) was at all likely, it would happen, and as far as I know there is no case of a war of any kind breaking out like that. I can think of plenty of cases just from the Cold War where shots were exchanged and blood was spilled but the peace was preserved.

    I worry more about the 1914 scenario.

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