Jeffrey LewisDeutch on the US Nuclear Arsenal


John Deutch, “A Nuclear Posture for Today,” Foreign
Affairs 84:1, January-February 2005.

Former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch has an article in Foreign Affairs outlining his vision for the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It’s nice to know that, amidst all the surfing for porn, his PC is occassionally used for a little academic work.

[Okay, that’s unfair. But it is funny.]

Deutch proposes further reductions in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsnenal beyond those outlined in the Moscow Treaty, advocating a force of 768 warheads based on nine Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and another 200 warheads based on, you know, whatever is handy.

Deutch also, however, proposes a resumption of nuclear testing and rejects proposals to pledge “no first use” and de-alert nuclear forces.

That seems like a pretty bad trade for modest reduction in nuclear forces. His arguments for this deal are, I think, pretty unconvincing. Perhaps the really good draft got seized when the CIA confiscated his home computer and stripped him of his security clearances.

Here are the high notes.

Nuclear Testing

Deutch makes a very odd argument that further nuclear testing is needed to “to prove that the practical physics underpinning the nuclear program still holds”—in other words, to validate the computer models that underpin the stockpile stewardship program. He suggests this is somehow different from testing for reliability of weapons, but I don’t see it.

This is an odd argument—the U.S. nuclear weapons community’s stockpile surveillance program has never relied on nuclear testing to monitor reliability of stockpiled weapons. Holdren et al point out, “nuclear testing never provided—and was never intended to provide—a statistical basis for confidence in the performance of stockpiled weapons. Rather, it has always been deemed adequate to rely on inspection of the nuclear components as part of a systematic stockpile surveillance program, after the nuclear components had initially been tested. This reliance on surveillance is necessary because nuclear tests have always been too few to provide a statistically significant measure to assess weapons reliability quantitatively.” [Emphasis mine]

It isn’t clear, to me at least, that the “occasional” scientific confirmation test would provide a statistically significant increase in confidence (in either a specific design or the computer models) or that a significant erosion in confidence would result in a meaningfully reduce deterrence.


Deutch opposes dealerting the SSBN fleet.

These are arguments that Deutch needs to address, but simply ignores.

Alert Levels

Deutch’s arguments against de-alerting are a pair of strawpersons:

If warheads were removed from the submarines, maintaining a continuous sea-based deployment would not be possible; the ships would need to be kept close to port, near the warheads, where they would be more vulnerable. Alternatively, communications to submarines on station could be managed to lengthen the time to launch, but it is hard to see how this could serve as a verifiable confidence-building measure. ”

This argument, frankly, is bizarre. No one proposes those particular measures—Deutch should know this. De-alerting advocates propose two different sets of measures to de-alert U.S. and Russian submarine-launched warheads:

  • “First, each country’s submarines will be kept far away from the other country’s coasts and, for the United States, their W-88 warheads will be removed [and replaced with less accurate W-76s].”
  • “Second, both countries’ submarines will remain on what the United States refers to as modified alert while deployed at sea. The United States does this for safety reasons every time submarines return to their base from patrol. Sailors on the submarine remove an electronic component in each D5 or C4 missile so that no missile can be accidentally launched while the submarine is in port. Access to this electronic component is through the access panel on the missile’s equipment section.”

These proposals could be verified with a buoy verification system and port inspections.

No need to leave the warheads at home.

No-first Use

Finally, Deutch opposes the idea of a no-first use pledge, because “refusing to rule out a nuclear response to a biological or chemical attack … aids deterrence by keeping potential adversaries uncertain about a U.S. response.”

Deutch doesn’t address the core of Scott Sagan’s argument against using nuclear weapons to deter chem-bio attacks:

The central argument is that the current nuclear doctrine creates a “commitment trap”: threats to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack are credible, because if CW or BW are used despite such threats, the U.S. president would feel compelled to retaliate with nuclear weapons to maintain his or her international and domestic reputation for honoring commitments. [“The Commitment Trap: Why the United States Should Not Use Nuclear Threats to Deter Biological and Chemical Weapons Attacks” International Security 24:4, Spring 2000, pp.85–115.]

Instead, Deutch focuses on the benefits that will accrue to deterrence, warning that people like me “underestimate, however, just how much strategic ambiguity aids deterrence by keeping potential adversaries uncertain about a U.S. response.”

But Deutch never gets around to telling the reader just how much refusing to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons aids deterrence.

As in the case of Deutch’s discussion of the need for “occasional” nuclear tests to maintain “effective” forces, the adjectives are doing too much work.

In the end, Deutch ends up sounding like Goldilocks with a bowl of porridge: He wants a nuclear arsenal that is “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.”

Don’t we all.

Pin It on Pinterest