Jeffrey LewisStrategic Posture Commission Update

As most readers know, the blog has been keeping up with the Commission of the Strategic Posture of the United States, through its legislative inception and the announcement of the members.

The U.S. Institute of Peace, which facilitated the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, will play a similar role for the Strategic Posture Commission. The executive director is Paul Hughes, who worked on the ISG and is best-known for his work on post-conflict peace and stability operations.

The Commission is still not fully-funded and has not held a full meeting of the Commission. Assuming the Commission gets its dough, expect a meeting in mid-June and another in mid-July. I would also imagine that means the due date will slip from December 1, 2008.


  1. Anonymous

    The commission has been funded in the past week by DoD, FYI.

  2. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Dear Dr Perry:

    Congratulations on you on your appointment to the Chairman of the Commission of the Strategic Posture of the United States.

    During the Carter administration, you fought, and won, a pitch battle to buy PGMs that revolutionized warfare during the first Gulf war. When you became Secretary of Defense, your COTS memo of 1994 revolutionized defense procurement, resulting in orders of magnitudes of increases in performance in weapons systems. Indeed, your memo did more than that: It ushered in the era of unmanned smart systems a decade later that are in every way, smarter, faster, more survivable and better than the manned systems they replaced. In an era when petroleum scarcity will increasingly begin to define warfare, your reforms, in hindsight, will be seen as even more important as unmanned systems typically deliver ordinance at a fraction of the fuel used by a manned platform. Your achievements make you the most influential Defense Secretary since the post was created in 1947.

    The innovations you championed have become so successful that the lines between conventional (tactical) and nuclear (strategic) systems have blurred. What formerly required the raw power of nuclear weapons (like missile silo busting), can be potentially accomplished by PGMs delivered by unmanned systems that are nearly invulnerable to conventional defenses. As a result of your reforms the United States has a nuclear and conventional capability that, in the near future, can preemptively take out the small nuclear deterrent of countries like China with about 95% certainty and handle “leakers” via the ABM system. This calls into question the viability of China’s decades old strategy of “minimal deterrent”, or, as Dr. Lewis termed it, “minimal means of retaliation”.

    The US is still a long away from delivering the certainty that decision makers will require to execute such a bold strategy. Unless the Chinese were to significantly alter their nuclear posture or to make substantial investments in the survivability of their nuclear deterrent, the day will come when the US can do with confidence. At which point, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will no longer be operative when the US is 99%+ certain of being able to destroy or intercept China’s “minimal” counter strike.

    MAD, however we may dislike it, has kept the peace for the entire duration of the Cold war. With the ending of MAD and the age of American nuclear supremacy – at least with respect to China – it cannot be ruled out that there will be risks that the US, under a reckless leader, will respond to a conflict with China by preemptively taking out the Chinese nuclear deterrent. Any of the known flashpoints of conflict – like a conflict across the Taiwan straits, Southeast Asia, or even the Korean peninsular or something else entirely can trigger this, and once it is triggered, it is difficult to see what is the “ladder of escalation” when it might only involve America using bunker busting nuclear weapons and conventional munitions that causes only a limited number of Chinese casualties.

    Taking the Chinese perspective, it is clear that no matter what they invest in enhancing the survivability of their deterrent – short of entering an out and out arms race with the US with the kind of investments that the Soviets put into Ballistic Missiles in the 1970s – it is unlikely that they will be able to reverse this “verdict” that the Perry reforms created short of creating hair triggers like “launch on warning” or “launch on provocation”. They can invest in many more missiles, penetration aids, MARVs, better silos, more agile mobile missiles, field a bona fide credible sea based deterrent, or even field nuclear weapons on satellites. But every one of these paths are exceptionally costly, have long lead times, and furthermore, can be countered by US systems at the expense of creating more hair triggers.

    As Secretary of Defense, you responded to the Chinese “missile tests” around Taiwan by sending a carrier battle group through the Taiwan Strait. Back then, you were confident that China would not be willing to risk war. Suppose if the scenario occurred again in two decades. A trigger happy Chinese officer loosed off a few anti-ship missiles and before we know it, a war began, “by accident”. With many more hair triggers and both sides driven by the need for preemption, what then?

    The Chinese have few options: they can maintain their present “low risk” nuclear posture, or adopt a “use it or lose it” strategy with solid fueled missiles, or they can presume that American forces can destroy their delivery systems “at will” before stored warheads can even be mounted. Indeed, about the only means I can envision that China can maintain a credible nuclear deterrent in a few decades would be to adopt a form of the “People’s War” with nuclear weapons. By this, I mean, rather than to rely on the traditional nuclear weapons delivery platforms, to explicitly adopt a strategic posture whereby Chinese nuclear warheads and the technical capabilities to deliver, maintain and trigger them are dispersed nationwide at the first warning of potential or impending conflict with the goal that the warheads and the expertise needed to use them, if not the platforms, will survive. These warheads can then be delivered to the “enemy” by whatever means possible, years, and perhaps decades after the Central Government of China is defeated and probably cease to exist.

    This scenario would assume that no Central Government of China would survive losing a military confrontation with the United States, and in the aftermath of a defeat, China would devolve into its traditional multiple, competing centers of power with no central authority that can “surrender” and then enforce a peace settlement within China with the United States. Thus, the dispersed weapons will be available for any number of groups to deploy and deliver by whatever means possible (such as inside a cargo container that is shipped to Latin America and then trucked) to US targets and detonated. Just ask the Department of Homeland Security for a “cookbook” of such options.

    The US would regard such a continuation of war as by other means as “terrorism”, or insurgency, or action by “unlawful enemy combatants”. No matter, for the destruction they can do on American soil is real, bona fide, and sufficient to serve as a real deterrent to the US destroying, or “decapitating” the Central government of China. By doing so, it restores the MAD equation at a price.

    From the Chinese perspective, this is a credible strategy of deterrence as it is unlikely that the United States and its Allies have the capability to occupy China and to recover the dispersed nuclear weapons, and technicians, and prevent such an attack with 100% certainty. If the US cannot stop the shipment of illegal immigrants, narcotics, and other smuggled goods, what assurance is there that they can stop a single nuclear warhead that affirms the Chinese strategy of minimal means of retaliation?

    To date, China have not conceived of or explicitly adopted such a radical strategy to restore the credibility of their nuclear deterrent for good reason: it poses just as much a danger to the central government of China – Beijing – as it does to the United States and other potential adversaries. But as their confidence in their nuclear deterrent deteriorates, it is inevitable that at some point, such a strategy will be “on the table” together with many other unpalatable options if tensions between the US and China escalate over the coming decades.

    By default, the progress that the COTS revolution has launched will force the United States down the path of being capable of a successful first strike. Similarly, by default, the Chinese is driven to either heavily invest in the credibility of their “conventional” nuclear deterrent or to adopt a “People’s War” nuclear posture. The latter posture would result in armed conflict (once began) with China to be extremely difficult to stop.

    Would it not be in the interest of the United States and China to step back, and consider whether there is a better alternative than to have the US and China go down these paths?

    MAD may be mad. But it worked. We ended the Cold War with nearly zero direct casualties. Let us hope that your legacy in enhancing the United State’s defense capabilities will end the same way.