Andy GrottoTipping the Bureaucratic Scales

How’s this for irony: the bureaucratic home of nuclear weapons policy at DOD is SO/LIC&IC, short for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities.

Kidding aside, this actually says a lot about the diminishing bureaucratic footprint of nuclear weapons policy. During the 1993-1994 NPR, for example, the career nuclear weapons bureaucracy, civilian and military, was an independent force to be reckoned with, as Janne Nolan documented in her definitive account of that NPR, Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security After the Cold War.

And it surely is still a force, but just how much is open to debate. The political and policy environment of 2009-2010 will probably be much different than it was in 1994-1995. Back then, the military was basically united in its opposition to significant changes in nuclear weapons policy and its disdain for President Clinton, and the civilian nuclear weapons bureaucracy still had a great deal of clout within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, where an ascendant Republican majority was eager to harass the Clinton administration. None of these conditions are likely to be replicated any time soon, so I’m inclined to believe that the bureaucracy is not the force it once was.

But I wouldn’t want to underestimate it either. There is growing political interest in revisiting U.S. nuclear weapons policy — Congress has mandated the next administration to complete a formal Nuclear Posture Review by early 2010, U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have emphasized the importance of revisiting U.S. nuclear weapons strategy, and there’s that Shultz/Perry/Kissinger/Nunn effort — but talk is cheap. Any serious effort to change the posture will still require presidential commitment and sustained attention from the president’s senior political appointees.

The trouble is, it is tempting for a busy administration to relegate nuclear weapons policy to the category of “tending the garden,” and not “putting out fires.” And the next U.S. administration will sure inherit plenty of fires: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and growing regional clout, a broken U.S.-Russia relationship, and an incoherent missile defense policy run by a troubled agency (to name but a few). And guess who the lead or deputy firefighter is for pretty much all these issues? Yup — it’s the ASD SO/LIC&IC.

That’s an awful lot of fires for one person to battle. Will this individual realistically have the time and energy to shepherd an NPR that goes beyond a low common denominator? If not, does the DAS for Strategic Capabilities have enough clout to pick up the slack? Would it help if that position was spun off into its own office headed by an assistant secretary?

These are tough questions to answer in the abstract, but the next administration must wrestle with them if it is serious about changing U.S. nuclear weapons policy.


  1. kerbihan

    Nice analysis, Andy. One slight correction, though: the results of the 1994 NPR were approved by the White House in September 1994, about two months before the Reps took over the House, so the fact that the NPR remained fairly conservative did not have much to do with this. The number and strength of Democrats and bureaucrats in the administration who wanted to proceed with caution was enough to tip the balance in their favor.

    Also, it is an exaggeration to say that “the military was basically united in its opposition to significant changes in nuclear weapons policy”. (Among many examples: the USAF wanted the nukes out of Europe.)

  2. Joseph Logan (History)

    Excellent analysis. It is generally thought that structure follows strategy and is therefore a good indicator of strategic intent. On the whole, the structure of the enterprise in general appears to me to be a little incoherent, and that of SO/LIC&IC in particular indicates some competing interests that would serve to dilute strategy. It’s not clear to me what the overarching strategy has been in the past few years, nor what it might become.

    To your point about the military being “basically united in its opposition to significant changes in nuclear weapons policy”, my sense is that there was more agreement than disagreement, and that the strategic direction was to maintain what was already in place. That’s not innovative, but it’s a much clearer strategy than what the next administration will inherent.

  3. Magoo Nair (History)

    I agree it is an excellent analysis by Andy. Especially as it touches on the difficulties of managing the Review Process as much as it does the plethora of interested parties with conflicting demands. However, the NPR is an absolute must because of the phenomenal potency of the US nuclear arsenal and the numerous instances of mismanagement with nuclear warheads and fuses going ‘walk about’ without the knowledge of the designated authority. An even more pressing reason is the shoddy job done by Messrs Crouch and party with the NPR 2001. It appears that precise objectives were not spelled out (a political responsibility of the Chief Executive) resulting in more questions than answers. Too many loose strings were left with the rider “still to be decided”! The future President will have to get a tight rein on the NPR process and ride it very collectedly through the hurdles.

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