In their July 13 Defense News commentary, Clark Murdock and Thomas Karako advocate a mobilization of America’s nuclear weapons industry to build a new generation of forward-deployed, low-yield nuclear weapons. Their commentary is a summary of recommendations from their "Project Atom" study recently completed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). , a well-established Washington think-tank. America should think twice before heeding the advice of these so-called nuclear experts.
Nuclear deterrence is risky business to be sure, but Murdock and Karako’s recommendations suffer two fundamental flaws: They ignore the lessons of history and neglect a fundamental requirement of nuclear strategy. That requirement is the need to assess how America’s nuclear weapon deployments will be perceived by her potential nuclear-armed adversaries.
With respect to Murdock and Karako’s recommendation that the United States develop and deploy additional "tactical" nuclear weapons to its NATO allies, it is critical to remember that we have been down this road before. We know that deployments such as those proposed by the CSIS study can increase rather than decrease the risk of nuclear war by miscalculation.
In the early 1980s the United States deployed the stealthy nuclear ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) to the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Italy, and the highly accurate Pershing II nuclear ballistic missile to Germany.
These deployments, ostensibly in response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of its SS-20 nuclear ballistic missile, came at a time of high tensions between Washington and Moscow. The GLCMs and Pershing II together provided the US and NATO the theoretical potential to launch a nuclear strike destroying the Soviet political and military leadership in eight to 10ten minutes from the time the Pershings were fired.
This led the Soviets to believe that they could only inflict similar nuclear damage on the West if they launched their nuclear forces immediately following the reception of warning of a NATO nuclear attack, but before the incoming NATO and American nuclear weapons detonated on their forces.
This need to "launch on warning" under extreme time constraints is the classic definition of lowering the nuclear threshold, not raising it, as is desired. In fact, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war, other than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, was during the "Able Archer" NATO nuclear command exercise in November 1983, following the GLCM deployments and just before the Pershing IIs arrived in Germany. The Soviets believed that the exercise was a deception for a real attack from the West and ordered nuclear-armed bombers to prepare for attacks on Europe.
Ironically, Murdock and Karako urge the US and NATO to brandish new nuclear weapons in response to what they call Russian "nuclear sabre rattling." They believe that some particular future combination of nuclear weapons capabilities that they claim the US now lacks will convince potential adversaries that the US can control nuclear escalation in a region like Central Europe.
The idea of "controlling nuclear escalation" in Europe or any other nuclear-armed region was discredited decades ago. As the authors admit, "the distinction between strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons is long obsolete and any use of a nuclear weapon could have profound strategic effects."
Still, they worry that the US and NATO lack the capabilities to respond "proportionately" to employment of a nuclear weapon by Russia in Europe or North Korea in East Asia.
Use of a Russian or North Korean "non-strategic" nuclear weapon would be an unprecedented act of destruction and the United States possesses a full range of nuclear weapons with which to retaliate, should it decide that is the correct response. These capabilities include accurate low-yield nuclear weapons deliverable from aircraft, missiles and submarines.
In short, contrary to what Murdock and Karako claim there are no gaps in US nuclear capabilities that could be reliably exploited by an adversary. A new arsenal of nuclear weapons designed to make our potential adversaries believe our nuclear threats are "more credible" will also make them worry that we may use them first in a crisis to weaken their ability to retaliate.
This lowers the nuclear threshold because potential adversaries are put in a "use them or lose them" situation with respect to their nuclear forces.
The fundamental basis of nuclear strategy is not only to be prepared to retaliate to a nuclear attack but also to see the balance of nuclear forces through the eyes of your potential nuclear-armed adversaries. In other words, in the nuclear age your adversaries' sense of security becomes your concern.
No side prevails in a nuclear exchange. Both will suffer consequences that far outweigh any advantage that was sought by their initial use. Only the maintenance of a strategic dialog, serious efforts to reduce tensions and the establishment of operational and diplomatic means to resolve periodic crises can avoid nuclear war. These are the essential lessons of the Cold War.
So-called nuclear experts have long conjured arcane, paradoxical "gaps" in nuclear forces or doctrine steeped in jargon for which they offer their pet solutions. In this way they justify their own value and continue the endless spiral of nuclear weapons competition. Murdock and Karako's fear that the Russians or other potential nuclear foes will "escalate to de-escalate" and the US might be "self-deterred" from responding proportionately to nuclear attack are just the latest examples of this dubious counsel.
The bottom line is that no one has an expert understanding of the requirements of nuclear deterrence because it cannot be known with any precision how national leaders will react in a security crisis. No magic combination of nuclear weapons or other external means have been proved to reliably influence their decisions. This is why the threat of nuclear miscalculation is ever-present while nuclear arsenals exist.
The real danger is when both sides lack an understanding of the mentality of the other. Deploying another generation of mini-nukes as urged by the "Project Atom" report without seeking to improve this understanding through diplomatic means will make nuclear war more likely.