Forging a Path to a Post-Nuclear U.S. Military
The increasing effectiveness of U.S. conventional weapons is making large cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal possible.
For 50 years, nuclear weapons have been central to U.S. military strategy-an indispensable element in deterring and retaliating against an attack on U.S. territory. Now, six years after the end of the Cold War, it is time to question that centrality. In the years ahead, the utility of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will likely be eclipsed by the capabilities of a host of emerging conventional and electronic weapons; weapons that are highly precise and lethal but do not produce the horrific destruction of a nuclear bomb.
The development of these new weapons should pave the way for a more balanced U.S. strategic strike force that permits far less reliance on nuclear weapons. Yet despite its stated interest in leading the way toward lower nuclear-force levels, the Clinton administration has not freed itself from the traditional arms control framework; it still clings to Cold War notions of deterrence and nuclear strategic strikes. Recent Russian intransigence on arms control issues is not helping the situation.
It is time for a debate about the degree to which nuclear weapons can be displaced in U.S. military strategy. I believe that the potential is great. Indeed, given the power and versatility of our emerging capabilities, the United States should consider substantially reducing its reliance on nuclear forces, unilaterally if necessary.
No more nukes?
On December 5, 1996, 60 retired senior military officers from 17 countries, including prominent U.S., Russian, British, and French generals and admirals, issued an unprecedented call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In a joint statement, the military leaders declared that "present and planned stockpiles of nuclear weapons are exceedingly large and should now be greatly cut back."
The statement asserted that the United States and Russia could reduce their strategic stockpiles to between 1,000 to 1,500 warheads each, and possibly lower, "without any reduction in their military security." The smaller nuclear powers (China, Britain, and France) and the threshold states (India, Pakistan, and Israel) would be drawn into the process as still deeper reductions were negotiated down to the level of hundreds of warheads.
These officers are neither Pollyannas nor utopians. They include Generals Andrew Goodpaster, Bernard Rogers, and John Galvin, all former NATO commanders; General Charles Horner, who commanded the air campaign during the Gulf War; and General Lee Butler, recent commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces. And their recommendations cannot be easily dismissed. Indeed, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry responded by defending the administration's nuclear arms reduction position.
The administration's "lead and hedge" policy calls for U.S. leadership in moving toward lower nuclear force levels while hedging against instabilities and uncertainties in the security environment. In practice, reductions in U.S. strategic nuclear forces are tightly linked to progress in arms reduction negotiations with Russia. The START II Treaty (signed but not ratified by Russia) obligates both countries to reduce their nuclear-force levels to 3,500 warheads each by 2003.
Secretary Perry said that nuclear arsenals should be reduced "to the lowest verifiable levels" and that the United States should reduce its forces "as deeply as we can and as quickly as we can." He also said that he did not favor "ignoring the nuclear forces of other countries." Privately, the administration agrees that 3,500 strategic warheads are "more than [what is] needed to destroy any plausible target set" and "more than enough for deterrence," according to an article in the Washington Post. The United States could make deeper reductions without sacrificing security, but only if the Russians reduce their nuclear arsenal correspondingly. Consequently, the administration is reportedly examining the merits of seeking an agreement with Russia that would reduce each side's forces by another 1,000 to 1,500 warheads, the Post article said. This would leave both sides with roughly 2,000 warheads.
No one knows whether Russia would proceed directly to a START III agreement. Its parliament, the Duma, is reluctant to ratify the START II agreement because of several factors. Ironically, maintaining a rough parity with the United States at 3,500 warheads would probably require a financially strapped Russia to spend billions of rubles to deploy 500 new single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace the multiple-warhead missiles eliminated by the treaty. Moving directly to START III could alleviate, if not eliminate, Moscow's modernization dilemma.
Also, post-Cold War Russian military doctrine places increasing reliance on nuclear forces to offset the rapid decline in its conventional force capabilities. In a sense, its nuclear forces are the last jewel in the tarnished crown of Soviet military might. Finally, Russia hopes to use the issue of nuclear arms reductions to dissuade NATO from extending membership to former Soviet satellite states such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
The United States now faces a different kind of nuclear threat than it did during the Cold War. This is partly due to the geopolitical revolution that followed the Soviet Union's collapse and partly to the likelihood that an emerging military revolution will alter the way in which the U.S. military views nuclear weapons.
Geopolitically, the overarching danger of an attack on U.S. territory from Soviet strategic rocket forces has receded dramatically. The former non-Russian Soviet Republics are eliminating their nuclear weapons. The rump Russian nuclear forces are gradually decaying into a state of questionable reliability and effectiveness.
Evidence of this remarkable transformation abounds. Senior U.S. decisionmakers concern themselves more with the danger of Russian nukes falling into the hands of Third World rogue states or nonstate terrorist groups than with arcane calculations about a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange. Also, we actually subsidize Russian nuclear weapons scientists, not to deny their services to Moscow but to keep them from plying their craft for Third World states with nuclear ambitions.
Moreover, Russia's conventional military forces and its economic base-the targets for prospective U.S. nuclear retaliation-have deteriorated precipitously. The armed forces are near collapse, to the point where the dispirited and disaffected Russian military may be a greater danger to its own government than to any foreign state. According to General Butler, former economic targets of U.S. nuclear strike planning now "hardly warrant a conventional attack."
To a considerable extent, concerns over the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially to states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, have displaced worries over the U.S.-Russia nuclear balance. Deterring and defending against unstable regimes with small nuclear forces may require a very different mix of military forces than those that were crafted to deter a Soviet nuclear strike. It seems unlikely that a state with a handful of nuclear weapons would view the U.S. nuclear deterrent differently at 3,500 warheads instead of 7,000, or 1,500 instead of 3,500.
Yet the United States continues to measure the value and utility of its nuclear forces primarily with an eye toward parity with Russia, a Cold War metric whose value is rapidly depreciating. This thinking is even more problematic when the emerging military revolution is taken into account.
Military revolutions have occurred periodically for centuries. Often major surges in technology facilitate leaps in military effectiveness over short periods. For example, between the World Wars, mechanized armored forces came of age on land, aircraft carriers supplanted battleships at sea, and strategic aerial bombardment became a new way of war. In the middle of this century, the world witnessed the introduction of nuclear weapons, a revolution that once again led strategists to rethink the fundamental calculus of war.
These transformations typically displaced or made obsolete dominant weapons and forces that were central to the previous military regime. The tank consigned the horse cavalry to the pages of history, and major navies stopped producing battleships when carriers rose to primacy. In terms of strategic aerial bombardment of an enemy state, nuclear weapons rapidly displaced conventional weaponry. It was not long before the results of several years of U.S. strategic conventional bombing against Germany and Japan in World War II could be far exceeded by a few hours of nuclear bombardment against the world's largest country, the Soviet Union.
Today, the military confronts the challenge of interpreting the impact of a revolution in information technologies. These offer advanced military organizations the potential to locate, identify, and track a far greater number of targets, over a far greater area, for far longer periods of time; and to engage those targets with far greater lethality, precision, and discrimination.
The implications for strategic strike operations and for how militaries view nuclear weapons are potentially profound. In one sense, they recall the tortoise and the hare. Like the hare, nuclear weapons quickly outdistanced conventional ones as the preferred means of conducting strategic bombing missions. In the 1950s, the U.S. Strategic Air Command reoriented its forces to execute attacks with nuclear weapons.
Now the conventional tortoise is finally catching up to the nuclear hare. This is due in large measure to radical advances in the effectiveness of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and of stealth technologies for cloaking aircraft and missiles from enemy detection. For example, during 1943, the U.S. Eighth Air Force struck roughly 50 German strategic targets. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, coalition air forces struck over three times as many targets on the first day of the war. This is a three-order-of-magnitude increase in conventional strategic strike capability.
In addition, PGMs made up barely 7 percent of the conventional munitions used in bombing attacks during the war. According to the Gulf War Air Power Survey conducted after the war, aircraft using PGMs were demonstrably 13 times more effective than aircraft using dumb conventional bombs.
The shift toward such capabilities is just beginning. As the U.S. Air Force moves to a force centered increasingly around PGMs and stealthy (albeit short-range) aircraft, the conventional tortoise will likely continue to close the gap. Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogleman recently stated that once the transition is complete, U.S. forces "may be able to engage 1,500 targets in the first hour, if not the first minutes, of a conflict."
Historically, we know to expect such surges in warfare technology. What is surprising is that the changes have failed to produce a rethinking of the long-held nuclear monopoly over strategic strike operations.
The new U.S. advantage
Although in some respects precision strategic strikes with conventional weapons may soon rival nuclear ones, only the United States can currently afford to develop such capabilities. Emerging technologies may allow fielding of an integrated group of networked systems (or architectures) that could rapidly execute conventional strategic strikes. With a multifaceted communications system in place, real-time targeting information could be provided to PGMs or land-, space- or sea-based platforms carrying PGMs. If U.S. forces also possess a superior information advantage, they could destroy or disable a wide range of the enemy's critical assets in a short period.
As the world continues its transition from industrial-based economies to information-based ones, the character of the strategic target base will change, as will the options for neutralizing or destroying it. Well-placed electronic strikes in the form of computer viruses, high-power microwave detonations, or conventional electromagnetic-pulse munitions may be able to disable critical elements of an information-based economy.
These changes in weaponry and target base may lead the U.S. military to replace the traditional triad of delivery systems for nuclear weapons-bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, and ballistic missile submarines-with a new triad composed of long-range conventional precision strike, electronic strike, and residual nuclear strike forces. An increasing reliance on nonnuclear strategic strike capabilities would offer several major advantages. Because potential adversaries would see the United States as far more likely to employ conventional (and eventually electronic) weapons than nuclearones, U.S. political leaders would likely have more credibility in responding to the threat or reality of nuclear weapon use by a small nuclear power. In addition, because a conventional precision strategic strike would not cause the horrible loss of life and physical destruction of a comparable nuclear strike, it might significantly reduce the prospects for triggering a nuclear response from the enemy. Conventional and electronic strategic strikes may also help end wars more quickly. Their effects would likely be more easily reversed than those of nuclear strikes. The prospect of a relatively rapid return to normalcy may provide a strong incentive for an adversary to cease hostilities.
The combination of conventional precision strategic strike and electronic strike will make it more difficult for the United States to calculate strategic parity with a state such as Russia. But if the world's most advanced military transforms its strategic strike forces in a way that devalues nuclear weapons, other advanced military organizations may do the same. By reducing its reliance on nuclear forces (while also reducing its nuclear arsenal), the United States would be meeting its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons. It also might make it more difficult for would-be proliferators to justify their own pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Finally, maintaining a larger than necessary nuclear force impedes development of the weapons and systems needed to create the new strategic strike capability. Reducing U.S. strategic nuclear forces to START II levels would save about $5 billion over the next seven years. Further reduction to 2,000 warheads could save an additional $4 billion per year in the longer run.
The nuclear shadow
For half a century, nuclear weapons have been synonymous with conducting strategic warfare against an enemy's homeland. Even with the advances we have seen in and expect from conventional precision weapons, nuclear weapons seem likely to exert a strong and enduring influence on warfare. They will cast a long shadow over humankind even after the emerging military revolution reaches its mature stage in the early decades of the coming century. Future conflicts, although radically different from those of the late Cold War period, will still find military forces operating under that nuclear shadow.
Although conventional and electronic precision strike weaponry will be able to substitute for nuclear strikes, the effect will not be comprehensive. Would-be adversaries will try to offset even this limited capability. For example, they will harden or bury targets to make them impervious to the most accurate of nonnuclear munitions, as the North Koreans have done.
Nuclear weapons will likely prove irreplaceable to major powers as instruments of assured destruction of an enemy homeland. Conventional and electronic precision strategic strikes cause comparatively little damage to a society's population and economic infrastructure. By disabling key nodes such as communications switching centers, such strikes might bring a modern information state to its knees. However, the loss of life and property would be minimal compared with that caused by a nuclear attack. As such, nuclear weapons will continue to dampen military operations. Indeed, states possessing robust nuclear deterrents may see their homelands accorded status as strategic sanctuaries from all forms of strategic strikes. Nuclear weapons will likely be substantially displaced in advanced militaries. But for less advanced militaries, they will likely continue to be perceived as a cheap, albeit primitive, counter to nonnuclear strategic strike operations.
Nor can humankind uninvent nuclear weapons. The knowledge of how to fabricate them is widespread. We can hope that the disincentives for states to acquire nuclear weapons remains high, but incentives and intentions can change rapidly. Although reducing levels of nuclear weapons is desirable and strategically sound, at some point (perhaps when these weapons number in the hundreds), further reductions will be very difficult.
Also, the competitive dynamics of a post-transformation nuclear regime must be taken into account. The Cold War regime had two nuclear superpowers and several relatively minor nuclear powers. It is as yet unclear what the post-Cold War or postmilitary transformation regime will look like.
The United States may find itself in a world of a half dozen or more great powers, whose nuclear arsenals number at least in the hundreds. In such a world, the calculation of strategic strike requirements would probably change. For example, if the United States were the only nation to transform its strategic strike forces to the new triad and saw Russia as the only significant nuclear threat, it would likely be comfortable maintaining nuclear parity with the other powers. That would probably not be the case for a Russia that had not made the strategic strike transformation and that viewed all significant nuclear powers-the United States, France, Britain, and China-as prospective threats. And this does not even begin to take into account active and passive defenses against nuclear strikes, which may become more feasible if nuclear force levels are dramatically reduced.
To determine how far (and how fast) the United States might go in reducing its nuclear arsenal, three questions must be addressed:
First, assume that the current U.S. strategic strike war plan conforms to post-Cold War realities to include the threat from regional rogue states. To what degree can the newly emerging elements of the post-Cold War triad substitute for nuclear weapons? Second, given budgetary constraints, how quickly can these new elements of conventional precision and electronic strategic strike forces be introduced?
Third, how robust is such a force likely to be over time if we move from two nuclear superpowers and several relatively minor nuclear powers to perhaps a half dozen or more relatively small nuclear powers?
Until U.S. political leaders are comfortable with the answers to these questions, no one can predict with any degree of precision how quickly and deeply the United States will be able to unilaterally reduce its strategic nuclear forces.
Still, the United States should be willing to undertake unilateral reductions in pursuing its lead-and-hedge policy, for both political and strategic reasons. Russia is no longer an enemy. Moscow views its nuclear weapons as a hedge against U.S. military superiority, not as a means of pursuing an expansionist strategy. In the years ahead, the U.S. military may need to confront the threat of a rogue state with a small number of nuclear weapons or deal with state-sponsored irregular forces capable of attacking U.S. territory with weapons of mass destruction. In both these cases, deterrence, preemption, and retaliation could be supported by a small fraction of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The emerging military revolution demands that we take a new, comprehensive view of strategic strike operations. Because the U.S. military is pioneering the transformation to a post-Cold War strategic strike force, it should take into account the substitutability effect of its conventional precision (and eventually electronic) strategic strike forces and reduce its nuclear forces correspondingly. Aggressive unilateral reductions should be relatively easy now, because nuclear force levels are still relatively high; eventually, as numbers are reduced, they will be more difficult. The arsenals of the other nuclear powers may acquire greater significance. The unique role of nuclear weapons as an instrument of assured destruction must also be taken into account. Finally, it is not clear how extensively nonnuclear strategic strike forces can substitute for nuclear forces, especially if adversaries take steps to offset the effectiveness of nonnuclear weapons.
To be sure, the United States must also hedge. Ideally, Russia will quickly follow the U.S. lead. Even if that doesn't happen, the United States should still be able to achieve additional nuclear force reductions, although the pace will be limited by the rate at which its strategic strike forces can be transformed.
In the final analysis, the United States should take the lead in reducing its reliance on nuclear forces, not simply because such a move may increase international support for nonproliferation efforts but because the transformation to a post-Cold War strategic strike force will confer political and strategic benefits. By all means, the United States should hedge, but it should also seize the opportunity to lead.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. is executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.