The "Nuclear Posture Review" released by the Defense Department on January 9 has been widely described in the media as presaging a diminished US reliance on nuclear weapons in favor of advanced "conventional" munitions. "Pentagon Study Urges Arms Shift, From Nuclear to High-Tech" was the headline in the New York Times. But while the report does advocate increased spending on conventional arms, it foresees no corresponding decline in America's reliance on nuclear arms--rather, it embraces a new grand strategy in which nuclear weapons will be wedded to missile defenses and high-tech conventional arms to perpetuate America's "sole superpower" status.
Many details of the highly classified review have not been made public, but the broad outlines of the plan have been circulated in Washington. Most noteworthy is the Administration's proposal to reduce the number of "operationally deployed" nuclear weapons (that is, weapons actually installed on ballistic missiles or readily available for use by Air Force bombers) from around 6,000 today to 1,700-2,200 in 2012.
When George W. Bush first announced the government's intention to downsize the operational US stockpile, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November, he clearly stated that the surplus warheads would be destroyed. "We are talking about reducing and destroying the number of warheads to get down to specific levels," he told a group of high school students in Crawford, Texas, on November 15. Since then, however, Pentagon officials have declared that many of these surplus weapons would be retained in a "responsive capability," where they would be available for redeployment to operational forces in as short a time as several weeks.
When pressed to explain why the Administration has decided to retain rather than to destroy all these weapons, Pentagon officials have indicated that unanticipated future perils--say, a greater-than-expected threat from Russia or China--could produce a requirement for additional warheads. The "responsive capability" is needed, Assistant Secretary of Defense J.D. Crouch told reporters on January 9, because Washington must be able to respond to "changes in the security environment that were more adverse than we thought."
The Administration's backtracking in this manner has led to justifiable complaints from the arms control community that the Administration is being disingenuous in its announcement of nuclear cuts. The retention of all these surplus warheads "makes a mockery of the reductions," Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association told the Washington Post on January 9. But disgust over the Pentagon's apparent duplicity misses the point: The principal aim of the Administration's nuclear policy is not to slow the tempo of nuclear downsizing (although that is a subsidiary purpose) but rather to firmly install nuclear weapons in a new US strategy designed to insure permanent US military supremacy.
The new strategy is constructed around the concept of a "new triad" of military capabilities. To the "old triad" of ICBMs, nuclear-armed bombers and ballistic missile submarines, the "new triad" adds two new capabilities--a national missile defense system and an array of "nonnuclear strike forces" (including ultra-powerful conventional bombs and conventionally armed cruise missiles). This new posture, the Pentagon asserts, "offers a portfolio of capabilities and the flexibility required to address a spectrum of contingencies." To pay for these and other costly new military systems, Bush has requested a whopping $48 billion increase in military spending during the fiscal year beginning October 1.
Although Defense officials are not very forthcoming about US strategic objectives, it is evident from what has been said that the aim of all this is to enable future US Presidents to engage in any overseas military actions or adventures they deem necessary with total assurance of victory and no risk of enemy retaliation. In a rare instance of Pentagon candor, Assistant Secretary Crouch explained that the new policy does not entail a diminished reliance on nuclear weapons but rather their integration into a new strategy of permanent dominance. "It's important to underscore that we continue to need nuclear forces as well as other elements of the new triad, both to assure our friends and allies of US security commitments and to dissuade potential competitors from competing with the United States in ways that are harmful to US security."
This assertion, as well as the whole thrust of the Administration's nuclear plan, raises troubling questions. What future outcomes can we expect from a US posture of permanent nuclear and conventional supremacy? How will other countries react?
Two worrisome scenarios come to mind immediately: the adoption by the United States of a strategy of frequent and wide-ranging military intervention abroad (we already see signs of this in calls for actions against or in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and the Philippines in the name of antiterrorism), and stepped-up efforts by Russia and China to compensate for US missile defenses by improvements in their own offensive nuclear capabilities (here, too, we see signs of such behavior).
How do we respond to these perils? The first step is to join with those in the arms control and disarmament community who are demanding that any weapons made surplus by the Administration's nuclear reductions be fully destroyed, with all associated fissionable materials rendered unusable for military purposes. We must also demand a national debate on nuclear policy that would entail frank discussion of the dangers posed by the pursuit of permanent military dominance. Only in this manner can we hope to reduce the risks of adventurism and miscalculation in a world that retains many thousands of nuclear weapons.