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US Nuclear Threat Can Enhance Stability

Admiral Richard Mies
Admiral Richard Mies

On an occasional basis, APS News will publish conversations with individuals deeply involved in policy issues relevant to the APS membership. In this first conversation, Francis Slakey, Associate Director of Public Affairs and Jennifer Ouellette, APS News Associate Editor, met with Admiral Richard Mies, Commander in Chief of Strategic Command, the operational commander of US nuclear forces, from 1998 until 2002. Mies helped shape post-9/11 US nuclear strategy.

Q: What is the nation’s nuclear use policy, as you understand it?

A: The primary value of nuclear weapons is not in their use; it’s in the threat or potential of their use. They are primarily instruments of war prevention rather than war fighting and in my estimation, serve only as weapons of last resort when deterrence has failed. Our nation’s nuclear weapons policies are intended to deter potential adversaries’ use of weapons of mass destruction and even large-scale conventional aggression against the US and our allies. In the wake of the Cold War, our Nation is attempting to develop a deterrent strategy with lower nuclear salience, reduced warhead numbers and less adversarial character.

Q: What is the chain of command that oversees the potential use of nuclear weapons?

A: Only the President has the authority to direct the use of a nuclear weapon. The situations that might involve the potential use of nuclear weapons are very scenario-dependent; but as a general rule there is a conference involving a number of both senior military and civilian participants, including the commander of US Strategic Command, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense. The purpose is to assess the situation and discuss with the President a wide range of strategic options available to him including but not necessarily limited to potential nuclear options.

Q: Could you explain the role of “calculated ambiguity” in deterrence?

A: The concept of deterrence is to create uncertainty in a potential adversary’s mind, such that he can’t be fully confident that he can achieve his objectives without a strong retaliation from the US with unacceptable consequences to him. If you can create enough uncertainty in his mind, then deterrence is likely to be successful. The calculated ambiguity–under what circumstances and when and how the President may authorize the use of strategic capabilities including nuclear weapons–plays a large role in fostering that uncertainty.

Q: The 2005 draft of the US military’s Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations states: “Geographic combatant commanders may request presidential approval for use of nuclear weapons for a variety of conditions. Examples include an adversary intending to use weapons of mass destruction against the US.” Is this saying the US might preemptively use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state? Does the Doctrine represent a change in US policy?

A: I don’t think there’s been any significant change in our national policy in that respect. Fundamentally, nuclear weapons will always remain a weapon of last resort in our national strategy. The ability to pre-empt has always existed but has never made any rational sense especially during the Cold War. I believe we would only consider pre-emption under very extraordinary conditions: where we had no other capabilities at our disposal to prevent dire consequences from happening to the US or our allies, and where we also had perfect intelligence that would enable us to be absolutely certain that unless we used a nuclear weapon, this dire event would happen. I view nuclear pre-emption as a very implausible option considering the wide range of non-nuclear options available and the imperfect nature of our intelligence.

Q: The enemy the US faces today includes terrorist organizations and states that sponsor terrorism. How does nuclear deterrence fit into this new context?

A: Deterring terrorism is a greater challenge than deterring a specific nation-state. You may not be able to deter an individual suicide bomber from ultimately completing his mission; but, there are ways to think about deterring terrorism as a network–including state sponsors, terrorist organizations and infrastructures, and terrorist funding sources. We must think about how to tailor our capabilities and policies to deter a more uncertain, faceless, and more opaque spectrum of adversaries. There are a number of diplomatic, economic, and military means of achieving deterrence; it’s far broader than nuclear weapons. And it’s far broader than a national concern. Many European countries are vulnerable to terrorism. So I think it’s a concern that we all share. Again, the goal is to create uncertainty in our potential adversaries’ minds as to whether they would be able to achieve their objectives and still survive as an entity. A state that sponsors terrorism against the US would have to be concerned about the possibility that the US may retaliate in some unacceptable way. Terrorist organizations that attempt to employ WMD could also anticipate a very strong international response that may not be conducive to the survival of their organization.

Q: During the Cold War the weapons were designed for a massive exchange against the Soviet Union. Some military analysts claim that the yields of these weapons are so high that a state that sponsors terrorism might assume we’ll never use them.

A: I think there’s a grain of truth in that. It’s a very different world today. Deterrence is a function of credibility and will. A potential adversary must believe you have a credible capability, and also must believe that you have the will to use that capability. There is a legitimate concern that today we lack some capabilities to ensure our deterrent remains credible against emerging threats.

This is the great paradox of nuclear weapons: you need weapons with credible capabilities not so you increase the likelihood of their use, but rather, so you have a more credible deterrent and thereby never have to use them. Of what deterrent value are weapons that lack credible capability? The Cold War stockpile we have inherited was designed largely on the threat of relatively large-scale attacks of relatively high yield weapons with moderate accuracy and reasonable reliabilities. That world no longer exists today. Hence, the preservation of our capability to adapt our deterrent forces to a rapidly changing and unpredictable future is critical. In my view, we need to adapt our existing forces to provide a limited number of weapons with combinations of distinct attributes such as lower yield, higher accuracy, greater reliability, greater stand-off capability, and improved earth-penetrating capability. In so doing, we could tailor any response to a wider range of potential adversaries under varying scenarios. For example, improved accuracy would enable us to employ lower yields and minimize the potential of greater collateral damage.

Q: The Moscow Treaty requires the US to reduce its arsenal to below 2200 operationally deployed warheads by 2012. Do the improvements in capabilities you describe fit within those numbers?

A: Easily. This doesn’t require new warheads. We can adapt the existing stockpile and the existing delivery systems to provide those capabilities at reasonable cost. But I think there’s an over-fascination with numbers of warheads rather than their capabilities. There is a naive and mistaken belief that the “nuclear danger” is directly proportional to the number of nuclear weapons and, accordingly, lower is inevitably better. As we reduce our strategic forces to lower levels, numerical parity or numbers alone become less and less important. We must preserve sufficient deterrent capability to respond to future challenges, to provide a cushion against imperfect intelligence and surprises, and to preserve a reconstitution capability as a hedge against unwelcome political or strategic developments. At the end of the day, capabilities are far more important then simply numbers. Ten large yield warheads with 90% reliability and moderate accuracy count the same as ten lower yield warheads with near-perfect reliability and GPS-like accuracy. If you had your choice, which would you prefer as a deterrent?

Q: Rep. David Hobson (R-OH), Chair of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, recently said, “We cannot advocate for nuclear nonproliferation around the globe while pursuing more usable nuclear weapons options at home.” Do you share his concern?

A: I strongly disagree with the contention that nuclear weapons are more usable just because they have improved capabilities and are tailored to a broader range of threats. The history of our stockpile was one of improved capabilities throughout the Cold War. Those weapons helped keep the Cold War cold. Nuclear weapons with tailored capabilities are more likely to deter your adversaries than simply maintaining a stockpile that was designed against a very different Cold War threat. The threshold for using a nuclear weapon is very, very high. It’s a taboo that has existed for over 60 years, and it is one that no President will break lightly. These will always be weapons of last resort.

Again, the great paradox of nuclear deterrence is that we must have credible and hence usable weapons so we never have to use them. Consider the attached chart which roughly illustrates the percentage of human deaths as a result of warfare over a long history (see chart).

Chart of the percentage of human deaths as a result of warfare
Chart of the percentage of human deaths as a result of warfare

Around 1945, there’s a dramatic decrease in deaths in combat as a percentage of the world’s population. Warfare has fundamentally changed in the nuclear era. In earlier history, warfare didn’t have the potentially dire global consequences that it has today. Today, the level of conflict may escalate beyond a nation’s control and lead to unacceptable consequences, giving nations pause. I would argue that one of the primary reasons for the dramatic decrease is the existence of nuclear weapons has caused great nations to behave more responsibly and to even seek to avoid conventional war for fear it could potentially escalate into a nuclear one.

Q: Does developing a new inventory of nuclear weapons with a different set of capabilities violate the terms of the nonproliferation treaty: that those countries with weapons should be working toward disarmament?

A: Improving some of the capabilities of the stockpile is not in conflict with the long-term objective of total disarmament. Frankly, I’m not sure that the world will ever be capable of achieving that idealistic objective. Nuclear weapon technology cannot be disinvented. Imagine a world where no one had nuclear weapons, except for one rogue nation that acquired a small number of nuclear weapons. That would be a very dangerous world compared to the one we presently live in. Even though there are a larger number of nuclear weapons, our situation is far more stable. As we move toward this idealistic goal of disarmament, we need to be realistic and never lose sight of the principle of enhancing stability. That ought to be the over-riding criterion. As Sir Michael Quinlan has stated: “The absence of war between advanced states is a key success. We must seek to perpetuate it. Weapons are instrumental and secondary; the basic aim is to avoid war. Better a world with nuclear weapons but no major war than one with major war but no nuclear weapons.”

Q: North Korea and Iran are moving toward the development of nuclear weapons. Do nonproliferation policies need to be changed or strengthened?

A: There needs to be continued assertion and reinforcement of those principles. The nonproliferation regime has had a fairly good record despite Iran and North Korea. To the degree that we can maintain a credible nuclear deterrent without underground testing, I support the current moratorium. But there’s a great danger when you lock yourself into treaties that attempt to establish absolutes such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. There are certain legitimate scenarios where we might have to perform a limited test if we had grave concerns about the reliability of our stockpile. It’s not that we want to conduct nuclear tests. But we’ve always held as a principle that we will take whatever actions are prudent and necessary to defend ourselves. As a nation, we are very reluctant to surrender that right of self-protection. We are wary of locking ourselves into international agreements that could constrain us should we need to exercise that right, in some unforeseen world that we can’t predict today.