Guest Post: Mike Guillot discusses “On US Nuclear Deterrence: Unworthy Ideas”

Do you know as much about nuclear deterrence as you’d like?  Uncertain about the antinuclear hyperbole that’s been featured in the press of late?  Fortunately, we have a new contributor, Mike Guillot, the former editor of the Air Force’s Strategic Studies Quarterly journal to help us sort through the issues.  Mike has much expertise in nuclear deterrence arena, and he’s agreed to share some of his insights with Lawfire® readers.

I’ve written a bit about this topic recently (“Two misguided ideas that imperil America’s nuclear deterrence), but Mike addresses a broader range of issues and does so in an astonishingly concise and cogent way.  Reading this one post will give you the best short summary of the competing arguments I’ve seem anywhere. 

Mike gives you his take not only on some of the “unworthy ideas” being bandied about, but also offers “worthy ideas” for your consideration.   

On US Nuclear Deterrence: Unworthy Ideas

By W. Michael Guillot

Recent proposals by former government officials regarding US nuclear deterrence policy and strategy regurgitate the same tired antinuclear arguments of the past 30 years.  They now include a plethora of unworthy ideas and hyperbolic state­ments bordering on simple fear mongering. 

Consider for example, the following: “We are all on the atomic Titanic. . . . The risk of accidental nuclear war is increasing. . . . [There is] very little in the way of controls. . . . We’re playing Russian roulette with humanity. . . . There is no way to prevent a deter­mined President from starting a nuclear war . . . without any provocation. . . . The system is unconstitutional, dangerous, outdated, and unnecessary.”

The anti-nuclear establishment argues that the United States should ultimately elimi­nate all nuclear weapons, but until then, it should restrict authority for nuclear use and change its nuclear posture in several ways. These ideas are misguided, and dangerous.

Unworthy Ideas

     End sole authority

As argued in Lawfire® recently, the President maintains sole authority to authorize nuclear use.  Antinuclear activists argue that presidents alone should not have this power because a President may be unstable or need to make a snap decision. Detractors seem to believe a president would, without provocation, make a nuclear-use decision without additional input. They conflate sole authority with sole decision-making, ignoring the consultations that would naturally occur before authorizing nuclear use—including whether use is legal in a given context.  

Instead, they propose Congress be involved in any decision for first use of nuclear weapons to slow the process and allow for more decision time. The president would still retain sole authority to act freely and quickly in the case of a confirmed attack.

However, requiring congressional approval could create ambi­guity about who controls nuclear use and complicate extended deterrence. For example, if Congress voted to use nuclear weapons without presidential approval, based on the passions of the people, who decides? Does this ambiguity increase the risk that our ad­versaries might misunderstand US intentions or control? Such a situation creates a crisis within a crisis and may invite preemption by an adversary.

Controlling nuclear weapons is an awesome responsibility with serious implications.  This is why the United States has sole authority. While Presidential bluster may regrettably be part of deterrence, bluster is not blunder.

     No Launch on Warning (LOW)

Critics of US nuclear weapons are terrified of accidental nuclear use based on false warning, particularly from cyberattack or “if the STRATCOM Com­mander was having a bad day.” They recommend using nuclear weapons only in retalia­tion after a confirmed detonation (on the US or allies). However, their argument dis­counts how LOW complicates Russian assessments of war outcomes and enhances deterrence. The work of Steve Cimbala is instructive here.

The anti-nuclear crowd does not seem to realize that LOW is a US choice, not an automatic response. They fear LOW due to false alarms leading to an accidental nuclear war. The fact is, a nuclear accident is not war, and a nuclear war is no accident.

     No First Use (NFU)

On the one hand, NFU would appear to create a more stable deterrence environment because it offers a clear declaratory policy yet retains flexibility as a national security choice. How­ever, such a policy is only as strong as the trust between adversaries—currently in short supply. On the other hand, NFU would not be reassuring to allies—especially if the critic’s recommendation of congressional approval for nuclear use is adopted. Such a policy would most likely result in greater proliferation.

Some naysayers also suggest limiting the first-strike threat from submarines by restricting their deployment areas. This think­ing is illogical. Since submarines are supposed to be stealthy, how would one know their location? Worse yet, with known deployment areas, the secure second strike capability of submarines becomes vulnerable. And, even if restricted, their missiles could still be used for first strike.

     Eliminate US ICBMs

Critics see ICBMs as simply a first-strike weapon of immense danger and not worth the yearly $10B replacement/sustain­ment cost over the next 30 years. While they support extending the New Start treaty limits on nuclear weapons, they fail to say what happens to Russian missiles not committed to US ICBM targets. They discount the “missile sponge” argument or using ICBMs as retaliatory weapons—even a sponge has holes.

ICBMs impose costs on our adversaries and raise the stakes of an attack. Yes, the central US is in the crosshairs of Russian missiles, but without US ICBMs, what else would be in the crosshairs? Elimi­nating US ICBMs makes Russian targeting simpler and crucially more effective. These missiles are the safest leg of the triad and a worthy, affordable insurance policy for such an existential threat.

Critics of nuclear weapons and particularly US nuclear strategy and policy forget the wisdom of nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, that having options retains “the threat that leaves something to chance.”

     Reduce US Nuclear Weapons

Arms control has been an admirable goal and accomplishment for the US over the past half century.  But, arms control has its limits particularly when aspiring to the goal of nuclear zero. The Russians do not intend to further reduce their strategic weapons or, seemingly, limit tactical/short-range nuclear weapons.

Some would like the US to immediately reduce its entire nuclear arsenal to 100 nuclear weapons and deploy only 10 nuclear submarines, without specifying a deployment pos­ture or the effects on their other proposals. They somehow believe that such drastic re­ductions will make the US safer, ascribing much more trust to Russian intentions than to US military nuclear planners at STRATCOM.

Detractors predict grave implications from a lapse of arms control, claiming that a runaway arms race would be worse than current modernization efforts. This too is hyperbole. Today, there is no arms race, nor must there be one. Current modernization efforts respect New Start limits and will ensure US systems remain viable. While desirable, we do not need arms control to reduce our weapons—to even below New Start limits. How much is enough for minimum deterrence of a low-probability, high-consequence event? Is it zero or something else? This is a national security decision, and national security choice.

     Limit BMD

Critics excoriate the US for deploying BMD, blaming it for most of our arms control problems and for Russian behavior. They posit that BMD is ineffective, costly, and destabilizing. Further, they fear that if a president believes missile defense is effective “he may escalate . . . [and] . . . the more we spend the more we convince ourselves it will work.” This is fear mongering. By testing BMD, we learn what works and what does not. The process increases confidence in our ability to protect against a rogue state attack—buying time to consider retaliation.

As for destabilizing, the US BMD system is not designed to defend against an attack from Russia or China. To think otherwise is ludicrous. Consider that the Russians have 100 missile defenses around Moscow. The US will soon have 64 systems in Alaska and California. The Russians would like the US to be completely vulnerable even though our systems will be extremely lim­ited if used as a defense.

Just as the US cannot assure allies, it cannot allay the suspicions of Russian leaders. Nations must convince themselves. Doing so requires trust and a trust­worthy partner. To quote former Secretary of State George Shultz, “deterrence cannot protect the world from nuclear blunder or nuclear terrorism.” It seems reasonable to be­lieve that BMD might.

Worthy Ideas 

While it seems the counter arguments focus on the goal of nuclear zero, however unrealistic, several profound ideas are worth considering. For example, command and control (C2) systems, Presidential succession, and the rogue missile threat. 

C2 upgrades must be pursued to make current and future systems less vulnerable, more resilient, and more effective. This alone would help reduce the supposed vulnerabilities argued earlier. New methods of protecting the president will ensure continuity and proper authority. In addition, legislative changes to presidential succession should include the secretary of defense as third in line.

While critics deplore the idea of BMD, we should instead seriously consider what should be the US response if we successfully intercept a rogue nuclear-armed missile launched against the United States? Even more interesting, what if the intercept fails?

Too many anti-nuclear activists deal in possibilities without any analysis of probabilities or second-order effects drastic changes in US nuclear policy would entail. They focus on US actions, neither addressing our adversary’s actions and intentions nor suggesting turning Russian or Chinese nuclear weapons into glowing ploughshares.

For those who believe eliminating nuclear weap­ons is feasible, desirable, and acceptable, need I remind you of the world before 1945?  In a sense, nuclear weapons are similar to the free press—both can be terribly destructive if used for sinister purposes.  But we should rather live in a world with them than without.

About the author

Michael Guillot is the former Editor of Strategic Studies Quarterly Journal and a retired USAF Colonel with experience in Strategic Air Command. He holds a degree in national security strategy from the National War College.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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