DE GRACIA: Why President Obama needs a new nuclear strategy

Democrats and Republicans alike are operating on flawed nuclear assumptions. Photo: When it comes to nuclear policy, both Republicans and Democrats could use a history lesson. (AP File Photo)

HONOLULU, June 21, 2013 – President Obama’s renewed commitment to eliminating America’s nuclear arsenal has the political right worried about national security. As National Review writer Mona Charen aptly observed in a recent column, “the idea of setting a good example for the other nuclear powers is sheer childishness. Will Pakistan, India, or, God help us, North Korea be moved by our example? Were they moved in 2010, the last time Obama reduced our arsenal?”

During last year’s presidential debates, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan also famously decried the decline of America’s military as evidence of President Obama’s poor leadership as commander-in-chief. The emerging security narrative among conservatives is that a “new” doctrine of American weakness-by-design has begun under the Obama Administration.


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What might shock the right is that America’s current model of minimal deterrence and calculated ambiguity actually owes its evolutionary origins to the George H.W. Bush presidency.

Paradigm Shift: “It Only Takes One”

Just three months after President Reagan left office, his national security adviser Colin Powell would go to U.S. Army Forces Command and begin formulating a “base force” or a model of defense built on the minimum number of units needed to defend America.

For much of the Cold War, America’s planners were concerned about the possibility of a thermonuclear “decapitation strike” that would annihilate the U.S. military’s capacity to launch a retaliatory response. As such, the large number of dispersed bases and standing forces were deployed for absorbing nuclear losses and serving as a secured second strike capability.


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It was not uncommon for policymakers to task thousands of missiles against individual Soviet targets as part of the nuclear Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the belief being that in war a combination of Soviet cheating on the ABM treaty and the likelihood that most U.S. forces would probably never survive to the target meant overlapping tasking was key to counterforce credibility.

As relations thawed between the two superpowers in Reagan’s second term, Pentagon planners reasoned superior technology could replace redundancy and that large numbers of nuclear weapons were no longer necessary to deter peer threats. Among a number of defense theorists, a belief arose that the future world would be largely dominated by humanitarian or limited military operations other than war rather than air/sea/land dominance.

The eventual conclusion made by many of these thinkers was the detonation of so much as one nuclear device would cause significant disruption to an enemy’s political leadership, economic capacity and infrastructure, therefore the existence of so much as one nuclear warhead would be enough to deter foreign aggression.

In 1989 theory became policy when Bush announced the good faith removal of nuclear depth charges from surface warships. Up to that point, Spruance-class destroyers were routinely deployed with W44 warheads in antisubmarine rocket launchers designed for rapid, area-effect destruction of Soviet hunter and boomer submarines. In 1991, Bush finalized de-alerting of surface warships by ending the deployment of all naval tactical nuclear weapons.

China has repeatedly forced the West to “blink” with subtle nuclear threats. A survivable nuclear force is critical to U.S. interests amid economic decline.

A decade and a half later during the presidency of George W. Bush, the military saw massive nuclear reductions with the retirement of the LGM-118 Peacekeeper ICBMs and stealth AGM-129 air launched cruise missiles. The cuts are particularly troubling when one considers both systems were envisioned in the 1980s as replacements to the aging, less reliable LGM-30 Minuteman ICBM and AGM-86 ALCMs, two platforms which currently constitute Obama’s present day order of battle.

The danger of this minimal deterrence trend – or even “global zero” – is that it assumes existing nuclear powers are rational actors who will not attempt a nuclear first strike (or the threat of a strike) as a means to achieve political goals.

These assumptions also fail to account for how America would survive an exchange should initial deterrence fail or how increasingly expensive conventional forces can be maintained in the absence of force-multiplying nuclear power.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russian government inherited a devastated economy. With fighters grounded, ships laid up in port and no money, Boris Yeltsin boldly determined the way to protect Russia’s interests was to declare nuclear weapons would be their primary means of defense in war. The doctrine worked – and still remains today.

Remember that precedent.

As our economy declines, America will have less military capability, making nuclear, not conventional forces more valuable for their psychological and strategic power. If the future United States were only defended by lightly armed drones and a few antiterrorist units, our sovereignty would be greatly imperiled.

For better or worse, America invented the A-bomb. It cannot be un-invented. Our leaders need the strength to recognize a free world can no longer exist without a nuclear armed United States of America.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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