Opinion: Columnists

Needed: A workable nuclear deterrent strategy

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,Iran,North Korea,Pakistan,Russia,National Security,Military Budget,Nuclear Weapons

The end of the Cold War 25 years ago essentially ended public discussion of nuclear weapons until the advent of the Obama presidency.

Obama has declared his intention to eliminate nuclear weapons, has entered into a treaty with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each nation's arsenal to 1,550 (which counts missiles and aircraft as warheads) and has called for a further reduction by one-third in the allowable number of weapons.

Last Sunday, CBS' "60 Minutes" program started building a case for Obama’s cuts by raising doubts about the age, effectiveness and safety of our land-based missile force. According to the "expert" they interviewed, there wouldn’t be any harm in eliminating that force altogether. How they reach that conclusion without reference to the threats we face or the systems that make up our offensive and defensive systems is a mystery.

America dealt with the threat of Soviet nuclear forces through deterrence achieved by building a massive nuclear force of missiles and aircraft. Both sides knew that a nuclear strike by one would result in a nation-destroying counterstrike by the other. From 1961 to 2003, we had the "Single Integrated Operational Plan," a strategy by which American nuclear weapons could be used only by direct presidential order. It defined how and when nuclear weapons could be used and aimed several missiles and aircraft at each target. It wasn't designed as overkill but to reflect the realities that cause different weapons to fail to reach their targets.

The Soviet's operational plans allowed military commanders far below their senior civilian leaders to order the use of nuclear weapons. That may still be their doctrine under the Putin government. But even in the worst of crises -- such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 -- the U.S. and the Soviet Union didn't resort to using nuclear weapons. Deterrence worked.

The dangers we faced then haven't disappeared, though they are not mentioned in polite company. The Russian nuclear missiles are gradually being modernized. China, North Korea and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Soon Iran will as well. The value of all of our adversaries' forces is diminished by the other side of deterrence, our ballistic missile defense systems which are still being developed and deployed. (Loose language in Obama's deal with Russia apparently counts missile defenses in the offensive weapons number.) Those defenses now are comprised of only 30 interceptor missiles stationed in Alaska and California. (The 30 Navy ships which have anti-missile capabilities are mostly tasked to defend the fleet, not our homeland, though four are detailed to NATO missile defense in Europe.)

Most nations are still susceptible of deterrence, the exception being Iran. So the value of deterrence, though less than it was during the Cold War, is still high.

At some point, reductions in the deterrent force could result in it being too small to deter some threats. But when? To decide that, we need a new SIOP, one which takes into account both the size and deliverability of our and our adversaries’ nuclear weapons and our ballistic missile defenses.

As "60 Minutes" pointed out, much of our land-based missile force has outdated infrastructure, though the missiles themselves are entirely capable. What we need is a plan, funded by Congress, to ensure that all three legs of the triad are both modernized and sized to deter or defeat the threats.

President Obama's 2013 "nuclear strategy" document simply isn't one.

Congress should require that the Pentagon draft and implement a new SIOP which would be based on the best intelligence we have on the threats. It would measure our deterrent forces and craft a match between a new strategy (including a new operational doctrine) and the offensive and defensive weapons we may need to make the strategy workable.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.
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