April 8, 2009
FAS and NRDC Chart Minimal Deterrent Nuclear Mission
from the Federation of
In Prague, President Barack Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons. Today, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report calling for fundamental changes to U.S. nuclear war planning, a vital prerequisite if smaller nuclear arsenals are to be achieved.

The study From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons recommends abandoning the decades-old “counterforce” doctrine and replacing it with a new and much less ambitious targeting policy the authors call Minimal Deterrence.

Global Security Newswire reported last week that Department of Defense officials have concluded that significant reductions to the nuclear arsenal cannot be made unless President Barak Obama scales back the nation’s strategic war plan. The FAS/NRDC report presents a plan for how to do that.

The last time outdated nuclear guidance stood in the way of nuclear cuts was in 1997, when then President Clinton had to change President Reagan’s 17-year old guidance to enable U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to go to the START-III force level that the Bush administration subsequently adopted as the Moscow Treaty force level.  The series of STRATCOM force structure studies examining lower force levels is described in The Matrix of Deterrence.

Resources: Full Report | US Nuclear Forces 2009 | United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Limit Early to get the full report

Executive Summary
from From the  Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons (FULL REPORT)

To realize President Barack Obama’s vision of “dramatic reductions” in the number of nuclear weapons, stopping development of new nuclear weapons, taking nuclear weapons off alert, and pursuing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, radical changes are needed in the four types of U.S. policies that govern nuclear weapons: declaratory, acquisition, deployment, and employment.

This report largely concerns itself with employment policy, that is, how the United States actually plans for the use of nuclear weapons, and argues that there should be fundamental changes to the current war plans and the process of how these are formulated and implemented.  The logic, content, and procedures of the current employment policy are relics of the Cold War and, if not changed, will hinder the hoped-for deep cuts to the nuclear stockpile and the longer term goal of elimination.

This report argues that, as long as the United States continues these nuclear missions unjustifiably held over from the Cold War, nuclear weapons will contribute more to the nation’s and the world’s insecurity than they contribute to their security. And without those Cold War justifications, there is only one job left for nuclear weapons:  to deter the use of nuclear weapons.   For much of the Cold War – at least from the early 1960s – the dominant mission for U.S. strategic weapons has been counterforce, that is, the attack of military, mostly nuclear, targets and the enemy’s leadership. The requirements for the counterforce mission perpetuate the most dangerous characteristics of nuclear forces, with weapons kept at high levels of alert, ready to launch upon warning of an enemy attack, and able to preemptively attack enemy forces.     

This mission is no longer needed but it still exists because the current core policy guidance and directives that are issued to the combatant commanders are little different from their Cold War predecessors.    General Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), recently took issue with President Obama’s characterization of U.S. nuclear weapons being on “hair-trigger alert” but made our case for us by saying, “The alert postures that we are in today are appropriate, given our strategy and guidance and policy.” [Emphasis added.]  That is exactly right and, therefore, if President Obama wants General Chilton to do something different, he will have to provide the commander of U.S. nuclear forces with different guidance and directives.

     The counterforce mission, and all that goes with it, should be explicitly and publicly abandoned and replaced with a much less ambitious and qualitatively different doctrine. A new “minimal deterrence” mission will make retaliation after nuclear attack the sole mission for nuclear weapons. We believe that adopting this doctrine is an important step on the path to nuclear abolition because nuclear retaliation is the one mission for nuclear weapons that reduces the salience of nuclear weapons; it is the self-canceling mission.  With just this one mission, the United States can have far fewer nuclear forces to use against  a different set of targets. Almost all of the “requirements” for nuclear weapons’ performance were established during the Cold War and derive from the counterforce mission.  Under a minimal deterrence doctrine, appropriate needs for reliability, accuracy, response time, and all other performance characteristics, can be reevaluated and loosened.

In this analysis, we consider in detail an attack on a representative set of targets that might be appropriate under a minimal deterrence doctrine, including power plants and oil and metal refineries.   We find that, even when carefully choosing targets to avoid cities, attack with a dozen typical nuclear weapons can result in more than a million casualties, although using far less powerful weapons can substantially reduce that number. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that much smaller forces, of initially 1,000 warheads, and later a few hundred warheads, are more than adequate to serve as a deterrent against anyone unwise enough to attack the United States with nuclear weapons.

     The president will need to maintain keen oversight to insure that the new guidance is being carried out faithfully. We describe the many layers of bureaucracy between the president and those who develop the nuts-and-bolts plans for nuclear weapons employment to show how easily a president’s intentions can be co-opted and diffused.   We finally offer examples of what a presidential directive might look like.