By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Talk of efforts to control nuclear arms typically focuses on sheer numbers of warheads and their explosive power.
But with President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, putting nuclear arms control back on the Washington-Moscow agenda, a new study looks beyond simple comparison of numbers and types of weapons to the more harrowing question of just what those weapons are targeted to strike.
During the Cold War, they were aimed at Russia's hardened silos, bomber bases and military installations. Later, similar sites in China were added. Now, potential nuclear facilities of other regional countries are on the list, as well as chemical and biological weapons facilities.
"From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence," a 57-page report released last week by two arms-control advocacy groups, takes a close look at "strike options," giving their view of the role nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombs play in today's post-Cold War world.
Instead of just comparing numbers among the nuclear powers, the authors representing the Federation of American Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council focus on what the United States is targeting and whether this approach should change.
The study points out the obvious -- that "nuclear weapons are horrific things and nuclear war would be an unimaginable disaster." But it says current Pentagon plans for using strategic nuclear weapons include "individual strike options that probably range from using just a few weapons to using more than 1,000."
The authors also note that political and military leaders argue "that nuclear weapons are not really intended to be used, but are meant only to deter, and therefore detailed war plans and alert forces increase the credibility of the deterrent and make an attack less likely."
The starting point for such discussions must be the current U.S. strategic nuclear stockpile, which stands at about 5,200 warheads. About 2,200 of those are deployed on 450 Minuteman III land-based ICBMs, on ICBMs carried by 14 Trident submarines and on the hundreds of strategic bombs allocated to B-52 bombers. The remaining 3,000 are in storage or are awaiting dismantling.
The main purpose of maintaining our thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War was deterrence. According to the study, that meant two things: The first was preventing a Soviet conventional strike on Western Europe, Japan or South Korea. The second was making it clear to Moscow that if it launched a first strike against the United States, enough U.S. weapons would survive to deliver a devastating nuclear counterstrike on the Russian homeland.
Because both sides thought they could be subject to a first strike, they placed their nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert. The study points out, however, that 18 years after the Soviet Union dissolved, "the practice of keeping U.S. and Russian nuclear forces on alert continues today, albeit at lower numbers than during the Cold War."
The lack of a Cold War-level threat made no difference, the authors wrote, because under the guidance of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the United States insisted that nuclear weapons could legitimately be used against chemical or biological weapons "anywhere in the world, even against non-nuclear nations." This approach "significantly broadened the geographical reach and number of potential scenarios for U.S. nuclear strike options," they add.
It was in March 2003 that Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., chief of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress that the nation's nuclear war plan was changing "to a family of plans applicable in a wider range of scenarios." The result in February 2008 was Operations Plan 8010, which the authors said included strike options against the combat and support equipment of six potential adversaries. The listed targets were in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
As the authors note, although these appear to be military targets rather than population centers, many are within or near major cities. "When the weapon is a nuclear bomb [or warhead] with a force of several hundred thousand tons of TNT . . . the surrounding population is killed just as certainly as if it were the primary target," they say.
The study's main purpose is to propose a new nuclear doctrine for the United States, one it defines as "minimal deterrence." Under that doctrine, the nation would retain enough nuclear weaponry "to deter nuclear use in the first place." The study creates a new category called "infrastructure targeting," under which attacks would focus on "electrical, oil and energy nodes" that support war industries. "A minimal nuclear deterrence policy with infrastructure targeting does not require nuclear forces to be on alert or even to react quickly," according to the study.
The authors propose keeping weapons in the current stockpile but lowering their yields -- to a degree. The weapons, the report said, should remain devastating enough to deter any nation from striking the United States or any of its allies.
"Huge fatalities will occur in any nuclear attack," the authors say, but they add that their approach would result in fewer deaths "than would occur with today's targeting choices."