Oct 6, 2015
Countervalue vs. Counterforce
Jun 2, 2011
By Jonah Friedman
Last week the House of Representatives passed a version of the 2012 defense authorization bill which included several problematic provisions. Some of these measures involve the New START treaty signed with Russia last year, and link fulfillment of some of the treaty’s provisions with action taken to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration has stated that he would veto any bill which contained overly stringent restrictions.
However, these are not the only problematic additions to the bill. It seems that it also included stipulations that “hinder the president's ability to change the U.S. nuclear strategy from ‘counterforce’ to ‘countervalue’ targeting.” Apparently, House Republicans have accused President Obama of wanting to make this shift, which might “result in an ‘immoral’ increase in civilian casualties during a nuclear war.” In response, Democrats pointed out that U.S. policy “has long put a potential adversary's cities at risk, regardless of which party has been in the White House. This is because a significant number of military and industrial targets are located near large population centers.”
This debate seems somewhat ridiculous for several reasons. To begin with, it is true that the danger to enemy civilians has existed regardless of who controls the White House. However, the reason why U.S. nuclear weapons target enemy cities (countervalue) as well as enemy nuclear weapons (counterforce) has little to do with the proximity of military targets to industrial targets.
The concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) was developed during the 1960s, and was a major pillar of strategic stability during the Cold War. The assumption was that, in the event of a nuclear war, both the United States and Soviet Union would suffer unacceptable damage. The fear of such damage would prevent war.
While MAD provides the foundation for deterrence and stability, several factors can server to either bolster or undermine it. Examples of the former include secure second-strike capabilities and inaccurate, countervalue weapons. Examples of the latter include ballistic missile defenses and highly accurate, counterforce weapons (such as the MX missile). Writing in a 1990 article in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Laurence Seidman notes that “the targeting of Soviet weapons by accurate missiles such as the land-based MX, or Trident II, raises the probability that a crisis will explode.” In fact, the MX was the more destabilizing given that they were eventually silo-based, increasing their vulnerability.
Charles Glaser writes in Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy that “counterforce is a necessary component of an offensive doctrine but not of a more defensive one.” He goes on to argue how the expansion of Soviet counterforce capabilities in the 1970s and 1980s was viewed with great apprehension in the United States as an indication of “malign intentions,” which further served to undermine détente. In contrast, Soviet countervalue capabilities were less worrying. As Glaser makes clear, “perceptions of the adversary’s intentions are influenced by the military missions its forces can perform. The adversary’s counterforce projects an image of aggressive intentions precisely because it threatens retaliatory capabilities believed necessary for deterrence.”
If both sides are confident that their enemy is not tempted to launch a first strike, and that their own weapons are less likely to be targeted, stability is more easily maintained. However, if both sides fear for the security of their weapons, they are more tempted to “use them or lose them” in a crisis, thereby undermining stability. Therefore, the targeting of enemy cities is a calculated strategy to both raise the specter of unacceptable damage, as well as increase stability.
The argument by GOP House members that countervalue targeting is immoral may be true, but it is also irrelevant. There are few plausible scenarios in which a nuclear exchange could remain limited, despite discussions about nuclear warfighting strategies during the Cold War. As Robert McNamara wrote in a fall 1983 Foreign Affairs article:
“Is it realistic to expect that a nuclear war could be limited to the detonation of tens or even hundreds of nuclear weapons, even though each side would have tens of thousands of weapons remaining available for use? The answer is clearly no. Such an expectation requires the assumption that even though the initial strikes would have inflicted large-scale casualties and damage to both sides, one or the other—feeling disadvantaged—would give in. But under such circumstances, leaders on both sides would be under unimaginable pressure to avenge their losses and secure the interests being challenged. And each would fear that the opponent might launch a larger attack at any moment…Under such conditions, it is highly likely that rather than surrender, each side would launch a larger attack, hoping that this step would bring the action to a halt by causing the opponent to capitulate.”
Thus, a nuclear exchange would almost certainly entail a massive attack, and the deaths of perhaps tens of millions of people. Seeking to mitigate this scenario by killing “only” several million people is to miss the point entirely. Any nuclear war would be devastating, regardless of any attempt to avoid directly targeting cities, and by declaring cities as targets the stability induced by MAD is increased.
However, U.S. nuclear strategy employs a mix of counterforce and countervalue targeting, and some would argue that the inclusion of enemy military targets is useful. They might point to the ability of nuclear weapons to destroy deeply buried targets, for instance. The counterargument was made by Glaser and Steve Fetter in a 2005 International Security article, “Counterforce Revisited.” They point out that nuclear weapons would not be significantly more effective than conventional weapons at hitting such targets.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario which would require the use of nuclear weapons to hit military targets, since to do so is to suppose one of two things: either that one plans to attack these targets in a pre-emptive strike, or that they would be useful to the enemy even after a nuclear exchange. The development of plans and capabilities for a first strike would serve to undermine stability. Concern for an enemy’s military assets would seem to be fruitless except in the case of a nuclear warfighting strategy, since these assets can be hit by conventional weapons. Given that the U.S. is highly unlikely to launch a nuclear first-strike on any nation, and that waging limited nuclear war is probably impossible, the greater emphasis placed on countervalue targeting (rather than counterforce), the better.
In addition, relying solely on a countervalue strategy may become more attractive as the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal. Fewer warheads would be available to strike a variety of targets, from enemy weapons and command and control sites to population centers. The imperative to hit military targets would necessarily detract from our ability to threaten the enemy’s cities. Likewise, a commitment to a countervalue-only strategy would have the added benefit of allowing for substantial reductions in our nuclear arsenal, since the need to hit additional targets is eliminated.
In the end, the tension between morality and a declared strategy that entails the killing of untold numbers of people in the event of nuclear war remains, but as George Quester argues in his chapter in Nuclear Deterrence and Moral Resraint:
“My own favorite outcome might be a frank and honest acceptance of the contingent moral logic of mutual assured destruction, by which threats to civilians are justified when they prevent or end wars. Short of that, I would prefer more hypocritical sliding into such an acceptance…rather than accept any philosophically honest pursuit of alternatives that made war more likely.”