Deterrence and “The Table”

Apr 14, 2010

By Chris Jones

Michael Turner, ranking member on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, has published a piece echoing the complaints about the NPR’s decision to take nuclear weapons “off the table.” He writes:

Last May, President Obama clearly stated, "I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period." Unfortunately, his new Nuclear Posture Review does just that. It delivers a muddled message that weakens the strength of our deterrent . . . Our nuclear deterrent serves an important role in protecting the United States from would-be aggressors. Telling our adversaries that we are unwilling to use the full extent of our assets to protect our nation is either disingenuous or dangerous. Also, the U.S. extends this protection to over 30 allies and friends who have agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. nuclear guarantees. This policy affects them as well. When it comes to defending the United States against a devastating attack, our message should be clear and simple: If our nation is attacked, we will use all means necessary to defend ourselves. Period. This is the essence of nuclear deterrence: The message should be that the cost of attacking the United States will be greater than the benefit.

Before getting to the main argument, it should be pointed out that the context of the Obama quote is about Iran. According to Newsweek , the preceding sentence from that quote is “I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran,” which is entirely consistent with the NPR did and something the NPR has been criticized for.

Regardless, the real discussion to be had is one about deterrence. The new declaratory policy espoused by the NPR has been criticized for curtailing the “all options on the table approach” in response to non-nuclear CBW attacks.  As noted on the blog Friday, the shift is subject to a number of caveats that limit just how much the NPR impacts nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis CBW threats. But that doesn’t really get at the real issue: are nuclear weapons needed to deter CBW attacks from non-nuclear states? The answer to that question involves both the capability needed to deter such an attack and the credibility of a possible U.S. response. Discussing capability, Secretary Gates explained over the weekend that while the nuclear option may have deterred Iraqi CBW use during the Gulf War, new capabilities place enough capabilities in the tool bag that nuclear weapons don’t need to be on the table:

GATES: Well I think what's happened is the situation has changed. We have more robust deterrents today, because we've added to the nuclear deterrent missile defense. And -- and with the phased adaptive approach that the president has approved, we will have significantly greater capability to deter the Iranians, because we will have a significantly greater missile defense.  We're also developing this conventional prompt global strike, which really hadn't gone anywhere in the -- in the Bush administration, but has been embraced by the new administration. That allows us to use long range missiles with conventional warheads. So we have -- we have more tools if you will in the deterrents kit bag than -- than we used to.

On the credibility question, former Secretary of State Schultz explains in the WSJ:

The NPR carefully calibrates the circumstances when states might face the use of nuclear weapons to "defend the vital interests of the United States, our allies and partners." States are encouraged to be non-nuclear by assurances that we would not use nuclear weapons against them. The document recognizes that deterrence is not necessarily strengthened by overreliance on nuclear weapons. These weapons have not been used since 1945 and successive presidents have shown little appetite for using them except as a last resort. Instead, deterrence can be strengthened through more effective intelligence and through precision in the targeting of conventional weapons. We also have the capacity to target those individuals who might authorize the use of weapons of mass destruction. This 21st century version of deterrence is more relevant than one that is over-reliant on weapons that indiscriminately destroy large numbers of innocents. But fundamental changes in the international security environment in recent years – including the growth of unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities, major improvements in missile defenses, and the easing of Cold War rivalries – enable us to fulfill those objectives at significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. Therefore, without jeopardizing our traditional deterrence and reassurance goals, we are now able to shape our nuclear weapons policies and force structure in ways that will better enable us to meet our most pressing security challenges.

The constant them in the NPR alterations to declaratory policy endorsed by Gates and Schultz is one of flexibility. Technological developments and strategic trends have interacted over the past two decades in such a way that the United States does not need to the overwhelming power, and therefore unlikely use, of nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear states hypothetically thinking about a CBW attack. Past examples can be parsed to provide arguments for and against whether the threat of nuclear attack deterred CBW attacks but those have to be mapped onto the threats facing the United States and the capabilities to counter them over the next 5-10 years. In today’s context, Bruno Tertrais argued that

This author could think of only one not-so-incredible scenario: one where Syria, assuming it had abandoned all nuclear ambitions, would feel slightly more comfortable to threaten Israel with chemical weapons in a conflict than before the NPR. But even that one is an intellectual stretch

Secretary Gates echoed this skepticism on CBS News by stating “First of all, try as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response.” With preventing nuclear nonproliferation and terrorism headlining the priorities of the NPR, the modest benefits that reducing the role of nuclear weapons, albeit slightly, could have for these goals may outweigh the marginal, and perhaps not credible, deterrence benefits by leaving “all options on the table” against CBW threats from non-nuclear threats. These shifting priorities in the NPR reflect further change in thinking about the role of nuclear deterrence as well as deterrence more generally. In this context, the image of taking options “off the table” is not necessary a productive one. This creates the perception that a grandiose table with everything on it is automatically best and that removing anything off that table is deterrence X – 1, clearly inferior to deterrence X. This presumes, however, that just because something is on the table it automatically creates deterrence. That is not a given, as Schultz hints at above.  Moreover, thinking about what’s “on the table” begs a more fundamental question about the role of the “table,” so to speak, in national security. Presumably, the table lays out a range of responses that are meant to convince a possible adversary that undertaking an action is not in their interests. During the Cold War, many argue, the existence of nuclear weapons on that table helped induce caution in the Soviet Union, and vice versa. Today, however, the wide range of asymmetric threats facing the United States means that deterrence cannot be seen in a vacuum.  It must be evaluated in the larger context of U.S. national security goals and priorities.  The NPR explains, in a shift welcomed by Perry and Schlesinger, that nuclear proliferation and terrorism are the top priorites.  Nuclear deterrence still has a role to play, as well it should, but the pros and cons to changing, increasing, and decreasing certain types capabilities and declarations that create deterrence have to be analyzed not just for the sake of deterrence but how they interact with nuclear policy priorities as a whole.  When actions can be taken that could help the first two priorities while only slightly impacting deterrence, they should not be categorically dismissed for the bigger table is always better approach.