Regime Change and Nuclear Counterforce

Sep 28, 2011
By Eli Jacobs
Arguments for nonproliferation are often made from the perspective of stability. One country’s acquisition of a bomb will prompt others to act similarly, heightening regional tensions and increasing the danger that conflicts will be nuclear. A second, much less frequent argument is made from the perspective of U.S. freedom of action. The range of military options available to the United States is constricted by an adversary’s possession of nuclear weapons. Regime change options are especially circumscribed, as decision-makers find largely ineffectual engagement strategies less risky than military operations that could cause desperate, collapsing regimes to lash out with nuclear weapons. The contrast between the Kim Jong-il’s North Korean regime, whom we continue to engage, and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, which has been all but overthrown, is instructive. Many commentators argue that an agreement to dismantle Gaddafi’s nuclear program and long-range missiles was instrumental in allowing NATO the latitude to pursue regime change.
Certainly the prospect of regime change in Kim Jong-il’s North Korea is scarier than it was in Gaddafi’s Libya, but is a nuclear capability really the death-knell to U.S. military ambitions, most notably regime change? I think not. The United States could, given the proper military capabilities, pursue military objectives, including regime change, against even nuclear-armed adversaries. The presumption that such a scenario would guarantee nuclear use by the desperate regime under attack is mistaken.
The typical problem in such scenarios centers on an imbalance of resolve. The regime is desperately clinging to life and faces use or lose pressures for its nuclear weapons. As Glaser and Fetter argue in their 2005 International Security article “Counterforce Revisited, “the state's leader might then decide he has little to lose by using nuclear weapons, either in a last-ditch effort to deter the United States or simply to exact revenge.” The goal of these operations is to break U.S. resolve to continue pursuing the conflict all the way to regime change. For instance, the regime may use or threaten to use a small number of WMDs, while retaining a second strike force to threaten retribution against proportionate retaliation. Desperate regimes gamble that the United States will not be willing to pay such enormous human cost – in our allies’ citizenry if not our own – for success in a largely elective military operation. This is especially true if, as in Gulf War I, the United States has completed the mission’s primary military objectives and must decide whether to pursue regime change.
The recent case of Libya, however, does not confirm the desperate regime theory. Early on, there were considerable fears among the rebels and NATO of Gaddafi’s use of scud missiles. Although these missiles were conventional and highly inaccurate, they played the same role for Gaddafi as nuclear weapons would for a country like Iran or North Korea: a weapon of last resort. Indeed, a few scuds were launched while the regime was on its last legs. Perplexingly, however, a substantial amount of scuds and other weapons were abandoned by Gaddafi unused, much to the chagrin of arms control advocates. This suggests that in the face of use or lose pressures, some adversaries may choose to lose rather than use.
What explains this decision? Clearly one component of the explanation is the weapon’s ineffectiveness. As previously mentioned, these weapons were inaccurate and even rumored to have been intercepted by NATO planes. Another part of the explanation is that collapsing regimes have interests beyond their own survival. In the case of Gaddafi, he faced the prospect of ICC trial and needed a place to seek refuge after being deposed – two goals that would be complicated by the use of ineffective but terroristic scud missiles.
In the face of these disincentives, Gaddafi did not irrationally launch his arsenal of scud missiles as many had feared. The irony of this situation is that Gaddafi undoubtedly kept the scuds for exactly these circumstances: self-defense in the event of attempted regime change. They served as a mark of prestige that Gaddafi kept in a 2003 agreement with the United States for the explicit purpose of self-defense. However, given the specter of failure, Gaddafi chose not to implement the plan he’d designed for the very circumstances of regime collapse he faced. Although there are infinite differences between the case of Gaddafi and the case of other desperate regimes, it makes sense that, generally speaking, this pattern will hold: if a weapon’s use won’t contribute to regime preservation, the regime in question will tend not to use it.
The takeaway here is that, while collapsing regimes will almost certainly lash out if such action is rational, they will probably not lash out irrationally. While it’s true that there’s a significant difference between conventional scud missiles and a nuclear capability, the same principles apply: if the United States is capable of nullifying the military utility or consequences for resolve of the use of nuclear weapons, collapsing regimes won’t use them. Measures to accomplish this objective are two-fold. First is defense against nuclear warhead delivery, which includes a mixture of missile defense and anti-air capabilities. Second is a robust counterforce capability. Lieber and Press argue in their 2009 Foreign Affairs article “The Nukes We Need that “least bad option in the face of explicit nuclear threats or after a limited nuclear strike may be a counterforce attack to prevent further nuclear use.” If the United States can develop these capabilities to hold at risk and defend against all adversary nuclear weapons, these seemingly fearful weapons will be reduced in stature to the triviality of Gaddafi’s conventional scuds. And if the United States possesses these capabilities, it should be no more deterred from initiating regime change operations than it was in Libya.
Importantly, such a capability is not necessary only in the event of attempted regime change, but for any U.S. military engagement with a nuclear-armed adversary. Lieber and Press argue that U.S. military operations are inherently escalatory: “[e]ven if the United States decided to leave the adversary's leaders in power (stopping short of regime change so as to prevent the confrontation from escalating), how would Washington credibly convey the assurance that it was not seeking regime change once its adversary was blinded by attacks on its radar and communication systems and command bunkers.” Thus, if the United States wishes to retain as credible the option of engaging emerging nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea in any serious military conflict – not just elective, Iraq-style regime change – it must develop capabilities to defend against and/or pre-empt their nuclear forces. While certainly not ideal, these measures to demonstrate that proliferation is not a panacea are the bitter medicine necessary to remedy holes in the nonproliferation regime.
Eli Jacobs is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.