Nuclear Strategy and New Nuclear Powers

An oddity of our times is the cavalier manner by which analysts of public issues ignore acquired understanding and history. Their motto seems to be: the world begins anew when I first take note of it. We have seen this phenomenon in the rolling discussion of responses to the Great Financial Collapse. For many, Keynes might as well never have existed and the experiences of the 1930s juxtaposed to the post-war period never occurred.

These days, it is nuclear issues reawakened by the Iran question and the North Korean capability that are getting treated as something novel under the sun. At the same time, General Breedlove and Vladimir Putin, among others, have spoken of a possible nuclear confrontation with Russia. The concentrated examination of the logic and psychology of nuclear strategy produced analysis of remarkable sophistication. It acquired further authority by the experience of the past 70 years. Yet, today self-proclaimed experts and pundits take exceptional liberties that reflect neither focused thought nor history nor any awareness whatsoever that the matters they freely pronounce on have been addressed previously in a thorough-going fashion.

This situation has prompted me to attempt a summing up of what we have learned since 1945 and to apply it to present and prospective circumstances.

When we speak of an encounter between two nuclear armed states, the weapons' primary utility is to deter the other. The risk and consequences of nuclear war are so great as to outweigh any possible advantage in trying to use them. This holds for all binary pairs of nuclear states: India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran (conjectured). This condition of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is stable when the following conditions are met: both sides have the capacity to withstand a first strike while retaining the means to deliver a nuclear riposte; and when there is the will to do so. No one has ever thought of testing the latter.

The India-Pakistan stand-off confirms the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons even under imperfect conditions of deterrence. That is to say: relatively small arsenals; no invulnerable delivery systems; contiguous geography; major points of contention; and a history of past combat (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999).

This logic manifestly has been absorbed by everyone who has been in a position to order a nuclear strike. No civilian leader (and nearly all military commanders) with the authority to launch a nuclear attack ever believed that the result would be other than a massive exchange -mutual suicide for those with large arsenals. This did not encourage risk-taking at lower levels of conflict. Just the opposite.

Can the inferior nuclear state deter the superior from launching conventional attacks? We do not have much data on this - especially since there is no case of the superior state trying to do so. Would an Iran with a rudimentary nuclear arsenal be able to deter an American or Israeli-led assault a la Iraq by threatening troop concentrations and/or fleet elements in the Persian Gulf? We certainly can say is that it will heighten caution. An inferior nuclear state that wishes to foster anxiety that its weapons might be activated accidently at the height of a crisis - thereby deterring a superior (nuclear and conventional) antagonist from pressing its advantage. A similar logic points to cultivating an image of being 'irrational.' Would the United States have invaded Iraq if it believed a 'crazy' Saddam had 3 or 4 nuclear weapons? Would it consider aggressive action against Iran if it believed the 'mad Mullahs' in possession of 3 or 4 nuclear weapons?

If the inferior state (e.g. North Korea) has the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the superior's homeland, that cautionary element grows by several factors of magnitude.

Can the nuclear state provide a credible deterrent umbrella for an ally that is conventionally inferior to a superior armed enemy? (Western Europe facing the Red Army; Saudi Arabia facing Iran circa 2040). The NATO and South Korea experience says 'yes.' That is, if the stakes are highly valued by the state providing the "nuclear umbrella." Again, the risks of escalating to nuclear exchanges have a conservative effect on everyone. Two things deter: certainty); and total uncertainty.

Here is one general thought about extended deterrence as a 'generic' type. Throughout the Cold War years, the United States and its strategically dependent allies wrestled with the question of credibility. Years of mental tergiversations never resolved it. For one intrinsic reason: it is harder to convince an ally than it is to convince a potential enemy of your readiness to use the threat of retaliation to protect them. There are two aspects to this oddity. First, the enemy has to consider the psychology of only one other party; the ally has to consider the psychology of two other parties. Then, the enemy knows the full direct costs of underestimating our credibility and, in a nuclear setting, will always be ultra conservative in its calculations. By contrast, the ally that has not experienced the hard realities of both being a possible target of a nuclear attack and the possible originator of a nuclear attack cannot fully share in this psychology.

Implications for the Gulf. On the downside, if the Europeans, South Koreans and Taiwanese at times doubted the credibility of the nuclear umbrella then the Gulf leaders will -- given the greater cultural and historical distance. On the positive side, it would take a hell of a lot less to deter an embryonic Iranian nuclear capability that cannot reach the United States than it did to deter the Soviet Union.

There is much loose talk about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East were the Sunni states truly worried about the prospect of an Iranian "breakout" fifteen or so years from now. This proliferation scenario is fatally flawed. For one thing, a quick move to build a bomb within 90 days (as the Israelis say) or even year is nonsense. There is a lot more to the development of an atomic weapon than accumulating sufficient HEU. You don't just pile it up in a corner, cover with a layer of dog-eared nuclear engineering manuals, and then come back a few months later to find that you have acquired a weapon by a process of spontaneous generation. The engineering and manufacturing requirements are stringent. A competent, disinterested expert on matters of nuclear engineering and design will tell you that 3 - 5 years is a much more reasonable estimate - if there are no obstacles encountered.

Second, speculation about a Saudi nuclear program should stress the capabilities factor rather than the factor of will. Building a primitive nuclear bomb has become progressively easier as knowledge and technology are more readily available. Still, a development program requires sophisticated engineering skills and a deep industrial base. Saudi Arabia lacks both and will continue to lack both for the indefinite future. Indeed, it is very thin even by regional standards. The KSA is unable to manufacture all but the most basic mechanical products. That deficit cannot be offset by contracted specialists. So once again we have supposedly responsible people holding responsible positions playing games of make-believe as if their politically driven pronouncements were grounded in reality and logically argued.

A recurrent headline story is about terrorists and nuclear weapons. Obama has made this the leitmotif of his arms control vision in declaring repeatedly that terrorism is the most serious nuclear threat we face. That is simply untrue. An accurate statement designed to educate rather than to play on emotions would say that the seizure of nuclear materials by 'al-Qaeda' would create a vitally dangerous situation BUT it is not an urgent concern because the likelihood of such an eventuality coming to pass is close to zero. Classic al-Qaeda is a weak, fragmented grouping able to do little more than survive physically. This is the outfit that, over the past 14 years, has been capable of organizing nothing of great consequence. The London and Madrid bombing were essentially local operations; the Christmas bomber incident rank amateurism. Trying to blow a plane out of the sky once every several years is not a laughing matter; but to cite it to stoke fears of nuclear terrorism is rank scare-mongering with no evidential basis. An outfit that cannot manage to get its hands on fire-retardant underwear will not be able to build or steal a nuclear warhead.

That leaves the question of whether Washington has an interest in keeping open the option of making first use of nuclear weapons against Iran or North Korea. It is not at all obvious that these doctrinal nuances have any practical meaning. Preemptive nuclear strikes are highly risky since one never knows with certainty that they will disarm an enemy and prevent them from responding in other highly disagreeable ways. Think of 20,000 North Korean artillery pieces trained on Seoul. Think of Iran's several opportunities to wreak havoc in the Gulf. That is one.

Can an America deter Iran from using biological weapons? Here specific scenarios are crucial. An unprovoked, aggressive use is one theoretical possibility. Frankly, though, I cannot imagine such a situation unless we revert to 'mad mullah' fantasies. That's two. Reaction to an American and/or Israeli massive airstrike is another scenario. This is more realistic in terms of motivation. Israel can protect itself via deterrence as it did vis a vis Iraq during Gulf War I. (See Iraqi ex-Vise President Aziz's testimony on why Iraq did not resort to placing chemical agents in SCUD warheads at the time). There is no Iranian threat to American territory - for technical reasons. To American bases? Technically speaking, yes. Would the Iranian leaders' judgment on this be affected by abstruse doctrines promulgated in Washington? Probably not. They would decide whether or not to use unconventional weapons in the awareness that Washington's response was impossible to predict. That is three.

Re. proliferation generally and Iran specifically, there is an underlying contradiction in the Non-Proliferation regime that has been in place for close to half a century. Simply put, the conception of proliferation risk that was embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had a critical flaw. Namely, it assumed a basic technological distinction between the technology required for a nuclear weapons program and the technology associated with a civilian power generating program. The premise was that the fissile materials that are the explosive core of a bomb (uranium or plutonium of certain isotopes) could only be produced through highly sophisticated and prohibitively costly facilities that very few countries could aspire to. Hence, enrichment and the production of plutonium in plants that extracted the needed isotopes from nuclear waste fuel were not proscribed. To reinforce this understanding, the United States undertook to supply civilian reactors world-wide with low enriched uranium (LEU) at discount prices.

The system unraveled in the early 1970s for two reasons. The Indian bomb that used plutonium reprocessed from a civilian (Canadian) reactor using Heavy Water as a moderating agent showed how easy and cheap it was and thereby erased the line between civilian and nuclear programs for all practical intents and purposes. BUT the NPT never was amended and signatories retain the legal right to enrich uranium and to reprocess plutonium. The prohibitions placed on enrichment in Iran have no legal standing under the NPT.

That explains why Iran's enrichment program, among other activities, is not in itself in violation of the NPT. They were caught on a technicality having to do with opening all national facilities to IAEA inspection and surveillance as part of the safeguards regime. In other words, like Al Capone being indicted for tax evasion. The United States, in effect, paints Iran as Capone and therefore has sought punishment that is disproportionate to the crime. Those alleged transgressions have nothing to do with the NPT. Therefore, the IAEA has no authority to consider matters other than those stipulated in its enabling articles which concern fuels and technologies that are part of a military program. Civil nuclear facilities/activities per se are not identified as problematic -- quite the opposite. So, too, other security, political and military matters that do not have a specific nuclear association fall outside the IAEA's legal purview.