The Bush Nuclear Posture Review: Adults at Work on Restoring the Credibility of America’s Deterrent

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(Washington, D.C.): In the wake of September 11, millions of Americans have taken comfort from the fact that a group of mature, experienced and generally quite competent individuals are in charge of the Nation’s security at a time when we must wage a war on terrorism. Fresh evidence of how different are the policies and plans of the “adults” running our government today from their immediate predecessors — and the team they defeated in November 2000 — was made public on Saturday when the Los Angeles Times published a sensationalized account of the classified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

This study was performed at congressional direction by the Bush Pentagon, with inputs from the Departments of Energy, State and the intelligence community. Its analysis formed the basis for the NPR’s most publicized — and widely acclaimed — upshot: The presidential decision taken last year that the United States could safely reduce the number of its deployed strategic nuclear weapons from roughly 6,000 to somewhere between 1,750 and 2,200 over the next ten years.

Critics of Mr. Bush among the ranks of former Clinton Administration officials and those in the arms control community with whom they closely worked before, during and after their time in office were unable to get much traction on this score. The public seemed unmoved by their complaints that: the reductions envisioned are not all that different from what Mr. Clinton had in mind; still more weapons should be taken out of service and each one physically destroyed; and all this should be done pursuant to a legally binding arms control accord, not an informal, unilateral U.S. undertaking, or even two parallel ones by Washington and Moscow.

An Agenda for Restoring U.S. Nuclear Deterrence

Such critics hope, therefore, that they can mobilize a public and congressional outcry over parts of the NPR that had, until last Saturday, been classified. Yet, on closer inspection, the objects of their criticism appear not only reasonable, but far more responsible than the approaches long advocated by anti-nuclear activists like William Arkin, to whom the NPR was leaked and who in turn provided this secret document to the media:

  • Performing contingency planning for circumstances in which U.S. interests might be so jeopardized that the use of nuclear weapons could be contemplated, and perhaps ordered. This is the sort of preparation in which most of our countrymen expect the military to engage. Anti-nuclear types argue this kind of activity “lowers the nuclear threshold,” making the use of such weapons more likely. In fact, such planning is an integral part of establishing and maintaining the credibility of our deterrent. The more credible it is, the less likely circumstances will arise in which our nuclear weapons have to be used.

    Thoughtful Americans — in contrast to “politically correct” media and policy elites — intuitively appreciate this reality. Such common sense causes them to support as well activities that outrage these elites such as the wartime use of strategic influence operations (involving deception, if necessary), measures to ensure continuity of government in the event of “decapitating” attacks against us and the fielding of effective anti-missile defenses.

    Speaking of missile defense, it is ironic that many of those most vocal in their opposition to President Bush’s decision to deploy such systems routinely declare that to be unnecessary since we can rely on the threat of nuclear retaliation to deter any missile strikes. As Joseph Cirincione put it in Sunday’s Washington Post: “Each of [the] countries [that have potentially threatening missile ballistic programs] would almost surely be deterred from attacking the United States by the certainty that swift retaliation would follow even a failed or thwarted attack.” Regrettably, but for the adjustments entailed in the Bush Nuclear Posture Review, the sorts of policies favored by Messrs. Arkin and Cirincione would inexorably have eviscerated the credibility of that retaliatory threat.

  • Assuring the future modernity and security of the nuclear stockpile. Preeminent among the steps necessary to a credible deterrent are the ability to adapt existing weapons or to design new ones to ensure that they are capable of working effectively if called upon to do so. The NPR reportedly gives considerable attention to the need to do just that. This marks a refreshing change from the Clinton team’s refusal to afford our nuclear scientists the latitude they need to conduct underground nuclear tests — the one proven technique for assuring that obsolescing weapons still work and that new, optimized designs are available where needed and perform as advertized. While neither new designs nor a resumption of nuclear testing in Nevada have been explicitly ordered by the Bush Administration as yet, the latter’s adults are, to their credit, opening these options for the first time since avowed proponents of “denuclearization” took over the U.S. government a decade ago.
  • Reestablishing the design teams, production lines and testing facilities needed to perform the aforementioned work. The Bush NPR places similar priority on the need to resuscitate the nuclear weapons production complex as it does on the other two “legs” of what it calls the New Triad: modern nuclear and conventional forces and capable defensive measures (including, notably, missile defense). Alas, this urgently needed course correction will take considerable time, thanks to the systematic effort made by the Clinton Administration effectively to shut down the complex, dispense with its unique and gifted workforce and otherwise render it incapable of ever operating again as it once had — as the backbone of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

The Bottom Line

These are the sorts of prudent, reasonable and, in all likelihood, absolutely necessary measures that must be taken now if there is to be any chance in the future of deterring regimes, and perhaps terrorists, equipped with weapons of mass destruction. Their adoption as part of the NPR does not mean that the United States is bent on using nuclear weapons. Rather, it means that the responsible adults now in charge understand that for deterrence to work, it must be based on real, credible and sustainable capabilities, not bluffs, a hollowed-out military and bankrupt arms control nostrums.

Frank Gaffney, Jr.
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