Countering Nuclear Threats
Senior Scholar, National Institute for Public Policy
Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative

More than a decade after al-Qaeda attacked the United States, national leaders are again turning their attention to adversary states. The June 2015 National Military Strategy states:

For the past decade, our military campaigns primarily have consisted of operations against violent extremist networks. But today, and into the foreseeable future, we must pay greater attention to challenges posed by state actors. They increasingly have the capability to contest regional freedom of movement and threaten our homeland. Of particular concern [is] the proliferation of ballistic missiles, precision strike technologies, unmanned systems, space and cyber capabilities, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—technologies designed to counter U.S. military advantages and curtail access to the global commons.

Thus, while America’s leaders cannot neglect threats like the Islamic State, they must think seriously about how to deter and dissuade adversarial state actors.

Throughout the Cold War, deterrence was at the center of the national strategy of containment across Democrat and Republican administrations alike. It was the focus of much intellectual capital as reflected in the evolution of doctrine from massive retaliation to flexible response. Throughout, doctrine guided force development and deployments, most notably in fielding the strategic Triad that provided for the escalation control and assured retaliation that were essential to the success of deterrence. While President Reagan oversaw one of the largest offensive modernization programs in U.S. history, he rejected mutually assured destruction on both moral and security grounds. Instead, he envisioned strategic defenses as key to maintaining peace and protecting the United States from attack. But the Cold War ended before missile defenses were integrated into the U.S. strategic posture.

The end of the Soviet Union brought a fundamental change in how American leaders viewed nuclear weapons. Many now assumed them to be weapons of little utility. For some, particularly on the Left, they were described as relics. Among senior military officers, with the exception of the concern with “loose nukes” from Russia or Pakistan falling into the hands of terrorists, nuclear weapons were perceived as irrelevant to the threats that confronted the nation. Perhaps they had a role as instruments of last resort against an undefined existential future threat, or perhaps to respond to an attack by a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, but these were abstract notions that concerned events presumed to be of very low probability.

With the specter of nuclear annihilation seemingly removed, the U.S. government eliminated thousands of theater weapons, including whole classes of systems that had been considered essential to deter the Red Army. Large numbers of strategic forces were also cut and investments in the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure—broadly defined to include warheads, delivery vehicles, and supporting command, control, and intelligence functions—were downsized and delayed. Equally important, U.S. operational competence declined as reflected in a number of public incidents of security and leadership failures.

As the sole superpower, many in the United States believed it could rely on its conventional superiority in any part of the globe to deter or prevail over any threat. Each successive iteration of U.S. defense doctrine reduced further the role of nuclear weapons. Each successive budget ensured a further decline in nuclear capabilities.

At the national policy level, every Administration from Bush 41 to the present has sought to reduce the number of weapons in the arsenal. But for the Obama Administration, and for President Obama personally, seeking deep reductions, as well as prohibiting the development of any new nuclear capabilities, became one of his highest foreign policy goals. Rather than seeing U.S. nuclear weapons as necessary for deterring nuclear conflict and for discouraging nuclear proliferation, the President has seemed motivated by an ideological opposition to nuclear weapons themselves.[1] The Prague Agenda, laid out by the President in April 2009, called for a step-by-step process to reduce and ultimately eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons.

For this cause, President Obama was prepared to lead by example. He instituted a “no new nuclear capabilities” policy. He negotiated the 2010 New START agreement that compels U.S. cuts but allows Russia to build up. Supported by prominent elder statesmen and well-funded anti-nuclear organizations, the “global zero” movement came to characterize much of the thinking about nuclear weapons, at least in the West—and this was a trend the President clearly and vocally supported and even came to lead. Many reasoned that if the U.S. government was prepared to show the way, others would join the effort to diminish the numbers and strategic significance of nuclear weapons, ideally all the way down to abolition. Unfortunately, no other state has followed.

While America’s adversaries cheered self-imposed constraints on U.S. nuclear forces, they saw great utility in their own possession of nuclear weapons. For some, like Russia, such weapons promised to neutralize or overcome U.S. and NATO conventional military superiority, providing the most important capability for deterrence and defense. For others, nuclear weapons promised protection against external intervention, permitting brutal regimes like that of the Kim dynasty in North Korea to survive and to some extent prosper with income from missile and nuclear proliferation sales. For all adversaries, nuclear weapons could serve as tools of intimidation and blackmail.

In recent months, Moscow and Pyongyang have both issued nuclear threats against U.S. friends and allies, and against the United States itself. In particular, with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the prospect that President Putin may have additional expansionist designs, it is clear that we must reexamine our assumptions about deterrence and devote serious thought to how best to use our strategic forces to prevent war.

Three cases demonstrate the need to re-think deterrence in the contemporary security environment. The first is Russia. The second, and likely more enduring, is China, a rising power that sees the United States as the principal barrier to its aspiration of becoming the dominant force in Asia. The third case is the nuclear-armed rogue state, including North Korea and Iran. The Bush 43 administration developed presidential guidance on this emerging challenge that served as a foundation for policy decisions such as withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and deploying defenses against small-scale missile attacks from North Korea or Iran. However, much of that thinking has atrophied in the past six years as the focus shifted to the Obama Administration’s Prague Agenda.

At the same time, U.S. missile defense capabilities have atrophied alongside the U.S. nuclear posture. Once envisioned by President Reagan as a way to protect the American population from the threat of nuclear attack, initial deployment of strategic missile defense began in 2004 as a way to defend against rogue-state threats to the homeland. But the Obama Administration reversed this initiative by reducing the number of interceptors and cancelling all programs designed to stay ahead of qualitative threats. Those programs include work on the multiple kill vehicle (MKV), the boost phase kinetic energy interceptor (KEI), and the airborne laser (ABL) project. The Administration also cancelled the deployment of ground-based interceptors to Europe for the sake of the ill-fated “re-set” with Russia. Its replacement met the same fate. The SM3 IIB, the only component of the European Phased Adaptive Approach with the capability to engage Iranian ICBM-class missiles, was eliminated. Many of the same people who advocate for less reliance on nuclear deterrence also oppose missile defense, even though missile defense has the same goal as deterrence by dint of other means: namely, to minimize the prospect of nuclear weapons’ use so as to diminish their significance as a political factor in strategic competitions.

Each of the three nuclear threats noted above deserves greater scrutiny. Russia is the place to start. As the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated, Russia is now the paramount nuclear threat. In fact, most U.S. political and military leaders now view Russia as a strategic threat. General Philip M. Breedlove, who serves as SACEUR and head of the European Command, recently stated: “Russia is blatantly attempting to change the rules that have been the foundation of European security for decades. The challenge posed by a resurgent Russia is global and enduring. What we see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization, and ambitious strategic intent.”1

President Putin’s view of the United States and NATO as a threat to Russia is clear. His message has been consistent since 2007 when he denounced the United States for seeking to undermine global security through the illegitimate use of force. The latest Russian military doctrine explicitly identifies NATO as the top threat to Russia. At the same time, Russia has shown contempt for arms control agreements by violating the Budapest Memorandum, which committed the signatories to respect the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, and by violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). In neither case has Russia faced any meaningful consequences for its violations.

Many claim we are witnessing the start of a “new cold war,” but such terminology is misleading. Today’s situation is different and presents new challenges. There is no significant ideological competition in U.S.-Russian enmity and there is no multi-million-man Red Army stationed in the heart of Europe. A further difference with implications for the success or failure of deterrence is the fact that Russia and the United States now have divergent approaches toward nuclear weapons.

In the Cold War both sides were determined to maintain parity at a minimum. But, to quote the National Intelligence Council, “Nuclear ambitions in the United States and Russia over the last twenty years have evolved in opposite directions. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy is a U.S. objective, while Russia is pursuing new concepts and capabilities for expanding the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy.”2 The differences manifest themselves in an array of areas. One side, Russia, is enlarging its nuclear arsenal while the other side, the United States, is reducing its forces and is only haltingly addressing its decaying infrastructure and the needed modernization of its delivery platforms. Further, the U.S. government today favors ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a fatally flawed treaty that would undermine the prerogative of future American leaders to resume the testing of nuclear weapons if deemed necessary to ensure their effectiveness and therefore credibility.

For its part, Russia has moved beyond Cold War deterrence. Moscow has thought strategically about the role of nuclear weapons in today’s security setting by considering anew the relationship between conventional and nuclear forces. It has concluded that the role of nuclear weapons is greater than in the past. Nuclear weapons are the self-declared first priority of the defense of the Russian state, as repeatedly reaffirmed in military publications and in exercises. In both, strategic nuclear weapons provide for deterrence of nuclear or conventional attack on Russia. Theater weapons and limited nuclear use against conventional military targets are seen as a means to de-escalate a conventional conflict on favorable terms. Here Russia’s doctrine assumes an asymmetry of interests and a lack of willingness on the part of the enemy to risk nuclear war.

Russian thinking is backed by an expansion of nuclear capabilities across the board: heavy and mobile ICBMs, new SSBNs and SLBMs, upgrading of Bear H and Backfire bombers, and the maintenance of vastly superior theater nuclear forces. Earlier this year, the chief of Russia’s armed forces, pointing to a large-scale modernization plan through the next five years, said that a strong nuclear arsenal will ensure military superiority over the West.3

President Putin’s thinking reflects a traditional view of power politics. In his words: “We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak.”4 If Russian weakness is seen as provocative, perhaps the reverse is also thought to be true: The weakness of Russia’s enemies is an opportunity to advance Russia’s interests. Contrast this with the view articulated in the U.S. National Security Strategy published this past January. At a time when Ukraine was in crisis, the Middle East in turmoil, and negotiations with Iran were leading knowingly to an acceptance of that country as a nuclear weapons threshold state, the President’s introduction mentions “aggression by Russia” giving “rise to anxieties about global security,” but it does so in the same sentence that includes the challenges of climate change and infectious diseases. The emphasis is on limitations of U.S. resources and “embracing constraints on our use of new technologies.”

What stands out in President Obama’s message is the reaffirmation of his 2009 Prague speech. In the same paragraph in which he falsely asserts that Iran’s nuclear program has been halted, he doubles down on the need to take steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. Both are dangerous illusions. After six years of failed policies with Russia, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere, the President holds to the fallacy of leading by example through what amounts to unilateral disarmament.

Compared to the United States and Russia, China has a comparatively small nuclear and missile force. Since first testing a nuclear weapon in 1964, China has held an official “no first use” policy, originally meaning that Beijing would use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack. But in recent years China has undergone a modernization program to qualitatively and quantitatively improve its strategic forces and has suggested that its interpretation of “no first use” may have changed.

Additionally, Chinese rhetoric involving nuclear weapons has become increasingly more provocative. In October 2013, Chinese government-run media reports outlined various hypothetical plans regarding how China would attack the United States with nuclear weapons. It is not a surprise that China would be war-gaming scenarios, but what is worth noting is that the government, normally very opaque about its strategic objectives, decided to make such plans public and in such a provocative and detailed manner.

While the Pentagon has reported on Chinese advances in nuclear capabilities, little is known about them due to Beijing’s lack of transparency. China’s Second Artillery has built more than 3,000 miles of tunnels referred to as “The Underground Great Wall.” It is reasonable to deduce that elements of China’s missile and nuclear programs may be concealed within those tunnels. Another troubling advancement is the modernization of Chinese ICBMs, capable of reaching the United States, to carry multiple nuclear warheads. The missile that has received the most press attention and has featured in congressional hearings, the DF-21 “carrier killer,” poses an acute risk to U.S. aircraft carriers.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), while placing a lesser emphasis on the challenges of China compared to Russia, recognized the significant uncertainty about China’s long-term objectives and how nuclear weapons might contribute to their achievement. In particular, Chinese military writings discuss the potential of limited nuclear use at the upper end of China’s asymmetric anti-access/area denial doctrine, which is a central component of a broader strategy. Additionally, seeing an opportunity to gain leverage over the United States in other domains, China has been actively improving its sophisticated cyber, anti-space and hypersonic capabilities.

Beijing has also been participating in the missile market. A 2010 Deputy Director of National Intelligence report to Congress concluded, “Chinese entities continue to supply a variety of missile related items to multiple customers including Iran, Syria and Pakistan.” China’s well-documented cooperation on Pakistan’s nuclear program continues to be a serious problem and raises questions regarding whether the Chinese government knew about the A.Q. Kahn network, which sold uranium enrichment technology to Iran, and Libya. In April 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed that China had provided some assistance to North Korea’s ballistic missile program, which is a violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

China has also reacted to U.S. missile defense deployment in the Pacific in ways similar to Russia’s reaction to missile defense deployments in Europe. As the U.S. government works to support its allies Japan and South Korea from the threat of missile attack from North Korea, China has been adamantly opposed, seeing the defensive systems as undermining its deterrent. Unfortunately, rather than remaining committed to the security of U.S. allies, the Obama Administration has offered to cancel elements of its regional missile defense plans if only Beijing would cooperate on pressuring North Korea. This offer has only served to undermine U.S. credibility.

Since the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea has received numerous concessions, most recently in the Six-Party talks with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China. As noted in chapter 14, each time Pyongyang has promised to denuclearize, it has failed to follow through. The pattern is clear: When negotiations reach an impasse, the North takes a provocative action that then leads to more concessions and to more negotiations marked by yet more unredeemable North Korean promises.

After violating multiple agreements to denuclearize, North Korea has (or is on the brink of deploying) ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. It has conducted three nuclear tests based on reprocessed plutonium and on a covert uranium enrichment program. It declared itself a “nuclear weapons state.” North Korea may have a dozen weapons, and perhaps 20-40, by 2020. Its missiles can already strike Japan and South Korea—and are believed to have the ability to carry nuclear, chemical or biological warheads; North Korean ICBMs are designed to coerce the U.S. government by holding even a few American cities hostage to blackmail. North Korea is also the world’s number one proliferator, supplying missiles to Iran and any other states with the means to pay. It was the principal source for the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007.

The Bush Administration applied tough financial sanctions on the DPRK in 2005, but relaxed them in 2007 in a failed effort to get Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program. The Obama Administration once promised unconditional engagement with North Korea but has retreated to a passive policy of “strategic patience,” which basically means it has done nothing about this growing threat. Working with allies, the new U.S. administration should institute new targeted sanctions and interdictions to undermine North Korea’s ability to transfer illicit funds, weapons, and fissile materials. The U.S. government must also keep ahead of the threat with improved missile defenses, especially against long-range missiles.

Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have become strategic instruments intended to achieve strategic effects. Short- and medium-range missiles, even if armed only with conventional warheads, are tools of intimidation against neighbors and against U.S. forces in the region. Medium- and long-range missiles, and particularly ICBM-class missiles under development, could hold American and European cities hostage to nuclear attack, providing a means of deterring U.S. assistance to regional allies. Longer-range missiles may also provide a sense of protection against external intervention, permitting Iran to continue its support for terrorism, to backstop its quest for regional hegemony, and to further repress its own people, the foremost threat to the regime’s survival. One must also consider the use of these missiles against Israel. The mullahs often threaten Israel with destruction, and Israel takes these threats seriously, as it must.

The stated goal of the P5+1 evolved from denying Iran a nuclear weapons capability by banning enrichment to the much more limited objective of temporarily extending the breakout time to 12 months. This fundamental change in the U.S. negotiating position recognizes, and indeed both accepts and legitimates, Iran as a nuclear weapons threshold state. Even in the highly unlikely circumstance that all U.S. negotiating goals were to be met, after the agreement’s restrictions either expire or are abandoned Iran would be back to possessing the capacity to break out within a few months or weeks.

The failure to constrain Iran’s missile build up in any way, too, magnifies the flaws in the agreement. In an operational context, nuclear warheads are the only feasible payload for Iran’s long-range missiles. As for weaponization, it remains unclear how much progress Iran has made. The November 2011 IAEA report identified 12 activities with potential military application, some, including a missile warhead design, that are only associated with nuclear weapons. In the intervening years, Iran has stonewalled the IAEA, denying it access to facilities, documentation, and people to investigate these past and perhaps still ongoing programs, all of which violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions.

Any agreement that allows Iran to continue to build its ballistic missile force while simultaneously permitting Iran to maintain, if not expand, its nuclear infrastructure will have severe national security consequences for the United States and its friends and allies. Iran will almost certainly become the dominant power in the Gulf. In the past decade, Iran’s malevolent presence has grown in Syria and Lebanon, and more recently in Iraq and Yemen. Hence, with the lifting of all restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs, as well as the end of the conventional weapons embargo, Iran’s capabilities and appetite will certainly only grow.

Another consequence of a bad agreement is the increased prospect for nuclear proliferation. One likely result of Iran’s greater capabilities and influence, reinforced by a growing skepticism among U.S. allies about our resolve to defend their interests, will be decisions by other Gulf states to acquire a nuclear capability similar to Iran’s. Saudi Arabia has already made clear that it will want what Iran is permitted. And Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps others will want to ensure that they are not too many, if any, steps behind Iran. An agreement that effectively provides an international stamp of approval to Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities will only encourage other proliferators.

Finally, because the United States and other P5+1 members have agreed to exclude ballistic missiles in the negotiations, and indeed lift the restrictions on missiles in eight years or less from the time of the deal’s implementation, the message to other rogue states will be that we are not serious about imposing costs for missile proliferation. This could further incentivize states seeking weapons of mass destruction to acquire ballistic missiles as a means of delivery. For Iran, it could encourage even closer cooperation with North Korea on the transfer of missile technology and perhaps in the nuclear weapons field. With hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief over time, Iran’s military and its Revolutionary Guards will have access to more resources for more missiles, for more weapons across the spectrum, and for more terrorist activities.

If these are the principal threats, what must we do about them? The answer depends on understanding that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is a key agent for peace and stability.

U.S. nuclear doctrine must once again resume a central role in the broader national security strategy. That strategy should define national level goals and outline the means to achieve them through the integration of all instruments of statecraft: diplomatic, economic, intelligence, strategic communications, and others. Above all, modernization is paramount. Specifically, we must maintain the triad, which provides for optimal flexibility and resilience. Each leg (bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles) has unique characteristics that contribute to deterrence. We must also fully modernize the nuclear force and infrastructure: warheads, delivery systems, and nuclear labs alike require investment. We must also do what is necessary to assure allies of the U.S. extended deterrent, which shields more than 30 countries. And we must not sign treaties like the CTBT that would compromise the U.S. ability to test if necessary to maintain the safety and reliability of the stockpile. While the United States is taking some steps to modernize its strategic platforms and address the deterioration of the nuclear weapons infrastructure, it is proceeding in a slow, uncertain, and piecemeal fashion—and in the absence of a coherent strategic framework that is vital to guiding planning and investments.

We must also accelerate the deployment of effective missile defenses. We must develop the best missile defense system possible to protect our homeland, our forces, and our allies from attack from any source. We must reject the current policy of trading away missile defense prospects in a futile effort to appease regimes that object.

A major improvement to the current system would be the development of a space layer. Space is the ultimate vantage point from which sensors can improve the effectiveness of the present missile defense system, and also from which interceptors could most effectively defeat missiles in their boost phase of flight, which, because it comes before it can release decoys and countermeasures, is the ideal stage to intercept a missile. There is currently no treaty that prohibits using space for defensive purposes. Russia and China have already “militarized” space and will likely continue to expand their activities in space to achieve strategic advantage over the United States. The first steps to move toward incorporating a space-based interceptor layer would include commissioning architectural studies, proof of concept demonstrations, cost assessments, and acquisition planning.

We should fully fund the Missile Defense Agency and maintain a predictable and steady level of funding. We should support an aggressive testing schedule without penalizing the MDA for missed intercepts. Rather than cancelling cutting-edge technologies as the Obama Administration did, we must invest in advanced technologies, including directed energy technologies. We must increase funding for homeland missile defenses, especially in view of the emerging Iranian nuclear-armed ICBM threat. At a minimum, this should include modernizing the current Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system and moving ahead with an interceptor site on the East Coast.

We must also support strengthening and expanding cooperation with allies, including countries that feel threatened by states such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. The success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program is perhaps one of the best examples of what is possible when the United States works to support an ally’s defense and when missile defense is viewed primarily as a security requirement. In June 2014, when Hamas began launching short-range rockets from Gaza into Israel, Iron Dome successfully intercepted nearly 90 percent of the rockets it set out to intercept.

We have come a long way from the Star Wars controversy of the 1980s, a time when the technological feasibility of effective missile defense could provoke honest skepticism. With a range of relevant technologies today that were unimaginable three decades ago, there is no doubt that we can do this; we require only the intellectual wherewithal and the political will to make it happen.

As to intellectual wherewithal, it is vital that we re-examine both deterrence and defense at the strategic level. This begins by appreciating the reality that the best means to prevent war is when America has a capability second-to-none and a perceived resolve that leaves no doubt that we will protect our country, our forces deployed abroad, and our allies. We must return to President Reagan’s contention that allowing our nation to remain vulnerable to nuclear threats is intolerable; if we can develop and deploy systems to protect it—and now we can—we must do so.