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Time to Get Serious About Nuclear Deterrence

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

The United States is behaving in such a way that does not lower the chances of nuclear conflict; to the contrary, this administration, so dedicated to lowering the world’s number of nuclear weapons, is increasing the plausibility of a nuclear conflict. This is because in two key areas the Obama administration is making it all too tempting for certain countries to acquire nuclear weapons and perhaps even employ them on the battlefield.

Hawks and doves agree that one of the U.S. means for lowering the likelihood of nuclear conflict is to control the spread of nuclear weapons. This is why the United States offers a nuclear “umbrella” to key allies. The reasoning goes like this: Japan and South Korea, for instance, do not need to acquire nuclear weapons since the United States assures them (and warns enemies) that if a country like North Korea were to dare attack them, the United States would respond on their behalf. Likewise, every NATO country can rest assured that an attack on any single member of the Alliance will be treated as an attack on every other member of the alliance, the United States included.

Defense Secretary Carter just wrapped up a tour in Europe meant to assure NATO allies that the United States remains committed to their security. He announced the United States would contribute military equipment across six NATO countries. This, he argued, would show U.S. commitment to the alliance in response to Russia’s persistent aggression and provocations. Tanks are a nice gesture and his announcement seemed to please the NATO members perceived to be most vulnerable, namely the Balkan states. But that low number of conventional weapons is unlikely to change Russia’s calculation that its current behavior is not worth the cost of a potential response from, say, tanks.

This is because Russia has already demonstrated a willingness to threaten with nuclear weapons. To his credit, Secretary Carter responded to a recent press question about whether or not Vladmir Putin’s nuclear threats are mere posturing, by stating that, “nuclear weapons are not something that should be the subject of loose rhetoric by world leadership.” But it’s not enough to simply state this.

The great paradox of deterring nuclear conflict is to make it unmistakably clear that the United States is willing to employ nuclear weapons to prevent an exchange and preserve the lives of its citizens and those of its allies.

Nuclear weapons are the ultimate terror weapon. Although nuclear weapons range in yields, and therefore levels of destructive potential, any nuclear weapon carries with it the fear of ultimate horror and suffering. Ask any layperson what he thinks about nuclear weapons and he’ll likely mention “annihilation,” perhaps even global annihilation. But doesn’t the threat of global destruction keep countries like Russia from even considering starting a nuclear war?

If that is Russia’s fear, all the evidence points to the opposite. Moscow has been busy over the last several decades moving nuclear weapons to the center of its military doctrine and increasing the credibility of the force by maintaining, building, and refusing to give up a stunning arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons. Telling, these are also called “battlefield” nuclear weapons for their intended use on the battlefield. In the last major arms control treaty, New START, many experts urged President Obama and Secretary Clinton to include Russia’s battlefield nuclear weapons in the terms of the final deal. Moscow has 10 of these weapons for every one of Washington’s low-yield nuclear weapons. But Russia refused to include them, so the Obama administration conceded this point in an effort to obtain the treaty.

What we are seeing now in Eastern Europe is exactly why Russia refused to shrink its battlefield nuclear arsenal. Russian officials have been threatening by word and in war-games, their employment against NATO states, and because they have lower yields, the threat has a ring of greater credibility. In recent testimony, the former head of NORTHCOM and current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Winnefeld, explained that Russian military doctrine supports the employment of nuclear weapons in order to de-escalate a non-nuclear conflict. This is because, as the admiral explained, NATO can overwhelm Russia in conventional weaponry. But NATO’s understandably strong aversion to even threatening the employment of nuclear weapons gives Russia leverage. Russia has no qualms about leveraging the fear of nuclear conflict to further its national objectives.

If the United States and its NATO partners don’t get serious about flexing its own nuclear deterrents in response to Russia’s blatant threats, Moscow might continue to get the message that its theory of employing a low-yield nuke is actually having the desired effect, which is that Russia is controlling the escalation in the region, and that it can do what it wants, including “rescuing” ethnic Russians who are citizens of other sovereign states, and redrawing national borders in the process.

It’s not credible for the United States to threaten the employment of the high yield nuclear weapons that are based in the United States. Nobody would believe Washington would respond with a high-yield weapon in response to a Russian low-yield one. Therefore, the United States can demonstrate a credible nuclear deterrent by moving its low-yield nuclear weapons closer to the Russian threat. There are several options for doing this, including rotational basing of the B-52 bomber in Eastern Europe, for example.

The other area in which the administration is increasing instability and the likelihood of nuclear proliferation is in its pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal. The media has given the P5+1 Iran negotiations the foreign policy spotlight, albeit a dim one. Reams have been written on the number of U.S. concessions. In days not long ago, the U.S. position, along with the U.N. Security Council was to prohibit an Iranian enrichment program at all. That was the first watershed breakthrough, shifting the goal from preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon program to slowing it and aiming to create a means to have greater insight on it.

Administration officials, at one point, also claimed Iran’s formidable missile program would be stymied by the deal. But the Mullahs objected to this, and so, the Obama State Department caved without a fight. The most recent concession should be breathtaking to even the most supportive of the administration’s efforts in achieving a deal. Reportedly, the United States will no longer insist on getting to the bottom of Iran’s weaponization activities and there will be no intrusive inspections of military facilities where this was (is?) taking place. Rather than maintaining a “trust by verify” policy towards Iran, Susan Rice said the United States would take a “distrust and verify” policy.

Now, it is clear, that if it means getting a deal, Obama’s State Department is happy with a policy of “distrust and do not verify.”

It has become laughable to even suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward slowing the Iranians nuclear program. If a deal is achieved, and it almost certainly will be, this will advertise to all that if a country violates international norms and treaties long enough, the United States will simply get tired to pushing back on, and finally approve, condone, and reward this behavior. Why would any country abide by arms control treaties like the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a member and in perpetual violation? And if Iran has a nuclear weapon, countries like Saudi Arabia, a staunch enemy of Iran’s, will be tempted to get one too.

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