Bidens Speech on the US Nuclear Arsenal

Several days ago, US Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech at the National Defense University outlining the current administration’s arms control agenda. It included pushing for US ratification of the CTBT, the ongoing START talks with Russia and reducing the US nuclear arsenal. While we could discuss all three of these issues at length, I’d like to first concentrate on the idea of ‘getting to zero’ and reducing America’s nuclear capability.

The Vice President (as others) noted that

“We have long relied on nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries. Now, as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective.”

Non-nuclear weapons development includes the administration’s plan for an “adaptive” missile-defense shield and conventional warheads “with worldwide reach,” he said. “With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong,” Mr. Biden said.

The idea of replacing some nuclear weapons with conventional capabilities is not new. The argument is that the increasing destructive power of modern conventional weapons combined with the ability of the United States to ‘reach out and touch someone’ anywhere on the globe in a minutes or hours can play the same deterrent role as nuclear weapons currently do.

In order to break down this argument, I’d like to make two things clear. Firstly, the goal of our current nuclear force posture is to deter adversaries from attacking us and our allies. Secondly, the means to accomplish this is not and should not be the focus of discussion but instead the end. What do I mean? Many people focus on the weapons themselves, i.e. nuclear weapons, but as Biden notes, if conventional capabilities can fulfil the same function (i.e. survive a first strike and destroy enemy targets with high certainty), then they can be substituted for nuclear weapons. In short, how we do it doesn’t matter. The key thing is the destruction of enemy targets with high certainty. The fact that we use nuclear weapons for this purpose is a reflection only of the fact that they are the best suited weapon available for this task today.

However, there are very serious problems with the idea of replacing nuclear with conventional weapons.

If we accept the proposition that today, or sometime in the future, conventional weapons will be on par with nuclear weapons in terms of their deterrent capability, then several logical conclusions must follow:

1) These conventional weapons would be just as dangerous as nuclear weapons. Therefore replacing one with the other makes no substantive difference. Moreover, it would require time, money and effort to do this all with no gain.

2) If conventional weapons are used in the future in the same role as nuclear weapons today, they could invite a nuclear response from adversaries whose conventional capabilities do not match our own. This would be possible also in smaller conflicts because an enemy could then never be sure what weapons were employed since both nuclear and conventional are equall bad. It would lead to escalation at a much higher pace.

3) Having more conventional weapons in the US deterrent may lower the threshold for use.This may encourage a first strike by us or others.

4) If conventional and nuclear weapons are ever equal, they will be sought after by other states just as nuclear weapons are. This leaves us in the same situation as today. However, if the conventional capability is more expensive or difficult to achieve than nuclear weapons (which is older technology now), it will actually encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

5) If these conventional weapons are indeed equal, it means countries will be able to acquire destructive power equal to nuclear weapons, but WITHIN the legal framework Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This will lead to the irrelevance and death of the most important and successful nonproliferation regime the world has.

6) If conventional weapons can equal nuclear ones, they will require the same types of arms control agreements and nonproliferation agreements as nuclear weapons.

7) Replacing nuclear weapons with equally capable conventional weapons is a cosmetic change which does nothing to address the underlying nature of the international system which makes deterrence necessary in the first place. It’s a change in form, not substance.

Readers, I’d appreciate any thoughts, criticisms and comments you have on this.

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
This entry was posted in General and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Bidens Speech on the US Nuclear Arsenal

  1. McKellar says:

    Nuclear Deterrence only works against another nation-state that sees you as an existential threat, so that anything less than nuclear annihilation would be an acceptable cost for taking you out. Every other rival would use more limited means to check our actions, so that nuclear retaliation would be inappropriate. The appeal of conventional weapons is that they can be used in these more limited circumstances, where the conflict is more ambiguous.

    1) Thus, it doesn’t really follow that strategic conventional weapons would need to be as powerful as nuclear weapons. We would only need to destroy a reactor, or a bunker complex, not a whole city. Granted, these missions would be better suited to tactical nukes, but we can’t use smaller nuclear weapons because world opinion won’t distinguish between a little bomb and a big bomb.

    2) The problem of escalation has already been reached, because of the two wars in Iraq. We’ve told every petty dictator out there that occasionally we will actually muster the men and material to completely destroy their regime. Strategic conventional weapons might enable a return to Clinton’s ‘Tomahawk Diplomacy’, where just sent in a few missile strikes to chastise would-be belligerents. Though there’s plenty to criticize, this approach makes it easy for the petty dictator to buster on about American impotence while withdrawing their forces.

    3) Again, we’re already in the age of preemptive strikes, and arguably have been since 1948. Our allies get attacked/threatened first, then we attack the aggressor. Think about this, what if a new arsenal of strategic conventional weapons could enable us to neutralize 85% of North Korea’s offensive capability on a first strike? At some point, a preemptive war will look better than waiting for the inevitable collapse, but at the very least it will give us a credible threat to bring to negotiations.

    More ‘usable’ weapon systems are indeed more likely to get used, but we have to understand that the relative peace created by the cold war, where nations-states where primarily armed with wholly unusable weapons, will not last forever.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    It’s not about nuclear/conventional weapons equivalence, it’s about overall military capabilities. Nuclear weapons could never have done what our conventional capabilities did in Iraq in 1991 — it was, broadly speaking, the combination of advanced intelligence/reconnaissance/surveillance systems with precision-guided munitions, tied together with a responsive and flexible command and control system, that convincingly demonstrated to the world just how formidible our nonnuclear capabilities were. The lesson many countries took from this demonstration is that only a deliverable nuclear weapons capability would deter the US in a future conflict, since our conventional capabilities were clearly out of reach.

  3. Safety Neal says:

    Thanks for that interesting analysis of the issue.

    It seems to me that the salient difference between nuclear weapons and the postulated high yield conventional weapons is radiation. The lingering radiation (and radioactive plume) of nuclear weapons makes their use unpalatable and is what makes them a “doomsday device”.

    Powerful conventional weapons that do not irradiate the target for thousands of years seem far more likely to be used than nuclear weapons.

  4. Chirol says:

    @all: I think one point that I did not discuss, and which is necessary to discuss deterrence is who/what the US feels today is/are its main threats. During the Cold War, our deterrence policy was tailored at one single country. Today, we must decide if Russia and China are enemies, and what to do about middle and smaller powers.

    Safety Neal: I view radiation as largely irrelevant when discussing deterrence because it is a result of an attack, rather than an important element of figuring out how to deter country X and what capabilities we need to do so. Also, nuclear weapons are not as destructive as your comment suggests. After a decade or so, humans could likely rebuild the affected area. Fallout is also not a long term problem. Japan is an easy example but further reading about the actual effects of nuclear weapons show them to be horribly destructive, but not the doomsday weapons many people wrongly believe.

  5. tdaxp says:

    Even if conventional weapons can take over the ‘typical’ functions of nuclear fission weapons, it is unlikely they can scale up do the work of nuclear fusion weapons. Thus, the US could once again fight wars with fission-level explosions, while still maintaining a fusion-based force for strategic defense.

    This argues against Chirols’ point #1. “replacing one with the other” does indeed make a “substantive difference.” The taboo against fission can remain even if the taboo against fission-grade weapons falls.

  6. Oliver says:

    Nuclear weapons are the great equalizers. Thus they serve the weak better than the strong. It is logical for the US to wish to abolish them now, but for the same reason the weak will not agree.

  7. Interesting. Wasn’t the ICBM with a conventional warhead a Rumsfeld idea?

    I suppose you could mount a conventional warhead offensive that would have the same destructive result of, say, Tsar Bomba but I’d suggest it would require a swarm delivery not as easily captured in the imagination as a single devastating weapon. Whatever the science suggests regarding radiation, the image of a weapon that not only kills on impact but keeps killing years after is a crucial element of it’s deterrent factor.
    Additionally I think you’d have to demonstrate it’s lethality real time in order for it to be an effective deterrent. The reason nukes basically saved the world from nukes is their very graphically illustrated effectiveness in Japan. That they incrementally came to be thousands of times more powerful than Little Boy only made their use that much more incrementally unlikely over time, within the context of the Cold War.

  8. Oliver says:

    And SSBNs converted to other uses. Such ideas are born out of already having the hardware and needing to find uses for it. Consider the cost of an ICBM. You will soon end up destroying targets at costs magnitudes greater than the value of the target. And an ICBM for a conventional weapons will even be more expensive because you need to hit more accurately.

  9. M Brueschke says:

    Radiation and the poisoning effect it would have on an enemy homeland was a huge piece of MAD during the Cold War. An example would be my home, the Dakotas. Each silo (SD had 150, ND had 300) would have received 2-3 Soviet warheads. US planning for surviving a nuclear war had to totally write off these areas for agriculture for generations, not a decade or so.

    Remember, that hardened targets would get ground bursts or surface penetration warheads, not the “clean” airbursts that Japan got, so image hundreds of Castle Bravo type explosions rather than Little Boy when thinking about residual radiation.

  10. RegularReader says:

    Your original post depends on a questionable assumption: If the deterrent value of nuclear and conventional weapons are the same, then the weapons will have the same effects. The danger–but not the stigma–of use will survive.

    I say this assumption is questionable because the same deterrent value can be reached in different ways. That is, there are qualitative differences that make conventional deterrence unique. Comments already note some: Conventional weapons offer precision and would not leave radiation.

    Another way of looking at it is through CCCRAV, cheap-and-easy shorthand for deterrence requirements. In order for deterrence to work, actor A must Communicate a Credible threat and hold the Capability to follow through on it. That threat must target something actor B Values. Actor A must be able to Attribute any violation of it to actor B. And, of course, this all assumes that both parties are Rational.

    In addition to showing why deterring cyber attacks and terrorism is so difficult, this rough shorthand shows why conventional deterrence might be better than nuclear deterrence for some threats. An American threat, for example, might be more Credible as a conventional one than a nuclear one–especially for ‘lesser’ concerns like proliferation. Further (and as earlier posts note), it would allow the US to threaten specific items the other party holds of Value. Instead of cities or sprawling military installations, a much wider range of targets becomes available.

  11. Aaron says:

    Regularreader seems to be approaching a key point here. I wonder if, in terms of, in terms of deterrence, conventional weapons provide more deterrence towards smaller actors than nuclear ones. That is, against another “superpower,” MAD is a credible threat because it is the “logical” outcome of an unstoppable break out of hostilities between two large countries. However, a smaller country might be willing to gamble that there is no credible existential threat from U.S. nuclear weapons, as it seems likely that any surrounding countries, their allies, and most other “reasonable” actors will instantly condemn and side against the U.S.; this makes it essentially impossible for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons. This is even more true for non-state organizations residing in states that are not “acceptable” targets for nuclear weapons–that is, we can’t expect to drop nuclear weapons (or even massive conventional weapons) on the portions of Pakistan that Al Qaeda/the Taliban occupy.

    Also, for entities which are spread across national boundaries, particularly those with non-centralized organizations (e.g., international criminal organizations), it may be that NO single weapon offers a credible existential threat, if that organization is sufficiently dispersed that even total elimination of local groups has only temporary impact on the overall organization.

  12. Jason says:

    let me suggest that your argument needs to be a bit more focused on the desired missions of nuclear and non-nuclear strike. The question is, where would non-nuclear weapons be effective substitutes for nukes? Answer, where the increase in precision and ability to penetrate hard and deeply buried targets can result in knocking out the target.

    Essentially, what the new triad says is that the “non-strategic” nuclear missions are going away. Nukes will always have a strategic deterrence role that cannot be met by non-nuclear munitions. But conventional munitions, even the special ones, will never have a strategic deterrence factor equivalent to the nukes.

  13. robotwhisper says:

    Don’t forget about EMP weapons. Those platforms for EMP weapons are cheaper than putting a missle on target on the ground thousands of miles away, and secondary damage from a EMP weapon can exceed a land strike weapon.

  14. “We have long relied on nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries. Now, as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective.”– This is something new that eveyone should be aware of. I will be looking forward to this in the near future.