Nuclear Questions, Nuclear Answers

The next administration will face a number of important nuclear policy decisions. On May 13, I invited Franklin Miller, a Principal in the Scowcroft Group, and a former top White House defense official, to discuss these matters before an audience of Congressional staff, senior administration defense and security officials, top staff from defense and security public policy organizations, defense media, defense industry officials and a number of allied embassy colleagues. It was interestingly the 1400th seminar I have hosted on the Hill since 1983 on key defense and national security matters.

Franklin Miller in his prepared remarks extensively addressed the nature of the current debate on future nuclear modernization and whether the US force was obsolete, unaffordable, destabilizing or an obstacle to further arms control. Those remarks were posted recently by Family Security Matters.

However, what has not yet been published is the extensive discussion after his formal remarks. Here, Franklin Miller reviewed five important issues at some length. They were: first, what kind of nuclear posture review should the next administration undertake; second, should the United States consider adopting was in known as a minimal deterrent strategy; third, is nuclear deterrence simply a strategy of what is commonly referred to as “mutual assured destruction”; fourth, should the US switch to a policy of reliance upon tactical nuclear weapons; and fifth, what is the proper role of nuclear deterrence.

Here is an edited transcript of that discussion.

Question: If there was going to be a Nuclear Posture Review in the future, what would you like to see accomplished?

            MR. MILLER:  If there’s a Nuclear Posture Review, and I’ve testified to this in front of the Senate, I think it should be very, very different from the ones that we’ve had in the past.  I don’t believe in a congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review.  The most successful Nuclear Posture Review that was ever held was held between 1989 and 1991 in the Defense Department, and it resulted — it didn’t go in with this intention, but it resulted in a much improved war plan and a 65 percent cut in our deployed weapons requirements.

            Question: Do you think that minimum deterrence and extended deterrence are mutually exclusive concepts, and if so to what extent?

            MR. MILLER:  Yes I do, I do.  Look, I’m sorry, I’ve got to go back to the other question.  If we’re going to get out of NATO because it’s a useless, obsolete, freeloading organization, and the Japanese and South Korean governments are going to have their own nuclear weapons, we don’t have to worry about minimum deterrence.  But if you don’t like that world, you have to have extended deterrence.

            Extended deterrence means that you have to do two things.  You have to have sufficient forces and capabilities and plans to convince potential adversaries that attacking our allies is a very bad thing to do and that they will end up on the wrong end of history should they do so.  And, you have to have sufficient forces, plans, capabilities and transparency — transparency with our allies, so that they have confidence that we are in fact there to protect them.

You cannot do that with a minimum deterrent force.  There are academic volumes this high on minimum deterrence, but at the end of the day it turns out to be reduced to city busting.  I’m not comfortable with city busting.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a good deterrent because it gets into the whole notion — I’m sorry, I’m going to carry this question a lot further than you asked.

            Deterrence is about getting into the mind of the potential enemy and saying, “No, don’t do that because bad things will happen to you.  Things will happen worse than what you have calculated you’re willing to accept.”


            Question: Mr. Miller, you spoke of Russia and China.  What’s your viewpoint on how well deterrence is working towards other nuclear powers?  What’s also your standpoint on the aspect of mutual assured destruction?  Is that a viable construct or has that gone by the wayside?

            MR. MILLER:  With respect to the deterrence of other nuclear powers, I think the other nuclear power that we have to worry about is North Korea.  The question is, do we have sufficient combined nuclear and conventional capability to prevent Kim Jong-un from attacking our South Korean or Japanese allies?  I think we do.  But we need to consider — we need to make a mental leap from saying North Korea is a bad actor which has violated its NPT commitments and we’re going to bring them back into compliance with the NPT; to saying, excuse me, North Korea is a nuclear-armed state and we’re going to have to deal with that.  They’re not going back, they’re not going back.

            So we have to try as best we can, as in any deterrent situation, to understand what motivates Kim Jong-un and his government, what his vital assets are, and how we convey to him that attacking our Japanese or South Korean allies will cause the end of his regime.  I think that’s a daunting problem.  I think it’s a daunting problem with respect to Russia and China, too, because in the ‘90s and ‘00s we systematically dismantled our capability to understand Russia.  The intelligence community’s Russian analysis branches were cut by huge percentages, double digit percentages.

            So I think we need to spend a whole lot more time studying Kim Jon-un.  And I would hope, and I don’t know, that there is some channel whereby we can send him messages that are unambiguous that say, “just don’t do that, just don’t do that.”

            On the other point — I mean, I love you guys, you’re giving me lots of softballs.  Mutual assured destruction was never a strategy.  Our academic community has so much to be ashamed of in promoting the idea that once upon a time it was either nuclear war fighting or assured destruction.  It was counterforce or counter-value, which was never the case except from ‘47 to ‘50.  We’ve always targeted military forces and industrial assets.


            Question: Do you believe that the need for modernization of both our strategic nuclear weapons and our conventional forces make it a time to maybe switch our nuclear strategy from reliance on the strategic triad to more tactical nuclear weapons?

            MR. MILLER:  No, no, absolutely not, no.  The triad is the foundation of everything we do around the world, particularly as we butt heads against Moscow and Beijing.  It’s the foundation.  Without a strategic triad the credibility of our conventional forces would be dramatically undercut.  At a March hearing in front of the full House Armed Services Committee the three service chiefs, particularly General Milley and Admiral Richardson, made that point.  I hope that your chief to be strongly endorses the nuclear triad.

            Shorter range weapons, which are principally designed — not principally, exclusively — designed to help us and extended deterrence, contribute to the overall effectiveness of our deterrent and give the president and the allies more options, but they don’t substitute for the strategic weapons.  Quite honestly, we have enough problems with our NATO allies now, than to open the idea of trying to deploy some new kind of theater capability.  I mean, of all the neuralgic problems NATO has suffered through over decades, nuclear modernization has always been the most neuralgic.  I mean, you need a whole jar of Bayer aspirin every day.  So no, I would not do that.

            MS. SUSAN KEATING:  If the administration put you in charge tomorrow over national defense and the policy for nuclear weapons, is it even possible to turn the train around at this point? If so, how hard would it be?

            MR. MILLER:  Oh yeah, actually it’s real easy.  It’s real easy.  First of all, the president and secretary of State need to start picking up the kind of language that Secretary of Defense Carter is using so effectively.  We need to talk about how unacceptable it is in the 21st century for Vladimir Putin to sound like Nikita Khrushchev.  We need to say that.  We need to say that publicly.  One, stop talking like it’s the 1960s.

            Two, we need to say, Mr. Putin, do not think of limited nuclear war because it will end up in an unimaginable situation and Russia could be lost.  So stop talking about escalate to de-escalate at the lower levels of his senior staff.  Stop threatening Norway and Denmark and Sweden and Ukraine and other countries with nuclear weapons.  Knock it off.  That stuff belongs to the past.  We’re supposed to be smarter than that.


            People get tired of me saying this, but the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established the modern nation-state.  In the 300 years that followed, from 1649 to 1945, the great powers of Europe go to war with each other on average five to seven times a century.  That counts the Napoleonic Wars as one war and the Wars of Italian Independence as one war.

            And then in 1945 everything stops.  The United States and Russia move in as the surrogates for the great powers of Europe and there’s no war.  There are some tense times, but in those tense times it becomes clear that conventional war between the great nuclear-armed powers is too dangerous to contemplate.

            That is the value of the nuclear weapon.   You need capabilities at lower levels to deal with other threats for which the nuclear threat is not credible.  But at the end of the day, don’t kid yourself, when you’re dealing with the Russians or the Chinese, the nuclear forces in the background provide the essential foundation — I think those were the words that Admiral Richardson used — essential foundation of our national defense.

Full article: Nuclear Questions, Nuclear Answers (Family Security Matters)

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