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Nuclear Posture Review -- Roundtable

We spoke with Dr. Bradley R. Roberts (DASD for Nuclear and Missile Defense) and Admiral John Roberti (DD for Strategy and Policy, J-5, Joint Staff) about the Nuclear Posture Review.  (Transcript here.)  I asked what I thought was an easy question:  we know from Dr. Strangelove that deterrents only work if you tell people about them.  If we're moving away from a nuclear deterrent in certain cases, what are our planners expecting to use instead?  

Here's the response I expected:

No problem!  In this comprehensive, interagency process we spent a lot of time examining our options before we made this decision.  The President has spoken about the 'graded options' we expect to be able to field, but let's talk about the top-level options that would serve as our most powerful deterrent.  Because we've developed precision, guided munitions, UAVs, and improved human intelligence capabilities, we feel we no longer need to target the civilian population with nuclear weapons in order to deter some kinds of rogue regimes.  Obviously, where they are pursuing illegitimate nuclear weapons, we retain a nuclear deterrent.  Where that is not the case, however, we feel we could use network-centric tactics to freeze and collapse government and military assets, as we did in Iraq; or support local partners using a combination of Special Operations forces and American air power, as we did in the early phase in Afghanistan. 

Enemy states should believe that the United States will destroy anyone who uses chemical or biological weapons against us.  This move away from nuclear weapons is, if anything, a demonstration of strength:  it shows that we are able to target such regimes themselves, without having to target the civilian populations that their activities are endangering.  That's in accord with our values, and it's our strength that makes this possible.

Unfortunately, that's not the answer I got at all.  

We seek -- as these states increase their reliance on nuclear weapons, we are not seeking to increase our reliance on nuclear weapons in response. We are seeking to increase our reliance on non-nuclear means of deterrence, principally missile defense, non- nuclear strike capabilities, and what we're calling countering-WMD, or combating-WMD capabilities, which are those, for example, for interdicting things in transit.

I'm sorry, but that's an astonishing answer from a member of the Defense department's civilian leadership.  Only one of those things is "deterrence" in any sense.  Missile defense is not a deterrent:  it's a defense.  Interdiction at sea is not a deterrent.  'Combating WMD capabilities' via detection or diplomacy is not a deterrent.  All of these things are defensive.  

You can understand the difference by thinking of an MRAP.  The armor of an MRAP is not a deterrent.  In no way does it impose a potential cost that might make it less likely that someone will set an IED to try and destroy it.  The armor is purely defensive; it makes it less likely that an attack will succeed.  But it doesn't create any danger or implied cost for those who are considering attacking the MRAP.

The MRAP's deterrents are the machine gun in the turret, and the riflemen who can deploy out of it and other members of its convoy.  That's what imposes costs on attackers.  It's amazing to see this basic distinction lost on someone appointed by the President to formulate our defense policy.

"Non-nuclear strike capabilities" is what I was asking about, but what I wanted to offer you was an opportunity to explain the deterrent to any of America's enemies who might otherwise feel emboldened. 

Otherwise, it's not a deterrent.  Speak as softly as you like, but you need to lay the big stick on the table where they can see it.