All Nukes Are Good Nukes

Can the U.S. cobble together a new deterrence for a new world?


As the United Nations continues to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) this week in New York City, the world will get a rare glimpse of the real international conflict that the War on Terror usually obscures. The primary strategic challenge for the U.S. and it allies remains keeping nuclear weapons out of the hand of bad guys, and to accomplish that, nuclear war strategy is being retooled before our eyes.

Both the original Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan sent one big message booming across the post-Cold War world: If you do not have nuclear weapons, go get them or the U.S. will bitch-slap you into next week. This may not be the message the U.S. intended to send, but it was an unavoidable by-product of total American dominance in conventional arms.

Now as a result, the U.S. is reworking its nuclear doctrine to persuade non-nuclear states that getting nukes is not a reasonable course of action. Via an updated Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations, U.S. theater commanders may soon get tacit, preemptive approval to use nukes against any foe who seems poised to use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons against U.S. forces. In other words, the new big booming message will be: Fight a conventional war you are sure to lose, or we'll nuke you and not even think very hard about it before we do. Perhaps not very fair or proportional under old notions of just war, but it reflects the struggle to recover some deterrence in this wacky world.

That the U.S. is serious about a new nuclear warfighting strategy can be seen from the continued talk of nuclear bunker-busting bombs. The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator—did Marvin the Martian come up with that name?—is envisioned as the pointy end of nuclear pre-emption, designed to take out WMD facilities buried deep underground. But a National Research Council report released last week found that the penetration aspect of even nukes is limited, and that more megatons is not necessarily the answer.

So the U.S. will turn away from that updated nuke path, then? No, because the primary purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate a willingness to consider using nukes on states that merely attempt to develop nuclear weapons. This policy was made explicit the other day by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's reaction to reports that North Korea had lobbed a missile into the Sea of Japan.

"I don't think anyone is confused about the ability of the United States to deter, both on behalf of itself and on behalf of its allies, North Korea's nuclear ambitions or gains on the (Korean) Peninsula," Rice said. "And, of course, the United States maintains significant—and I want to underline significant—deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region," she said.

"All kinds" means nuclear as well as conventional. That is the big stick, so where's that carrot? For years that had been part of the NPT, but it is quickly shriveling away.

The 180-odd nuke-less states who signed onto the treaty back in 1970 did so as part of a bargain. Promise not to develop nuclear weapons and you'll get the gift of peaceful nuclear power from the Nuclear Powers. The International Atomic Energy Agency would vet all this and conduct inspections to make sure that peaceful nuke facilities were not turned to the Dark Side. This brings us to Iran and North Korea.

North Korea has already jumped the fence and declared the intention to possess nukes no matter what. The U.S. is trying to line up support for what would in effect be a blockade of the country, but obviously must first get China on board for such an option to work. Suffice it to say that a Korean Missile Crisis may yet be in the future.

In many ways the harder case is Iran, which insists that it has a right to peaceful nuke power for electricity generation. The Bush administration openly scoffs at the notion, arguing that a state sitting on millions of barrels of oil does not need nuke power plants, so obviously the Iranians are up to something. Of course, if you are sitting on millions of units of a highly tradable and valuable commodity you might opt to not to burn it to make electricity, and sell it to the world instead. Moreover, the Bush administration holds that absolutely under no circumstances can Iran be trusted with enrichment facilities that might be switched from power plant to weapons-grade uranium output.

Here's the area upon which IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei is trying to find a middle ground. Would heightened inspections of Iranian facilities, along with guarantees that Iran would be able to get reactor ready-fuel, satisfy both sides? The early money says no because the Bush administration thinks el Baradei has already botched the inspections of both of Iraq and Iran, failing to find evidence of the nuke programs Washington was certain were in place.

This leaves the distinct possibility that Iran will leave the treaty talks with the intention of resuming what the U.S. regards as the forbidden enrichment of uranium. Should this happen sometime in June, which would correspond with an end to Iran's self-imposed six-month moratorium on nuke-related activities, the U.S. will face a clear test of nuclear wills.