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Kissinger, Shultz, Armitage, and the Nuclear Posture Review

Amidst a busy week before the 2018 State of the Union, there was little coverage over a gathering of three “Cold Warriors” in Washington on January 25. Dr. Henry Kissinger, Dr. George Shultz, and Richard Armitage testified at the invitation of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the global challenges facing the United States today. The three Cold Warriors gave their thoughts and recommendations on what strategy the United States should pursue in the current chaotic era. All agreed that the current deterioration of the global order was troubling, and that the United States needed to maintain its leadership position. Additionally, they insisted the great powers must continue to work to eliminate nuclear weapons and promote nonproliferation. However, Dr. Shultz acknowledged that “as long as there are nuclear weapons, the United States must have a robust, secure, and safe arsenal to use for deterrence and for a basis from which to negotiate down.”

Image courtesy of Brandon, © 2018

Shortly after the hearing, the Department of Defense released the long anticipated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that was ordered at the beginning of President Trump’s administration. The NPR establishes the strategic priorities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and identifies weaknesses in the current strategic situation. The NPR advocates for the modernization and diversification of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in response to efforts by China, Russia, and non-state actors to challenge the United States. The NPR confirmed what Dr. Shultz had acknowledged: while it is imperative that nuclear nonproliferation be promoted and pursued, the reality is that as long as nuclear weapons continue to be as important, the United States must continue to have a dedicated and strong nuclear deterrent.

Both the NPR and Dr. Kissinger note that the United States no longer exists in a unipolar world, as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Richard Armitage goes on to say that while neither China nor Russia yet constitutes an existential threat to the United States (as the Soviet Union did), “we [the United States] cannot sit still idle while our competitors advance.” In tandem with ascendant geopolitical initiatives, both of these rising great powers are modernizing their militaries and nuclear arsenals. Russia in particular was singled out in the NPR for its apparent abandonment of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and New START agreement.

One area in which the NPR and the Cold Warriors differ is in the purpose of nuclear weapons. Dr. Shultz is firmly of the opinion that “a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon.” On the other hand, the NPR suggests that the United States should increase the diversity of its nuclear deterrent; it advocates for the augmentation of the United States’ deterrent with so-called “non-strategic nuclear capabilities.” These include low-yield warheads meant to address regional conflicts and threats. While the NPR stresses that this is not meant to create conditions for “nuclear war-fighting,” Dr. Shultz’s maxim that “a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon” is correct, regardless of yield or implementation. Developing low-yield weapons to deter low-yield weapons will only increase the temptation to use nuclear weapons in the same “nuclear war-fighting” role that the NPR stresses it is aiming to avoid. General Hyten, StratCom Commander, sides with Dr. Shultz and is quoted as saying that “every nuclear weapon is strategic.”

Instead of promoting the development of this class of weapon, the United States should make it abundantly clear that it considers the use of any nuclear device as a strategic threat, and reserves the right to retaliate accordingly. “Diversifying” the U.S. nuclear arsenal would weaken its effectiveness as the ultimate deterrent, and weaken nonproliferation efforts by making nuclear weapons a more tempting option to use in small-scale conflicts.

Keeping the U.S. deterrent reliable is key to guaranteeing its credibility. StratCom has advocated for arsenal modernization long before the publication of the NPR, and much of the arsenal is in dire need of modernization. In particular, the command, control, and communication systems (NC3) needs an update in order to ensure that the U.S. deterrent can be relied upon if needed. Additionally, many of the weapons systems in the U.S. arsenal are approaching the end of their life extension potential and will need to be replaced.

Consideration should be made to building technological firewalls into the NC3 systems. Cyber-attacks from rogue states and malicious actors have the potential to undermine U.S. defense capabilities. While digitization makes communication and control more efficient and responsive, it also becomes easier for attackers to navigate the computer infrastructure. Older technology, while inefficient and harder to maintain, creates a physical barrier that cannot be overcome by manipulating computer code. If NC3 modernization is to proceed as per the NPR, this eventuality must be considered.

The NPR and the Cold Warriors all agree that the United States must continue to be a leader in the world. This means that as long as it needs it, the United States must have a reliable and effective nuclear deterrent, so that when the day comes to abolish nuclear weapons, humanity will be around to celebrate. Part of ensuring that humanity is around to celebrate is to remember that “a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon.” “Diversifying” the nuclear deterrent with low-yield weapons only serves to invite disaster; such weapons have no place in the U.S. arsenal.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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