OMAHA, Neb.— What do hundreds of nuclear-weapons wonks discuss when cloistered for two hot August days in a windowless Midwest conference center? Turns out, it’s not just nuclear weapons. It’s about their deepest and well informed fears of how conflicts dominating today’s global headlines could translate into real life-altering events for Americans.
No one is ruling out the risk — even if remote — that a newly aggressive Russia or China might someday put a mushroom cloud over New York City. But the more urgent worries today are radical extremists who will stop at nothing, new nuclear powers stumbling into cataclysmic mistakes, and attacks in the cybersphere or space that might paralyze a nation.
The threats facing the United States and its allies now are “complex and dynamic, perhaps more so than at any time in our history,” Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told an annual symposium last week on “strategic deterrence.” That military term refers to the largely mysterious art of preventing the most undesirable violence from occurring. Historically, it essentially meant preventing nuclear war from the Soviet Union. But Haney is carrying the torch in a new era of strategic deterrence, one that tries to deter even an individual terrorist from acquiring radiological materials to make a “dirty bomb.” And the community is looking beyond singular, end-of-the-world nuclear events at a globe in constant conflict, from Gaza to the Internet and beyond.
“In some ways, we’re in a very different political environment…where conflict is the norm,” said James Lewis, senior fellow and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s going to be a world of continuing low-level conflict.”
Shai Feldman, who heads Middle East studies at Brandeis University, described an instant-classic letter to the editor published last August in London’s Financial Times, underscoring how the rapidly shifting alliances in that complex region boggle defense and diplomatic strategies around the planet. Particularly when groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic State are involved. “Can deterrence work in a chaotic realm?” Feldman asked. “What do you do when you don’t have a single address for deterrence?”
The threats furrowing the brows of government officials and top issue experts begin with terrorism.
For starters, conference-goers had more questions than answers about how Washington could deter radicals bent on large-scale violence who simply cannot be stopped. What to do about suicide bombers — potentially in larger numbers than seen to date — detonating at local cafes or setting off explosives at an inadequately guarded fertilizer-production plant down the road? Or violent extremists in Pakistan whose possible attempts to obtain a nuclear device might someday succeed, thanks perhaps to bribing a few disgruntled army troops with inside access?
“There could be two reasons people could be undeterrable: One is their objective or their willingness to die, and the other is that you just can’t get through to them,” said Robert Jervis, an international politics scholar at Columbia University. “But even [with] people who are willing to die, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily undeterrable, because what we can ask is whether there are things they value that you can threaten and hold at risk. And often the answer to that can be yes, even if they themselves are willing to die for their cause.”
A second anxiety is that the newest members of the global nuclear-arms club run a higher risk of making catastrophic mistakes. “We face new classes of opponents,” Lewis said. “They have different risk tolerances.”
“North Korea, Iran, China and Russia — the countries we’re most likely to fight with, and now maybe you could add Syria to that list — how they think about they risk, how they think about benefit is very different from the stodgy old opponent” that Washington had in Moscow during the Cold War, he said.
“They have a lack of experience,” Lewis said. Iranian and North Korean officials, for example, “don’t have the long background of arms control, negotiating experience and military doctrine that the Soviet Union had. And that means it’s more likely that they’re going to miscalculate.”
A third worry in and of itself: North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un won’t be giving up his nation’s nuclear capacity anytime soon. Isolated North Koreans are indoctrinated to believe that the nation’s 31-year-old supreme leader descended from a “god,” his grandfather Kim Il-Sung.
“Non-nuclear, for the son of god, Kim Jong-Un, is completely unacceptable,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Macdonald, whose military career included a decade based along the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone. “And that nuclear capability is so well hidden in the near 11,000 underground facilities that it’s near-impossible to take away from him.”
On the other hand, with Kim consolidating political and military power, in theory it could be easier dissuade North Korea from using its estimated handful of warheads for blackmail or detonation than to deter other nations with more complex or shared authority over the use of these deadly arms. “It’s one guy — how hard is that?” mused Macdonald. He rejected speculation that the little-understood Kim is “loony, he’s narcissistic, he’s bipolar.”
“Not really,” said the general, now an independent consultant. He suggests instead that the young Kim — while “he makes Stalin look like a cream puff when dealing with his people” — has demonstrated strategic thinking on a range of issues, developed over months and years. “I think he’s crazy like a fox.”
Even if Kim clings to his nukes, Macdonald said, he could be open to a bid to move North Korea “toward a Chinese communist-capitalist model with outward rationality and a more open, market-based society.” In other words: A North Korea that poses less of a nuclear threat to the region and to the world.
A fourth notion on the tongues of conference-goers could be dubbed “Back to the Future”: The Cold War may be long over, but the globe’s most powerful nations remain today the ones to fear. Julian Miller, Britain’s deputy national security adviser for defense and nuclear matters, has had to think long and hard about the worst-case scenario facing the United Kingdom, as Washington’s closest ally has reduced its nuclear firepower to what it calls a “minimum and credible deterrent.”
By that yardstick, a Kremlin led by Vladimir Putin — whose venture into Ukraine has rattled the world, particularly those closest to Russia’s borders — is reason enough to maintain Britain’s fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines.
“Threats from large states with substantial resources and capabilities” have become the benchmark for London’s worries about worst-case scenarios, and U.K. responses to other potential threats can be tailored and scaled down accordingly, Miller said.
Some U.S. experts say Washington would do well to borrow a page from the Brits.
“I don’t see a need to retain [U.S.] nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future for any but peer or near-peer adversaries — Russia and to some extent China — because smaller adversaries probably can be adequately deterred by the overwhelming conventional military forces of the United States and its allies,” Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said in an email exchange.
“But even the nuclear forces needed to deter Russian and China are significantly in excess of what is needed and can be reduced significantly without undermining deterrence and strategic stability,” he said.
For cyber attacks, only major powers — namely Russia and China – are serious offenders. Criminal and terrorist hackers play only bit parts. The seemingly boundless expansion in American dependence on the Internet for commerce and communications could make this Target No. 1 in any future U.S. conflict against a major power.
“The U.S. relies on space systems and cyber things more than adversaries,” said Jervis. “This is one of our Achilles’ heels.” What to do? The United States could build more resilience into its space and cyber networks, but this “is a little difficult,” he said, and the price tag is not yet known.
In the meantime, as a fifth strategic fret, space is getting to be a pretty dangerous place, where “rules of the road” just don’t exist. With a U.S. global economy that relies ever more on space — facilitating everything from the smart phone in your pocket to spy satellites overhead — what seems like today’s quality-of-life panacea could be tomorrow’s top security vulnerability.
“What will be the consequences if the space environment were to become unusable?” asked Frank Rose, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for space and defense policy. More than 60 countries and non-governmental entities are space-faring today, but “all nations and peoples have seen a radical transformation in the way we live our daily lives and in our understanding of our planet and universe. … Irresponsible acts in space by one entity can have damaging consequences for all.”
Last month, China conducted what the U.S. government has determined with “high confidence” to be an anti-satellite test, despite Beijing’s denials. Not much is known publicly about the July 23 interceptor launch, which did not result in any destruction and Chinese officials say was related instead to their ground-based missile-defense program. Obama administration spokesmen have declined to provide technical details.
The incident comes seven years after China’s 2007 “kinetic-kill” test against one of its own weather satellites that “created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an ongoing danger to the space systems of all nations, including China [itself],” Rose said. He also noted public remarks by Russian leaders that their military has anti-satellite weapons and continues to research their use.
Michael Krepon, a co-founder of the Stimson Center, has long championed the idea of a global “code of conduct” spelling out acceptable activities in space aimed at preserving it as a peaceful domain. But with Krepon says Washington need not await other major powers before a global treaty moves forward.
“There are norms for nuclear weapons, there are norms for chemical and biological weapons, maybe there’ll be some norms for cyber,” he said. In space, “if there are no norms, there are no norm-breakers.”
A sixth chilling thought pondered at the conference: What do we do after a nuke detonates somewhere around the globe? “The other guy uses a few,” said M. Elaine Bunn, the deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy. “Then what?”
Thinking on the topic is in relatively nascent stages: How does the world prevent yet another weapon from being set off and bring an end to the crisis? And how to meet that tall order in a war zone contaminated by nuclear fallout?
One key challenge Washington policymakers face in advance of any such disaster — think Pakistan squaring off against India, its richer and more militarily capable rival next door— is “convincing nuclear-armed adversaries they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression,” said Bunn. She called that “a big issue right now we’re grappling with.”
Yet an even bigger issue, according to some thinkers, is whether the United States should be tallying such lists of geopolitical and military worries to deter at all.
“America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere,” John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago wrote in The National Interest earlier this year. “Not surprisingly, they live in a constant state of fear.”
The effect — intended or otherwise — of broadening strategic deterrence to address myriad threats falling short of endangering U.S. vital interests, Mearsheimer argues, is that Washington is left with “no choice but to pursue an interventionist foreign policy. In other words, it must pursue a policy of global domination if it hopes to make the world safe for America.”