Dealing With Irrational, Possibly Nuclear, Enemies
Louis R. Beres, Thomas G. McInerney and Paul E. Vallely
Louis René Beres is a professor of international law at
Last November, we elected a new president. Now, to back up credible U.S. deterrence against a still-growing number of adversaries,
In essence, President Obama must quickly fashion a broad, coherent, and updated strategic doctrine from which effective policy options can be suitably drawn and implemented. Among other major challenges, it will be necessary for the president to modernize our strategic nuclear arsenal, and to reinvigorate all of our associated nuclear capabilities. In hard economic times, especially, this will not be a popular task, but the national security alternatives for
Our nuclear age began with theories of "massive retaliation" and "mutual assured destruction." This ultimately gave way to "flexible response" and "nuclear utilization theory." These strategic doctrines, first conceived solely with reference to the
Although no longer a fashionable military concept at cocktail parties, a pre-emption option must still be made an integral part of any updated U.S. strategic doctrine. International law is not a suicide pact; there are times when a country need not "sit back" and wait to be attacked first by an aggressor. Inevitably, there will be new perils (some perhaps even existential) that may require an effective American resort to "anticipatory self-defense." In some entirely foreseeable circumstances, where enemy rationality cannot be assumed, and where the interception reliability of ballistic missile defense would be low or irrelevant, the only alternative to lawful forms of American pre-emption could be surrender and defeat.
President Obama has not inherited a simple world. Strategic doctrine is always a complex matter, and any improved U.S. plan going forward will have to be creative as well as comprehensive. If, for any reason, (1)
How should we best deter a nuclear adversary, both from launching direct missile attacks, and from dispersing nuclear assets among assorted terrorist proxies? Should President Obama do more to aid and empower the growing Iranian opposition, and/or to strengthen the existing Pakistani government? What shall he do about an already-nuclear
Ironically, as the memory of 9/11 recedes into the past, we Americans have become complacent. A serious biological or nuclear threat to American cities could now come from mundane platforms--cars, trucks, and ships. Of course, ballistic missile defense would be of no use against any such ground-based attacks.
To be taken seriously by our enemies, some of whom are intent upon "bleeding the dragon" (weakening us in small but persistent increments), America's refined and expanded strategic doctrine must be able to confront emergent threats at both ends of the conflict continuum. This means a simultaneous capacity to deal successfully with short-range assaults (terrorism/irregular warfare) and long-range attacks (ballistic missiles and WMD). For the increasingly neglected long-range end of the spectrum, this country now requires a state-of-the-art, lethal, penetrating, persistent, survivable long-range strike aircraft. Soon, with the B-52 still flying, America will have the plainly unenviable distinction of keeping the only 50-year-old aircraft in combat mission status.
Can we convince enemy states and their surrogates that any proxy act of nuclear terrorism would elicit a proportionate retaliation against the offending state itself? We must, but how? Meaningful policies can emerge only after President Obama commits to crafting a carefully reconceptualized U.S. strategic doctrine. This must be a very high national priority.
Until recently, enemy state proxies were limited in the damage they could inflict upon us. Today, however, some terror groups could bring greater harms to the American homeland than could certain countries. In fact, these terror groups could possibly bring us greater pain than was deliverable by our national enemies in World War II, Korea, and
In any military conflict, victory must always be the proper endgame. Yet, in our present and future conflicts, there may no longer be any formal war-terminating agreements, or even any other identifiable demarcations of enemy defeat. Instead, when dealing with conflict outcomes involving both rational and irrational enemies, state and sub-state, we will (however reluctantly) have to accept markedly frustrating conditions of protracted uncertainty. Such an acceptance will be unpopular in a clarity-driven America that, since
How should President Obama proceed in the face of such major constraints? After all, in any democratic society, operational considerations of war waging must generally be weighed against a panoply of competing public sentiments.
A final observation: President Obama has expressed a clear preference for a world without nuclear weapons. But these weapons are not inherently good or evil, and it is even likely that a stable nuclear balance of terror during the Cold War may have prevented World War III. Moreover, even if every existing nuclear state's government came to share President Obama's preference, it does not follow that a single one of them would then be willing to give up its own nuclear arms. This is because the reasonableness of denuclearization would always be contingent upon all other existing nuclear states undertaking similar disarmament.
States are not yet ready to overcome the uncertainties surrounding necessary verification of nuclear disarmament or arms control. In the best of all possible worlds, countries could possibly turn back the ticking atomic clock, and impose viable limits on the technologies of mega-destruction. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the realistic incapacity to implement any serious forms of denuclearization means that we shall have to stay prepared for all threat contingencies.
We Americans need an improved and updated strategic doctrine, and the essential forces to support that doctrine.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D.,
PAUL E. VALLELY, MG (
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Obama Challenge: Dealing With Irrational, Possibly Nuclear, Enemies
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