The U.S. Strategic Posture Review: Issues for the New Administration

By Bunn, M. Elaine; Sokolsky, Richard D. | Strategic Forum, February 2001 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Strategic Posture Review: Issues for the New Administration


Bunn, M. Elaine, Sokolsky, Richard D., Strategic Forum


Key Points

In the past, U.S. decisionmakers have addressed strategic nuclear force and national missile defense issues in an incremental and uncoordinated manner. Too often, force structure decisions have been driven by near-term programmatic, budgetary, arms control, and political pressures rather than by long-term strategy and objectives. The forthcoming Strategic Posture Review (SPR) needs to fundamentally reassess the purposes of nuclear weapons, missile defenses, and the requirements of deterrence and stability in the new security environment.

The Bush administration should develop a comprehensive conceptual framework to decide on the size, composition, and posture of strategic offensive and defensive forces. Such a framework should integrate new assessments of deterrence and stability over the next 10-20 years, in light of the much more diverse threats facing the United States.

It will not be easy to come up with solutions that balance competing and often contradictory objectives. Improving U.S. capabilities to deal with one set of strategic concerns may complicate efforts to address others. SPR should include a reassessment of U.S. strategic force levels and targeting requirements; consideration of different hedges and reconstitution options against greater-than-expected threats, such as maintaining production capabilities or making unilateral strategic force reductions outside a formal treaty framework; and development of a broad calculus to assess the impact of national missile defense and other strategic developments on deterrence and stability.

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Before the next administration decides on a strategic force posture, national missile defense (NMD) architecture, and arms control objectives for both offensive and defensive forces, it needs to grapple with questions of strategy and doctrine. Any consideration of alternative defense strategies and their implications for nuclear forces and missile defenses should start with a basic set of questions: For what purposes will we need nuclear weapons and missile defenses in the future and under what conditions would these missions be carried out? What countries will pose strategic threats to vital U.S. national interests over the next 10-20 years? What hostile actions are we trying to deter, and what are the proper character, size, and mix of nuclear weapons and defenses in deterring these threats?

The United States could face three types of strategic threats in the security environment of the next 20 years: the reemergence of a potential challenge from Russia, challenges from a hostile China, and aggression by states of concern (e.g., North Korea, Iraq, and Iran.). Any of these countries may use or threaten to use force against the United States, its forces, or its allies and friends. Such aggression would be particularly troublesome if it involved use of weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles to deter U.S. and Western military intervention in regional crises. A related question is how the United States should deter these threats. The fundamental goal of deterrence is to prevent aggression by ensuring that, in the mind of a potential aggressor, the risks of aggression far outweigh the gains. Offensive deterrence and defensive deterrence affect different sides of this deterrence equation: offensive forces increase risks to aggressors by threatening unacceptable costs; defensive forces decrease potential gains by denying an aggressor's ability to achieve its objectives.

These two variables--the threats we seek to deter and the most effective means of achieving this goal--have significant implications for the role of nuclear forces and missile defenses in overall U.S. defense strategy and for the appropriate mix of these forces for meeting U.S. deterrence requirements. Broadly speaking:

A strategy that puts higher priority on meeting future challenges from an adversarial Russia or a hostile China, and that maintains faith in traditional deterrence, is likely to continue relying most heavily on the threat of nuclear retaliation. …

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