BOOK REVIEW: The Muddle of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Strategy

By Mendelsohn, Jack | Arms Control Today, October 2005 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEW: The Muddle of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Strategy


Mendelsohn, Jack, Arms Control Today


BOOK REVIEW: The Muddle of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Strategy Nuclear Transformation: The New U.S. Nuclear Doctrine Edited by James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey A. Larsen Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 288 pp.

Nuclear Weapons and Strategy: U.S. Nuclear Policy for the Twenty-First Century By Stephen J. Cimbala Routledge, 2005, 124 pp.

Nuclear Inertia: US Nuclear Weapons Policy after the Cold War By Tom Sauer Palgrave Macmillian, 2OO5, 256 pp.

Can anyone say for certain what U.S. nuclear weapons strategy or employment policy might be? In a post-Cold Wat arena laden with new challenges and uncertain responses, the United States seems to have pursued a particularly egregious series of contradictory positions.

For example, both the Clinton and Bush administrations endorsed a strategic arms reduction dialogue with Russia at the same time that they sought to undercut the process by junking the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Allowing ABM defenses to run free made it certain than neither Russia nor the United States would agree to truly low levels of strategic offensive weapons and, in addition, that China would feel obliged to pursue, if not intensify, its own modernization program.

The Clinton administration reaffirmed earlier U.S. pledges not to use nuclear weapons to attack non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But at the same time, it kept open the option to use nuclear weapons, even in nuclear-weapon-free zones, in response to a chemical or biological weapons attack. The Bush administration expanded this latter option and, following the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), made pre-emption and preventive war an explicit policy response to potential nuclear, biological, and chemical threats from other states. Both administrations also found new reasons why nuclear weapons remained vital to U.S. security while they sought to keep the rest of the world denuclearized.

The administration of George H. W. Bush virtually swept tactical nuclear weapons off the security map with its Presidential Nuclear Initiative in 1990, a singularly successful effort to avoid nuclear anarchy at the operational level as President Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were slipping into the dustbin of history. However, the administration of George W. Bush seeks to explore new small-yield and earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, even though we have not in the past and are not likely in the future to be able to provide the "exquisite" intelligence required to target these new weapons against hidden, mobile, or buried targets. Moreover, despite administration claims to the contrary, any earthpenetrating nuclear weapons of sufficient yield to do the job against deeply buried targets are likely to create substantial fallout and kill thousands of noncombatants.

Into this policy morass step three books, Nuclear Transformation: The New U.S. Nuclear Doctrine, Nuclear Weapons and Strategy: U.S. Nuclear Policy for the Twenty-First Century, and Nuclear Inertia: U.S. Weapons Policy After the Cold War, which attempt to sort out the dilemmas of post-Cold War nuclear strategy. In varying degrees, all three books fail in this task, sometimes because the policy itself is too opaque or confusing and sometimes because the analyses do not add any further insight or information to the existing historical or critical record.

James Wirtz's and Jeffrey Larson's book, Nuclear Tiunsfonnation, is probably the best of the three titles under review. An edited volume, one of a generally excellent series produced by these authors, it is focused on the 2001 NPR. Although it has several chapters of interest mixed in with some tortured efforts to make sense out of the policy, the book's basic flaw stems from the editors' underlying assumption that the NPR "offers a reasonable, albeit far from perfect response, to leurrent) political, technical and strategic challenges." It I is very difficult to organize a pep rally for a system than will not work (ABM), a policy that cannot be implemented (pre-emptioni, and a weapon that cannot be used (nuclear "bunker-busters"). …

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