Not with Impunity: Assessing US Policy for Retaliating to a Chemical or Biological Attack

Article excerpt

Editorial Abstract: Devastation, annihilation, obliteration-these words convey how US leaders would deal with enemies who use chemical/biological weapons against either the homeland or US troops and personnel abroad. The author argues that such words provide diplomatic flexibility but insufficient structure for developing a credible strategy for retaliation should the unthinkable occur. Rather than imply that the US reaction would include nuclear weapons, Colonel Conley offers four variables (context, adversary class, number/types of casualties, and identification of perpetrators) that serve as a decision matrix to determine the type of response to what some analysts see as an inevitable chemical/biological attack on the United States.

Sen. Jesse Helms: Suppose somebody used chemical weapons or poison gas on people in the United States. . . . Would they damn well regret it?

Secretary of Defense William Perry: Yes.

Helms: I want to know what the response will be if one of these rogue nations uses poison gas or chemical weaponry against either us or our allies. . . . What is the response of this country going to be?

Perry: Our response would be devastating.

Helms: Devastating-to them?

Perry: To them, yes. . . . And I believe they would know that it would be devastating to them.

Helms: Let the message go out.

-Testimony of Secretary of Defense William Perry Senate Foreign Relations Committee 28 March 1996.

HOW SHOULD THE United States determine its response to a chemical or biological attack against American personnel or interests? The current US retaliation policy, known as calculated ambiguity, warns potential adversaries that they can expect an "overwhelming and devastating" response if they use chemical or biological weapons (CBW) against the United States or its allies.1 Implied in this policy is a threat of nuclear retaliation, but the specifics of the US response are left to the imagination. By not identifying a specific response to an attack, this intentionally vague policy is designed to maximize flexibility by giving the United States a virtually unlimited range of response options.2 Ambiguity gives flexibility to policy makers and enhances deterrence by keeping adversaries guessing. But there is a downside to flexibility and ambiguity. Because it is easier to prepare to execute a specific strategy than it is to prepare for a broad range of possibilities, military preparedness suffers-at least at the strategic level-under a policy of ambiguity. It is not surprising that the policy of calculated ambiguity, intended to place doubt in the minds of potential adversaries, has engendered uncertainty among those who would implement the policy. This uncertainty could manifest itself in strategic unpreparedness. The United States needs a clearer reprisal policy, one that strikes a better balance between flexibility and preparedness.

In general, national policy should facilitate strategy development. If a policy fails to provide enough substance for making strategy, the policy should be revised. Adjectives such as overwhelming and devastating are the only guidelines that the calculated-ambiguity policy provides to strategy makers. Because current policy aims to achieve unlimited flexibility through ambiguity, the policy simply lacks enough substance to support strategy development. Without a strategy, military means may not be able to support policy ends. In making the case that the current reprisal policy hampers strategic preparedness, this article examines existing policy and assesses its strengths and weaknesses; it then suggests a means for clarifying the policy with a view toward achieving a better balance between flexibility and preparedness. Having proposed a policy that better supports strategy development, the article then presents an analytic framework consisting of four critical variables that must be considered in formulating strategies for responding to a chemical or biological attack. …