U.S. Needs Non-Nuclear Deterrence

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

U.S. Needs Non-Nuclear Deterrence


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


Former administration offlcials say poor planning places U.S. troops at risk

The U.S. government's "dangerously casual reliance" on nuclear weapons to deter chemical or biological attacks against Americans is delaying important decisions on how to counter these potential threats, according to two former senior officials of the Clinton administration. The military success that the United States has achieved so far would not materialize in future wars if enemies decide to pursue "asymmetric" warfare, said Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry in a recently published book titled "Preventive Defense." Asymmetric warfare means an attack with chemical or biological weapons. against which the Pentagon's conventional arsenal would not work. The United States should not depend on nuclear deterrence "when dealing with desperate and rogue states or with nonstate, terrorist attackers," the two authors said. Carter was assistant defense secretary for international security and Perry was defense secretary during the first Clinton term.

They urge U.S. policy makers to devise "non-nuclear counters" to asymmetrical warfare.

Key U.S. policy makers agree. "We don't have a deterrence" that is effective, other than nuclear weapons-and "that is a problem," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), a member of the Armed Services Committee. "It's a big concern," he asserted in an interview during the recent Tech Trends 2000 conference in Philadelphia, hosted by Weldon and the National Defense Industrial Association.

Since the end of the Cold War, "not enough focus has been placed on dealing with weapons of mass destruction as a military threat," Carter told National Defense in a recent interview. Chemical or biological weapons in the hands of potential foes pose an overwhelming military threat, said Carter, "because they would not allow the United States to win convincingly as in Desert Storm."

Defense planners, he added, "need to develop counterproliferation methods so the only alternative will not be a nuclear deterrent."

Carter and Perry did not advocate to throw money at the problem-even though they recognized that the solutions they proposed would involve billions of dollars to buy protective garments, vaccines, shelters and decontamination equipment. There are other priorities that the Pentagon should emphasize, Carter said.

"Better planning and more effective intelligence collection" are just as important as funding for procurement of technologies, he said.

The Pentagon's top leaders, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly frustrated by the prospect of a threat they may not know how to defeat. '"he chemical and biological threat is a very tough problem," said Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre, in a speech to the Tech Trends 2000 conference. During the Cold War, he said, if the United States had been attacked with an intercontinental ballistic missile, "you knew who did it." The threats of the postSoviet era are much murkier.

Hamre told the conference that the Pentagon is aggressively seeking "good biological detectors." The ones currently in use, he added, are "primitive" because they take too long to detect and identify agents. "Early detection and diagnosis is the most important thing, but it's where we have the biggest technology hole," said Hamre.

Other experts interviewed for this story generally agreed that chemical and biological defense are complicated challenges because each is a drastically different threat that requires unique equipment and techniques.

Chemical weapons, for example, were used in various wars during the 20th century. They caused 1.3 million casualties during World War I alone. But even though chemical weapons are banned under an international treaty, nations with large stockpiles, such as the United States, have invested large sums of money in defensive systems, such as detectors and protective suits. …

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