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28 March 2013


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David Habakkuk

Neil Richardson,

It may be appropriate to post in slightly amended form a comment I made back in September 2009, in a discussion of Obama’s embrace of the agenda for the abolition of nuclear weapons, as it bears upon this discussion.

A central issue here is the stability of MAD. This is something in which I used to believe, but do not any more. A major influence has been the writings of Bruce Blair, who before becoming a leading expert on nuclear command and control, served as a Minuteman launch control officer, back in the early Seventies. What he noticed then was that while the declared policy of the United States was deterrence based upon second-strike retaliation, almost all the drills he was called on to carry out involved weapons being fired when no Soviet attack had yet occurred.

A wicked conspiracy to hide preparations for a first-strike behind rhetoric about 'deterrence' perhaps? This is certainly what the Soviets thought, but the actual truth as revealed by the work of Blair and others is far less sinister, but extremely disturbing. For a second-strike retaliatory capability to be possible, it was necessary to have a command-and-control system which will survive all-out enemy attack. The academic theorists -- and following them many policymakers -- simply took for granted that this was possible. The military planners -- quite realistically -- doubted that it was.

What then happened is described by the former commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, General Lee Butler, in a 1998 interview a key section of which is reproduced in an article by Blair:

'Part of the insidiousness of the evolution of this system … is the unfortunate fact that, whatever might have been intended by the policymakers (who, incidentally, had very little insight into the mechanisms that underpinned the simple words that floated onto a blank page at the level of the White House), in reality, at the operational level, the requirements of deterrence proved impracticable…. The consequence was a move in practice to a system structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack…. Launch under attack means that you believe you have incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way….. Our policy was premised on being able to accept the first wave of attacks. We never said publicly that we were committed to launch on warning or launch under attack. Yet at the operational level it was never accepted that if the presidential decisions went to a certain tick of the clock, we would lose a major portion of our forces… Notwithstanding the intention of deterrence as it is expressed at the policy level – as it is declared and written down – at the level of operations those intentions got turned on their head, as the people who are responsible for actually devising the war plan faced the dilemmas and blind alleys of concrete practice. Those mattered absolutely to the people who had to sit down and try to frame the detailed guidance to exact destruction of 80 percent of the adversary’s nuclear forces. When they realized that they could not in fact assure those levels of damage if the president chose to ride out an attack, what then did they do? They built a construct that powerfully biased the president’s decision process toward launch before the arrival of the first enemy warhead.

(See http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NucNews/message/17323 )

What the nuclear war planners did not do -- as Blair brings out in the same piece in which he quotes the Lee Butler interview -- is be candid with the political leadership about the nature of the problem, and the solution they had adopted. On the Soviet side, similar pressures pushed planners towards a launch-on-warning posture. And as Blair's work brings out, a balance of terror involving two forces configured for launch-on-warning is liable to be highly unstable.

If the engineering skills of the U.S. were not adequate to provide survivable command and control, those of India, Pakistan or Iran are not going to be. Moreover, the vulnerability of command and control creates another problem with no good solutions. If one maintains effective centralised control, one is vulnerable to nuclear decapitation. If one decentralizes control -- as the U.S. did, far more than the Russians -- then the risks of accidental nuclear war go up. So too do the risks of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands -- including those of terrorists.

Babak Makkinejad

Let us assume that all these observations and comments are relevant.

What are the alternatives:

In Iran, in Syria, in North Korea, in India, and in Pakistan?

How can state security be assured by alternative means?

Are there any?

Neil Richardson

Dear Babak:

"In Iran, in Syria, in North Korea, in India, and in Pakistan? How can state security be assured by alternative means?"

Actually in theory I do agree with the notion that possession of survivable second strike nuclear force would deter threats against territorial sovereignty. As I've stated often the key question has always been: how can a state get from A (detonation of a device) to B (credible deterrent force). It helps if you could convince one of the nuclear weapons states to help you with 1) extended deterrence which was the case with Britain and France or 2) your main adversary hasn't had such a big lead in nuclear weapons development as was the case with India and Pakistan. The question is how willing is a state to run through that gauntlet of all gauntlets. It would only take one mistake from miscalculation during a crisis, "normal accident" or any number of potential instabilities. Perhaps Brigadier Ali could share his insight on this, but according to Strobe Talbott the Kargil crisis had the potential for a nasty turn during Sharif's visit to the US.

It seems to me India certainly didn't possess enough of a window of opportunity when it could contemplate a preemptive strike. The United States did have this window (remember that back then no one had even considered climatic effects), but Ike decided against it. Had there been another president during a crisis, who knows? Nixon was the VP. As for Syria and North Korea, well they're probably SOL.

Most often states with the ability to develop nuclear weapons choose to seek out extended deterrence from an ally. It's cheaper and certainly safer than doing it themselves which was the reason why Ukraine chose to denuclearize. De Klerk probably chose to denuclearize because he couldn't trust the ANC which was certainly going to come to power.

Neil Richardson

Dear Babak:

I didn't see this post before writing the reply below. I agree with your position in concept. Of course the proverbial devil is in details as one is apt to say especially in this matter. There are a lot of arguments such as the stability-instability paradox, "normal accidents" and dangers of LOW that have to be taken seriously. As I'd written below, it would only take one mistake.

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments.

Babak Makkinejad

I understand the idea of one mistake.

But nuclearized Pakistan has prevented India from gobbling her up.

Neil Richardson

Dear Mr. Habakkuk:

I acknowledge all the points above. I have no direct knowledge of the command and control procedures other than what has become publicly available. I guess there are three points that I'd make at this point. First, MAD is a state of existence for advanced nuclear weapons states IMHO. No matter what one can do to stretch his imagination in terms of various targeting options and "strategies" such as countervailing or counterforce, barring a credible ballistic missile defense (it's not going to become available any time soon and certainly not in my lifetime) it'll always come down to MAD in a crisis between two states with survivable deterrent forces as no one could ever be certain on how it'll all end.

Second, when confronted with the possibility of another nuclear state, what should the United States, Russia, Britain and France do in terms of PALs and other C2 infrastructure? Nixon reversed course in 1970 and secretly aided the French nuclear program. According to NYT we did the same for Pakistan at least since 2001.

Third, deterrence is obviously a psychological phenomenon. Were JFK and Khrushchev "average" political leaders or were they "exceptional"? That is a question that one has to answer at some point. Clearly JFK knew enough about the dangers of command and control as he'd alluded to "The Missiles of October" and had ordered the adoption of PALs back in June of 1962 (a decision that had faced substantial opposition from the USAF and the Navy). And if one were to believe Sergei Khrushchev (and I tend to do so), his father knew on Oct.27 that the decision to step down from the escalation ladder would doom him politically. If one tends to believe that JFK and Khruschchev were the exceptions then I think the prospect of nuclear proliferation portends ill for the future. As the United States slowly reduces its defense commitments around the globe, the incentive for it will only rise.

David Habakkuk

Neil Richardson,

As I understand it, the USAF did not simply oppose the introduction of PALs – they circumvented them. One of the reasons why the work of Bruce Blair is so interesting was that before going to graduate school he had been a Minuteman launch control officer, and so had a ‘worms eye view’ of nuclear planning.

Another of his articles describes how the SAC responded to the introduction of PALs:

‘The Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970s, during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed. Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel. SAC remained far less concerned about unauthorized launches than about the potential of these safeguards to interfere with the implementation of wartime launch orders. And so the “secret unlock code” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at OOOOOOOO.

‘After leaving the Air Force in 1974, I pressed the service, initially by letters addressed to it and then through congressional intermediaries, to consider a range of terrorist scenarios in which these locks could serve as crucial barriers against the unauthorized seizure of launch control over Minuteman missiles. In 1977, I co-authored (with Garry Brewer) an article (reprinted below) entitled “The Terrorist Threat to World Nuclear Programs” in which I laid out the case for taking this threat more seriously and suggesting remedial measures including, first and foremost, activating those McNamara locks that apparently he and presidents presumed had already been activated.

‘The locks were activated in 1977.’

(See http://www.reddit.com/r/mil/comments/16kqze/bruce_blairs_nuclear_column_home_page_keeping/ )

Although the SAC’s insubordination was clearly reprehensible, it is also important that behind it lies a tension between contradictory requirements. Preventing accidental or unauthorised launch, which is critical alike to crisis stability, escalation control, and security against terrorism, demands effective controls, such as McNamara was attempting to introduce.
However, the more effective those controls are, the greater the possibility that a pre-emptive strike aimed at the command and control system can neutralise a large part of the arsenal – and perhaps even make a second strike retaliatory capacity moot.

David Habakkuk

Babak Makkinejad,

The whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

If someone had suggested to me back twenty-five years ago that there would come a day when I would read a discussion of issues to deal with ‘multiculturalism’ from a former KGB official with much of which I agreed, I think I would have thought they were out of their mind.

(See http://www.bsr-russia.com/en/politics/item/2083-putin-tackles-ethnicity-and-patriotism-in-latest-article.html )

Today it is in Washington and London that one finds people ferociously determined to fit complex and intractable realities into the Procrustean bed of ideological simplicities – as Obama’s speech in Jerusalem once again made clear.

(See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/21/barack-obama-speech-jerusalem-text )

Babak Makkinejad

In regards to Khruschchev: Richard Nixon characterized him as the smatest man (politician) he had met.

Bertrand Russel, in his book : "Unarmed Victories" attributed the avoidence of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis to the sanity of Khruschchev.

I have heard that JFK was constantly taking drugs for supposed back pains and other injuries during WWII.

I wonder the extent to which he had mental balance.

You can state these two men when exceptional, each in his own way. But one for certain was positively so and the other one we cannot be sure.

I have to emphatically disagree with you as to the causes of prolieferation; the DC crowd laughts at the Principle of Peace of Westphalia - establishing a precedent to be followed by others - Russians and Chinese and many others.

This is the fundamental problematic - the exression of a single instance of which we are observing in Syria.

Syria has to be destroyed to wound Iran - not becuase she is a threat to US or any of her allies.

William R. Cumming

Somehow in this lengthy thread I missed the discourse between David H. and Neil on nuclear strategy.

Disclosure: I was a Pershing I and IA launch control officer for one year and also a NAICO for the southern part of the FRG in late 60's. And no the Army did not have bright shiny well lit silos for the Pershing QRAs [Quick reaction sites] like the USAF. PAL locking mechanisms were given by the Kennedy Administration to the Soviet Union during the aftermath of the Berlin Crisis. They were soley under the control of US officers in the Pershing ranks.

The best book on COMMAND and CONTROl of nuclear weapons in open source is Professor Paul Bracken of Yales book of that title published about 1982. I also commend his book FIRE IN THE EAST [1989]!

Following the nuclear strategy debate with some interest and being familiar with Lee Butler's writings and as a lawyer having expertise not shared many places on Presidential delegation [conducted legal review of portion of the President's briefcase together with DoJ] I stake the following claim. Not only is MAD still US strategic strike doctrine, but the deepest thinkers on nuclear strategy in all nuclear capable countries have reached the same bottom line conclusion although analysis of that conclusion is almost non-existent. The CONCLUSION: the winner of any nuclear war is the party with the most weapons left after the war concludes.

This may shock some but I believe as far as nuclear warfighting it is in fact the correct conclusion.

By the way Pershing nuclear launch codes were transmitted over Tropospheric Scatter Communications systems. Once during my time an actual war authenticator card was employed by accident and all units immediately requested retransmittal when the error was discovered and corrected.

Neil Richardson

Dear Babak:

"I have to emphatically disagree with you as to the causes of prolieferation; the DC crowd laughts at the Principle of Peace of Westphalia - establishing a precedent to be followed by others - Russians and Chinese and many others."

Perhaps I wasn't clear. I was referring to the possible contraction of US extended deterrence provided to our allies. It's easy to see the ramifications of this in NE Asia even today. Let's say the US reverts to a more isolationist foreign policy (not likely today, but as I've always stated 15-20 years is a very long time in international relations). European allies would have to consider what they're willing to do for their national defense. As of today they've mostly disarmed themselves in terms of conventional forces. Will Germany rely on French extended deterrence? How about the former WP states who are now part of NATO? There are a lot more countries that enjoy the US nuclear umbrella (some explicit and many implicit) than Iran, Syria or DPRK. How about the states that are proximate to the PRC? Their first option would to coax the US to extend our nuclear umbrella (Indonesia, the Philippines, VN, maybe even Myanmar, etc). Chances are they might not get it. You can see why the temptation to consider proliferation could increase even if the US were to wash our hands of the mess in Iran, Syria and DPRK.

As for the Westphalian "institution" to which you refer, my perspective on international relations is decidedly realist. In positive analysis, states will do what they have to do to protect their sovereignty (the primary national interest) in an anarchical system. There is no sanctity of nation-states or we'd not have had so many conflicts and general wars since 1648 or even after 1919 or 1945. Are there certain institutions that guide state behavior such as the Vienna Convention? Sure (other than Iran in 1979) but these are not enforceable in the final analysis without the "power" of states namely the major powers. In normative analysis, as I've stated often states must do what they can to further their national interest. The Melian Dialogue aptly describes what might be considered the reality of international relations.

Neil Richardson

Dear Mr. Habakkuk:

"However, the more effective those controls are, the greater the possibility that a pre-emptive strike aimed at the command and control system can neutralise a large part of the arsenal – and perhaps even make a second strike retaliatory capacity moot."

As you know the United States deployed The Looking Glass, NEACP, TACAMO and other C2 measures throughout the Cold War. You're absolutely right about the tradeoff. But I think we might be falling into the realm of discussion over nuclear doctrines at this point. If our nuclear doctrine is decidedly counterforce/countervailing, then one could possibly imagine a situation in which the national command authority could be decapitated. However, all nuclear strategies still come down to MAD. Dennis Healey probably put it best when he said, "It takes only 5% credibility of American retaliation to deter the Russians, but 95% to assure the Europeans." IIRC he was referring to the Pershing II/SS-20 controversy when he became frustrated with the German and French concerns about the countervailing strategy and how NATO could not maintain escalation dominance.

IIRC the entire premise of the infamous Team B analysis was based on how the neocons interpreted the Soviet deployment of land based ICBMs which were more accurate than SLBMs. The Soviets had their own reasons for investing more heavily in the land leg as you know. Their subs were vulnerable for much of the Cold War. I remember Max Kampelman droning on about the Soviet nuclear warfighting doctrine. He referred to the fact that the Soviets had lost more than 20 million in WW2 as a proof of willingness to bet on counterforce strikes.

Babak Makkinejad

I am not sppeaking of nation-state - a model that is clearly inapplicable to the Middle East, Myanamar, Indonesia, Malaysian, Thailand, and much of Africa.

What I am saying is that the Westphalian conception was rooted in the decades of war that preceeded it. Its reincarnation in the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars clearly was meant to minimize the dangers of generalized warfare.

I do not fint it and the Concert iof Europe to have been un-Realistic.

They were constructs with limited lifetime and finite aims.

That it failed was not due to lack of religious respect for Nation-State (Russia, Austro-Hugnary, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire were not natioin-sates)it was due to massive political miscalculation of those who thought war will be short and quick; diregarding the lessons of US Civil War.

And I agree with you that United States is not protecting Viet Nam against China nor will she - I think you would agree. Likewise for Myanmar. I am not sure US will even protect Thailand or Taiwan.

Which - per your Realist position, would imply that any state with wherewithall to do so will necessarily have to attempt at procuring nuclear weapons in an otherwise anarchic internationa system.

Yes, I understand all that about IR etc; the War of all against All.

But, the existence of a Concert of Europe, for a 100 years, clearly indicates that alternative systems of political stability among states are possible.

I suppose once 20 ore more states have achieved considerable nuclear arsenals of their own, something akin to the Concert of Europe might be revived.

But what possible benefit is befalling US & EU in Syria? This was a government that earlier had helped prevent attacks on the United States?

If you state that the interest are non-rational and not rational, to the Anarchic description of the international arena must be added the adjective "Insane".

In such an insanely anarchic system, Offense is the best Defense and Premption with overwhelming force is the most prudent way of ensuring one's survival.

Neil Richardson

Dear Babak:

"But, the existence of a Concert of Europe, for a 100 years, clearly indicates that alternative systems of political stability among states are possible."

I think that is stretching the historical data quite a bit. If you're referring to the absence of a system-wide general war sure it works. However, the Crimean War, Austro-Prussian War, and of course the Franco-Prussian War were not mere brushfires. How long did peace really last? Kissinger made his name in the academia with the dissertation, but multipolarity vs bipolarity debate is far from clear cut especially in the context of nuclear weapons.

"I suppose once 20 ore more states have achieved considerable nuclear arsenals of their own, something akin to the Concert of Europe might be revived."

Collective security is not something that's likely to work. There's an awful lot of historical work as well as theoretical work (esp. economics) that discuss why collective action dilemma is not something that can be solved easily.

"If you state that the interest are non-rational and not rational, to the Anarchic description of the international arena must be added the adjective "Insane".

That's always been part of the discussion. Bob Jervis has spent a lifetime's work on misperception in international politics. And since Fritz Fischer, even IR realists have acknowledged the critical importance of domestic sources of foreign policy (some more than others).

"In such an insanely anarchic system, Offense is the best Defense and Premption with overwhelming force is the most prudent way of ensuring one's survival."

The problem with this is the notion of security dilemma. As Mr. Habakkuk noted actions that are taken with "defensive intentions" could be perceived by adversaries as "offensive." And the notion of "anarchy" is not always Hobbesian. People have different conception of it. For ex. what is the impact of nuclear weapons in how we perceive the anarchical nature. People like Ken Waltz and John Mearsheimer have maintained their position that nuclear deterrence is a stabilizing influence. Many others like Scott Sagan, Bob Jervis, (aforementioned) Bruce Blair, Paul Bracken see many dangers that I'd mentioned above.

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