Welcome to the Defense Download! This new round‐up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three‐to‐five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum. If you would like to receive more frequent updates on what I’m reading, writing, and listening to — you can follow me on Twitter via @CDDorminey.
- “Projected Costs of Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028,” Congressional Budget Office. The CBO creates new budget estimates every two years on the cost of America’s nuclear arsenal in the upcoming 10‐year time frame. This iteration is $94 billion more than the 2017 iteration — now spending will average just under $50 billion annually. This is the beginning of a much larger modernization bow wave that’s coming.
- “Congress poised to put Saudi Arabia on the hook for millions in military training,” Bryant Harris. Saudi Arabia currently utilizes various American military assistance programs to get access to U.S. training programs for their military at discounted rates. Congress may cut them off from these coupons. (h/t @RachelStohl)
A call for new low-yield nuclear weapons in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has generated a good deal of controversy and debate among American experts, and for good reason. However, there has been little attention paid to the assumptions that undergird the arguments made in the NPR to justify such capabilities. Flawed assumptions lead to flawed policy prescriptions, and the NPR’s assumptions are shaky at best. Congress should not move forward on the administration’s wish list of low-yield nuclear weapons without rigorously questioning the faulty assumptions made in the 2018 NPR.Read the rest of this post »
Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton last night is bound to stir up fears of instability and uncertainty in East Asia, a region that was almost entirely ignored during the campaign. Commentators have rushed to predict that Trump’s campaign rhetoric will turn into reality: the United States will pull back from East Asia, and China will take advantage of the ensuing chaos to seize geopolitical dominance of the region. This morning James Palmer at Foreign Policy writes, “Chinese leaders near me in the palatial complex of Zhongnanhai are surely cracking open the drinks.” This is a pretty scary vision of the future. However, such assessments, which focus solely on Chinese benefits, don’t take into account the complex nature of U.S.-China relations.
President Trump is by no means a clear victory for China. The uncertainty created by his victory could easily produce an economic and geopolitical climate that damages Chinese interests. For example, three of the seven points in Trump’s Plan to Rebuild the American Economy mention policies that would hurt the U.S.-China economic relationship: labeling China a currency manipulator; bringing trade cases against China in the World Trade Organization; and imposing tariffs in response to “illegal activities.” Igniting a trade war with China would pose a severe risk to China’s economy, which is already slowing down. Trump’s stated policies would likely deepen China’s economic woes, thereby increasing the domestic instability that Beijing is obsessed with avoiding, especially in the lead‐up to the 19th Party Congress in late 2017.
The Obama administration’s success in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran has led to hope that a similar agreement might be reached with North Korea. Halt your program, dismantle some of your capabilities, and accept intrusive inspections in return for “coming in from the cold.”
Unfortunately, there’s virtually no chance of that happening. As I point out in National Interest online: “The North already has a nuclear capability and views preservation of a nuclear arsenal as critical for domestic politics as well as international policy. Moreover, the West’s ouster of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy is seen in Pyongyang as dispositive proof that only a fool would negotiate away missile and nuclear capabilities.”
In word and action the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has demonstrated its commitment to being a nuclear state. Moreover, even a good offer for denuclearization looks suspect in light of U.S. and European support for the ouster of Libya’s Khadafy, who negotiated away his nuclear, chemical, and long‐range missile programs.
President George W. Bush promised that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” Khadafy was feted in European capitals. Tripoli was cited as a model for Iran and North Korea to follow.
However, four years ago the U.S. and European governments saw their chance. Under the guise of humanitarianism, Washington and Brussels promoted low‐cost (to them) regime change.
Alas, the self‐satisfied celebration of Libya as a “good war” quickly dissipated after that nation suffered post‐war atrocities, loosed weapons across the region, generated rogue militias, spawned two governments, descended into incipient civil war, and became another battleground for Islamic State forces.
Now Libya also stands as a stark warning against nonproliferation, at least for any government believing itself to be in Washington’s gunsights. Had Khadafy possessed nukes, chemical weapons, and/or missiles, the allies almost certainly would have kept their planes and drones at home.
The North Koreans took immediate note. The Foreign Ministry observed: “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallowed it up by force.”
Pyongyang has no reason to believe that the allies would not take advantage of a similar opening against the Kim dynasty.
Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiations have revived hopes that the DPRK might be enticed into following suit. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman suggested that implementation of the Iran agreement “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is pursuing.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Iranian deal was an “active model” for the North.
Alas, Kim Jong‐un took power only a couple months after Khadafy was killed in rather gruesome fashion. That event likely was imprinted upon his consciousness. Kim isn’t likely to give up his most important weapon to deter outside intervention.
After announcement of the Iranian agreement, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement explaining that the situation of the North was “quite different” from that of Iran and that Pyongyang was “not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first.”
After all, the DPRK was a nuclear state and faced ongoing threats from the U.S. Thus, its nuclear deterrent was not “a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”
This should surprise no one. Author Mark Fitzpatrick contended that the Iranian deal showed that the U.S. “treated the Iranians as equal negotiating partners, according them respect and collegiality.” But Washington treated Libyans that way too. Which didn’t stop the U.S. and its allies from ousting the same government a few years later.
It never was likely that the DPRK would yield up its nuclear weapons. But the Obama administration’s Libyan misadventure makes that prospect even less likely. Washington may rue this precedent for years to come.
Today Cato released a new white paper, "The End of Overkill? Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy." I am proud to have contributed to this effort with lead author Benjamin Friedman of Cato, and Matt Fay, a former Cato research assistant now enrolled in the History PhD program at Temple University. We argue that U.S. security does not require nearly 1,600 nuclear weapons deployed on a triad of systems—bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)—to deliver them. We estimate that a smaller arsenal deployed entirely on submarines would save roughly $20 billion annually while deterring attacks on the United States and its allies.
The paper is part of a broader project, "From Triad to Dyad: Rationalizing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems," made possible by the generous support of the Ploughshares Fund. The project began as a top-line review of the triad, but expanded into a more comprehensive study of U.S. nuclear strategy and policy. Over the last year, we presented our preliminary findings at over a dozen public events in ten different cities, as well as several engagements here in Washington, D.C. This process generated useful feedback along the way.
Here are a few excerpts from "The End of Overkill?":
Since the election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s presidency, there’s been a wave of events producing a newfound optimism about the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama sent a letter congratulating Rouhani on his victory and mentioning other, unspecified issues, and Rouhani reciprocated. Obama told Telemundo he saw Rouhani as “somebody who is looking to open a dialogue with the West, and with the United States, in a way we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, got into the act, reiterating an earlier call for “heroic leniency” in diplomacy over the nuclear program. Khamenei also told the radical and anti-American Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to butt out of Iran’s politics. At this time of writing, there are reports Tehran has released a number of political prisoners in Iran.
It all adds up to a period of positive trends in relations between the two countries. But it’s important not to overlook the fact that while atmospherics may help bring about talks, the countries are miles apart on the substantive issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Too much attention has been spent on getting to talks, and too little on bridging the chasm dividing the parties.
A central, if not the central, problem is that the American foreign policy community has failed to lay out any conceivable way Iran could satisfy Washington other than immediate suspension of all uranium enrichment with no serious sanctions relief in return, which nearly everyone agrees isn’t going to happen. Congress seems to have two speeds on Iran policy these days: sanctions and asleep. Congress regularly piles on more sanctions to Iran, some painful, some symbolic, because it’s the easy thing to do politically, and no one seems willing to spend the political capital to provide Iran with a realistic offramp by which Tehran could lessen the pain and save face. Unfortunately, Congress’ actions and rhetoric have given the Iranians good reason to fear that our real policy in Iran is regime change, which can’t augur well for a deal.
Adding to the problems, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently reiterated his own ultimatum to Iran, which is certain to fail. Netanyahu, whose hawkish id commands more influence in Washington than one might hope, demands zero enrichment in Iran—a formula no one believes is achievable. This formula puts Israel, and likely the United States, on a path to war with Iran.
So would Sen. Lindsey Graham, who last weekend reiterated his call for Congress to pass a war resolution allowing the Obama administration to bomb Iran when it determines bombing would be appropriate.
Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad.
So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.
If the so‐called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone.
But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear‐topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty‐boy Kim Jong‐un wouldn’t have much to smile about then.
Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.
The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere.
The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies.
North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy‐making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.