January 25, 2019 1:45PM

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/24/19

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.  

  1. "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. 
  2. "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)
January 18, 2018 1:57PM

Solid Foundation? The (Flawed) Assumptions Underpinning Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

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.  

The first key assumption in the new NPR is that the international threat environment facing the United States has worsened considerably since the last review was released in 2010. Unlike the last NPR, which downplayed the role nuclear weapons played in U.S. strategy, the new NPR argues that the growing nuclear capabilities and sharp elbows of America’s adversaries create a compelling need for a tailored and flexible nuclear arsenal. Low-yield nuclear weapons are not intended for “nuclear war-fighting,” the NPR argues, but are meant to bolster deterrence by convincing adversaries that they will not gain a decisive advantage from their own nuclear weapons.

The chief problem with this assumption is that it views deterrence as a contest of capabilities while ignoring the role of interests. In other words, the new NPR implies that capability gaps in the U.S. nuclear arsenal encourage bad behavior from other countries while downplaying the role stakes play in an adversary’s cost-benefit calculation. Credible deterrence requires the United States to make an adversary believe that it will face higher costs than benefits if the target takes an action that the United States is trying to prevent. U.S. nuclear capabilities are one part of this equation, but if the target believes that it has vital interests at stake then it may act regardless of U.S. threats. Low-yield nuclear weapons will impact the cost-benefit calculation of U.S. adversaries, but they probably won’t deter the kinds of actions that have vexed Washington in recent years. For example, the United States was unable to deter China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea and Russia’s annexation of Crimea because in both instances the other countries had greater interests at stake than the United States.

Nuclear weapons are useful tools for deterring things like a nuclear attack against the United States or a Russian attack against NATO, but such actions can be deterred without more low-yield nukes. However, nuclear weapons—regardless of their yield—are poorly suited for preventing other nuclear states from pursuing interests that are much more important for them than the United States.

Another faulty assumption in the NPR is related to Russia’s nuclear strategy. The NPR states that Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” nuclear strategy is a serious threat that requires new U.S. nuclear capabilities to solve. Under the “escalate to deescalate” strategy, Moscow would use or threaten to use low-yield nuclear weapons in a conflict with NATO in order to end the conflict on favorable terms. Therefore, the United States must have new low-yield nuclear weapons of its own in order to prevent Russia from using the threat of limited nuclear escalation to coerce the United States or its allies.

The NPR’s assumptions about “escalate to deescalate” ignore recent developments in Russian military capabilities that suggest “escalate to deescalate” no longer reflects Russian nuclear thinking. Moscow’s economic and military weakness following the end of the Cold War led to greater reliance on nuclear weapons and lower thresholds for nuclear use in order to deter a much stronger NATO. While Russia still lags behind the United States and NATO in military technology, Moscow’s conventional military power and asymmetric capabilities—such as cyber and electronic warfare—have grown much strong over the past decade. Russia has not abandoned the possibility of using nuclear weapons first in a conflict, but U.S. fears over “escalate to deescalate” gloss over the changes that Russia has made to reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons in recent years.

The Trump administration’s NPR makes nuclear strategy based on important assumptions about the state of the world and the nuclear strategies of U.S. adversaries. These assumptions—and the policy solutions that flow from them—must be rigorously questioned in order to craft an effective U.S. nuclear strategy. The case for new low-yield nuclear weapons made in the NPR rests on shaky assumptions about what nuclear weapons are capable of deterring and the characteristics of Russia’s nuclear strategy. 

November 9, 2016 1:30PM

Trump’s Victory Is a Mixed Bag for China

Xi Jinping Flag

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.



In the realm of geopolitics, Chinese gains in the conventional balance of power resulting from a reduced U.S. commitment to traditional allies could be offset if other regional states turn to nuclear weapons. America’s regional partners have started to improve their conventional self-defense capabilities, but it will take a good deal of time and money to get their militaries to the point where they can resist Chinese coercion without U.S. help. With this in mind, and given the recent nuclear saber rattling by North Korea, if Trump starts shedding U.S. alliance commitments then partners may turn to nuclear weapons to defend themselves.

Japan would likely be the first country to develop a nuclear weapon in such a scenario. Its limited conventional capabilities create a pressing need for a deterrent if the United States would not come to its rescue, and its highly-developed nuclear energy program makes it relatively easy for Japan to acquire the materials it would need. It would still take a good amount of time for Japan to develop such weapons. For example, a 2006 article by Jeffrey Lewis at the Arms Control Wonk blog suggested a timeframe of 3–5 years. If Japan goes down this road, there is a chance that neighboring countries, such as South Korea, would also push for their own nuclear weapons. While Japan would face enormous resistance to nuclear weapons development, support for having nuclear weapons among lawmakers has increased in recent years in response to growing tension in East Asia. A nuclear-armed Japan is completely anathema to Chinese security interests, and would be a serious setback for China’s geopolitical position in East Asia.

While this analysis is almost purely speculative at this point, there is a case to be made that the Trump administration will not be as good for China as many commentators have suggested. China could reap some benefits from a United States occupied with domestic political turmoil and a president that disdains alliance commitments. However, the economic and geopolitical uncertainty that could be unleashed by his victory should curb Beijing’s enthusiasm. As Isaac Stone Fish recently stated in Foreign Policy, “the Chinese elite seem to prefer Trump’s opponent because they feel she would be better … [for] global stability, which remains of great importance to Beijing.” The officials in Zhongnanhai should save those drinks for another day. 

September 2, 2015 9:20AM

North Korea Remembers Libya, So No Iranian‐​Style Deal

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.

September 24, 2013 9:41AM

Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy

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?":

  • U.S. nuclear weapons’ policies have long rested on myths—about U.S. force plans, enemy capability, and the difficulties of deterrence—invented to manage Pentagon politics, placate allies and, to an extent, to bluff enemies.
  • The triad developed during the Eisenhower administration as a result of competition—both between the Cold War combatants and the U.S. military services. Eisenhower's “New Look” strategy, which threatened massive retaliation against Soviet adventurism, privileged the Air Force because Air Force bombers were the nation’s primary means for delivering strategic nuclear weapons, and the Air Force also had the lead in developing missile technology.
  • Eisenhower's policies, by producing interservice rivalries, encouraged innovative military doctrine to address the main U.S. military mission of the day: defending Europe from the Soviet Union, what defense intellectuals call extended deterrence. To regain budget share and relevance, the Army and Navy needed a bigger role. They argued that massive U.S. retaliation in response to a Soviet invasion of an ally was suicidal and thus unbelievable. The Army and Navy's alternative deterrence strategies helped institutionalize the triad.
  • The structure of the nuclear force that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations established, and the arguments they constructed to justify it, largely lasted through the Cold War. The interservice debate on how to defend Europe might have produced a choice in the early 1960s among doctrines and nuclear delivery systems that allowed a smaller arsenal. Instead, those administrations embraced all three, at least rhetorically.
  • The triad survived after the Cold War because each leg had support from a powerful military constituency and congressmen whose districts benefitted from the associated spending. All had cheerleaders among defense intellectuals who received or sought service grants and political appointments. No similarly powerful interests pushed back. Fights over nuclear weapons policy in the late Cold War covered limited ground. Limited debate obscured the flaws in the triad’s rationales.
  • The declining military usefulness of nuclear weapons increases their delivery systems’ vulnerability to budget cuts. Though the arsenal retains powerful backers, their budgetary utility for the Air Force and Navy has declined. Service leaders may see nuclear weapons as a drain on funding for personnel and platforms better linked to the service’s preferred organizational purpose and doctrine.
  • Policymakers should exploit that circumstance to improve strategic debate. Unity is necessary in war, but dissent is a reliable source of insight in preparing for war. A nuclear weapons policy that better serves the national interest may require the competition of parochial interests.

I believe that all who have an interest in U.S. national security policy will find value in the paper. I especially hope that it helps to dispel some of the most enduring myths surrounding nuclear weapons, and the role that they play in keeping the nation safe and secure. As the military is being asked to accomplish more with less, it is essential that it invest taxpayer resources wisely. The nation's nuclear weapons arsenal is particularly ripe for additional scrutiny.

September 19, 2013 4:21PM

On Iran, Would U.S. Take “Yes” for an Answer?

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.

To be fair, however, the Washington debate has moved decidedly in the direction of common sense since the Iran nuclear issue first heated up in 2006. The intelligence community, in 2007 and 2011, concluded that Iran has not yet taken the decision to push for a nuclear weapon, and that Iran’s calculus on this matter was responsive to external events, including U.S. policy.

And mainstream commentary has inched away from assertions that suicidal mullahs would launch unprovoked nuclear strikes at Israel. Claims that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists have faded. And the argument that a nuclear Iran would precipitate a cascade of nuclear proliferation has faced steady opposition from academic researchers and now a sharp blow from the Center for a New American Security, an establishment think tank.

Iran might be lying, but it looks more inclined to say yes to a reasonable nuclear deal than it has in the past 10 years. If U.S. political leaders care as much about the Iran problem as they say they do, and if they’re really looking to avoid another counterproliferation war, that fact should push Washington to swallow its pride and offer a more realistic deal than it has been inclined to do until now.

April 15, 2013 12:08PM

The North Korean Threat: Disengage and Defuse

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.