I was reading this tendentious little op-ed by Keith Payne when I thought — “What a hypocrite!”
It took me about ten minutes to find Payne making the same argument that he’s now lambasting.
Well, that was easy.
Payne criticizes General James Cartwright (UMCS, ret.) and other authors of the Global Zero Nuclear Policy Report for making the argument that the security benefits of nuclear weapons — deterrence and assurance — are more psychological than material. Here is what Payne writes:
For example, while the report calls for a realistic understanding of the post-Cold War security situation, it begins with, “Security is mainly a state of mind, not a physical condition.” Why this fatuous statement? Because if security is just a state of mind, old-fashioned security concerns can be banished easily by new thinking. But security is not mainly a state of mind; it often is predominantly a physical condition. Nations usually feel insecure because they are under threat or attack. Just ask the survivors of invasions, various genocidal campaigns and aerial bombardment or the folks in Syria who must dodge government attacks to survive. Real threats often underlie fears, and they require real solutions. Those who chalk this all up to “mainly a state of mind” and resist real solutions to real security problems often later are called “victims.”
Now, obviously what Payne really objects to are Cartwright’s recommendations for nuclear weapons strategy, forces and posture – a force of 900 warheads, with half deployed on a form of modified alert.
But Payne chooses to dispute Cartwright’s framing, which emphasizes the psychological aspects of deterrence. The problem is that Payne makes exactly the same argument when its suits him. Here is Payne, circa 2009:
Deterrence involves exploiting opponents’ fears and sensitivities and may have little or no connection to US preferences for the wartime employment of force for combat missions. Assurance, in turn, requires the easing of allies’ fears and sensitivities, which again may have little or nothing to do with how the United States might prefer to terminate a conflict. Whether US nuclear capabilities are regarded as useful or not “to fight or terminate a conventional conflict” may tell us nothing about their potential value for the political/psychological purposes of assurance and punitive deterrence. Deterrence, assurance, and war fighting are different functions with possibly diverse and separate standards for force requirements. The potentially different force standards for these different goals should not be confused.
It’s a nice trick. We cannot further reduce our nuclear stockpile because security is a function of material factors like the number and type of nuclear weapons. Also, in the event that we don’t need all of these weapons, I would still like to keep them because security is not merely a function of material factors like the number and type of nuclear weapons. Heads I win, tails you lose.
In the short-term, Payne has done rather well by such sophistry. He sites on the STRATCOM SAG and his (awful) book is recommended reading in Omaha. In the long run, though, his failure to articulate a coherent view of nuclear policy beyond “more, please” probably means he’ll ultimately be remembered mostly as the guy who was willing to put call 20 million dead US citizens a “Win.” (I once teased Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, both of whom I like tremendously, by asking if they dressed up as Keith Payne and Colin Gray for Halloween. If you think that’s funny, it’s because in contrast to their scholarly, if controversial, views, Keith Payne’s ideas are basically a costume that one tries on for effect.)
Too bad, really. As it turns out, I believe this debate is the core question about nuclear weapons policy: How much do technical details matter for achieving the security benefits conferred by nuclear weapons? As I keep saying:
How many weapons are enough to ensure deterrence? How difficult is it to achieve and maintain deterrence? How important are the technical details of a country’s nuclear forces, such as the size, configuration, and readiness, to the goal of maintaining deterrence?…
One view, I would say the dominant view in U.S. defense planning, is that deterrence can be achieved only through difficult choices, sustained with intelligent effort, and will depend very much on the technical details. This is the view expressed in Albert Wohlstetter’s 1958 Rand monograph, The Delicate Balance of Terror, which helped to shape the dominant Cold War attitudes about deterrence.
A different view is that, beyond a certain point, all of this is crazy talk, and the technical details don’t matter very much at all. The balance of terror is anything but delicate. An enemy who can be deterred, will be deterred by the prospect of a counterattack, even if it consists of only a few nuclear weapons. Beyond that minimum threshold, nuclear weapons provide little additional deterrent benefit.
The idea that the security benefits from nuclear weapons are subject to sharply diminishing returns beyond a basic survivable retaliatory capability is hardly an unreasonable notion. If Payne has some reason to think otherwise, he should spit it out.
Cartwright et al. clearly view deterrence in this way, arguing that current US and Russian stockpiles “vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence between the two countries ….” One might complain that the report spends too little time outlining those reasonable requirements, but their discussion of force size and targeting makes clear their implicit view.
Of course, Payne might have some reason that a few hundred warheads isn’t enough damage to deter Russia. I’d certainly like to know what use he envisions for, say, warhead number 301.
There are, of course, other serious objections to such a posture. The two most important, from my perspective, are whether we can develop plausible operational concepts for a minimum deterrent on which a credible threat depends and whether we can extend deterrence to our allies.
Payne has arguments he could make in favor of both objections to the minimum deterrent that General Cartwright advocates. But he largely avoids doing so, I suspect because the answers to both are straightforward. The credibility problems with nuclear weapons are political and not easily subject to alterations in technical detail. As for our allies, we provide for their security largely through conventional deterrence. It would be better to be frank about what role nuclear weapons do, and do not, play in their security.
In the end, it’s always seemed simple to me. What deterrence there is to be had, is achieved by a basic survivable capability to retaliate against a small number of high value targets. Beyond that, more is wasteful — and I can’t see how spending money to get less defense should be worrisome to our enemies or reassuring to our allies.