The Spectator

Will the Pentagon Thwart Obama’s Dream of Zero?

How serious is the president about nuclear disarmament?

Barack Obama

Barack Obama dreams of Zero. A world without nuclear weapons. None. Zero. The nuclear lions will lie down with the non-nuclear lambs and hope that there are no nuclear wolves hoarding or hiding the deadly devices out there in the darkness. Meanwhile, though, the decisive question—whether this is merely a dream, merely rhetoric—will depend on how seriously the Pentagon’s nuclear commanders take what is, in effect, a mandate to zero themselves out. And there are indications that more forceful direction from the White House is needed if they are to transform Obama’s Zero from dream to reality.

Obama put Zero on the map at the very beginning of his presidency. In an April speech in Prague, he spoke of a desire for “a world without nuclear weapons.And when he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in July, the two leaders agreed to deep reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and launchers each country keeps at hand, renewing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that had been due to expire at the end of this year.

But there have been recent indications of “pushback” against Obama by generals in the nuclear chain of command, not so much on reducing the numbers of missiles but on their alert status and on the flawed “command and control” system that makes us vulnerable to accidental nuclear war.

How seriously does what you might call the nuclear-industrial complex take Obama’s goal of Zero? I recently attended a large convocation of the nuclear establishment in Omaha, Neb., near the headquarters of STRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command.

The event was called “The First Annual Strategic Deterrence Conference,” and I learned about it at the last minute from Bruce Blair, one of the founders of the privately funded “Global Zero Initiative,” which recently unveiled its “action plan” to zero out nukes by 2030. So I dropped everything to get to Omaha, because I’m writing a book about the new nuclear landscape, including the dream of Zero.

But Zero wasn’t a focus of the program. There were seven panels of heavyweight generals and admirals and top-of-the-line think-tankers, almost all of them devoted to strengthening and lengthening the life of our nuclear-deterrent weapons. In the midst of 14 hours of nukes-are-our-future panels, the conference squeezed in one speaker—a Baltimore archbishop—who was allowed to make a half-hour talk on “Nuclear Weapons and Moral Questions: the Path to Zero.” If any swords were beaten into ploughshares after he spoke I must have missed it.

When I say I’m sensing reluctance from the nuclear-industrial complex to get with the Zero program of the president, I am not suggesting we’re headed for the scenario of the classic Cold War thriller Seven Days in May, in which a cabal of generals plots a coup against a president who signs a disarmament treaty with the Russians (and in which Burt Lancaster, as the sinister coup leader, turns in a great performance).

But I am concerned that we will lose the chance to make a historic turning point in our nuclear history, that Obama’s Zero will sink into a bureaucratic swamp of inertia, inanition, and passive-aggressive neglect from long-entrenched interests who see the move toward Zero as their own “death panel.” Their opposition may well grow out of a sincere desire to protect the nation, but they may not be the most objective judges or managers of the path to Zero.

Obama has a car czar; he needs a Zero czar if he’s serious.

I should note first, of course, that I don’t know whether Obama’s Zero will ever be possible or practical or even morally desirable. Will the absence of nuclear deterrence increase the death toll from conventional wars? It’s certainly hard to imagine the moment—which even Obama said might not happen “in my lifetime”—when the last nuke on earth is handed over for destruction. I tend to find myself in agreement with a line I believe I read on the highly informative blog: The hardest part of arms reduction will be not getting down to zero but getting down to 10.

Nonetheless, it’s huge news—or should be—that the president of the United States has set out zero nukes as a goal. (Yes, there’s some argument lately about how serious Ronald Reagan was when he spoke fondly of abolishing nukes toward the end of his second term, but he was never serious enough about it to give up on Star Wars, his unattainable space-based defense darling.) But now that we have a president, a commander in chief ensconced in Washington, who says he’s not just a nuclear reductionist but a nuclear abolitionist—someone who could make the goal of Zero more than a dream or a photo op—it’s begun to seem like Zero is going nowhere. Where are the interagency working groups? (I never thought I’d be asking that question.)

He has yet to mobilize the Defense and State department bureaucracies by, for instance, issuing a presidential policy directive on the national security strategy of the United States. A recent, valuable pamphlet from the Federation of American Scientists and the National Resources Defense Counsel (“From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence“) offers Obama a model Presidential Policy Directive that would light a fire under the responsible departments.

Or, if he’s really serious about Zero, he could task out the bold but specific steps of the Global Zero Initiative’s “Action Plan” to get to Zero by 2030.

It’s ironic that while the Pentagon bureaucracy and much of the Washington establishment has shown little interest in engaging in the Zero question, almost condescendingly taking the attitude of “let him dream; we’ll be here long after he’s gone,” some of the toughest, most hawkish Cold warriors have astonishingly—to me, anyway—begun signing on to Zero as a realistic option in the new nuclear age.

It began in January 2007 with a now famous (in nuke-wonk circles) op-ed in the Wall Street Journal signed by a covey of hard-line Cold warriors, including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

It’s continued with the surprising supporters of the Global Zero Initiative “Action Plan”; at the plan’s July press unveiling, its dominant spokesman was Richard M. Burt, who was best-known as a relatively hard-line Reagan and (H.W.) Bush State Department nuclear arms negotiator who remained in opposition to Zero when Ronald Reagan seemed to be making sentimental noises about it toward the end of his second term.

Burt (who was also a defense reporter for the New York Times) told me the geopolitical situation had changed so radically since the end of the Cold War that he now believed we would be safer without any nuclear weapons at all. In short, Obama’s dream of Zero is not the Zero of a naive nuclear-freeze hippie; the coterie of old-school nuclear warriors endorsing Zero make him seem less like a flower child on this one.

But Obama’s got to make like a commander in chief if he wants credit for more than dreaming. The first sign that Obama and his generals were not on the same page came last February when his chief nuclear commander—Air Force Gen. Kevin Patrick Chilton, the head of STRATCOM—took issue with Obama’s characterization of U.S. nuclear forces as being on “hair-trigger alert.”

In his campaign, Obama promised to “work with Russia to take the U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert.” But according to a report by Elaine M. Grossman of the Global Security Newswire, Gen. Chilton objected to Obama’s use of the term: ” ‘It conjures a drawn weapon in the hands of somebody,’ said the general, speaking at a two-day conference on air warfare. ‘And their finger’s on the trigger. And you’re worried they might sneeze, because it is so sensitive.’”

The general went on to describe what he called the “reality of our alert posture today”: “[T]he weapon is in the holster … [and] has two combination locks on it”; it “takes two people to open those locks”; and “they can’t do it without authenticated orders from the president of the United States.”

What the General is doing here is using semantics to diminish a real problem. When nuke wonks talk about a “hair-trigger” posture, they’re usually referring, somewhat melodramatically, to a “launch-on-warning” alert status (meaning that we might launch a nuclear counterattack on being warned of an incoming attack), as opposed to a “launch-on-attack” or “ride out” alert status (meaning that we’d launch only once the incoming attack hit).

The trouble with a launch-on-warning posture (as I’m sure you’ll recall from my previous column on the subject) is that the president might have to make a “use it or lose it” launch decision before he can be certain that the warnings of attack are not “false positives.” Officially, our doctrine has always been closer to ride-out: We won’t retaliate until we’re certain we’ve been hit. But critics like Bruce Blair, who investigated the Cold War alert system for a Senate committee, have warned for years that despite “ride out” declarations, we are actually on “launch on alert” status, which some might call, with some justice, “hair trigger.”

And so Gen. Chilton was splitting hairs about Obama’s use of the phrase “hair trigger.” The “guns” can come out of their “holsters”—the missile software can be retargeted and readied for launch—within a matter of minutes on the basis of warnings alone, and as a result, accidental nuclear war is not impossible. In addition, the general’s comment about there being “two combination locks” seems disingenuous; I assume he’s referring here to the “two key system,” which requires two missile crewmen to twist the launch keys simultaneously, but that system is irrelevant to the launch-readiness debate. Both locks can be opened in minutes.

Perhaps more disturbing than General Chilton’s cavalier dismissal of Obama’s concern is the fact that he was backed up by the top man in the Air Force, Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz, who said he wanted to “push back a little” on the “hair trigger” implication that “these things are very close to launching.”

“That’s anything but the case,” Schwartz said. “There is a rigorous discipline [and] process involved, should that ever be required, and it is anything but hair-trigger.” Again, he is using terms like discipline and process to imply that, in effect, if every item on the check list is checked, no larger mistake can be made. Both generals are using the tactic of attempting to discredit a phrase—the somewhat over-dramatizing “hair-trigger”—as a way of avoiding the real problem: de facto launch on warning.

Most troubling is Obama’s failure to take up this challenge from his top generals: He’s sending a message that he’s not serious on the issue, that he can be rolled. If Obama wants to demonstrate his commitment to Zero, he should call Gen. Chilton into the White House and make sure they are on the same page when it comes to what our launch status is. And what he wants it to be. And if he thinks it’s—in effect—on hair-trigger, he should promptly take it off.

Meanwhile, there are further indications that the nuclear-industrial complex is dragging its feet on implementing the new commander in chief’s nuclear policies. There is the matter of the Nuclear Posture Review, which is due in December 2009. The NPR is a periodic review that got under way before Obama became president, and the big question is how seriously it will take Obama’s dream of Zero.

The first disquieting signal on this front came earlier this month, when the Pentagon released a series of talking points about the upcoming NPR. Although the release began with lip service to Zero, it quickly moved on to a long list of desiderata for maintaining, updating, modernizing, and improving our nuclear-weapons-deterrence system. “In his April 5, 2009 speech in Prague,” the Aug. 6 NPR talking points begin, “President Obama made clear his intent to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and to take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. He also promised that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

“He also promised …” That’s what the NPR talking points are all about: The “also” reality we actually live in where Zero is just a dream.

Note the wording “as long as nuclear weapons exist”: The Pentagon is committed to business as usual. There are also little code words in there for those in the know. Consider effective, which, in this context, can be interpreted to mean that the aging and supposedly deteriorating nuclear warhead stockpile needs more than the current “Life Extension Program” (an ironic name), which works to refurbish fissile warheads from the Cold War to ensure the credibility of their deterrent value. Most of the nuclear establishment has been straining at the bit to junk the LEP and replace it with the RRW—the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” program—which would involve developing an entire new generation of nuclear warheads and probably require underground testing (rather than the computer simulations disparaged as insufficient), and thus continued U.S. refusal to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban treaty. Obama has made signing that treaty one of his goals, but the nuclear-weapons-making establishment doesn’t want to be hamstrung by it. Just another way the nuclear bureaucracy is derailing the commander in chief’s goals.

And then there’s the final sentence of the talking points, which conspicuously raises the possibility that the so-called “reset” of U.S. and Russian relations may be a sham and calls for possible Cold War-level rearmament:

“Alternative postures and force structures are being analyzed in this NPR to address other possible futures, including security environments in which relations with Russia dramatically improve, implications if the START follow-on treaty does not enter into force and if reset of the U.S.-Russian relationship does not continue.” (Italics mine.) It’s not unrealistic to plan for the worst-case scenario, but one does not get the feeling there is much planning for the best.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the NPR talking points? Not a single one was devoted to attaining the goal of Zero. And an earlier set of talking points issued in June set up four NPR working groups, none of them devoted to Zero.

I found further reason to feel that Obama’s Zero is not taken seriously—in an operational, chain-of-command sense—when I attended the First Strategic Deterrence Conference, in Omaha.

(The conference, to my disappointment, was not held in the underground nuclear command post at nearby Offutt Airforce Base, which I’d visited at the height of the Cold War. Back then, they let me check out the “command balcony” where the chief of what was then called the Strategic Air Command would wage nuclear war. I even got to pick up the “gold phone” and the “red phone” that were used to communicate the orders for nuclear war. Fortunately, no one was on either line at the time.)

This conference, which was held at the suggestively named Qwest Center, brought together an impressive array of the nuclear establishment from almost every nuclear power on earth—the United States, the United Kingdom, the former Soviet Union. There was even a female “senior colonel” from the People’s Republic of China (“nominated as a candidate for ‘China’s sixth annual top ten excellent women,’ ” according to the program).

Although there were some dissident voices present, most of the conference was directed toward strengthening nuclear deterrence. There were panels on the “Roles of Deterrence in 21st Century U.S. National Security Strategy,” on “The Roles of Nuclear Weapons,” on “Nuclear Delivery Forces,” on “Weapons and Infrastructure,” etc., all of which were weighted toward those most gung-ho about modernizing the nuclear status quo.

The conference was the brainchild of Gen. Chilton, and it did include some nuclear dissenters, including longtime nuclear posture critics such as Lawrence Korb, Daryl Kimball, * and Dr. George Perkovich. And, in once sense, the conference could be seen as an opening up of the traditionally sacred secrecy of STRATCOM’s nuclear mission. But it could also be seen as further entrenching that mission, as ignoring Obama’s mandate to dismantle it. The meeting was, after all, conspicuously called the “First Annual Strategic Deterrence Conference,” which boded many “annuals” to come.

I found the debates interesting, but I’m the type who’s always been fascinated by the metaphysical and moral intricacies of nuclear strategy. Still, most of the panel discussions could have been held during the Cold War. The fundamental assumptions of nuclear deterrence that Obama professes to challenge were rarely questioned.

The politically astute STRATCOM organizers did squeeze in a Zero moment: That speech by the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, Edwin Frederick O’Brien. He spoke at the conference dinner on “Nuclear Weapons and Moral Questions: The Path to Zero.” Father O’Brien is a member of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had denounced deterrence—the practice of using the threat to commit genocide in order to prevent genocide—as immoral as far back as 1983. The speech created a somewhat bizarre juxtaposition: Oh, by the way, all of you nuclear commanders out there are engaged in what the Catholic Bishops have denounced as immoral and implicitly genocidal. It didn’t seem to change a lot of minds.

If Obama really wants to change minds, to change behavior in the nuclear establishment, he will need to take the following steps:

First, he should issue a “Presidential Policy Directive” on the National Security Strategy of the United States, a directive that requires the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to, as the Federation of American Scientists has recommended, ” ‘translate’ the presidential guidance into detailed force requirements, deployment, and requirements for strike plans that the Services, Unified Commands, and individual Combatant Commanders implement.”

In addition, while he’s dreaming of Zero in an unspecified future, there are two specific de-alerting steps he can take immediately and unilaterally that will reduce the likelihood of accidental nuclear war. I laid them out in this column during the presidential primaries last year.

Obama needs to let the nuclear establishment know who’s boss. He’s got to kick some bureaucratic butt in the Pentagon. Zero may be an impossible dream, but we’ll never know unless Obama gets the Pentagon to take it seriously now. A dream deferred is a dream denied.

Correction, Aug. 25, 2009: The article originally misstated Daryl Kimball’s surname, calling him Daryl Miller. (Return to the corrected sentence.)