War Stories

Rumsfeld’s Dr. Strangelove

Keith Payne says 7,000 warheads aren’t enough.

Last May 9, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to repeal a 10-year ban on the research and development of “low-yield” nuclear weapons—defined as nukes having an explosive power smaller than 5 kilotons. (The House committee will take up the measure this week.) The Bush administration has lobbied heavily for the repeal. Democrats oppose the idea on the grounds that “mini-nukes”—by blurring the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons—make nuclear war more thinkable and, therefore, in the minds of some, more doable.

Some in the Bush administration are living proof of this objection. They want to demystify nuclear weapons, strip away the taboo against their use, and insinuate them into the arsenal of U.S. war-fighting tools. A key figure in this effort is Keith Payne.

Payne is not a well-known figure, even in Washington policy circles. But he ought to be. He is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for “forces policy”—essentially, the Pentagon’s top civilian official assigned to the development, procurement, planning, and possible use of nuclear weapons.

For 20 years before he came to the Pentagon at the start of the George W. Bush administration, Payne was at the forefront of a small group of think-tank mavens—outspoken but, at the time, marginal—who argued not only that nuclear weapons were usable, but that nuclear war was, in a meaningful sense, winnable. He first made his mark with an article in the summer 1980 issue of Foreign Policy (written with fellow hawk Colin Gray) called “Victory Is Possible.” Among its pronouncements: “an intelligent United States offensive [nuclear] strategy, wedded to homeland defenses, should reduce U.S. casualties to approximately 20 million … a level compatible with national survival and recovery.” (As Gen. Buck Turgidson, the George C. Scott character in Dr. Strangelove, put it, “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed up, but 10-20 million tops, depending on the breaks.”)

Payne was in his 20s, working for Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute, at the time he co-wrote the article, but anyone who would dismiss it as youthful extremism should look at a paper he wrote in January 2001, titled “Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control.” Payne wrote it as president of the National Institute for Public Policy, a conservative research organization in Fairfax, Va. The paper came out of a panel that included Payne’s old colleague Colin Gray, as well as Stephen J. Hadley (who is now Bush’s deputy national security adviser) and Stephen Cambone (now an assistant secretary of defense and a member of Rumsfeld’s inner circle).

Payne put together the panel out of a concern—as he put it in a 1999 paper called “Nuclear Weapons: Theirs and Ours”—that “the future of United States nuclear forces faces a very serious challenge” from “anti-nuclear activists” and that “unless a coolly reasoned response is presented, their agenda will appear to be the only game in town.”

The NIPP study was intended as that “coolly reasoned response,” written for the incoming administration. In it, Payne laid out a post-Cold War rationale for the continued deployment of thousands of nuclear weapons and the development of new, specially tailored nukes. Parts of the rationale were fairly routine: to deter a potentially resurgent and hostile Russia, to dissuade rogue regimes from trying to threaten to us, and so forth. But there were some eyebrow-raising parts as well. For instance, Payne noted that, in Operation Desert Storm, allied forces had a hard time finding and hitting Iraqi Scud missiles. In a future war, he wrote, “If the locations of dispersed mobile launchers cannot be determined with enough precision to permit pinpoint strikes, suspected deployment areas might be subjected to multiple nuclear strikes.”

Note the phrasing. It’s startling enough that Payne suggests attacking (even non-nuclear) mobile missiles with nukes. But he goes further, suggesting that we attack whole “areas” where mobile missiles are merely “suspected” to be deployed. And he suggests attacking these with “multiple” nuclear weapons. Payne also argues that nuclear weapons might be needed to destroy “deeply buried facilities … such as underground biological weapons facilities.” He leaves unanswered why simply disabling such a facility—which he admits can be done with conventional weapons—wouldn’t be good enough. He then says the need to destroy these sorts of targets means we cannot afford to make deep cuts in our nuclear arsenal but should instead continue to build new types of nuclear weapons.

Let us assume for a moment that hitting such targets is a vital task and that only nukes can do the job. How many mobile-missile deployment areas are there? How many possible underground biochem facilities? Unless Payne is suggesting blowing up gigantic swaths of land (to get every square foot where missiles might roam) and every cave and basement that might hold a lab, I can’t imagine that—even under his assumptions—more than a few dozen extra nuclear weapons might be needed, on top of the 7,000 or so we currently possess.

Finally, Payne falls back on the rationale that nuclear-weapons planners have invoked for decades when they’ve run out of concrete reasons—perceptions. “The United States,” he writes, “is likely to desire the capability to deter authoritarian adversaries who are impressed by an opposing nuclear force with greater rather than fewer weapons.” The great thing about this argument is that no number of weapons, however enormous, is enough; there’s always room for more. For this reason, Payne opposes any arms-reduction treaty unless it gives the United States “the de jure prerogative to adjust its nuclear force structure to coincide with changes in strategic requirements.” To the extent nuclear arms are reduced, they should just be stored away, not destroyed.

Lots of think tanks have disgorged lots of wild-eyed reports over the years. The significance of this one is that it has been translated into official policy. In January 2002, Rumsfeld issued a classified report called the “Nuclear Posture Review.” Copies were leaked and soon appeared on several Web sites. Among the sections that drew attention: “Nuclear weapons … provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats. … Greater flexibility is needed with respect to nuclear forces and planning than was the case during the Cold War. … Nuclear-attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities.”

These statements are truly different from official statements of the previous two decades. Some documents have tried to develop scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used without committing suicide in the process. But rarely did they view nuclear weapons as a “complement” to other types of weapons. Nor are the similarities between these two reports—Payne’s of January 2001 and Rumsfeld’s of January 2002—a coincidence. Payne served on a missile-defense panel that Rumsfeld headed in 1998. They reportedly got along well. Rumsfeld hired Payne on the basis of the NIPP report, which he definitely read.

Payne is not in any position to advise the president on the use of nuclear weapons, nor does he hold a slot anywhere in the chain of command. He does, however, have a role in deciding what kinds of nukes should be built, deployed, and discarded. He is the Pentagon’s civilian liaison with the nuclear-war planning staff at the Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb. And he was handpicked for the job because of his views. In a serious crisis, the numbers and types of weapons that he helps put in place could shape the president’s sense of what options are available and feasible. The Senate vote brings Keith’s Payne’s terrifying dream that much closer.