On a slippery slope

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST

MAD versus NUTS sums up the state of the nuclear strategic debate in the U.S. It is a debate that, but for global opposition, could tilt dangerously towards an escalation of the nuclear threat.

LESS than two months after it was announced, the U.S. government's proposal to deploy a national missile defence (NMD) system is in desperate straits - pilloried by global opposition and beleaguered by domestic scepticism. The frenetic round of mock consultations with key allies in mid-May did little to assuage their concerns. At the end of May, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell himself stepped into the proselytising mode. But the North Atlantic Council, comprising Foreign Ministers from the U.S.' closest allies, refused to give its concurrence to the NMD proposal, only making a few verbal concessions to avoid an overt appearance of acrimony.

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set off on his own European mission early in June, laying the groundwork for President George Bush's excursion into unfamiliar terrain later in the month. But as he began his preparations, Bush was confronted with a quite unforeseen power shift in the U.S. Senate following the defection of a long-serving Republican Senator who was obviously upset at the extreme agenda unfurled by the new administration. This deprived the Republican Party of the brief privilege it enjoyed of control over both the executive and legislative branches. The Democratic Party majority in the U.S. Senate is now expected to pose a few tough questions about the Bush administration's defence proposals.

Obviously relishing the opportunity to return the favours rendered by the Republican majority during the Clinton administration, Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee recently put two of Bush's key nominees for the Defence Department through a searching examination. A final vote on these nominations has now been deferred till Douglas J. Feith and Jack D. Crouch II - respectively the nominees for Under-Secretary for policy and Assistant Secretary for international security policy - submit detailed written clarifications on recently espoused views.

Feith has for long been credited with the opinion that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty ceased to be binding once one of the signatories, the Soviet Union, went out of existence in 1991. This is in defiance of the protocol that was signed between the U.S. and all the Soviet successor states in 1993, specifically endorsing the continuing application of the treaty. Crouch has been associated with even more extreme views, arguing in the mid-1990s that the U.S. should redeploy nuclear missiles in South Korea and bomb North Korea if it refused to comply with the U.S. diktat on its missiles programme. Both nominees have been chosen in pursuit of a clear ideological agenda and strategic vision. The world community has reason to be relieved that they are being put through the kind of scrutiny that a Republican Senate majority would have spared them.

Democrats are likely to take their cue not from high principle or commitment to nuclear sanity, but from the compulsions of public opinion. Recent polls in the U.S. have indicated that support for the NMD programme is severely qualified by considerations of its cost. Bush's central campaign pledge to cut taxes across the board, though with a special focus on the wealthy, has cleared the U.S. Congress and been signed triumphantly into law. Even before it became a reality, the supposed U.S. federal budget surplus has been dissipated in a massive transfer of riches to the rich. Financing the NMD deployment, which could involve expenses in the astronomical range, is likely to be a contentious issue. As more specific details of the Pentagon's proposals emerge, the Democrats are expected to baulk at the funding requirements.

The U.S. effort to bring Russia around proved a conspicuous fiasco. In mid-May, ahead of a visit to Washington by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the U.S. administration had put out suggestions that it would proceed with NMD plans irrespective of Russian sentiment. A more conciliatory tone was struck after Ivanov met Powell and the American President. But at the official briefing Powell insisted that consultations would not be indefinitely prolonged at the cost of action on deployment.

A more ardent overture was made towards the end of May, with the U.S. offering to buy large, though unspecified, quantities of Russian military hardware to equip the proposed NMD system. Weapons experts, though initially befuddled, identified the Russian S-300 missile as the focus of Pentagon's interest. But the Russian response was distinctly cool. Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov welcomed the U.S. interest in a missile system that has been sold to several other countries. But it was improbable, he said, that the S-300 could contribute to the proposed NMD system, since it was designed specifically as an anti-aircraft missile.

Contrary to the belief that the Russian line was softening in the days preceding a mid-June summit between President Vladimir Putin and George Bush, Foreign Minister Ivanov took a hardline stance. "If we assume that the ABM Treaty loses force," he said at a joint press conference with a visiting Canadian Minister, "it is logical to assume that the subsequent treaties that were based on it will also lose force." This, he concluded, would mean "a phase of total unpredictability in the sphere of global security."

The notable exception to the universal mood of scepticism was India, which seemed to be revelling in its newfound role in U.S. strategic priorities. Yet, within weeks of its unseemly rush to embrace the NMD proposal, India was beginning to find itself out on a limb. A scheduled May 31 visit by the top U.S. military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton, was postponed at the last minute. And the ardour for the American scheme soon entered into a collision course with the compulsions of re-equipping the Indian military with Russian hardware.

Jaswant Singh's visit to Moscow, in his twin persona as Minister for External Affairs and Defence, produced distinctly mixed results. New defence purchases were agreed as also a set of revised norms on price negotiations. An unexpected development though was Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov's announcement that Russia would assist India in putting in place a missile defence system. This was in line with the Russian offer made to Europe early this year, for a cooperative system of missile defence that would benefit the entire continent. Though not fleshed out with specifics, it was an important propaganda device in consolidating opposition to the American plan.

Strategic analysts in the U.S. have purported to see a deeper motive behind recent geopolitical manoeuvres. Missile defence, says this school of thought, is not the real issue. Rather, the hidden purpose is to win Russia over in a strategic partnership against China or at least to pre-empt any possibility of an alliance emerging between Russia and China. This line of thinking is rendered reasonably credible by inspired leaks from the Pentagon about a broad-ranging review of overseas military engagement by the U.S. Rumsfeld reportedly has served notice of a shift in strategic focus from the Atlantic and Europe to the Pacific and East Asian theatre.

Russia is unlikely to see any dividends in this strategic architecture, since it has been distinctly angered by recent American manoeuvres which impinge on its vital interests in eastern Europe, the Arab world and Central Asia. Even if it were interested in the containment of China - which it by all appearances is not - there is no reason for it to go along with the U.S., as long as its eastern and southern flanks remain under threat. The Russian response on the contrary has been to bid for quite another strategic partnership with China and India, to counter the hegemonic designs of the U.S. India, of course, remains torn by conflicting priorities and perceptions, applauding the NMD proposal one day, and calling for the sustenance of the ABM Treaty the next. What is emerging with absolute clarity though, is that India's haste in welcoming the NMD proposal was a sign of immaturity.

Little is yet known about the scope of the NMD system and the technologies that will be deployed. Still less is known about the mix of offensive and defensive systems that will be deemed optimal in securing the national security interests of the U.S. What is clear, though, is that the existing paradigm of NMD research, with its emphasis on intercepting and destroying incoming missiles in the orbital or re-entry phase, has reported successive failures and is a guaranteed non-starter as far as actual deployment is concerned.

For this reason, there is a growing body of opinion which views the option of boost phase interception as inevitable. This involves cutting a missile off in the first four or five minutes of its flight, while its rockets are firing. Because the time available to execute the entire operation - from detecting launch to destroying the missile - is short, this concept would require the stationing of interceptors at locations close to the source of the danger. To operationalise this concept, the U.S. would need to define the vaguely phrased threat from "rogue states" with greater clarity. It would then be obliged to coopt countries in the neighbourhood of these states into the planned missile defence.

Because of the broad consensus building that boost phase interception would require, it represents a severe curtailment of the American ability to act unilaterally in nuclear strategic affairs. Most NMD advocates are for this reason known to favour a system with a much broader range of capabilities - a "multi-layered system" that would allow for interception at any stage of a missile's flight path. Inevitably, technical parameters and the U.S.' strategic concerns are impelling it towards the momentous decision of stationing interceptors in outer space. And to hedge against all possibilities, the U.S. Space Command is also known to be actively pressing for the stationing of high-energy laser systems in outer space. Lasers have a special attraction for the NMD strategists because they can act at a distance. But there is no way that laser systems of the required capability can be stationed in space except as part of a nuclear powered platform.

Rumsfeld has already dropped ominous hints that space could be the next frontier for basing nuclear weapons platforms. "More than any other country, the U.S. relies on space for its security and well being," he said at a press conference early in May. "It is only logical," he continued, "that we must be attentive to these vulnerabilities and pay careful attention to protecting and promoting our interest in space."

The Democratic Party's response has been robustly disdainful. A month prior to taking over as Senator Majority leader, Thomas Daschle had rubbished the proposal, calling it the "single dumbest thing" he had heard from the Bush administration. Simultaneously, Carl Levin, now Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a thorough scrutiny of the U.S. Space Command's activities, to "assure the American people" that there were no moves afoot to deploy weapons in space.

ALL this represents a rather rude deflation of the Indian response to the NMD announcement, which effusively welcomed the Bush administration's decision to cut nuclear weapons deployment. Even if there is a curtailment of nuclear force deployment, this would be of a modest order. And irrespective of the scale of the reduction, there are likely to be qualitative changes in the composition of the arsenal and new doctrines of waging war that could enhance rather than reduce global insecurity.

The scope of the nuclear reduction, if at all, will only be determined after an ongoing exercise - the Nuclear Posture Review mandated by the U.S. Congress - is concluded. The NPR is part of a broader re-evaluation of U.S. military and foreign policy goals. Its deliberations will remain confidential, as also its final recommendations. But it has been reliably reported by The New York Times, on the strength of high-level access to administration sources, that the basic parameters of the review process have been framed in a published document - "Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control", prepared by the National Institute of Public Policy (NIPP) in January this year (The executive summary of the report is available at www.nipp.org).

The singular feature of the NIPP report is its insistence that no negotiated reductions in nuclear arms would be feasible, given the multiplying uncertainties of the global order. It makes a virtual fetish out of the "political-psychological importance of nuclear numbers", and deploys the most slippery arguments in summing up the possibilities of force reduction. "If the United States wishes to maintain an appropriately sized nuclear arsenal, it must be able to adapt that arsenal over time to dynamic strategic and foreign policy requirements. This adaptability in the post-Cold War period is absolutely critical because even the most basic of the factors driving U.S. requirements are subject to unprecedented change." This implies in turn, that there cannot be any agreed numerical targets on force reduction: "The dynamism of the strategic environment and the potential for dramatic change in U.S. strategic requirements does not preclude, a priori, recommendations for deep reductions. It does, however, weigh very heavily against the call to codify and 'lock in' deep reductions and other changes."

THE NIPP report illumines the Bush administration's "unilateralist" resolve to reduce nuclear arms in stark clarity. The emphasis, even in a unilateral disarmament programme, is on flexibility, on the capability to redeploy and reconstitute nuclear arms at will, in response to constantly changing threat perceptions. In going about this task, the U.S. would be guided by a broadly conceived role for nuclear weapons in international strategic engagement: to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction by regional powers, to prevent catastrophic losses in conventional war, to provide unique targeting capabilities (such as deep underground targets), and to enhance U.S. influence in a crisis situation.

As Spurgeon Keeny, the editor of the influential journal Arms Control Today has observed, this doctrine would call for "unspecified unilateral reductions in strategic offensive weapons". And unlike a reduction bound by treaty, "such unilateral actions could be arbitrarily changed at any time and, lacking verification measures, would not add to predictability or stability".

Aside from its rather slippery tone, which scarcely masks its incendiary message of a new nuclear aggressiveness, the authorship of the NIPP report is also important. It is crucial to note that two of the participants in the deliberations that led to the report - Stephen Hadley and Robert Joseph - are now senior officials in the U.S. National Security Council and will presumably share responsibility for the NPR. But the crucial figure in the NIPP study is its director Keith Payne, co-author in 1980 of the infamous Foreign Policy essay entitled "Victory is Possible".

Payne is clearly the reigning deity of the new U.S. nuclear theology and he is a charter member of the cabal of "nuclear use theorists", or NUTS. To appreciate his importance today, it is necessary to place his contribution to the nuclear debate in context. In 1980, as the second phase of the Cold War entered its most hostile phase, American strategists were clearly chafing at the constraints that nuclear parity - in the practical, though not in the strict numerical sense - imposed on them. The doctrine of "massive retaliation" held some credibility as long as the U.S. had the nuclear monopoly, or at least overwhelming superiority. But as the Soviet Union acquired the capability to retaliate, the West European states began to worry over their designation in the U.S. strategic doctrine as the battleground for devastating nuclear exchanges.

From "massive retaliation", the focus then shifted to "flexible response". A thrust by Soviet armour and artillery into western Europe, it was conceived, could be met by a mix of tactical nuclear weapons and conventional arms. The U.S., in this scheme, would control every rung of the ladder of escalation, determining when to bring strategic weapons into play, when to target Soviet missile sites and when to threaten Soviet cities.

THE parameters of the strategic discourse changed once again when the Soviet Union built up intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capacity that could actually threaten the U.S. with an unacceptable level of damage. A serious bid to put in place a ballistic missile defence was aborted on account of its inefficacy and high cost. From then on, the promise of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD), as enshrined in the ABM Treaty, became the only assurance of strategic stability. Ironically, having scaled the pinnacle of doctrinal excess, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could only step back and begin serious negotiations towards limiting and then reducing their deployments of strategic nuclear weapons.

Payne provided the U.S. strategic hawks with the doctrinal basis for an escape from this unacceptable situation. Writing jointly with Colin Gray, he argued in 1980 that the U.S. "needs to devise ways in which it can employ strategic nuclear forces coercively, while minimising the potentially paralysing impact of self-deterrence". The purpose of the nuclear arsenal was to "support U.S. foreign policy objectives", and this was an end that could only be served if the U.S. were to "possess the ability to wage nuclear war rationally". This strategy was to be built on a "plausible theory of how to win a war or at least insure an acceptable end to war". The U.S. should and could plan for the "actual conduct of nuclear war" and its nuclear forces should be deployed with the explicit objective of defeating the Soviet Union, at a cost "that would not prohibit U.S. recovery".

Payne's plans were denounced by saner voices in the strategic community but he found a very receptive audience in the Ronald Reagan administration. In 1982, Reagan's Defence Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, leaked the details of a strategy document that had been adopted the previous year, detailing American plans to fight and win a nuclear war. The new strategic posture required U.S. nuclear forces to "maintain themselves through a protracted conflict period". The ultimate purpose was to "prevail" and to "force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favourable to the United States".

A torrent of expert criticism forced an attempt at retraction. Just a few months after his attempt to create a climate of public opinion where the prospect of a "protracted" nuclear war would be viewed with relative equanimity, Weinberger issued an open letter to a host of major media organisations, indignantly disclaiming that he had ever sought to propound the outlandish concept. But the Reagan administration was clearly not making much headway with its plans to outbid the Soviet Union yet one more time in the arms race.

The breakthrough came in 1983 with the Strategic Defence Initiative or "Star Wars", the direct lineal ancestor of today's NMD proposal. In its origins, the concept of missile defence or "assured survival" was an antidote to public misgivings about nuclear escalation even beyond the point of MAD. It was in the U.S. nuclear theology, intimately tied up with the grisly doctrine of fighting and prevailing in nuclear war. It has since undergone several mutations, but retained its moorings in the notion that "victory is possible". When George Bush today calls for the debunking of the doctrine of MAD as a relic of the Cold War, the purpose clearly is not to banish nuclear weapons too as the barbarous remnant of less enlightened times. Rather, NMD is all about providing a new salience to nuclear weapons as a practical instrument of warfare and diplomacy.

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