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US Nuclear Weapons Policy and Practice in the Shadow of 9/11

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  • August 26, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Event: Fellows Seminar

    Chairperson: Ambassador Arundhati Ghose
    Discussants: Professor Jeffrey Legro and Dr. Manpreet Sethi

    The paper is an attempt to explore US nuclear weapons policy and practice in the shadow of 9/11. In the first part of his presentation, Rajiv provided an examination of the major US national strategy and nuclear policy documents after 9/11 and their policy prescriptions regarding the ‘twin threats’ of proliferation and terrorism. Among the documents he examined included 2002 National Security Strategy, 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), 2006 US National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2006 National Military Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2008 National Security and Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century, QDR 2010, and NPR 2010. Citing pertinent portions of these documents, he stated that they reinforce the importance of nuclear deterrence in US grand strategy and the imperative need to fine-tune its defence capabilities to face the twin threats. He noted that new type of weaponry was sought be developed such as conventional-cum-nuclear ‘bunker-busters’ to tackle the challenges posed by underground facilities (UGF’s). Other strategic innovations included transforming nuclear weapon platforms like the 4 Ohio-class SSBN’s to perform conventional roles and Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) which envisages the use of ICBM’s tipped with conventional warheads to strike high-value “time-sensitive targets” as incoming Defence Secretary Panetta noted.

    Rajiv then points out that while the initial policy response to the twin challenges of proliferation and terrorism by US was to strengthen/fine-tune its deterrence postures, there has been a reduction in its arms control/disarmament obligations. In this context, Rajiv provided relevant details about BMD, FMCT and CTBT across US administrations since 9/11. The latter two have however been put on the front-burner as it were by the Obama administration but it remains to be seen what progress can be achieved. Subsequently, Rajiv provided an assessment of the reductions in US nuclear arsenals – including in warheads and strategic delivery vehicles (SDV’s). He pointed out the analyses by Hans Christensen and others about the role of negative security assurances (NSA’s) and nuclear targeting war plans on the size of the arsenal. In this context, he pointed out that the US for the first time in NPR 2010 pledged that it will “continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attack.” The document however states that “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which US nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.”

    In the last part of his presentation, Rajiv discussed pertinent aspects relating to US policy initiatives at the bilateral and multi-lateral levels to deal with the ‘twin threats’, such as PSI, 2006 Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), G8 Global Partnership Initiative, Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), Obama’s chairing of the Special Session of the UN Security Council in September 2009 – the first by any American president that resulted in UNSC Resolution 1887, April 2010 Global Summit on Nuclear Security, and the entry into force of New START.

    Rajiv concluded his presentation by noting that despite significant reductions in the numbers of US nuclear warheads during the decade after 9/11, coupled with continuing successful bilateral and multilateral efforts to secure vulnerable material and prevent terrorists from acquiring WMD material/know-how, there has not been a concomitant reduction in the ‘role’ of nuclear weapons in US grand strategy and that there are limited prospects of any change in the foreseeable future.

    Points of discussion and suggestions

    • The paper is a sharp-edged critique of US nuclear weapons policy but could be improved with beefed up analyses and assessment of some of the issues involved. Aspects relating to ‘role’ can be further delineated into ‘centrality’ and ‘dimensions’ of nuclear use for greater clarity.
    • The author can more closely look at whether there has been an evolution/change in US nuclear weapons policy as a result of 9/11 and examine specifically those aspects where these changes have/have not occurred. The author’s own assessment of his reading of US nuclear weapons policy can be expanded.
    • A distinction could be drawn between ‘nuclear weapons policy’ and ‘nuclear policy’. If the former, aspects relating to FMCT, CTBT, and US policy activism at bilateral and multi-lateral fora may not be included.
    • It would appear that Obama has succumbed to the nuclear weapons establishment with regards to arms control and disarmament.
    • The increasing linkages of conventional weapons policy on nuclear weapons policy needs to be highlighted, especially in the light of the fact that US has superior conventional power/assets at its disposal.
    • The author can look more closely at the debates on US nuclear weapons policy in the aftermath of 9/11 to provide a better context and set the tone for the rest of the paper.
    • An examination of the alternative explanations regarding role of nuclear weapons in US grand strategy, the challenges that US has faced in implementing some of its policies, could be better highlighted.
    • The mismatch between US policy objectives and practice can be highlighted. This is especially visible in the context of US relationship with Pakistan and in US efforts to secure vulnerable material worldwide, most recently highlighted by the case of Belarus refusing to honour its commitments to return material to the US in the face of economic sanctions.
    • In his response, Rajiv thanked the Chairperson and the Discussants and participation from the floor for the valuable comments and suggestions and promised to incorporate them as much as feasible while finalising the paper.

    Report prepared by Sanjeev Kumar Shrivatsav, Researcher at IDSA.

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