Archive for the ‘Comments’ Category

Stop at Start

Barry Blechman. New York Times, 18 February 2010.


Here’s how a global nuclear disarmament treaty could work. First, it would spell out a decades-long schedule for the verified destruction of all weapons, materials and facilities. Those possessing the largest arsenals — the United States and Russia — would make deep cuts first. Those with smaller arsenals would join at specified dates and levels. To ensure that no state gained an advantage, the treaty would incorporate “rest stops”: if a state refused to comply with a scheduled measure, other nations’ reductions would be suspended until the violation was corrected. This dynamic would generate momentum, but also ensure that if the effort collapsed, the signatories would be no less secure than before.

Editor’s Comment:
There is something missing in this measured disarmament scheme which invalidates it as a path to full nuclear disarmament. Blechman makes an erroneous assumption shared by too many nuclear disarmament advocates. He assumes that nuclear weapons are a class of weapons that can be dealt with in isolation from the problems of international security and insecurity. Nuclear weapons cannot be separated strategically from the context of the conventional military power they supplement.

Note the following phrase in the above excerpt from Blechman: “To ensure that no state gained an advantage…” His prescription applies only to nuclear weapons and presumes no adjustments to conventional military power. In those conditions some states stand to gain considerable advantage from nuclear disarmament.

Imagine the case of Russia in Blechman’s staged draw down of nuclear forces with the U.S. As Russia approaches zero nuclear weapons they become more and more vulnerable to superior U.S. conventional military power.

Without parallel and compensatory reductions and adjustments in conventional forces and strong political assurances weaker nations such as Russia will never agree to give up all their nuclear weapons.

Careful schemes of balanced nuclear weapons disarmament of the type that Blechman argues for cannot by themselves get us to zero nuclear weapons. Compensating for the national insecurities arising from imbalances in conventional military power must be part of any formula for full nuclear disarmament. We need to work toward an international security regime that delivers the reassurance of fifty years without international aggression and military intervention. After that period of peace nuclear nations might be ready to go to zero.

The Obama disarmament paradox

Greg Mello. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 10 February 2010.
Greg Mello is the executive director and co-founder of the Los Alamos Study Group.


Last April in Prague, President Barack Obama gave a speech that many have interpreted as a commitment to significant nuclear disarmament.

Now, however, the White House is requesting one of the larger increases in warhead spending history. If its request is fully funded, warhead spending would rise 10 percent in a single year, with further increases promised for the future. Los Alamos National Laboratory, the biggest target of the Obama largesse, would see a 22 percent budget increase, its largest since 1944. In particular, funding for a new plutonium “pit” factory complex there would more than double, signaling a commitment to produce new nuclear weapons a decade hence.

So how is the president’s budget compatible with his disarmament vision?

The answer is simple: There is no evidence that Obama has, or ever had, any such vision. He said nothing to that effect in Prague. There, he merely spoke of his commitment “to seek . . . a world without nuclear weapons,” a vague aspiration and hardly a novel one at that level of abstraction. He said that in the meantime the United States “will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

Since nuclear weapons don’t, and won’t ever, “deter any adversary,” this too was highly aspirational, if not futile. The vain search for an “effective” arsenal that can deter “any” adversary requires unending innovation and continuous real investment, including investment in the extended deterrent to which Obama referred. The promise of such investments, and not disarmament, was the operative message in Prague as far as the U.S. stockpile was concerned. In fact, proposed new investments in extended deterrence were already being packaged for Congress when Obama spoke.

To fulfill his supposed “disarmament vision,” Obama offered just two approaches in Prague, both indefinite. First, he spoke vaguely of reducing “the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” It’s far from clear what that might actually mean, or even what it could mean. Most likely it refers to official discourse–what officials say about nuclear doctrine–as opposed to actual facts on the ground. Second, Obama promised to negotiate “a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START] with the Russians.” As far as nuclear disarmament went in the speech, that was it.

Of course, Obama also said his administration would promptly pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an action not yet taken and one entirely unrelated to U.S. disarmament. The rest of the speech was devoted to various nonproliferation initiatives that his administration planned to seek.

On July 8, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced their Joint Understanding, committing their respective countries to somewhere between 500 to 1,100 strategic delivery vehicles and 1,500 to 1,675 deployed strategic warheads, very modest goals to be achieved a full seven years after the treaty entered into force. Total arsenal numbers wouldn’t change, so strategic warheads could be taken from deployment and placed in a reserve–de-alerted, in effect. The treaty wouldn’t affect nonstrategic warheads. It wouldn’t require dismantlement. As Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists has explained, the delivery vehicle limits require little, if any, change from U.S. and Russian expected deployments.

Ironically, it’s possible that the retirement PDF of 4,000 or more U.S. warheads under the Moscow Treaty and other retirements ordered by George W. Bush may exceed anything Obama does in terms of disarmament. As for the stockpile and weapons complex, Bush’s aspirations were far more hawkish than Congress ultimately allowed. Real budgets for warheads fell during his last three years in office. Now, with the Democrats controlling the executive branch and both houses of Congress, congressional restraint is notable by its absence. What Obama mainly seems to be “disarming” is congressional resistance to variations of some of the same proposals Bush found it difficult to authorize and fund.

Last May Obama sent his first budget to Congress, calling for flat warhead spending. At that time, the administration was still displaying a measured approach toward replacement and expansion of warhead capabilities.

That said, in last year’s budget the White House did acquiesce to a Pentagon demand to request funding for a major upgrade to four B61 nuclear bomb variants–one of which had just completed a 20-year-plus life-extension program. Just one day before that budget was released a grand nuclear strategy review previously requested by the armed services committees was unveiled. It was chaired by William Perry, a member of the governing board of the corporation that manages Los Alamos, and recurrent Cold War fixture James Schlesinger. [Full disclosure: Perry is also a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors.]

The report’s recommendations for increased spending and weapons development quickly began to serve as a rallying point for defense hawks–surely the point of the exercise. Overall, it was largely a conclusory pastiche of recycled Cold War notions, entirely lacking in analysis and often factually wrong. But neither the White House nor leading congressional Democrats offered any public resistance or rebuttal to its conclusions.

More largely, opposition to nuclear restraint within the administration quickly emerged from its usual redoubts at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Pentagon, STRATCOM, and interested players in both parties in Congress. Plus, Obama left key Bush appointees in place at NNSA while the Pentagon added some familiar faces from the Clinton administration, leaving serious questions about the ability of the White House to develop an independent understanding of the issues, let alone present one to Congress.

Either way, potential treaty ratification is surely a major factor in White House thinking. Senate Republicans, as expected, are demanding significant nuclear investments prior to considering ratification of any START follow-on treaty. Democratic hawks, especially powerful ones with pork-barrel interests at stake such as New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, also must be satisfied in the ratification process. All in all this makes the latest Obama budget request a kind of “preemptive surrender” to nuclear hawks. So whether or not the president has a disarmament “vision” is irrelevant. What is important are the policy commitments embodied in the budget request and whether Congress will endorse them.

Investments on the scale requested should be flatly unacceptable to all of us. The country and the world face truly apocalyptic security challenges from climate change and looming shortages of transportation fuels. Our economy is very weak and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The proposed increases in nuclear weapons spending, embedded as they are in an overall military budget bigger than any since the 1940s, should be a clarion call for renewed political commitment in service of the fundamental values that uphold this, or any, society.

Those values are now gravely threatened–not least by a White House uncertain about, or unwilling or unable to fight for, what is right.

Editor’s Comment:

Mello does a good job of explaining why there will be little progress toward nuclear abolition during the Obama administration. Further he makes a good case that the current administration seems to be headed towards feeding the nuclear weapons complex to a greater degree than Bush was able. Who’d of thought!

But Mello misses on a couple points. One is that he dismisses too quickly the nuclear abolition aspiration Obama stated in Prague. Those few words may have little affect on policy, but they do mark a return to the rhetoric of all atomic age administrations up until George W. Bush markedly abandoned such aspirations. What is the value of that rhetoric? Mostly it gives credence to those who organize around abolition — something of value, but not much.

Secondly, Mello states that when Obama spoke of…

…reducing “the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” it’s far from clear what that might actually mean, or even what it could mean.

Actually, this statement of Obama’s refers to something quite specific and important. The U.S. has been advancing for several decades to an unprecedented level of conventional force dominance over all other nations (see Bernard I. Finel on strategic meaning of U.S. conventional military power). At this point the U.S. can anticipate gaining even more strategic advantage if it can convince other nations to join in disposing of nuclear weaponry (for an official statement of this strategic formula see Vice President Biden’s speech at the National Defense University on 18 February 2010.) This is indeed quite an aspiration!

This connection of conventional dominance to nuclear dominance brings me to the other shortcoming of Mello’s article. Nuclear abolition will be impossible without a significant restructuring of the international (in-)security system. Why would Russia or China eschew nuclear weapons or N. Korea and Iran abandon efforts to obtain them while these nations remain utterly vulnerable to U.S. conventional strike?

Leaders of popular efforts for nuclear disarmament almost never acknowledge this strategic problem. That’s a disservice to their cause, because it leaves a major obstacle to disarmament in place with no plan (or even awareness of the need for a plan) to remove it.

The eventuality of an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons will require the U.S. to first draw down its conventional military power. And concurrent to a deep draw down of US conventional military power there must be a build up of international structures which can take up more and more of the responsibility for global security.

Such a transfer of power and responsibility will probably happen someday, but we are certainly not presently on that path. That is one more “change” that Obama is not pursuing, not even aspirationally.

Greg Mello responds to the editor’s comments:

I think your comments are excellent. Let me begin with the second one, with which I wholly agree. Our work here at the [Los Alamos] Study Group has emphasized nuclear weapons issues in part because of our geographic, and hence political, locus adjacent to the two largest nuclear weapons laboratories.

The barrier to nuclear disarmament posed by military policies and investments that express an aspiration for “full spectrum dominance” on a global scale is almost certainly insuperable. Nuclear disarmament is only consistent with a quite different conception of national security than we now have and with a quite different economic structure internally as well. The good news — and I think we have to make it good where it may not appear so at first glance, since we have no other choice — is that our empire is failing.

Your first point, which relates to the symbolic value of Obama’s disarmament statements, is also sound, but here I think that symbolic value is greatly outweighed by the passivity and compliance which his statements have engendered in civil society. The actors and forces which could and should be forcefully working for disarmament have been themselves disarmed by what amounts to propaganda.

Hypocrisy may be the homage paid to the ideal by the real, but it is not leadership, it is not honest, and it will not produce anything of value in this case. At the moment, it is allowing the nuclear weapons establishment to do what it could not accomplish previously: increase production capacity and provide greater, not lesser, endorsement of nuclear weapons in all their aspects, both materially and symbolically.

Obama’s disarmament aspiration, so called, is a faint echo compared to the full-throated endorsement of nuclear weapons it is enabling.

Quadrennial Defense Review Fails to Match Resources to Priorities

Lawrence J. Korb, Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley. Center for American Progress, 04 February 2010.


The QDR … does not prioritize the missions that the military must be prepared for. The document states that “successfully balancing [DOD’s priorities] requires that the Department make hard choices on the level of resources required as well as accepting and managing risk in a way that favors success in today’s wars,” yet it also notes that “U.S. forces must be prepared to conduct a wide variety of missions under a range of different circumstances.” In other words, the QDR promises to make tradeoffs but asserts that DOD must be capable of confronting every contingency.

Editor’s Comment:

Follow the money. The priorities are reflected in where the money goes. A few changes, per usual, at the margins. Mostly the same ol’ same ol’ division of spoils.

Gates Calls for Delay in Pentagon Purchases of Lockheed F-35s

Tony Capaccio. Business Week, 07 January 2010.


One recent study agreed with a similar one from a year earlier that predicted a 2 1/2 year delay in development beyond the current target of October 2014 and an added cost of $16.5 billion. The new estimate recommended the Pentagon add $314 million to the five-year plan to beef up testing. Gates did so.

Editor’s Comment:

With Afghan war costs rising and political pressure to reign in the federal deficit mounting Gates needs to reduce the year to year Pentagon procurement budget for big ticket items. Postponing and stringing out the acquisition of major platform buys (such as a new fighter aircraft like the F-35) is one way to get some of those savings without having to take on the much harder political task of canceling programs or cutting structure. Unfortunately such an approach usually makes an acquisition program more costly when production efficiencies of scale are lost as fewer units are manufactured each year over a longer period.

This article says, “More than $2.8 billion that was budgeted earlier to buy the military’s next-generation fighter would instead be used to continue its development.” So it may seem that this decision simply shifts spending from production to development accounts with neutral effect on the Pentagon topline. However the article doesn’t adequately address whether Gates may have been facing increased development costs overlapping ambitious production schedules which would have cost much more in the next five years than had been previously planned. This decision delays the onset of large production costs to the years after 2014.

The Navy has indicated it will need to buy more F/A-18s if the F-35 doesn’t appear when it had previously been promised. But the Navy’s requirement assumes there are no carrier cuts (and associated Naval combat wing cuts) in this period. If there are, it will make those F/A-18s redundant.

And what if five years from now drones are proving themselves to be the combat craft of the future at the very time the F-35 is meant to start appearing in operational units in significant numbers? Maybe then the buy of the next generation manned fighter plane can be in the range of 1200 units instead of the 2400 units in the current plan. Then we could realize real savings in this acquisition program. (for some options on future fighter buys and program savings see: David Axe, “Congressional Budget Office’s Plans to Save the Air Force”, War is Boring, 18 May 2009.)

If five years from now drones play a more central role in air combat power and there are fewer carriers in the fleet the decision to slow the F-35 acquisition program down will prove to be a very practical one.

Budget Moves Buoy Defense Industry

Loren B. Thompson. Lexington Institute, 14 December 2009.


First, even before President Obama decided to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, the administration had already decided to spend more on overseas contingencies in 2011 that the $130 billion it planned to spend in 2010. Second, Jason Sherman of reported this month that the White House will support increasing the regular defense budget (not including overseas contingencies) by $14 billion above what was planned for 2011, meaning it will rise from the $542 billion forecast in May to $556 billion. Third, Vago Muradian of Defense News reported this weekend that total increases above the May plan for the regular defense budget across the 2011-2015 spending period will reach $100 billion.

Editor’s Comment:

Looks as if the Obama administration’s plan to reduce Federal expenditures on war (contingency) operations and to hold increases in the base Pentagon budget to dollar inflation have come unraveled at less than a year into the budgeting plan and the administration. It is a shame, because it is so unnecessary.

Why they hate us?: How many Muslims has the U.S. killed in the past 30 years?

Stephen M. Walt., 30 November 2009.


Yet if you really want to know “why they hate us,” … the fact remains that the United States has killed a very large number of Arab or Muslim individuals over the past three decades.

Editor’s Comment:

And no amount of “public diplomacy” or “American narrative” will win friends when the U.S. is responsible for killing sons and daughters of people in their home land. That is a basic piece of strategic wisdom!

Building on 2 blunders: the dubious case for counterinsurgency

Stephen M. Walt. Foreign Policy, 16 November 2009.

Editor’s Comment

Walt makes a fundamental strategic point. The Bush wars involved operational and grand strategic errors, so why institutionalize a shift in defense planning that in effect has the U.S. military prepare for more strategic errors by our leadership? Why not opt to correct the error? It is really an elemental point of strategy: Don’t compound error!

I understand how military professionals who have been ordered to take on foolish strategic missions might feel that counterinsurgency theory is an attractive way out of their tactical and operational dilemmas. But there is really no excuse for civilian leaders, including Sec Def Gates, chasing the mirage of COIN as if it were an answer for our current problems dealing with the consequences of a disastrous Bush national security strategy. Change the strategy and there will be no need for investments in COIN!

Ambassador Eikenberry’s Cables on U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Karl W. Eikenberry. The The New York Times has published two cables authored by the U.S. Ambassador to Kabul addressed to Secretary of State Clinton. The first is dated 06 November 2009 and is entitled “COIN Strategy: Civilian Concerns”. The second is dated 09 November 2009 and is entitled “Looking Beyond Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”.

Editor’s Comment:

Quibble: COIN is a tactic, not a strategy. Non-quibble: Wars are rarely decided at the tactical level.