Thomas Nichols

The Diplomat’s Harry Kazianis spoke with Dr. Thomas Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College concerning deterrence, nuclear terrorism, America’s nuclear arsenal and missile defense.

In a recent article for your blog The War Room you noted how deterrence in the classical sense when it comes to North Korea seems like a failure. You offer a different, more personal approach in your article: “The message will be clear: if something happens, we are not going to hold millions of innocent people responsible for your crimes. We will hold you responsible.” You go on to explain, “Kim and his generals may not fear war, they may not even fear the deaths of millions of their own citizens. But I’d bet — and am betting, big — that they value their own comfortable lives. That’s what has to be placed under threat, or we’ll never get their attention.” In reading the piece, you seem to advocate for a much more…shall we say… personal type of deterrence. If you could, please explain to our readers how you  would seek to deter North Korea using such an approach.

Let’s start with what I always need to say: I’m not speaking for the U.S. government, any other institution I’m affiliated with, or anyone else but myself here.

The problem I detail in my forthcoming book has to do with the fact that regimes like North Korea don’t value the lives of their citizens. Look at Saddam Hussein: he was willing to grind up hundreds of thousands of his own people (and kill more than a few of them himself) in endless wars and conflicts with Iran and the West. Even as the U.S.-led coalition was on its way into Baghdad in 2003, he still didn’t believe that his own life was in any danger. And that’s the key: these leaders use their people as human shields. Threatening to kill a lot of their people doesn’t scare them, because they’re willing to do it on a daily basis anyway. North Korea, after all, is a regime that’s turned its 22 million people into starving, half-dead, psychologically paralyzed zombies.

Combine this with the additional problem that brutal dictatorships like North Korea think that democracies, which do value human life, may be militarily strong but are fundamentally weak-willed. That’s why nuclear threats won’t get very far: these regimes don’t believe we’ll massacre thousands, or even millions of people to defeat them. And they’re almost certainly right.

So the only thing that’s left to threaten is the only thing that rogue leaders care about: their own lives. You saw some of this thinking when the U.S. started talking about “tailoring” deterrence in the 1990s, and in American attempts to put embargoes in place that would specifically hurt the leaders of North Korea (trying to ban luxury items like the late Kim Jong-il’s favorite cognac, for example) without increasing the suffering of the North Korean people, who are innocent victims in all this.

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That’s why we finally have to let go of threats of major nuclear retaliation. This isn’t like fighting the USSR for our national survival. We’re not going to drop a half-dozen bombs on Korea or Iran and irradiate huge swaths of East Asia or the Middle East. Our own allies and other innocent nations would suffer almost as much as the target. (The advocates of nuclear force claim we can limit that with earth-penetrating nukes, but we don’t have those systems, and in any case they’d have to be designed to drill down a lot farther than we ever thought before we could really limit the fallout.)

Look at the panic that ensued from the Fukushima fire, with just one crippled nuclear plant in Japan. That disaster turned out to be a lot less horrible than it could have been, and yet people around the world were so freaked out that there was a run on iodine tablets from California to Finland. Now multiply that times five or six nuclear strikes, and you can see where we’re drifting into crazy talk. I’m not alone in this: high-ranking U.S. military officers like former NORAD commander Chuck Horner and STRATCOM chiefs like Lee Butler and James Cartwright have cautioned that we really need to stop talking like this.

Instead, I think the most credible threat is to say to any of these rogue leaders: “We don’t know how any of this will end, but the one thing we can say for certain is that if you use a nuclear weapon, your life is forfeit. Period.” That’s credible because it’s a threat we’ve made and fulfilled before, in recent memory. We haven’t dropped a nuclear weapon on anyone since 1945, and there’s no reason to think we’re eager to do it again.

But we have gone after a series of people and removed them from power: Manuel Noriega has served prison terms in the U.S., France, and Panama, and will likely die in prison. Slobodan Milosevic died in jail in the Hague. Hussein was executed in Iraq. Moammar Qaddafi, with NATO assistance, was toppled and then literally almost torn to pieces by his own people. Osama Bin Laden breathed his last breath on the floor of a dirty, crummy little house in Pakistan with a Navy SEAL’s bullet in his head. So I think it’s pretty clear that if the United States and its allies say they’re going to get you for doing something horrible, you can be fairly sure your days are numbered, no matter how long it takes. And that’s a lot more credible than saying: “We’ll kill five million of you and poison all your innocent neighbors for decades to come.”

They need a threat their narcissistic, violent minds can understand.

Looking at non-state actors, there was fears after 9/11 that a terrorist group would gain control of nuclear materials and detonate what has been dubbed a “dirty bomb.” How credible is such a threat?

I’m not a nuclear engineer, so I don’t know how easy it is or isn’t to get nuclear waste. But I think it’s fair to say that this is a lot more credible, and lot easier to do, than to build an actual working nuclear device. Back around 1990, I was at a conference in the then-Soviet Union, and I remember Soviet officers worrying about loose nukes — not because they were worried anyone could make one explode, but because they figured someone might wrap some dynamite around one and explode the gunk inside it all over Red Square.

I still worry about that. As you might remember, I always tell my students that nuclear weapons are like toddlers: they need a lot of care and attention or they go bad. A Soviet nuclear weapon from the 1980s is not going to explode today (or at least that’s what the people who know this kind of stuff have told me). It’s just too old and too corroded. But that’s not to say that someone can’t get the innards of one, or a barrel of waste from a nuclear plant, and just tie a brick of explosives to it.

Now, it’s still not that easy. You don’t just stick plutonium in your pocket and walk around with it. (About 20 years ago, some Russian smugglers stored some under their sink once, which kind of freaked out the German and Russian agents who busted them. Never discount the dangerous reality that people are dumb.) I think it’s possible, even likely, that someone’s going to figure out a way to pull off a dirty bomb attack, but I wouldn’t give odds on it, because I just don’t know how hard it is to get that stuff.

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Turning to America’s nuclear arsenal, many are arguing for deeper cuts in America’s strategic arsenal. Many would argue that such cuts should not be made unless Russia is willing to make similar cuts. If Russia is unwilling to make such cuts, should America go it alone? What areas of America’s arsenal would you see as ripe for cuts? Older bombers like the B-52? Land-based ICBMs?

I cannot for the life of me understand our obsession with doing things in tandem with the Russians, other than as a Cold War reflex that we can’t seem to shed. It’s interesting: the administration of George W. Bush is going to be vilified as a bunch of right-wing extremists for a long time over Iraq and the Middle East, but on arms control, there was a nugget of thinking at the core of the Bush 43 team’s thinking that was actually radically liberal, in a way, when it came to nukes. And that got lost in all the panic and anger after 9/11. But I think it’s a story worth telling for a moment.

Bush, like every other American president of the nuclear age, was shocked by the sheer number of nuclear weapons we have in our arsenal. JFK was disgusted by his briefing, as was LBJ; Nixon sent the Joint Chiefs back to the drawing board because he couldn’t get the numbers of casualties out of his mind, and Carter thought about slashing everything down to 300 weapons. Reagan snoozed through his nuke brief because he didn’t think it mattered, since he had no intention of learning how to push The Button. Even Dick Cheney — whom no one could accuse of being easy to scare — was appalled when he got his first nuclear plan briefing in 1990, when he was Secretary of Defense. (“Who ordered all this?” Cheney asked the Air Force general, Larry Welch. General Welch said: “You did, sir, you and your civilian predecessors.” Good thing I wasn’t SecDef, because that answer would have mightily ticked me off.)

So anyway, Bush said: let’s forget about arms treaties, and let’s just all cut weapons down to levels we think are sufficient for our own defense. This was partly because conservatives like Bush don’t like treaties in general, which constrain your ability to change your mind. But it was also because a lot of people, including hardline Reaganites, had finally said: What’s the point? Even Richard Perle, who was called “The Prince of Darkness” when he worked for Reagan, said that no one was going to use strategic weapons, and Bush sent him to the Pentagon to start getting rid of them. So why get tangled in red tape with the Russians over all this? It didn’t make any sense, and Bush made good on the idea by agreeing with Putin to jump down to 2200 weapons each — and then got there ahead of the Russians and the treaty deadline anyway.

Bush also wanted to get away from treaties because he wanted to junk the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which he did. The Russians didn’t much care; they knew it was outdated and they didn’t raise a fuss. This made some American arms controllers crazy, but the Russians shrugged it off, and understandably so.

But all of this took place in the shadow of 9/11 and the obsession with terrorism. Worse, Putin went completely off the rails in Russia, and there was no point trying to negotiate with a Kremlin that wasn’t interested in real progress. Nuclear weapons, never a priority after the Cold War, got put on the back burner first by Bill Clinton and then by Bush. And when the Bush people left, it was like we reset the clock back to 1986 or something: Hillary Clinton, in her confirmation hearing in 2009, went right back to the “only with the Russians” line, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.

Some of it, I believe, is because we have a generational lag: people like Clinton and Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright and others are just too old, too steeped in old-time Sovietology, and too marinated in the Cold War, to see past any arms control process that doesn’t include symmetry with the Russians. Here’s a trivia factoid that most people don’t know, but that the Russians think about a lot: Madeleine Albright, who is close to the Clintons, is someone the Russians really don’t like. She studied with Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom the Russians really hate. Condi Rice studied with Albright’s father. To the Russians, it’s all the same “family tree,” so to speak, and they see us as stuck in a Kremlinology time warp, populated by people who earned their chops during the Cold War. Dmitri Medvedev once carped that the U.S. government had too many Sovietologists in it, and he may have had a point. (Of course, the Russians are worse than we are when it comes to Cold War nostalgia, but that’s a whole different problem.)

Another problem is that the American right wing, much like its counterparts in Russia, can’t let go of the idea that the Russkies are going to airdrop into Seattle if we don’t have a perfect equivalence in nuclear arms. They’re as locked into Cold War thinking as the former Sovietologists in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. So it’s going to take a bold move, one that cuts through the bureaucratic and political resistance in the U.S. nuclear establishment, to get to dramatic cuts. I don’t see that happening in this administration, which burned its chips with Congress early on and could barely get the New START Treaty passed, which should have been a no-brainer.

As for what should go, the backbone of U.S. deterrence should remain with ICBMs and submarines. I am particularly concerned that people talk about getting rid of the ICBMs, which is one of the few things I think would be truly dangerous. The fact that ICBMs are located on U.S. soil is crucial: you want to make it so that anyone contemplating an attack on the U.S. deterrent has to contemplate the reality that it will mean a simultaneous strike on the United States itself. That’s a damn scary proposition: we might not retaliate with a full nuclear strike for someone sinking a submarine, but dropping a few hundred warheads on North America is a different ballgame entirely. Fighting at sea is risky beyond words; nuking the United States itself is just flat-out crazy.

I argue with my USAF comrades a lot about bombers. I don’t see the point of a nuclear-armed bomber anymore, and I haven’t since the end of the Cold War. I even convinced my then-boss, Senator John Heinz, to vote against continuing the B-2 in 1990. That’s not to say we don’t need a stealthy conventional bomber for long-range strike missions, but I think the scenarios where we put nuclear-armed bombers in the air as a warning, for example, are all straight out of the 1980s, and just aren’t meaningful anymore. In fact, those kind of Cold War moves could be dangerous: if I were a small nation with a handful of ICBMs, and I got wind of a bunch of ghosty Bat-planes taking off, I’d assume I was at the “use-em-or-lose-em” breaking point, because I’d never see them coming.

But I also have to say that some of my Air Force colleagues make good arguments about flexibility, recallability, and so on. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but they’re serious arguments from thoughtful people, and those make a lot more sense than the World War III stuff that still dominates discussions of why we need a “Triad” of delivery systems. I just don’t think we need that. But then, I don’t think we need more than 300 or 400 nukes, either — if that many.

America recently successfully tested another SM-3 missile defense interceptor. Do you feel the program has been successful?

I don’t have an opinion on “success,” for two reasons. One, I’m not an engineer and I’m not qualified to say whether the SM-3 works in any meaningful way. But second, I don’t care.

By this I mean that I don’t think missile defenses will matter in a real crisis. Look at Israel’s Iron Dome. I wrote about this on my blog: missile defense advocates love Iron Dome because so far it’s about 80+ % effective. Well, that’s great if you’re shooting at relatively slow Hamas rockets. If you miss 1 out of 5, you lose an apartment block, and it’s tragic for the local residents, but it’s not a catastrophe.

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If you’re shooting at nukes, 4 out of 5 isn’t good enough. 98 out of 100 isn’t good enough. No U.S. president is going to risk millions of lives on a missile shield that might leak just once. Now, with that said, I think we should build theater defenses, because if the Iranians or the North Koreas get off the leash and launch a medium-range missile, we might be able to catch it early off the launch. But that’s last-ditch damage-limitation in the theater. If you’re talking about an ICBM with a nuke on it, you’re not going to rely on a defense: you’re going to go first and take out the launch site the minute it looks active. War gamers like to talk about missile defense chances, but real political leaders don’t think that way and never have.

By the way, this crowing that Iron Dome proves “Reagan was right,” as Max Boot did a few months ago, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of the Reagan-era SDI program. Attempts to compare it to Iron Dome are just silly. The goal of SDI, no matter what kind of “peace shield” rhetoric Reagan used, was not to protect cities. That was impossible, and it’s still impossible. It was meant to introduce one more layer of unpredictability into Soviet first-strike planning, so that the Kremlin would have one more complication to think about before they launched an attack on our nuclear forces. We figured — and I know, because I worked on this stuff for SDIO contractors back then — that if the Soviets had to hesitate during a crisis even for an extra few minutes, it was worth billions of dollars. I still believe that, and if there were still a Soviet Union, I’d be pushing for a stationary, space-based defense over our ICBM and submarine installations, even if it had only a very low chance of working. But there isn’t a USSR anymore, and the wild claims of missile defense advocates are not only scientifically unsupportable, they’re dangerous, because the last thing you want is a U.S. president who might get bamboozled into thinking a national missile defense might actually work.