James Holmes

America’s War on WMDs

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James Holmes

America’s War on WMDs

How to think about the fight to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. Department of Defense just released the latest version of its Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, replacing the 2006 document put out by the Bush administration. This was far from the usual cheery Fourth of July. A hurricane was bearing down on New England. So in keeping with a dismal day, why not get some kicks reviewing the nature of the struggle to stanch the spread of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) arms?

Doing so is hardly an idle project. After all, Clausewitz, that patron saint of strategic thought, tells us no one in his right mind gets into an endeavor unless he grasps its nature, neither mistaking it for something else nor – wittingly or unwittingly – trying to change it into something alien to its nature. One hopes the framers of the Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction heeded Clausewitz’s wisdom while assembling it, rather than doing the bureaucratic thing and writing laundry lists of problems and solutions. Surrendering to listmania is seldom helpful when designing strategy.

First of all, a point about the language used in the strategy. Back in 2005, a team at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace denounced the term WMD. They argued that, however useful as shorthand, the acronym conflates very different types of weaponry that inflict damage very different in scope and magnitude and demand very different countermeasures. Only nuclear weapons, they opined, qualify as true weapons of mass destruction. Chemical, biological, and radiological armaments create effects that are far less dire. It only makes sense to address them separately.

As an old CBRN instructor from way back, and as a committed Orwellian, I agree wholeheartedly with the Carnegie folks’ verdict. The language we use shapes how we think about, debate, and execute strategy. For the sake of precision, it is sensible to disaggregate WMD into its components. In straitened times, combating nuclear proliferation should command more analytical energy and scarce resources than, say, squelching the spread of mustard agents. Nevertheless, their effort evidently didn’t take in the hallowed halls of the Pentagon. The strategy is chock-full of WMD mentions. (It’s also rather vague about specific initiatives against proliferation, and the resources these initiatives will demand. In this sense the document is more of a strategic concept than a strategy.) In any event, the prospect that applying the term WMD to disparate threats amounts to trying to transform the counterproliferation fight into something alien to its nature should give us pause.

Second, counterproliferation isn’t a war per se. It’s more of a constabulary enterprise with warlike characteristics and methods. To borrow from Clausewitz, it is a series of acts of force to compel proliferators to do our bidding. The strategy vows, for instance, to “Prevent Acquisition, Contain and Reduce Threats, and Respond to Crises.” But like all effective unconventional, asymmetric challenges, weapons proliferation straddles the war/peace divide while exploiting the seams between organizations with unlike mandates, bureaucratic cultures, and geographic areas of operation. And, like all wicked problems, the problem can morph from one thing into another and back again – eluding efforts to thwart it. This is a war only in a loose sense, then, much like the war on drugs and other murky ventures.

Third, counterproliferation is strategically defensive, albeit featuring both offensive and defensive methods and tactics. Its watchwords, again, are prevent, contain, reduce, and respond – all negative aims. On the operational level, thankfully, the Pentagon does pledge to control, defeat, disable, or dispose of unconventional arms or missile delivery systems. Those are offensively minded terms. Strategic defense waged through a mix of defensive and offensive, passive and active measures – sounds about right to the Naval Nuclear Diplomat.

Fourth, this is a cumulative undertaking in Admiral Wylie’s sense. Non- and counterproliferation are efforts composed of widely scattered tactical actions, unconnected to one another either on the map, with action A leading to action B, or in time, with action A coming after action B in some sequence of events culminating in victory. The U.S. military and its allies cannot march out against proliferators the way they slogged across the Pacific to defeat Japan. Rather, quelling proliferation is more like law enforcement. When an individual transgression takes place, the authorities respond. If an organized criminal network is behind the lawbreaking, the police try to dismantle it. So it is with weapons traffickers. The police never defeat crime; nor is Washington likely to vanquish proliferation in any final sense.

It’s doubtful, then, that such a campaign will ever yield outright victory over the Irans or al Qaedas of the world, or over middlemen like gray-market trafficker A. Q. Khan.

So, fifth, the battle against proliferation is open-ended and will not deliver a satisfying end. Campaigns of indefinite duration come with a warning sign for Clausewitz. They become costly, even if the effort expended on a daily basis is modest. Consequently, a society – its government, people, and armed forces – must place inordinate value on its political goals to warrant such an effort. The magnitude of the counterproliferation campaign, measured in American and allied lives, treasure, and hardware, may be low on any given day. Yet costs will mount over time.

Rallying popular and elite opinion behind an expensive enterprise whose payoffs remain largely out of sight will demand statesmanship of a high order. Executing the strategy appears doable in Clausewitzian terms – provided U.S. officials and commanders can keep its magnitude manageable while stiffening popular resolve. When resolve is high, the costs are low, and the timeline for the campaign is indefinite, the cost/benefit calculus may just work in America’s favor. Make it so.