he September 7, 2009 issue of Newsweek carried an article by Jonathan Tepperman in praise of the bomb.  The article was entitled “Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb.”  I was disappointed to see a mainstream media source carrying an article so frivolous as to suggest, “The bomb may actually make us safer.”  In response, I wrote a short rebuttal of Tepperman’s article, “Still Loving the Bomb After All These Years.”  My article elicited a response from analyst Lyle Brecht, who sent me a copy of his excellent brief on deterrence doctrine (http://www.scribd.com/doc/16490356/Nuclear-Posture-Review-Rethinking-Deterrence-Doctrine).  We then had the following exchange of thoughts on nuclear deterrence.

Krieger: It is deterrence theory that is at the heart of our overly dangerous reliance on nuclear weapons.  If No First Use is really the basis for today’s deterrence thinking, policies and strategies should be brought into line with that thinking, and then we should move far beyond that thinking, if survival is a goal.

Brecht: The game of MAD is based on possessing a nuclear posture that enables a devastating counterattack, thus my adversary will choose NO First Use of a nuclear weapon as his ‘rational’ game strategy. For if he attacks, he is dead meat when I counterattack.

Everybody playing MAD understands that this is the game. Thus, the military postures with calculated ambiguity that the U.S. reserves the right to respond with nukes at any time. What is left unsaid and ambiguous is that this response is predicated on an adversary’s First Use.

This is part of weak-MAD, adding the additional layer of ambiguity to NO First Use MAD and expanding the reasons why one would use nukes.

Given the technology, the multi-party nature of the game and the stakes (world population, global warming impact, economic consequences) this game is much more dangerous (by magnitudes) and has much more complex rules than the two-party original game of MAD. But, this is what our nuclear deterrence analysts appear to not have fully calculated (at least by what we can see).

It is hard to see through the newspeak as much of the discourse is a setup for negotiations (country-to-country, internal civilian-to-military, etc.) as opposed to real information or real beliefs.

Krieger: As you say, “Everybody playing MAD understands that this is the game.”  The problem is that everybody may not be rational. I would ask the question: Is it rational to believe that all leaders will be rational at all times?  I think not, and I think this is a fatal flaw in the game.  MAD contains a dangerous and unreliable (and unprovable) assumption about rationality, which will ultimately result in failure.  We would be far better to get out of the system now, while we still can, by leading the world to verifiable nuclear disarmament.  In my view, that is where rationality lies, not in the pathetically weak intellectual arguments about deterrence theory from people like Waltz and Tepperman.

Brecht: Yes. I agree wholly. It’s a dumb game. It’s unwinnable from my analysis (that is, the game is a zombie situation). The issue is that many smart, knowledgeable people believe that the game of MAD (in its incarnations) is the only game in town, assuming nuclear weapons exist and that it is practicably impossible to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world’s arsenals, irrespectively of what the U.S. does unilaterally or Russia and the U.S. decide bilaterally. The game has legs even without the U.S. and Russia’s arsenals. That is why I suggest it may be worthwhile to invent another game (strategy) that all can play and that is winnable e.g. does not require another $60,000 billion in allocated capital over the next 64 years to “play” so that we don’t realize Armageddon sometime during that time period.

Actually, the game does not depend on “rational” leaders. At least “rational” from the perspective of someone who is not playing the game. If the game is really a prisoner’s dilemma rather than a Nash Equilibrium as I suggest, rationality is not necessarily rewarded. Cheating is – and this is what we are seeing. All the players keep their moves secret. What they do say is untrustworthy. And, there is lots of feints and double crosses, etc. It is a very interesting game. That is one reason why many folks don’t want to give it up. If you think about it, geopolitics would probably invent something to take the place of nukes if nukes did not exist (I am not saying that the pivot would necessarily need to be a doomsday machine. In fact, I am saying that we need to invent a pivot that is NOT a doomsday machine!). Nukes are just a penultimate geopolitical tool that may be used only if all other tools in the arsenal of political tools fail (read Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

The reality of eliminating all life on earth or driving GDP from $14,000 billion to $1 billion is discounted to zero (or very close to zero). This is a failure of imagination first and foremost. And these nuclear optimists have very “rational” arguments to substantiate their position. My assertion is that these arguments only make sense in their self-referentiality: Because the game is believed to “work” (we have not blown ourselves up yet, and nukes exist, and no one has invented another game), it makes sense to play the game (with a few tweaks here and there, e.g., let’s limit the number of launchers or strategic weapons or let’s push nonproliferation on any state we are “uncomfortable” with possessing nukes, etc.).

Krieger: What you suggest is that the job is to educate those who have incentives to stick with a potentially world destroying game.  But the Tepperman’s and Waltz’s of the world may prove to be uneducable.  I thought Martin Hellman put it well in another piece in which he pointed out that their logic is akin to arguing that the space shuttle program launches worked well 23 out of 23 times, right up until the 24th launch when it failed (Challenger).  The past, particularly the relatively short past, cannot predict the future.  That seems like a fool’s game, and it is the one that is being played by those with control of the game.  Given the high stakes of the game, it seems to me that we should press for Obama’s vision of working toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and try to prevent him from being pinned down by the nuclear optimists.  It seems to me that the other game would be based upon cooperation, one in which nations unite in common purpose to prevent major global threats such as global warming, terrorism, poverty and starvation, natural disasters, etc.  I’m sure this sounds idealistic in relation to the military planners, but it provides an alternative model that will in time prove essential for a decent human future.

Brecht: A few thoughts:

Overlay: the progressive denuclearization policy wonks right now are discussing ~20 years to zero nukes; the military policy folks are discussing a longer than 20 years, go slow timeframe to REDUCE strategic risk of denuclearization; the nuclear hawks are willing to go for lower numbers of nukes (public negotiating posture is more nukes), but want to modernize them and to add missile shield systems, and even go slower than military policy folks. That is the denuclearization terrain as best I understand it today.

From the Pentagon: the Nuclear Posture Review (2009) that is proceeding is a top-to-bottom review of America’s nuclear force structure. The objective is to analytically determine, first of all, how many nuclear weapons the U.S. needs for deterrence. The Review will also include recommendations concerning whether a new generation of safer and more reliable warheads should be built and whether the nation still needs to maintain a triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles and strategic nuclear-weapons laden bombers.

Ultimately, the intent of the Review is to define the appropriate number of strategic weapons, as well as which missiles, bombers and submarines to keep, how much to spend modernizing them and the potential strategic implications for deterrence that is supposed to function in a changing world where small states, too, can acquire nuclear arms.

Although some analysts both inside and outside the government believe that the original value of nuclear weapons as deterrence has become increasingly less relevant in today’s world and discussions concerning denuclearization should proceed, other analysts believe that it is possible to limit the role of our nuclear weapons to a core deterrence mission with an “appropriate” number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems to deter attacks on the United States and its allies (extended deterrence under the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S.).

The debate is presently focusing on the details: how many nukes, what kind, how modern, how fast to reduce the national stockpile, numbers of launchers, subs and bombers, how the numbers of each part of the nation’s nuclear posture should be accounted for, and the administrative policies, procedures and processes to verify that this agreed to strategy is actually carried out and some command somewhere is not hoarding nukes, just in case. The entire analytical exercise is proceeding with the objective of calculating with a fair degree of confidence whether these decisions sustain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for America, but also for our allies. This analysis is what will inform any treaty negotiations to denuclearize.

But what if the assumption that nuclear weapons themselves provide good value for deterrence in the world of the 21st Century was wrong? What if this foundational assumption, taken for granted by those schooled in Cold War gamesmanship is flawed? What if nuclear weapons, irrespective of their numbers and all the detailed assessments that go into the Review provide little deterrence at a staggeringly high cost? By the way: a cost that may be unsustainable if the past 64-year cost is any measure. This cost is ~100% knowable vs. the probabilistic projections of cost of a nuclear accident, mistake, terrorist attack or war.

If that is the case, would nuclear powers still wish to hold on to a supply of nuclear weapons for old times’ sake? Or build or acquire new nukes? Would the carefully calculated numbers of nuclear weapons required for deterrence, arrived at through pained and thoughtful analysis reported in the Review and carefully negotiated in the upcoming bilateral and multilateral treaty talks, resemble Medieval theological discussions of the number of angels that can dance on the end of a pin at best, or at worst, how we might rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic just prior to the ship hitting the iceberg?

Krieger: Your thoughts reinforce the idea that the system may appear rational and coherent from within, but not from without. Your “What ifs?” strike me as appropriate probes for the people in charge of the country to be making.  A similar inquiry from Napoleon might have been, “What happens when we get to Moscow?”  The questions I’d like to see asked by the public as well as in strategic circles are these, “What happens if (when) deterrence fails?  What could cause deterrence to fail?  Are the people of our country prepared to pay the ultimate price for our reliance on deterrence to be completely effective?  How could we build security on ground less shaky than nuclear deterrence?  For how long will we be willing to roll the dice (or play Russian Roulette) with nuclear deterrence?

Brecht: We end up in a similar place, only along somewhat different paths:

You argue that nuclear weapons are bad (ethically and morally untenable) because deterrence may fail with a probability of (P = x) and the probabilistically calculated cost of failure is unacceptably high. I agree w/ this assessment, however:

I argue further that nuclear deterrence must fail with a probability (P </~ 1) approaching certainty during any particular historical period because the game is rigged. It is unwinnable no matter how much capital we spend to ‘manage’ the playing of the game (e.g. numbers of strategic weapons, launchers, submarines, bombers). It is dumb to continue to play an unwinnable game, at any cost, for any future historical period (e.g. spending the next 20 or more years incrementally denuclearizing, etc.).

Krieger: MAD may turn out to stand not only for Mutually Assured Destruction, but also for the Mutually Assured Delusions that decision makers continue to hold about the efficacy – past, present and future – of nuclear deterrence doctrine.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Lyle Brecht is a business development adviser, social entrepreneur and President of the Blue Heron Group.