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Empty Rhetoric Is No Deterrent By: Frank J Gaffney Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 20, 2006

In the course of the first stop of a tour of Asian capitals – a tour intended to shore up a hapless UN Security Council resolution sanctioning North Korea that has already begun to unravel – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Japanese audience that “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range – and I underscore the full range – of its deterrent and security commitments.”  

The not-so-subtle point of this message? It was intended to serve notice on North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il that, in the event he carried out a nuclear attack against the United States or one of its allies, America would retaliate in kind.

Unfortunately, there is a real danger that the so-called “Dear Leader” – and other observers – will find this essential warning to be incredible. The reason would not simply be that previous U.S. threats of adverse consequences have been found to be essentially meaningless when Pyongyang a) persisted in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, b) flight-tested long-range ballistic missiles and c) conducted a nuclear test. 

There is a more systemic problem with Secretary Rice’s statement.  Thanks to a policy long advocated by her department, the United States has allowed confidence in its nuclear deterrent, both that of our adversaries and our own, to be degraded by this country’s failure since 1992 to conduct even a single underground nuclear test of its own.  

The effects of this unilaterally adopted moratorium (not to be confused with the prohibitions imposed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which a majority of the U.S. Senate refused to ratify in October 1999) have been profound and far-reaching.  In a 2005 paper published by the Center for Security Policy, one of the Nation’s preeminent experts on nuclear weapons and related technologies, the former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency Vice Admiral Robert R. Monroe USN (Ret.), offered examples of the repercussions of our unwillingness to test the deterrent arsenal: 

·      “Our confidence in the reliability and performance of our existing, overage, high-yield weapons is declining.  Aging causes changes, and our ability to judge their seriousness, in the absence of testing, is uncertain.  When we do replace components, as in life-extension programs, we cannot be sure, again without testing, that the weapons will perform as designed.”

·        “It is of utmost importance that U.S. nuclear weapons incorporate the very best and latest in safety, security, and controllability features. Yet, in a great many cases this cannot be done without testing.  Only one of the nine warhead designs in our current stockpile incorporates all available safety and security systems.  And, during…the test moratorium, much advanced development on improved surety systems was simply not done because there was no prospect of doing the essential testing.


·        Since the dawn of the nuclear age, no nuclear weapon design has entered the stockpile without having the pit (the plutonium core) certified through underground nuclear testing.  New-design pits will surely be required in the future and, despite years of work during the moratorium, there is still no agreed method – other than testing – to certify new pits, or today’s pits manufactured by different processes.


·        For over a decade the ability of our nuclear weapons scientists to pursue a robust, wide-ranging, forward-looking research program into advanced nuclear weapons concepts has been brought to a virtual halt by administrative, legislative, and funding restrictions.  In this era of mushrooming technological advance in virtually all fields of science, the test moratorium has denied us not only the knowledge of “what’s possible?” but also an understanding of the diverse and growing threats we may face from known and unknown adversaries.


For far too long, the United States has indulged in the fallacious and irresponsible notion that its nuclear deterrent force will be permanently effective even if steps essential to its present and future effectiveness were not taken.  An op.ed. by Bret Stephens published in Monday’s Wall Street Journal recalled the cautionary note sounded nearly five decades ago by one of the 20th Century’s preeminent military strategists, Herman Kahn: “In spite of our reliance on the idea that deterrence will work, we usually do not analyze carefully the basic concepts behind such a policy.  This somewhat lackadaisical interest in bedrock concepts is probably related to a subconscious fear that our foundations cannot stand close examination.”


Dr. Kahn’s admonition is directly relevant to the United States’ current predicament, in which U.S. policy-makers refuse to think seriously about, let alone take the steps necessary to assure the viability of the U.S. deterrent.  They have allowed themselves to fall prey to the delusion that the Nation’s deterrent is credible as long as U.S. adversaries believe America is willing to use its nuclear weapons.  This false hope has left another vital factor entirely neglected – denying our adversaries any basis for believing that the United States lacks the ability to utilize those assets.  


The consequences of allowing those such as Kim Jong-Il to doubt the viability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal are frightening, as deterrence exists only in the minds of our adversaries.  America’s foes must be absolutely convinced that our nuclear weapons have been designed, tested, and have demonstrated the assured ability to destroy the assets they value most.  As we are seeing with North Korea and Iran at the moment, fanatical regimes may be tempted to test any other proposition.


The United States’ aging nuclear stockpile and weapons complex is ill-suited to deterring the sorts of threats we now face, a reality that likely contributed to Kim’s decision to call our bluff over his previous, provocative actions. Correcting those deficiencies will take time and considerable investment. (For example, we have allowed our test capabilities to degrade to such a degree that it may take as long as three years for the United States to conduct a fully instrumented nuclear test.)  


We have no alternative to doing so, however, if we are to identify and fix growing problems with the existing arsenal and ensure its future safety and deterrent effectiveness.  By such a step, moreover, we may help reinforce not only our enemies’ confidence in this country’s nuclear forces but also that of our allies (e.g., Japan and South Korea) who may otherwise feel compelled to acquire nuclear arsenals of their own.


The decision to impose a moratorium on nuclear testing was ideologically motivated and profoundly ill-advised in 1992, when many of the threats America faces today had yet to manifest themselves.  In a world inhabited by the likes of an increasingly belligerent North Korean thug and an Islamofascist Iranian president who has expressed his desire for “a world without America,” however, the continuation of such a policy is likely to prove not just foolish but reckless, and possibly lethal.


David McCormack contributed to this article.


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Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is the founder, president, and CEO of The Center for Security Policy. During the Reagan administration, Gaffney was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy, and a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Senator John Tower (R-Texas). He is a columnist for The Washington Times, Jewish World Review, and Townhall.com and has also contributed to The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, and Newsday.

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