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International Security Series

July 2007

American Nuclear Strategy and the Implications for Canada


By David S. McDonough The United States has been preoccupied with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats and developing military options, up to and including nuclear use, which are designed to counter and neutralize an adversarys WMD capabilities. This counterproliferation trend has been evident for most of the post-Cold War period, but it has accelerated under the George W. Bush administration with the recent proposals to implement significant modifications to US nuclear weapon policy. Indeed these revisions have the potential to augment an already impressive counterforce capability designed to target and destroy strategic military assets of potential adversaries. The transformation of the US nuclear doctrine and arsenal will likely continue, irrespective of the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections, with potentially unforeseen strategic consequences. The US could obtain a strengthened ability to unilaterally deal with WMD proliferation, which raises further questions about the efficacy of multilateral non-proliferation measures and the crisis stability of key regional flashpoints in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, the new nuclear doctrine could facilitate the American use of threats and other forms of coercion during a crisis with a near-peer competitor. Strategic stability remains an uncertain proposition in the future strategic environment. American nuclear weapon developments cannot be divorced from Canadian support for the embattled non-proliferation regime or its middle power preference for regional and strategic stability. At the same time, Canadas recent decision to avoid participation in ballistic missile defence (BMD), with neither a strategic assessment nor an understanding of BMDs role in current US nuclear doctrine, reveals the dearth of strategic thought in this country. Canada remains a close American ally and a global actor in its own right, and it is imperative that policy-makers in Ottawa re-examine the salient and strategically far-reaching issues surrounding US nuclear strategy.

The New Triad and US Nuclear Revisions


The 2002 Nuclear Posture Review introduced a new doctrine, dubbed the new triad, to address the strategic threat environment of the 21st century. New nuclear counterforce capabilities have been prioritized, while expanded target sets and flexible nuclear war plans have been developed against

American Nuclear Strategy

CIIA International Security Series both unstable rogue state proliferators and potential near-peer competitors alike. Designed primarily to attain nuclear primacy over regional WMD states, such as Syria and Iran, and more robust nascent nuclear powers like North Korea, the new triad allows the US to effectively mitigate or even eliminate any advantages that can be accrued from a rogue adversarys strategic deterrent. As noted in the recent 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the new triads tailorable capabilities promise additional military options for US policy-makers against a range of potential adversaries, including advanced military powers, regional WMD powers and nonstate terrorists. The traditional nuclear triad consists of landbased intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which are located in hardened base silos and Trident II ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) respectively, as well as a fleet of intercontinental nuclear-armed bombers. The new triad envisions an offensive strike leg that combines these nuclear strike platforms, modernized to include a renewed emphasis on counterproliferation missions, with advanced conventional weapons capable of destroying WMD assets. Offensive capabilities would, however, be joined by two additional legs: active defences against the growing ballistic missile threat and a revitalised (and responsive) defence infrastructure capable of rapidly developing new nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities. Expanded targeting requirements provide the primary rationale for these strategic developments. Potential adversaries are expected to protect WMD, command and control and other strategic and tactical capabilities by either burying them in underground bunker complexes, deep tunnels and other hardened and deeply buried targets (HDBTs) or by relying on mobile or relocatable platforms on railways or roads that make tracking and targeting more difficult and asset survivability more feasible. WMD facilities pose particular challenges, as any disarming counterforce strike could lead to severe collateral damage in the event that chemical or biological (CB) agents are released into the atmosphere. Nuclear warheads, if modified with a strengthened missile casing for earth-penetration, could be transformed into bunker-busters capable of potentially destroying HDBTs and incinerating CB agents. Not surprisingly, the US initiated tentative plans to study the utility of nuclear weapons in such a counterproliferation role under its Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator project. Controversy over this programme, which promised a potentially more useable nuclear weapon capability that might require nuclear testing, resulted in Congressional funding cuts and its subsequent cancellation. However, research on earth-penetration capabilities continues in many conventional weapon programmes, with potential application to the nuclear arsenal. In addition, plans to develop more reliable and safer warheads, as part of the efforts to revitalize and restructure the US nuclear infrastructure under the planned Complex 2030 project, carry the potential for small-yield warhead development. American policy-makers, however, have been more successful in developing flexible and selective nuclear strike options against these HDBT or mobile targets. The traditional nuclear war plan, recently renamed Operations Plan 8044 (OPLAN), continues to guide nuclear targeting for existing contingencies against Russia and China. This deliberative plan has since been joined with an equal emphasis on the rapid generation of limited nuclear war plans using targets identified in the current OPLAN (i.e. adaptive planning) and a prompt global strike capability with nuclear or conventional weapons against totally unexpected contingencies (i.e. crisis action planning). Crisis action planning in particular offers a capability that would be ideal for pre-emptive, tactical strikes to disarm WMD proliferators. Deterrence failure is certainly a realistic scenario in such an event, as any attempt at proactive counterproliferation using either nuclear or conventional capabilities may leave the US open to an adversarys own pre-emptive or retaliatory strike. The defence component of the new triad, which aims to develop a multilayered and global missile defence system, is meant to eliminate the American vulnerability to such an attack. The deployment of ground-based missile defence interceptors in Alaska and California and the planned expansion of interceptors in the US and abroad, including in various Eastern European and East Asian countries, represent the preliminary effort to obtain

American Nuclear Strategy

CIIA International Security Series such a damage-limitation capability. While targeting potential WMD proliferators is espoused as the new triad's primary objective, maintaining nuclear superiority over more strategically capable powers appears to be an implicit, secondary goal. Current BMD deployments will give the United States a potential break-out capability for a more significant strategic defence that could blunt a residual retaliatory attack by Russia or China. Meanwhile, the modernization of the existing nuclear arsenal will increase the accuracy and yield of the Minuteman III ICBMs and Trident II SLBMs, and make these weapons more useful for silo-busting counterforce (and potentially firststrike) attacks against the hardened silos and railand road-mobile ICBMs in the Russian and, increasingly, Chinese arsenals. While subject to the 2002 Moscow Treatys stipulations on force reductions, American force modernization programmes promise critical qualitative improvements to offset any quantitative reductions. ronment and accepts the potential utility of such a posture, is certainly needed. Canada should examine the ways in which these American strategic developments intersect with Canadian strategic interests. This author proposes two preliminary avenues of investigation.

First, the issue of counterproliferation and nonproliferation.


Canada has been an ardent supporter of nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament, and remains especially wary of any initiative that could harm the NPT cornerstone of this regime. And the new triads emphasis on unilateral counterproliferation measures has certainly generated some deserved alarm on that front. The US interest in new nuclear capabilities makes a mockery of Article 6 of the NPT, in which the established nuclear weapon states agreed to make good faith efforts to undertake nuclear disarmament. In addition, the targeting of non-nuclear states that are suspected of being armed with CB weapons clearly violates the American pledge to refrain from the nuclear targeting of non-nuclear states (i.e. negative security assurances). It would, however, be prudent not to overestimate the potential consequences for the nonproliferation regime. Most states that have signed onto the NPT have no real need or interest in undertaking nuclear weapon programmes. The few states that cheated on their non-proliferation commitments or never signed the NPT have independent reasons for their actions, which can range from standard security rationales to particular bureaucratic interests, and will not likely be swayed by strict American adherence to the NPT. The fear that US nuclear targeting against rogue states will lead to their interest in WMD and a renewed arms race dynamic is especially overblown. Strategically weak adversaries like rogue states are reliant on WMD as an asymmetrical counter to massive US conventional supremacy. It is highly unlikely that these nuclear developments will have any substantial impact on the threat calculations of rogue state proliferators. The reliance on the new triad to support a robust counterproliferation policy, even to the point of enabling military interventions, does carry certain

Canada, Counterproliferation and Strategic Stability


Canada has been a vocal critic of nuclear weapons. This has most clearly been directed at nascent nuclear proliferators who have ignored or skirted the multilateral rules embodied in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Allies like the United States have also not been immune to friendly criticism. Canadas polite refusal to participate in US plans for BMD during the Cold War was frequently made in reference to its often aggressive nuclear posture, while Canadians have been at the forefront of efforts at nuclear disarmament and discussions over NATOs nuclear policy in the post-Cold War era. The new triads vision of nuclear primacy over regional powers and unambiguous superiority over potential near-peer competitors (which implies, in effect, the unilateral assured destruction of any potential adversarys strategic capabilities) raises important questions for Canadian policy-makers. Canada should not simply reiterate traditional arguments on the destabilizing nature of such a strategic posture. A more realistic assessment, which takes into account the current strategic threat envi-

American Nuclear Strategy

CIIA International Security Series dangers. The US would face the temptation, perhaps less appealing in light of the Iraq fiasco, to undertake disarming strikes and even more substantial military campaigns. These new capabilities could in turn facilitate the temptation for firststrikes by either party. The likelihood of crisis instability and deterrence failure would commensurately increase. Yet the counterproliferation impulse inherent in the new triad should also not be casually dismissed. Multilateral non-proliferation measures like the NPT may fail in the face of a determined nuclear proliferator, and the US may confront a situation where a military intervention is both necessary and justified. The wartime deterrence and perhaps pre-emptive elimination of an adversarys capabilities may be a necessary option to limit the worst excesses of deterrence failure and WMD use in certain scenarios. While these options are extremely distasteful, it would be imprudent for Canada to simply ignore the potential utility of using nuclear arms as a counterproliferation tool, especially since this is already being considered by other states. countermeasures by targeted countries. These countermeasures could in turn stimulate an arms race dynamic or induce first-strike anxiety among parties during a crisis. At first glance, an incipient action-reaction arms race phenomenon appears to have been triggered by US nuclear weapon developments. China has accelerated its strategic force modernization programme, particularly with the development of solid-fuelled and potentially multiple warheadcapable ballistic missiles. Russia has meanwhile begun research into hypersonic and manoeuvrable ballistic missiles that are designed to penetrate any missile defence shield and, with the demise of the START II arms control agreement in 2002, maintained its multiple-warhead strategic capability. Yet the strategic relationships between the US and these nuclear powers remain far more benign than during the Cold War, and the destabilizing nature of this potential American search for nuclear superiority far more debatable. Russian and Chinese modifications to their own nuclear arsenals may result in a more secure nuclear arsenal capable of absorbing an American first-strike and launching a retaliatory nuclear attack, in which case a situation of mutually assured destruction would only be reinforced between these nuclear powers. The US would have to undertake direct counter-measures against both countries in order to truly display arms racing behaviour, and it remains to be seen whether American nuclear war-planners are truly so confident in, or intent on, attaining nuclear superiority as to actively seek a splendid first-strike capability in the face of these offsetting measures. Nor is it likely that the US will confront a sufficiently serious crisis situation with Russia or China that would involve a return to the nuclear brinkmanship and coercive nuclear leverage that periodically marked the Cold War. Many critics of the new triad often overestimate the fragility of strategic nuclear stability and assume that Russian or Chinese countermeasures already constitute an incipient arms race. Indeed, the strategic resources of established nuclear powers promise to make the attainment of American nuclear superiority a transient and only marginally beneficial affair. Canada should avoid undue alarm over these strategic developments. But Canadian

Second, the issue of nuclear superiority and strategic stability.


The new triads melange of new nuclear capabilities and active defences, while openly directed at nascent WMD states, also represents a serious concern for more established nuclear powers. The high-yield and accurate silo-busters of the modernized ICBMs and SLBMs could be used for a disarming strike against Russia or China. Robust strategic missile defences over North America could in turn blunt the residual nuclear capability of a potential near-peer competitor a fear that the evolving and indeterminate nature of the final American BMD architecture does very little to quell. Canada has traditionally been wary of any American initiative that could endanger strategic stability among great powers. Indeed, Ottawas concern over US strategic developments and support for the now defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty seems to follow this well-trodden path. A robust US first-strike capability, even if not capable of an effective disarming attack, was seen to be sufficiently threatening as to necessitate offsetting

American Nuclear Strategy

CIIA International Security Series policy-makers should also recognize that any US effort to obtain nuclear superiority creates a more permissive environment for the more overt adversarial relationships associated with destabilizing crises and arms race behaviour that is both unnecessary and avertable. of a thick strategic defence could be seen as giving the US a first-strike advantage. But there is no reason why Canada should be averse to a limited thin strategic defence for North America. Selective participation in American missile defence plans, as opposed to a total rejection of any active defence against the ballistic missile threat, may be a prudent course of action. The ongoing NATO interest in missile defence seems especially fortuitous for Canadian interests. NATO is clearly more interested in area defence systems for shorter-range missiles, with clear application for a damage limitation role during any outof-area operation. If American missile defence plans are embedded within a multilateral NATO framework, Canada will also likely be more open to unambiguous participation in a missile defence system. Indeed, given that European NATO allies are often more sensitive to Russian concerns, the US may also be less inclined to deploy BMD assets in former members of the Soviet Warsaw Pact and develop a controversial thick strategic defence for North America. Canada should not be immediately alarmed by the nuclear weapon developments that could result in US nuclear superiority over potential near-peer competitors, but neither should it simply accept such an occurrence as inevitable. Selective participation in BMD may help shift American attention into less destabilizing forms of defences. Canada should also advocate for additional arms control arrangements that could assure that current nuclear weapon developments do not evolve into more open arms racing. Any arms control agreement with Russia should place limitations on offensive counterforce capabilities, which would limit the perceived threat of any strategic missile defence, while an additional agreement could be pursued that acknowledges and legitimises Chinas efforts to modernize and expand its nuclear arsenal. Lastly, Canada should also be made aware of the grand strategy debate that often informs and guides these nuclear developments. The US infatuation with strategic primacy offers a conducive environment for the realization of nuclear superiority, and it is likely that less ambitious grand strategy postures would at least contribute to a reassessment of nuclear force requirements. Influence on these de-

Policy Options for Canada


Any Canadian response to these strategic issues must begin with the recognition that counterproliferation provides the central narrative to justify current US nuclear weapon developments. It is unlikely that the US will adopt a more benign view of the threat posed by WMD. Moreover, Canada has a vital interest in active management of this international challenge. Traditional efforts at nonproliferation may be the preferred avenue for Canada, still wedded to notions of multilateralism, but policy-makers should also be prepared to accept more aggressive military options to deal with this threat. To undertake counterproliferation missions in the future, Canada should continue to reinvest in its hard power military assets. Expeditionary capabilities should be expanded and interoperability with the US and NATO allies prioritized. While lacking any direct influence on the role of US nuclear weapons, Canada can also play an indirect role in shaping the strategic environment to minimize the possibility of nuclear use. Canadas continued effort to buttress the non-proliferation regime is one possible avenue. But Canada should also be prepared to participate in more ad hoc coalition of the willing arrangements, such as the countrys current involvement in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), in order to situate any American counterproliferation measure within a multilateral context. Canada should also be open to selective participation in American missile defence plans. Theatre missile defence systems, which target short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, should be the immediate priority for the Canadian military. These defences have a very clear role in protecting expeditionary forces, and their limited radar coverage and interceptor speeds make them far less worrisome to Russia and China. Continental BMD poses a more difficult quandary, as the deployment

American Nuclear Strategy

CIIA International Security Series bates may be impossible and the expanded security requirements in the post-9/11 period may make a maximalist grand strategy like primacy unavoidable. But Canada could still be given the opportunity to recognize and support more complimentary strategic perspectives.

David S. McDonough is a Ph.D. student in political science and a SSHRC Canadian Graduate Scholarship holder at Dalhousie University. He is also chair of a CIIA Halifax Branch working group on nuclear strategy and has published widely on US nuclear strategy and Canadian defence policy. He is author of the recent monograph, Nuclear Superiority: The New Triad and the Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (International Institute for Strategic Studies).

Photo credits Cover page: General Dynamics; US Army Space & Missile Defence Command; US Air Force; US DOE; www.bbc.co.uk

Disclaimer The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent those of the CIIA or Department of National Defence.

The CIIA wishes to acknowledge the financial support of the Department of National Defence

The Canadian Institute of International Affairs (CIIA) is a non-partisan, nationwide forum for the discussion, analysis and debate of international affairs. As a non-profit NGO, the CIIA is dedicated to helping Canadians obtain a better understanding of foreign policy and global issues through our events and publications.
CIIA, 2007

American Nuclear Strategy