One of the pleasures of writing this blog is the invisible college; the offline conversations that ensue from our posts. Recently, I posted a review of Leon Panetta's Worthy Fights. In it, I took issue with some of Panetta’s comments on the Korean peninsula, including the suggestion we would use nuclear weapons in the case of a conventional attack. I argued that this was highly unlikely, in part because it was not necessary. I also argued that our alliance commitments did not include either a declaratory or operational “nuclear umbrella.” Our commitment was to defend our allies by means that were necessary and appropriate, and that the circumstances under which nuclear weapons were needed to maintain that commitment were of such a low likelihood as to be virtually unimaginable. Moreover, there were disadvantages to crisis stability from a policy that allowed for nuclear first use. Because our nuclear arsenal is so varied and potent, Pyongyang might come to the conclusion in a crisis that if they didn't use their nuclear weapons they would lose them.
I got very thoughtful pushback on virtually all of these points from Bruce Klingner (Heritage Foundation) and Terence Roehrig (Naval War College), who was attending a conference with me in Milwaukee. In this two part post, I outline some of their objections and respond.
The conversation started when Klingner pointed out that the United States had in fact made declaratory statements to the effect that our allies were protected by a “nuclear umbrella.” As recently as last month, the Joint Communiqué The 46th ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting (here in .pdf) contained the following language:
“The Secretary [of Defense] reaffirmed the continued U.S. commitment to provide and strengthen extended deterrence for the ROK using the full range of military capabilities, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, conventional strike, and missile defense capabilities.”
Roehrig noted that these statements are not new. Since the 1970s, the U.S. and ROK SCM Joint Communiques have always included a clause about South Korea’s inclusion under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. In addition, the 2009 Joint Vision of the Alliance statement signed by Presidents Obama and Lee also includes a reference to the nuclear umbrella. ROK officials apparently lobbied hard to have this included in the presidential-level statement, and though the U.S. initially resisted, eventually agreed to include the wording.
Klingner noted that the SCM statement is similar to those made to our NATO allies during the Cold War: that the US will use all necessary means, including nuclear weapons, to deter, defend, and defeat adversaries. Use of nuclear weapons was always a last resort but having a viable nuclear option (triad, launch on warning/attack, DEFCON, etc.) was seen as necessary to deter Soviet nuclear and conventional attacks. The deployment of FOTL, ALCMs, and Pershing-2s to Europe were designed to counter the introduction of Soviet SS-20s so that the US had a nuclear counter for each rung of the escalatory ladder.
Klingner also objected to the suggestion that the US did not have operational means for backing up these threats. Clearly the US has nuclear weapons and operational and targeting plans to use them under specified circumstances if needed. Operations Plan 5027 for the Korean peninsula also no doubt has contingencies for the Korean Peninsula under which nuclear weapons might be deployed and used. In addition, a few years back there were reports of CONPLAN 8022 Global Strike which contemplated offensive—and perhaps even pre-emptive—nuclear plans against Iran and North Korea. According to the Washington Post, “President Bush spelled out the definition of 'full-spectrum' global strike in a January 2003 classified directive, describing it as 'a capability to deliver rapid, extended range, precision kinetic (nuclear and conventional) and non-kinetic (elements of space and information operations) effects in support of theater and national objectives.'"
These are important points, but we need first to be clear about what these declaratory statements such as those issued in the context of SCM meetings actually mean. First, they do not commit the United States to use nuclear weapons under any given circumstance. Nor do they commit the United States to maintaining any particular forces in the region that are dedicated to a nuclear mission, although we clearly choose to maintain forces that are capable of dropping nuclear ordinance (for example, the long-standing Continuous Bomber Presence program, which was exploited during the escalation of tensions in early 2013). Our alliance commitments are to the defense of our allies; how that would be done in the case of a large-scale conventional war or even a nuclear attack would involve consultation with them but would ultimately be a political decision taken by the President.
The question then becomes whether the willingness to use nuclear weapons in the case of a conventional attack increases the credibility of our alliance commitments or gives them any additional operational heft. My answer is “no.” Moreover, the unwillingness to adopt a no-first use posture has disadvantages too; tomorrow we take up these issues.