Three Propositions for a New Era Nuclear Policy

(Following is the text of the Commencement Adddress prepared for delivery by Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. During the delivery on Monday, he shortened his talk somewhat.)

This is a season and a ceremony of beginnings, and the Class of `92 has a good one. This is the first class of the post-Cold War, post-Soviet era. At the center of the era just past was the nuclear rivalry with the Soviet Union. I'd bet that few topics have occupied commencement speakers-and graduating classes-more over the last 40 years than the specter of nuclear war, and rightly so. It certainly weighed heavily on my generation. But you're graduating into a new era, one in which the nuclear threat has been radically altered. This new world crystallized last Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and the Soviet Union dissolved.

The disappearance of the Soviet Union as an ideologically hostile, aggressive adversary means that the threat of a superpower nuclear exchange has receded to the vanishing point. But your generation is still going to face a nuclear threat. It will be smaller, but perhaps harder to manage. That threat is nuclear proliferation, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by more nations and even by subnational or terrorist groups.

Of all of the threats that remain after the breakup of the Soviet Union, this is the one threat that can still do damage, physical damage, to the United States. It is not the old threat of a nuclear war between the superpowers that threatened not only national survival but life on the planet itself. In a one-superpower world there is no country that can threaten our physical survival, not even a third country with nuclear weapons. But a third party with nuclear weapons could do enormous, unacceptable damage and this is the residual nuclear threat you face. Even one nuclear weapon detonated in a major metropolitan area would be an unimaginable disaster. Thus, for your generation, there is a sharp irony in the new world you are inheriting. You will face a greatly reduced chance of seeing many nuclear detonations, but perhaps an increased chance of seeing one nuclear detonation.

Today I want to offer you three propositions about what these developments mean for your future.

The first proposition-and this is at the heart of understanding the nuclear issues of your time-the first proposition is that the United States has undergone a fundamental shift in its interest regarding nuclear weapons. In fact, it is a complete reversal.

The United States has relied on nuclear weapons to offset numerical inferiority in conventional warfare. But we are now the only conventional superpower and our interests in this regard are dramatically reversed.

Let me tell you how much we relied on nuclear weapons in this conventional warfare context. Suppose, somehow, that we had been offered a magic wand that would wipe out all nuclear weapons and the knowledge of their construction. Would we have been happy? Not on your life. We would have said, `No thanks, and don't dare give it to anyone else, either.' A world without nuclear weapons would have been a world made safe for conventional war and the United States was numerically inferior to the Soviet Union in weapons of conventional war. What's more, NATO was inferior in weapons of conventional war to the Warsaw Pact. Nuclear weapons were the big equalizer-the means by which the United States equalized the military advantage of its adversaries.

But now the Soviet Union has collapsed. The United States is the biggest conventional power in the world. There is no longer any need for the United States to have nuclear weapons as an equalizer against other powers. If we were to get another crack at the magic wand, we'd wave it in a nanosecond. A world without nuclear weapons would not be disadvantageous to the United States.

In fact, a world without nuclear weapons would actually be better. Nuclear weapons are still the big equalizer but now the United States is not the equalizer but the equalizee.

Consider what would have happened in Operation Desert Storm had Saddam Hussein's nuclear program produced a half dozen nuclear weapons-usable nuclear weapons-prior to 1990. Even if he had no delivery system to get to the United States, suppose he could hit Tel Aviv, Riyadh or Ankara? How would that have affected our ability to conduct that kind of conventional military operation? The outcome may have been the same but I am not sure.

This sobering thought brings me to my second proposition. In this new world, nuclear deterrence may not always work. Our policy for handling the old, superpower nuclear threat was deterrence. The proposition was simple. If you use your nuclear weapons against me I will retaliate with mine with such force that a decision to use nuclear weapons would be tantamount to suicide on the part of the attacker. This policy was derided over the years as mutual assured destruction, or MAD for short. And, in truth, the prospect of survival by owning a hair-trigger arsenal with tens of thousands of H-bombs does not, on its face, make one comfortable. A breakdown in superpower deterrence could have meant an end to life on earth.

But, over time, we accommodated ourselves to this state of affairs. The superpowers, working through several crises like the Berlin Blockade, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crushing of uprisings in Hungary and liberalization in Czechoslovakia, the 1973 war in the Middle East, developed rules of the road and we did become rather comfortable with deterrence. The weapons we built, the signals we sent were all intended to support deterrence. There was, after all, a real incentive to make it work.

But will it always work in the new world? We don't know.

Will our nuclear adversaries always be rational, or at least operate with the same logic we do? We can't be sure.

Will we always be able to put our adversaries at risk to make deterrence work? Not necessarily, particularly with terrorists whom we may not even be able to find.

So, we can't rule out the notion that deterrence might not work.

These first two propositions, then, bring us to the third, which is that your generation is going to need a new set of answers for the nuclear threat we face.

We don't know yet what all the answers will be, but we know some of the main characteristics that a new nuclear policy will have to have.

Characteristic One. Your solutions to the new nuclear problems will be driven by two things: the fundamental change in our interests regarding nuclear weapons and the possibility that deterrence could fail.

Characteristic Two. A single solution, such as deterrence, will not suffice. The problems are too complicated.

Characteristic Three. At the core of your solution package will be international cooperation. Deterrence we could manage alone. Dealing with proliferation will require cooperation.

Characteristic Four. The solution won't be a set of prescriptions from either the political right or the political left. Those distinctions won't work in the new era. Rather, it will be a combination of elements of both. The old right/left axis is gone. What has replaced it is a new/old axis. The new problems you will face require a new synthesis of solutions from all sources.

Let me give you some examples of how you might mix right/left solutions to get a new policy. The examples are defenses, the comprehensive test ban treaty and pre-emption.

Defense against missile attack is a nuclear response associated with the right. And when I say defenses, I am not talking about the impossible Astrodome that Ronald Reagan wanted to build against a possible Soviet attack. I am talking about at least a ground-based defense against in-coming missiles that complies with the ABM treaty. It would be a defense against a developing nuclear ballistic missile threat from third parties. Missile technology, just like weapons technology, is proliferating. A limited defense that complies with the ABM treaty would be an appropriate response.

And defense also includes other means. It makes no sense to spend many billions of dollars on an ABM system if we are going to leave ourselves vulnerable to other delivery vehicles. That means we have to consider defenses against other delivery modes, including air- and sea-borne threats, and suitcase bombs. It means we have to increase our intelligence capabilities and it means we have to put more effort into out technology for the detection of nuclear weapons by our customs officers and coastal defense.

Next, the comprehensive test ban treaty. That's been a nuclear policy associated with the left, but, like defenses, its time has come. In the days when we relied on nuclear weapons as the equalizer versus Soviet conventional forces, it was necessary to conduct nuclear weapons tests primarily for modernization. But no more.

That means there is no compelling reason to do it any more. In addition, there's also an affirmative reason to stop doing it. We've been preaching non-proliferation to other nations, but we haven't been willing to give much on our own nuclear program. Here's our chance. International cooperation is at the core of non-proliferation efforts and that cooperation is going to be difficult to achieve if the United States insists on continuing with nuclear testing.

Others have already gotten the message. Look for Boris Yeltsin to bring up the comprehensive test ban treaty at the summit meeting in Washington next month. The Russians declared a unilateral nuclear testing moratorium last October and have been pressuring the United States to do likewise. The French announced in April that they would halt tests this year to promote a moratorium. The Chinese haven't gotten the message. Last month, they set off their largest underground blast, equal to nearly one million tons of TNT. US protests would be more likely to be heeded if we were not testing ourselves.

The Pentagon opposes more limits on nuclear testing, but pressure has been building in this country and elsewhere to halt testing.

The House next week will take up the fiscal year 1993 defense authorization bill that the House Armed Services Committee has produced. I predict that an amendment will be adopted by the House to mandate a year's moratorium on nuclear testing.

Finally, your new mix of policies from the right and policies from the left will have to consider this one. It's pre-emption. It will undoubtedly bring widespread and strong disagreement, but the prospect is that force may be the only way in some instances to stop the use of nuclear weapons.

If future leaders like Saddam Hussein are intent on developing nuclear weapons and have a relatively advanced economy to support that effort, the choice that is presented to you may be stark-use force to put a halt to the potential use of nuclear weapons or welcome a dangerous new member to the nuclear club. Just about everyone agrees that proliferation should be stopped. Everyone does not agree that the goal is worth the use of force.

So there you have it-the nuclear threat your generation will face will be much smaller, much changed and in some ways tougher than the superpower rivalry that occupied my generation. It will require you to abandon the old political labels that became affixed to nuclear policy during the Cold War and it will call on you to do some fresh thinking.

I think the Class of `92 is up to it.

Thank you.

A version of this
article appeared in the
June 3, 1992

issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume
36, Number

Topics: Commencement

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