Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review: Jumping the Gun on Russia’s Alleged INF Violation and Tailored Deterrence?

There are two points I would like to make regarding the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. [image above is of (9M728 Iskander cruise missile]

The first is on the NPR and the alleged Russian violation of the INF Treaty. The second, on tailored deterrence and nuclear warhead modernisation.

What appears to be at issue is a land based variant of the Kalibr, land attack, sea launched cruise missile (9M729?), known to us (i.e. US-NATO designation) as the SSC8. The designation is important for previously we knew her as the SSC-X-8 with the X designating a developmental, as opposed to deployed, missile.

The alleged Russian violation of the INF treaty, first called by the Obama administration, has a curious history. It took quite a while for Washington to make the allegation following the first intimation or suspicion that something was amiss, and the details of the alleged violation thus far have not been released. Furthermore, Moscow expressly denies a violation and has stated it seeks to adhere to the Treaty, the last point is interesting in the context of recent testimony by General Selva to Congress where he stated that Russia had violated the “spirit and intent” of the Treaty, not using something stronger such as “in material breach” or “the letter of the Treaty,” and there have been contrary reports regarding crucial aspects of the alleged violation.

As Michael Krepon points out a material breach of a treaty can be technically defined as

violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object and purpose of the treaty.” By this definition, the SSC-8 deployment qualifies as a material breach, just as the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar in the late 1970s qualified as a material breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

Are we talking about a material breach or aren’t we? We shouldn’t simply assume, “yes,” in the absence of further information.

On the contrary reports we had, for example, the New York Times, citing official sources, reporting that Russia had deployed the SSC8 in the field whilst the Washington Post reported, citing official sources, that the missiles were being moved to and from the testing range rather than actually deployed.

General Selva in his recent testimony stated that the missile was both deployed and that deployed in a manner for use in the European theatre.

Now the thing is, General Selva also stated that those planning the Nuclear Posture Review have been asked to draw up or consider possible options in response to the alleged violation. Suggestions have been made regarding this, ranging from the diplomatic, to increasing the number of B61 tactical gravity bombs in Europe, indeed up to and including the deployment of a similar INF busting cruise missile by the US-NATO in Europe.

The Nuclear Posture Review does not necessarily concern itself with the finer points of diplomacy. It is a review of nuclear strategy and nuclear force deployment.

I think we should be concerned that the United States is considering nuclear force responses to an alleged violation, the details of which are largely unknown to us especially so given the history.

The terms of the Nuclear Posture Review, as they appear at the White House website, are also noteworthy

The Secretary shall initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.

The usage of “tailored” in this context evokes concepts of tailored deterrence that were discussed during the Bush administration. The idea here is to develop “useable” nuclear weapons for use in regional contingencies marked by the use or potential use of “weapons of mass destruction.” The key strategic concept is to extend intrawar deterrence to regional theatres.

That means lower yield nuclear weapons, that is nuclear weapons less geared toward high yield to weight ratios typical of the legacy stockpile from the cold war. That sounds like a step beyond stockpile stewardship. It could also mean reviving the robust nuclear earth penetrator warhead scuttled by Congress during the Bush era. The RNEP was consistent with tailored conceptions of deterrence. It could also include reviving the reliable replacement warhead programme.

Definitely things to watch out for.

The important thing about tailored deterrence is that it functions as an intellectual justification for extending intrawar deterrence to regional theatres. The key underlying claim is a revision of the traditional rationality criteria of nuclear deterrence theory, which, naturally, was based on a universal conception of rationality.

By contrast, tailored deterrence assumes that “rogue states” do not share the same standards of rationality and as a consequence deterrence needs to be “tailored” to “their” standards or concepts of rationality not “ours”.

However, there exists no logical or empirical correlation between the internal configuration of a state, say its cultural framework political or otherwise, and its external behaviour so rendering the conception of rationality at the core of tailored deterrence theory fallacious.

1 Comment

  1. Over the past quarter-century, America’s nuclear weapons capability has deteriorated to a grave degree. We are at high risk in a dangerous world. The Trump administration must take two actions to initiate our recovery – one immediate, one follow-on.

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