On Wednesday, May 16, just days before the leaders of NATO countries meet in Chicago to discuss the future of the military alliance, retired Gen. James Cartwright, former head of U.S. nuclear forces, dropped his own bomb: a report arguing that the United States could reduce the number of nuclear weapons it deploys by two-thirds and the number of warheads it keeps in reserve by nearly 90 percent. Calls for lower numbers are not new, certainly not from groups dedicated to nuclear disarmament like the one Cartwright worked with -- and not even among former heads of Strategic Command.
But Cartwright's report is still dramatic -- not because the quantities are so much lower than the arsenal the United States currently fields, but because they would force the United States to step across a line that separates existing nuclear doctrine from one that it has done its damnedest to avoid for decades, shifting from "counterforce" toward "countervalue." If that distinction sounds abstruse to those outside the rarified world of nuclear strategy, the truth is that the distinction Cartwright has drawn is actually profound -- operationally, politically, and even (some will argue) morally. Cartwright is challenging the nuclear status quo in a way that few Washington elites with such credibility on the subject have dared to do.
To most people, nuclear deterrence equals mutual assured destruction (MAD) -- the idea that peace is maintained because any significant exchange of nuclear weapons would effectively destroy all participants. But MAD is in fact just a condition of the nuclear age, not a policy. Even during Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara explicitly said that U.S. nuclear capability would be designed to absorb a strike and respond in kind, the actual war plans still took a counterforce approach -- that is, they called for launching missiles and dropping bombs on the Soviets' missiles and bombs before they could use them. And even when President Richard Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, effectively acknowledging the persistence of MAD, he also increased funding for the first-strike, multiple-warhead missiles known as MIRVs to assure doubters that America would retain an advantage in offensive nuclear forces. In other words, for 60 years or so, the United States has prepared to fight and win a nuclear war.
This posture rightly strikes most people as preposterous: Common sense tells us that a nuclear war cannot be "won" in any meaningful sense because only a handful of weapons can do civilization-shattering damage. And, to be sure, commanders in chief as distinct as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have acknowledged that a nuclear war must never be fought for precisely that reason. But their rhetoric has always been belied by America's force structure. Destruction may have been mutually assured, but, in the event of a crisis, the U.S. plan was -- and is -- to take out as many of the enemy's weapons as possible in a first strike in the hope of eliminating or at least limiting its ability to retaliate. That's why the United States built so many thousands of nuclear warheads during the Cold War: You only needed a few to retaliate with devastating consequence, but you needed a lot if you hoped to reliably destroy every enemy silo, airfield, submarine base, command center, and the like to prevent a retaliatory strike.
Unfortunately, a truly decapitating first strike was never really possible (especially in an era of hard-to-target nuclear submarines), and the prospect of limiting retaliation to just several hundred or thousand warheads was never particularly comforting. But there was always a case to be made that, if a crisis veered toward war, the United States would need targets for its weapons, and the logical targets were the enemy's nuclear weapons, because they posed the greatest threat. In other words, if the United States had to fight a nuclear war, then it might as well try to win. Some even argued that preparing to wage nuclear war made war less likely by making its conduct credible rather than "unthinkable." So, over the years, some of the smartest strategists in the United States developed increasingly complex theories of limitation and escalation and the operational plans (and weapons) to carry them out.