When Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter took the podium on March 1 to discuss the initial impact of sequestration, he said something very interesting. The Defense Department, Carter explained, would, at least for now, "strictly protect" two missions: The first, understandably enough, involves ongoing operations in Afghanistan. The second floored me. Given the remit for my column, you can probably guess what it is. Carter indicated that, for now, nuclear deterrence will be sequestered from sequestration.
It will not surprise you that I think this is an unwise policy decision, at least if protecting the nuclear mission requires further cuts elsewhere. As an indicator of how the Obama administration thinks about nuclear weapons, it is even worse. The very notion that nuclear deterrence should be exempt from sequestration helps illustrate the incredibly convoluted and confused thinking that underpins the U.S. approach to nuclear weapons.
Carter gave two examples of the sort of cuts that sequestration will entail, both relating to the operations and maintenance of U.S. military forces: The Navy will begin deferring maintenance on the fleet, and the Air Force will defer training, reducing the number of hours pilots get in the air. Why protect the U.S. strategic deterrent from such reductions? What's so fricking special about nuclear weapons, anyway?
Part of the answer goes back to Albert Wohlstetter, who, in the 1950s, articulated the notion that for deterrence to succeed, the United States would have to pay very close attention to the details -- that deterrence is fragile. So, over the years, U.S. policymakers have asserted that deterrence hangs by the slender threat of miscellanea such as missile throw-weight.
Why would deterrence depend on such things? We have tended to think about deterrence as a calculation -- imagine Leonid Brezhnev awaking each morning to subtract the costs of invading Western Europe from the benefits, cursing his luck, and then lighting a cigarette. The notion that deterrence requires spending time with the inner mental life of dictators great and small has derailed countless conferences, spawned terrible policy ideas, and generally kept Jerry Post on retainer.
But policymakers don't actually think that way. Wohlstetter was no fool. His Delicate Balance of Terror is predicated not on any particular model of Soviet behavior, but on its absence -- as well as on the absence of any sort of certainty that might make the balance of terror "automatic." His approach was quintessentially one of what we might call self-assurance -- the notion that policymakers can use rational examination of objective factors to choose policies, forces, and postures that optimize, but do not ensure, a very delicate balance of terror. In practice, this meant more, more, more. Bigger numbers, lots of forces on alert, plenty of diversity in the stockpile. It is an interesting question why, if we do not know what deters the Soviets, we would choose to cover all our bases rather than just concluding that the entire enterprise is bankrupt. Suffice it to say, you don't end up as secretary of defense if you pick the blue pill.