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It's Not You, It's Me

America's nukes are designed to comfort us, not scare the enemy.

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.

Wohlstetter's legacy is that U.S. policymakers go to great lengths to satisfy themselves that they have done everything they reasonably can and hope that deters the baddies. Robert McNamara, for example, famously attempted to cap the size of the U.S. nuclear force by thought-experiment, imagining a series of 1-megaton thermonuclear weapons dropped sequentially on the Soviet Union. He stopped at 400 equivalent megatons not because he concluded that Khrushchev failed to care about Target #401 in the same way he cherished Target #400, but because the damage curve leveled off. Four-hundred megatons might not be enough, but after that there wasn't anything left to destroy. McNamara was satisfying himself that we simply couldn't do more. What the Soviets thought was anyone's guess.

This is still, more or less, how U.S. policymakers talk about the problem if you push them hard enough. I once sat in on a meeting at the Pentagon where a friend and colleague gave a senior official a very tough time over how, precisely, a small reduction in the reliability of warheads might change the calculations of an adversary. Even if the Russians knew our nuclear warheads were "only" 70 or 80 percent reliable, my friend pressed, how would this alter Russian calculations? Why don't we insist on equally high reliability standards for missiles? My colleague's incredibly persistent questioning produced an interesting response. The senior official argued that the problem was not deterrence, per se, but self-deterrence. We would be less confident in a crisis, he thought, if we didn't have some undefined faith in our nuclear stockpile. It was the closest I have ever seen a senior U.S. official to admitting that much of what passes for "deterrence" is about self-assurance.

That brings us back to sequestration. Ash Carter presumably does not believe that the Russian army will hurl itself onto Poland if the ICBM force reduced its readiness rate to 80 percent. And, presumably, Carter agrees that North Korea will continue engaging in all manner of nasty behavior, irrespective of the number of hours a B-2 pilot gets in during the third quarter of FY2013.

So we are left with the notion that Carter and other U.S. officials fret we will go weak in the knees if we do not fully fund the nuclear enterprise. It is strange that the Obama administration can talk about seeking the security of a world without nuclear weapons at the same time officials are terrified to reduce the flying time for B-2 pilots. But when Defense Department officials talk about deterrence, they are really attempting to convince us, as well as themselves, that they have done all they can.

If the Obama administration is serious about transforming our nuclear posture, that transformation needs to start with being honest that we have, at least in some important ways, been fooling ourselves all these years. We've talked about frightening our enemies when what we've really meant is giving ourselves a dose of courage.

Our attempts to get inside the hive-mind of our adversaries have been failures -- despite all the buzzwordery surrounding "tailored deterrence." The policy legacy of these efforts is downright embarrassing, starting with Keith Payne and Colin Gray's 1981 suggestion that we simply target every KGB office in the Soviet Union because a grateful populace will revolt in the wake of nuclear attack. (Greeted as liberators!) Their infamous essay "Victory Is Possible" (courtesy of FP) is actually a lot less insane if you see it as corrective to the despair of policymakers contemplating the futility of nuclear war. Well, it's a little less insane at any rate.

Two admittedly anecdotal tales ought to serve as a caution about our ability to get inside the head of our adversaries. Certain deterrence aficionados assert that transcripts captured after the invasion of Iraq demonstrate that our nuclear weapons did deter Saddam from using chemical weapons against either Israel or coalition forces. This is the part they don't tell you: Saddam had wildly inaccurate views about U.S. and Israeli nuclear weapons. Saddam had a long argument with his advisers, who tried to convince him that Israel did not have U.S.-supplied Pershing missiles. He was wrong, but his advisors understandably did not persist. Worse, a former Iraqi commander stated that Saddam had dispersed his forces in response to the deployment of nuclear-armed Pershing missiles to Saudi Arabia -- although the United States was in the process of eliminating the Pershing force under the terms of the 1987 INF Treaty with the Soviets. Saddam may have been deterred by nuclear weapons we did not have and, in fact, had verifiably eliminated under the nose of Soviet inspectors. Deterrence worked! Sort of.

The other case is more worrisome. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a U.S. defense contractor completed a massive two-volume study entitled Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985 based on extensive interviews with former "Soviet military officers, military analysts, and industrial specialists." The study is the most persuasive evidence that we dramatically overestimated the requirements to deter the Soviet Union. It also gives us a famous story about Brezhnev's hand "trembling" during an exercise when he had to authorize a nuclear use. The downside of our narcissism is that our efforts to assure ourselves blinded us to real paranoia in the Soviet Union, particular in the early 1980s. The Reagan administration, having campaigned on the notion that Jimmy Carter's weakness had provoked Soviet assertiveness, undertook a variety of activities to remedy the situation, including very aggressive efforts to test Soviet air defenses. The rocky period that we now call the "War Scare of 1983" hit its nadir in 1983 during a NATO command-post exercise called Able Archer. This was the most dangerous period of the Cold War after the Cuban Missile Crisis -- and no one in Washington noticed because they were staring at their belly buttons, arguing about the Midgetman.

If the Obama administration intends to transform U.S. nuclear forces, rather than simply make incremental reductions, the president has to grapple with this much darker legacy. The fact that the nuclear enterprise is exempted for now from sequestration suggests he has not done so. Indeed, the Obama administration's approach to nuclear disarmament has struck me as fundamentally backward. Consider the president's stated goal of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons: That might feed the president's ego as a historical figure, but it inflates his role in the process. Moreover, it suggests further reductions would be unwise. If nuclear weapons play such an important role in our security right now, why would we choose to reduce it?

In fact, the relationship is the opposite. It is the broader changes in technology and society over the past few decades that are responsible for reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons: Technology is improving conventional forces, and we can no longer imagine credible scenarios in which using nuclear weapons would be consistent with our aims in the world. This has nothing to do with Barack Obama's leadership, nor could Mitt Romney have reversed this trend even if he wanted to. The role of nuclear weapons is decreasing as a function of external factors, not pretty speeches.

Doing the right thing, then, doesn't mean doing everything we can, but consolidating and aligning our nuclear forces, policy, and posture with the limited role that nuclear weapons still credibly play.

In other words, what the Obama administration needs, to paraphrase Mike Watt, is some validation. Well, go ahead. You have my permission.

The decision to exempt nukes from sequestration suggests the president isn't intellectually there yet. Whatever he says on a dais in Prague, it's business as usual at home.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Limited Partnership

No, North Korea did not just test an Iranian nuke.

When I last traveled to Seoul, I took in a ballgame. (I am now a fierce partisan of the Doosan Bears.) I headed to the ballpark, anticipating the perfect marriage of Korean and American culture: kimchi dogs!

As it turns out, South Koreans eat fried chicken at baseball games. Who knew? For reasons I cannot fathom, it has never occurred to anyone to smother a hot dog in spicy kimchi, despite the fact that this is fusion cuisine's answer to peanut butter and jelly. The moral of this little tale is that just because two things ought to go great together, the real world sometimes disappoints.

Which brings us to nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran. There have been any number of stories in recent days detailing the allegedly close and continuing cooperation between nuclear weaponeers in both countries. A casual reader perusing the Sunday Times, Jerusalem Post, Kyodo News, and Chosun Ilbo might very well conclude that North Korea's nuclear test was as good as an Iranian one. "Why Iran already has the bomb," was the provocative title of an article in Tablet.

But, like kimchi dogs, it's an obvious idea that doesn't seem to have a basis in fact.

Many of the people pushing the "Iranian test" hypothesis are simply trying to hijack a Northeast Asian crisis for their own preferred policy in the Middle East, which usually involves bombing the crap out of Iran. Others are probably just fascinated by the idea of an international rogues gallery of scientists holed up in a fortress of doom, testing nuclear weapons. (Imagine Mohsen Fakhrizadeh asking Dr. No how he lost his hands, with Ri Je-son rolling his eyes at having to hear that story one more time.)

Few of these authors, however, seem to have thought very carefully about either the status of Iran's nuclear program or the purpose of testing nuclear weapons in general. A careful consideration of both, however, helps illustrate why the reality is probably a lot less exciting than the headlines. There probably is some cooperation, but not of the sort that alters the fundamental policy problem with regard to Iran.

Let's start with the allegations.

The Sunday Times, citing the usual "Western intelligence sources," reported that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, generally believed to be the head of Iran's shuttered weaponization program, visited Pyongyang, possibly before attending the DPRK's nuclear test. The Jerusalem Post picked up that story, quoting an Israeli academic stating that "The Iranians didn't carry out a nuclear test in Iran, but they may have done so in North Korea." Debka, on the other hand, expressed doubt that Fakhrizadeh would leave the safety of Iran, given the desire of certain intelligence services to see his brains splattered across his dashboard. Kyodo News, citing a "Western diplomatic source" reported that Iran paid tens of millions of dollars to have Iranian scientists observe the test. Chosun Ilbo picked up that story.

Iran and North Korea do, of course, do bad things together. The North Koreans and Iranians were both clients of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

Iran and North Korea also have a well-documented cooperation on ballistic missiles. At least one account has the early contacts between North Korea and the Khan network arising from North Korean and Pakistani technicians working on the Iranian missile program during the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. intelligence community's most recent 721 report -- the unclassified summary of WMD proliferation it periodically sends Congress -- clearly states that North Korea's relationship with Iran "remains strong."

One can clearly see this connection in the missiles themselves. Iran's Shahab-3 is a Nodong clone. Iran's Simorgh appears to be similar to the first stage of North Korea's Unha rocket. The third stage of North Korea's Unha rocket appears to be based on the second stage of an Iranian rocket called the Safir, which is in turn based on vernier engines from a Soviet missile called the SS-N-6 that North Korea appears to have exported to Iran.

Recent allegations of cooperation have some basis in fact. In September, Iran's science and higher education minister signed a memorandum of understanding with the North Korean foreign minister on scientific and technical cooperation. The MOU was followed by a Kyodo News report that Iran had agreed to permanently station missile engineers from Shahid Hemmat Industries in North Korea. The latter claim is plausible but not corroborated. Some observers have pointed to similarities in the test stands at the Shahid Hemmat complex and the North Korean launch site at Tonghae -- a similarity I noted at the time. All test stands look more or less alike, as evidenced by images from the United States. Given the close cooperation between the two missile programs, the idea of a more-or-less continuous presence doesn't seem far-fetched.

The evidence, however, dries up on the subject of nuclear cooperation.

The idea is not crazy. Both Iran and North Korea were clients of the Khan network. North Korea swapped Nodong missiles to Pakistan for help with centrifuges and sold a reactor to Syria, so we know Pyongyang likes money. But there are also some important differences in their centrifuge programs: The Iranians are developing their own evolution of the P1 centrifuge using a carbon fiber material; the North Koreans claim to use some sort of maraging steel. Despite these differences, the pair might share an interest in developing a warhead small enough to place on a missile.

As for actual evidence? It is pretty thin. As I noted at the time Iran and North Korea signed the MOU, North Korea's state-run media outlet, KCNA, released the list of attendees. The fact that the heads of the Defense Ministry and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran attended caught my attention -- but it is hard to say more than that. One Iranian defector -- and we ought to treat such sources with considerable skepticism -- has asserted that North Korean specialists visited Iran to assist in the "nuclear program," although he did not make clear in what capacity or how he even knew their function.

Perhaps the most reliable report comes from Paul-Anton Krüger in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Western intelligence sources" told Krüger that North Korea transferred a U.S. computer code that models radiation transport, MCNPX, to Iran.

And that's about it. Is there cooperation within the centrifuge programs? Might it extend to warheads? Maybe. Hard evidence is in short supply. Japanese and South Korean officials have repeatedly asked their U.S. counterparts whether nuclear cooperation exists between North Korea and Iran. You can read the private remarks behind closed doors thanks to Wikileaks: In December 2007, Japanese Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyasu Ando asked acting-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Rood about cooperation between North Korea and Iran on nuclear weapons: "Acting U/S Rood indicated no evidence had been found of exchanges on nuclear or associated technology between the two countries despite longstanding and ongoing cooperation on missile development."

The MCNPX episode might qualify that statement a bit, but we're still just guessing.

It is actually kind of interesting to imagine what might limit cooperation between Iran and North Korea. One factor may simply be North Korean enthusiasm for secrecy. Leslie Groves has nothing on the North Koreans when it comes to keeping tabs on nuclear scientists. When Burmese dissidents obtained a report detailing a trip by military officials to North Korea, Pyongyang reportedly leaned on the Burmese junta to execute the leakers. And A.Q. Khan -- who can be counted on to save his own skin -- seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect his North Korean contacts, even while ratting out the Libyans and Iranians. That ought to tell you something. A cursory glance at the IAEA annex on "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program, on the other hand, suggests the Iranians aren't much on security. I imagine the North Koreans are not terribly eager to stick any Iranian thumbdrives in their computer systems. And if North Korea did transfer the MCNPX code to Iran, I am certain that the cadres in Pyongyang did not enjoy reading about it in the morning paper. The Iranians may share "the common idea of anti-imperialism and anti-U.S. struggle," but they are still foreigners.

Then there is the question of whether cooperation would, in the grand scheme of things, make much of a difference. Indeed, if we think about Iran's nuclear program and the role that nuclear testing might play, showing up at a North Korean nuclear test is probably more about sticking it to the man than anything else. At the end of the day, a North Korean test is simply not the same thing as an Iranian test.

Let's take another look at the Iranian nuclear program. The view of the U.S. intelligence community, which I continue to think is the most reasonable view, is that Iran pursued a covert weapons program before pausing it under international pressure in 2003. Iran could restart the program at any time, which creates an interesting policy problem: An attack on Iran might destroy some capabilities and kill some scientists, but it would result in Iran pushing "play" on a bomb program. That's not a sensible thing to do as long as we have confidence the program remains paused.

Some people are claiming that a North Korean test is also an Iranian test for the same reason they claimed Iran had reorganized its Physics Research Center -- to assert that Iran has restarted its weapons program and that we must now move toward military action. In both cases, however, Iran is simply maintaining its nuclear weapon option. That's not a very happy thought, but it would be Iran's exercise of the nuclear option that sends us to the mattresses.

Iran almost certainly knows how to build a miniaturized nuclear device. China provided Pakistan with information about a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on a DF-2 missile, which the Pakistanis further miniaturized and tested in 1998. Authorities breaking up the Khan network found copies of Pakistani designs in Libya and Switzerland. As customers of the Khan network, Iran and North Korea almost certainly have access to this information. (Iran has already provided the IAEA with one weaponization-related document supplied through the Khan network.) Iran also has access to former Soviet nuclear weapons scientists, including Vyacheslav Danilenko, who seems to have described a rather slim detonator arrangement that is useful for a variety of industrial applications involving shock implosion, such as producing nanodiamonds and digging canals.

There is no fundamental secret to building a miniaturized device. Most of the important innovations are well documented in the public literature. I am sure there are Farsi translations of the Los Alamos Primer and the Smyth Report, Chuck Hansen's U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, John McPhee's Curve of Binding Energy, and one or two other choice publications on bookshelves in leafy suburbs of Tehran like Lavizan. North Korea doesn't need to put Mohsen Fakhrizadeh up at the Koryo to explain levitated pits. We don't know the status of Iran's design program at the time the program was paused in 2003, but they are surely familiar with the major approaches to building missile-deliverable warheads.

That brings us to the purpose of testing. Why test at all?

Much of the U.S. testing program was about exploring, understanding, and validating design approaches. The United States explored all sorts of interesting design approaches, including a few dead ends. The advantage to Iran and North Korea is that the United States has already demonstrated through testing that certain approaches work in principle. Moreover, they probably have access to actual designs that have been validated in tests.

The problem for Iran and North Korea is how to execute those approaches in practice. That presents some interesting engineering challenges, but hardly insurmountable ones. In 2002, the National Academies argued that states like Iran and North Korea could build miniaturized nuclear devices, though these weapons would not be reliable without testing. "A single full yield test," they explained, "would validate both the legitimacy of a blueprint and success in reproducing the object." North Korea learned about the importance of conducting a test the hard way -- with a disappointing 2006 test of what was probably a miniaturized warhead.

One may get a sense of the purpose of testing from the nuclear cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom. The United States provided significant support to the U.K. nuclear weapons program -- U.K. warheads are "Anglicized" versions of U.S. ones like the W76. There are some differences, of course, between U.S. warheads and their British cousins. Brits will tell you that they have more stringent safety requirements when it comes to high explosives and the like, while Americans will tell you that British manufacturing gave the world the Austin Allegro. Either way, everyone agreed that Britain needed nuclear tests to confirm they had successfully reproduced U.S. warheads.

After 1962, the United Kingdom conducted its nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site in the United States. Joint tests involved a U.K. device, diagnostic hardware, and British personnel. (The United States provided other equipment, leading to some interesting interface issues, and the test was conducted jointly under a U.S. test director, who had the final say, and a British trial superintendent.) Although the United States provided an off-the-shelf design with an exquisite test pedigree, the United Kingdom still needed to ensure that changes introduced in manufacturing the device did not have adverse effects. Simply attending U.S. tests as a VIP guest might be enjoyable, but it does not substitute for testing one of your own devices.

Now consider the case of Iran. Iran probably has plenty of information on previously tested warheads from China, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Union, as well as North Korea. The real question is whether they can successfully reproduce the object. If Iran wishes to build a miniaturized nuclear warhead, Tehran ought to want to test it. So, unless the device test in North Korean was Iranian manufactured, the question remains.

Now, of course, the Iranians might still learn other things from a North Korean nuclear test. There are also important lessons for digging and instrumenting the test tunnel, particularly with regard to containing the explosions. Someone from Kimia Madan might enjoy hanging out at Chongjin University of Metal Mining. But unless the Iranians manufacture their own device and detonate it in North Korea, the Iranians still do not know if they have a missile-deliverable weapon. Now of course, the Iranians might be overconfident or simply not care that future warheads are unreliable. But then, what's the point of attending the North Korean test other than to be churlish?

Iran's interest in North Korea's nuclear program is something worth watching, but VIP visits to test sites simply do not alter the current policy choices regarding Iran. Fakhrizadeh's nuclear program is still paused, even if he got a ringside seat for the juche bomb. I wrote last year regarding allegations of yet another reorganization of his tawdry little empire: "Oh, this is interesting all right, and worth considering, but hardly the sort of thing one puts in a PowerPoint to U.N. Security Council. Um, moving on."

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