The Syrian regime has now almost certainly attacked its own people with chemical weapons. Tens upon tens of thousands have died over the two years of the Syrian civil war, easily making it one of the largest conflicts in the region since World War II. And yet, although Syria is a close friend, if not ally, of Russia, there has been no major military crisis between the former Cold War rivals, no impending clash of the great powers over Damascus; instead, the United Nations is ensnared, as usual, in its own bureaucratic bumf.
Calls for intervention against Syria, particularly in the United States, are met with grim warnings about the difficulties and complications of intervening against a third-string Middle Eastern power. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, for example, reportedly confronted Secretary of State John Kerry over striking Syrian air bases. Dempsey told Kerry such an effort would require some seven hundred sorties, and then, according to a report last June, “threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.”
One reason these missions might be too difficult is that the United States is still spending too much time, money and intellectual energy preparing to fight a far more important conflict with a far deadlier enemy: global nuclear war with the Soviet Union. We may not be able to suppress the air defenses of a weakened dictatorship in the middle of a massive civil war, but we’re certainly more than prepared to take on the old USSR.
Well, maybe it’s not a plan to fight the Soviet Union, exactly, but the U.S. defense budget and the overall approach to the defense of the United States from foreign nuclear attack still seems rooted somewhere in the 1980s, a relic from the time of Rubik’s Cubes, Rick Springfield, and Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Last winter, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear that the two U.S. defense efforts to be insulated as much as possible from sequestration would be Afghanistan and nuclear deterrence. Certainly, the protection of our men and women in the field was a natural and unarguable priority. But nuclear weapons? In Aspen last month, Carter put it this way: “I can't short the people who are at war in Afghanistan. I can't short nuclear deterrence. Submarines have to sail. You can't—we can't be unready as a nuclear force. You know, the presidential airplane needs to keep flying and so forth.”
If the question is phrased in such a binary way—ready or not ready for a nuclear attack—then this logic is ironclad. No one, including me, is arguing for the immediate and complete disarmament of the United States, or for allowing budget cuts to strip the President of the ability to launch nuclear arms. What makes far less sense, however, is the small army of zombie policies that should have died two decades ago but keep lumbering forward against all strategic and budgetary prudence. Take missile defense. Last week, George Lewis noted that the Missile Defense Agency seems to have returned to pursuing boost-phase missile defenses after killing two similar programs in 2009 and 2011. Leave aside the technological issue for a moment, and ask: what purpose would such defenses serve?
The immediate goal would be to try to stop one, or a few, launches from a rogue state. Those efforts are not only unlikely to work, but are politically unworkable as well: no president is going to rely on defenses during a crisis when preemption can lower the potential damage of a rogue attack from “very high” to “nearly zero.” To judge from the MDA’s own slides, however, the effort looks significantly larger, with multiple launches intercepted at boost, again in layered defenses launched from aircraft, and then terminal ground defenses as the last-ditch.
As the MDA prepares for the nuclear defense of North America against the world of 1980, U.S. strategic forces remain on high alert. Arms control advocate Hans Kristensen estimated last June that a “staggering” number of weapons, perhaps as many as 1,800, are ready to go to war in five to fifteen minutes, as though a disabling “bolt from the blue” were still a threat to American security. And despite the strategic reductions in the New START treaty (which itself was written based on the idea that deterrence will be stable as long as Russia and America can both destroy up to 300 cities), U.S. Strategic Command’s top officer, General Robert Kehler, has suggested that the United States build more, rather than fewer, new strategic-missile-carrying submarines. The Air Force, in the meantime, has begun to float multiple, multi-million dollar contracts on how to modernize the land-based ICBM force.
Amazingly, the land-based ICBM question has already dredged up another bad idea from the 1980s: the plan, once intended for the now-decommissioned MX Peacekeeper ICBM, to base new missiles on rails in the middle of the desert. (Everything old is indeed new again.) And of course, some two hundred tactical nuclear weapons still sit in NATO bunkers, their long-ago intended targets now actually within NATO, while the Russians have a good laugh tweaking Washington about it every so often.
There are some new ideas about how to use U.S. nuclear weapons, of course, and they are almost uniformly bad ones. Perhaps the most startling was Bridge Colby’s suggestion that nuclear deterrence be retooled so that strategic nuclear strikes could serve as retaliation for an “existential” cyberattack—whatever that is—an idea that so far, mercifully, has not gained much traction.
No one seriously expects a nuclear war among the major powers, but we prepare for it anyway, and we pay the price in our budget, our strategic thought, and our diplomacy. While we wring our hands about whether we can handle Syria—which is remarkable given how much time we spend contemplating a far larger war in the Pacific with a near-peer like China—we continue to pour money and deep thinking into preparing for the coming nuclear war, the conflict we escaped during the Cold War but still plan for as if all of our tomorrows are yesterday.
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a professor at the Harvard Extension School. His book, No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, will be released by the University of Pennsylvania Press in November. The views expressed are his own.