PONI Live Debate: U.S. Nuclear Targeting
This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on January 25, 2024. Watch the full video here.
Heather Wiliams: Thank you, everybody, so much for joining for this – for our PONI debate. Before we begin the program, I do have to go over some building safety precautions, please. We feel very secure this in building. As a convener, we have to prepare for any eventuality. If anything does happen, I’ll be your responsible safety officer. Please just follow my instructions. And please take a moment to see where the nearest exit is. It’s probably behind you.
With that out of the way, welcome to the PONI debate. We are really thrilled to be hosting today’s event and for you all to be here. The PONI Live Debate Series began in 2009. And the goal was to have a more dynamic, free-flowing exchange of ideas among experts, but also to involve some of the next generation, mid-career experts that are really a core part of what PONI does. And to bring together these different groups to kind of have a free-flowing exchange of ideas, free-flowing exchange of information. And as with today, sometimes we get into some pretty policy relevant issues. And it’s great that we can have these conversations in think tanks in in unclassified spaces.
And so today’s debate will be focusing on U.S. nuclear targeting policy. This has been an ongoing discussion. I’m guessing most of you are familiar with this ongoing debate already. And so to get us started and to have this conversation, I’m really grateful and thrilled that we have Frank Miller and James Acton joining us. I will quickly go through their bios. I’m guessing most of you are already familiar with that. And then I will remind everybody of what the debate ground rules will be. And then we’re going to get started.
So Frank Miller is a principal at the Scowcroft Group. Frank dealt extensively with nuclear policy and nuclear arms control issues during his 31 years in government. And this included senior positions in the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff.
James Acton is the Jessica T. Mathews chair and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie, just across the street. James is currently writing a book on the nuclear escalation risks of advanced non-nuclear weapons, and how to mitigate them.
And then also today, I’m really thrilled that Stephanie Stapleton is joining us from Center for Naval Analyses, where she is a research analyst on the strategy and policy team. Stephanie is also part of the PONI mid-career cadre class of 2023. So thank you, Stephanie, so much for joining what’s going to be a great discussion, I think.
So here’s the – how this is going to go. We will have opening statements. Frank will go first and speak for eight minutes to make his position on targeting policy. James will follow and also have eight minutes for his opening statements. Then we’ll move into the rebuttal stage. And for the rebuttal. James actually is going to get the first rebuttal. And then Frank will have a rebuttal. Stephanie, will ask each of them a couple of questions. And then we’ll open it up to the whole group. We really do want this to be interactive. You are all strongly encouraged to ask questions. We are using a QR code system for the questions. So you should – oh, it’s giant. Yeah, you can see that. (Laughs.) So please scan that. And it’ll take you to a forum where you can put down what your question is. And then the PONI team and I will be moderating them, and we will get to the questions.
So with that I’m going to stop talking and turn it over for what is going to be a really thrilling and exciting discussion. Don’t laugh. It is. It’s going to be thrilling. It’s going to be great. (Laughter.) Everybody’s here. And so, Frank, please get us started with your opening remarks. You have eight minutes. And I am timing. (Laughter.)
Franklin Miller: OK. Well, thank you for having me. Nice to share this stage with James and Stephanie. Thanks for showing up on a rainy day. Now you can start. (Laughter.)
So I want to begin by saying how much I hate discussing this subject. (Laughter.) And I hate it because it almost immediately devolves into a strange lobbying discussion of how to fight a nuclear war. Nobody knows how to fight a nuclear war, or how one might be waged. But everyone knows it would be terrible. And that’s why the whole point of U.S. policy is to prevent a nuclear war, a war in which there would be no winners. So what we should be talking about today is how best to deter potential enemy leaders, now and in the future, from using nuclear weapons should a crisis erupt or we find ourselves at war.
I approach this topic unashamedly as a practitioner, not a theorist. While I have enormous respect for the work of Schelling, Kahn, Gray, Friedman, and others, none of them ever bore the responsibilities of implementing their ideas or working every day to ensure that deterrence held firm 24/7, 365. So I’m going to begin with the best definition of deterrence I know, which was one advanced by the seasoned practitioners who made up the 1983 President’s Commission on Strategic Forces, better known as the Scowcroft Commission.
And I’ll quote, “In order for deterrence to be effective, we must not merely have weapons. We must be perceived to be able and prepared, if necessary, to use them effectively against the key elements of an enemy’s power. Deterrence is the set of beliefs in the minds of the enemy leaders given their own values and attitudes about our capabilities and our will. It requires us to determine, as best we can, what would deter them from considering aggression even in a crisis, not to determine what would deter us,” close quote.
Former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, a brilliant and deeply respected practitioner several times over, noted, “By definition, successful deterrence means, among other things, shaping enemy views of what a war would mean, of what risks and losses aggression would entail. We must have forces, contingency plans, and command and control capabilities that will convince the enemy leadership that no war and no course of aggression by them that led to the use of nuclear weapons could lead to victory however, they define it.” Brown’s successor, Caspar Weinberger, was deeply involved in the reshaping of both U.S. nuclear policy and U.S. nuclear forces.
Weinberger’s views were clear: We, for our part, are under no illusions about the consequences of a nuclear war. We believe there would be no winners in such a war. But this recognition on our part is not sufficient to ensure effective deterrence or to prevent the outbreak of war. It’s essential the enemy leadership understands this as well. We must make certain that the enemy leadership, in calculating the risks of aggression, recognizes that there can be no circumstances where the initiation of nuclear war at any level or of any duration makes sense. If they recognize that our forces can deny them their objectives at whatever level of conflict they can contemplate, and in addition that such a conflict could lead to the destruction of those military and economic assets which they value most highly – political, military and economic assets, which they value most highly, deterrence is enhanced.
So in practical terms, what are we talking about? We’re talking about deterring Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping from attacking us or allies, from using any nuclear weapons. Most especially, from launching a major nuclear attack. What do those two men have in common? They’re brutal autocrats and dictators. To steal a phrase from Michael O’Hanlon and Caitlin Talmadge, they have a high tolerance for other people’s pain. Their supreme priorities are essentially the same – to stay in power, to secure a place in history as their nation’s savior, to preserve their regime, to intimidate their neighbors, and to support their war machine.
For over 40 years, in Democratic and Republican administrations, the U.S. intelligence community has consistently maintained – including most recently to the Strategic Posture Commission and so noted in the commission’s report – that given those supreme priorities, the most effective deterrent threat against them is to hold at risk the four categories of targets that are judged to represent the highest values of the two presidents for life. They are the leadership itself, the support structure which keeps the leadership in power, key elements of their nuclear and conventional forces, and their war supporting industry.
A leader who hopes, by committing aggression, and ultimately resorting to nuclear weapons use in the hope of emerging as the victor who will preside over a newfound conquest, will instead be assured he will never survive to experience the end of the war. A leader who hopes to increase the power and glory of his nation by resorting to the use of aggression and nuclear weapons will not only survive – not survive personally, but the intelligence and security apparatus which maintains his regime’s control over his territory will be rendered ineffective, and the regime and its unifying force over his territory will be destroyed.
In other words, the Russian state, as Putin knows and loves it, and/or the People’s Republic of China, conceived and formed by Mao, will disappear. The military forces, including nuclear forces, which the dictator used to attack his presumed enemies, will be destroyed to the maximum extent possible, and their ability to threaten us or their neighbors further will be eliminated – again, to the maximum extent possible. And the war-supporting industrial base, which the dictator relied upon to sustain his armed forces, will no longer exist.
The question to be asked, therefore, is faced with the prospect of a post-war world such as this, would a rational leader attack the United States or its allies? The working assumption of the last eight U.S. administrations has been that a rational leader would be deterred by such a prospect. After all is said and done, it’s the dictator alone who decides whether to go to war or remain at peace.
The Russian people and the Chinese people have no vote in this, although they would suffer inestimable harm. Both Putin and Xi have demonstrated time and again that their only interest in their people is that they submit to their rule and their policies. The gulags, and prison camps, and detention centers, reeducation camps, and extrajudicial murderers of dissidents belie any notion that Putin and Xi value their people. To suggest that holding the Chinese or Russian people at risk to deter a decision by Putin or Xi to go to war is, therefore, completely misguided, in addition to being immoral and against the law of armed conflict.
In similar fashion, the hardship imposed on the Russian military, and the callous manner in which their lives are daily being brutally sacrificed, undercut the notion that Putin holds his military personnel among his highest priorities. Having an army to take and hold territory? Yes. But compared to surviving, remaining in power, and governing Mother Russia? No. Finally, given the amount of money that Putin and Xi have devoted to increasing and modernizing their nuclear forces and the pride of place they are accorded in public demonstrations or pronouncements, not to mention Putin’s frequent use of nuclear threats and rhetoric to intimidate his neighbors, there’s no question of the high value which these dictators place on the nuclear arsenals.
So I conclude where I began. Our goal is and must be to convince Putin and Xi they have far more to lose than to gain in initiating aggression and the use of nuclear weapons against us and our allies. To put it crudely, they would lose their lives and their state. We, ourselves, and our allies would be utterly devastated by nuclear war, in which there would be no winners. And that’s why we need to continue to convince the potential aggressors not to start one in the first place. Thank you.
Dr. Williams: Thank you, Frank. Seven minutes, 46 seconds. So thank you particularly for staying on time.
Now, James, we’ll turn it over to you for eight minutes of opening remarks.
James Acton: Thanks, Heather. Thanks, also to Frank. You know, it is an honor to share the stage with Frank today. There are few people who have had a positive impact on U.S. nuclear posture and planning, as Frank does. I want to start by telling you what I believe. I believe the United States should not – repeat not – intentionally target civilians. That’s something Frank and I agree on. I believe that a president should have a range of nuclear options at his or her disposal, ranging from the limited and discriminating to the catastrophic. And I believe that the United States should target an adversary’s conventional military forces and war-supporting industries – I’m going to refer to that as CMI targets – because they are valued by adversaries’ leaders. I think Frank and I agree on all of that.
Our disagreement is about whether the U.S. should target other categories of targets in addition to the CMI targets, these conventional military forces and war supporting industry. Frank is arguing that the U.S. should target, I think, leadership, enemy nuclear forces, command and control. I say we shouldn’t target any of that additional assets for two reasons. Firstly, because CMI targeting can, by itself, impose sufficient costs on an adversary leader that anything that can be deterred will be deterred. And I’m not arguing that we can deter everything here, but if it’s deterrable, CMI targeting can impose sufficient costs. And secondly, I’m going to argue that there are very large risks and costs to targeting an adversary’s leadership, nuclear forces, and command and control that outweigh the benefits.
So let me start with arguing that CMI targeting, conventional military forces and war supporting industry, could inflict such damage on an adversary that it would outweigh at the highest end any benefit that adversary could hope to achieve through aggression. And again, I emphasize here again that I support limited options, but in the event of large-scale escalation CMI targeting with 1,500-plus warheads – and I’m not arguing for reductions today – could degrade and adversary’s military forces and war supporting industry to the point of total irrelevance. And we both agree that Russia and China value their military forces and the industry that supports them.
Under both of our targeting policies, both mine and Frank’s, high-end options would lead to catastrophic collateral damage of economic assets that, even if sometimes we’re reluctant to admit it, would enhance deterrence. What do we mean by war-supporting industry? We mean ports, electricity production, mining, metal refining, oil production and refining. Attacking these targets just by themselves because, they have both military and civilian purposes, would destroy the Chinese and Russian economists. But in addition to that, the collateral damage to the purely civilian Chinese and Russian economic infrastructures would reduce their economies basically back to the Stone Age. With no economy and no military, at these high-end options, China or Russia would cease to exist as states in any meaningful sense of that word, utterly depriving their leaders of any power.
And if you want an example of how even – you know, of how even much lesser threats than that deterred, I’d point you to the Berlin Airlift of 1948 to 1949. At that time, the U.S. had a very small nuclear arsenal, 170 warheads or so, that was capable of little more than slaughtering Soviet citizens. And yet, it’s widely regarded that a nuclear threat prevented Stalin from escalating that conflict by attacking the U.S. planes supplying Berlin, even though he was as brutal a dictator as they come. Now, today the U.S.’s current arsenal, with many more warheads that I’m not arguing should be targeted against civilians, would be a much more effective deterrent than that one from 1948-1949, which nonetheless still succeeded in deterring Stalin.
The second argument that I want to make today is that the risks and costs of targeting leadership, nuclear forces, and command and control are high and outweigh the benefits. I’m not arguing there’s no benefits to doing so. I’m going to argue the costs are very high. And there are two different sets of costs, as I see them. The first one is crisis instability, by which I mean escalation risks of an adversary using nuclear weapons first in a crisis or a conflict where it could otherwise have been avoided. Russia and China are both concerned by the survivability of their nuclear forces. And they’re putting their money where their mouth is. They are spending extensively on developments in basing modes and missile technology that I don’t think you would spend that amount of money if you didn’t have genuine concerns about the survivability of their nuclear forces.
Secondly, attacks on nuclear forces are necessarily preemptive, right? There’s no point attacking a silo after its fired its nuclear weapon. And when you put these two things together – concern about survivability and the possibility of preemptive attacks, that creates significant pressures on an adversary’s leadership to use nuclear weapons first before they are destroyed. Which, I think, is not in the U.S. interest. Now, to be clear, in the case of China, China does not have the capability to do a large-scale attack against the U.S. And I think that’s pretty unlikely in the case of Russia. What I worry about here is limited nuclear use by an adversary in those circumstances for the goal of trying to make us back off or back down.
Second cost associated with targeting leadership, nuclear forces, and command and control is arms racing costs. Now, people are fond of pointing out – some of my critics – that the U.S. is not in an arms race today. And that’s true, right? That’s good. I’m glad we’re not in an arms race today. That is smart policy. I think we should not get drawn into one. And the logic that Frank has previously advocated I worry will draw us into an arms race. You know, in 2022 Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal that we should – “we,” the United States – should build up our nuclear arsenal to between 3,000 and 3,500 nuclear weapons. And he wrote, quote, that “We must be able to threaten, separately and in combination, both Russia’s and China’s key assets, including their leader’s ability to command and control the state, their military forces, and the industrial potential to sustain war.”
Let me ask you the following question: If we start building up our nuclear arsenal, what do we expect China and Russia to do? Sit on their hands? I would suggest no. Their force requirements, which are already growing – and I suspect – you know, China is building up its nuclear arsenal, I expect Russia to start doing so after New START expires. Our building up will lead to their nuclear force requirements being revised further upwards. The problem is that if you’re targeting adversary nuclear forces, the United States then necessarily has to revise our force requirements further upwards because you have to cover the targets.
The result, I worry, would be an enormously expensive three-way arms race with no obvious end point. In the Cold War, we eventually could settle for rough parity with the Soviets. There is no equivalent equilibrium point to that with three players. Now, look, I’d support arms racing if I thought it made us more secure. But I think we can have effective deterrent at our current force size, and by building up our force we’ll exacerbate escalation risks. So let me close there.
Dr. Williams: Thank you very much, James and Frank, for the opening salvos and opening remarks, and both laying out your initial positions. So next phase will be rebuttals. And for this just asking you each to respond directly to what you heard from each other. And so James will carry on with his – with his remarks, speaking directly to what Frank had outlined in his. So it will be four minutes for James, four minutes for Frank, and then we will start the Q&A section. So, James, back over to you for responses to what Frank said.
Dr. Acton: OK, me again, right. I want to focus on two points here. Firstly, on, you know, an issue I’ve already touched on, which is what the adversaries value, right? Both Frank and I agree that it’s very important for the United States to target what adversaries value. No disagreement there. Both of us think that adversaries value their conventional military forces and their war supporting industry. No disagreement there.
The question – I think the key question in this debate is whether adversaries value their nuclear weapons so much that in the event we annihilated their state, destroyed their conventional military forces, destroyed their war supporting industry – and, by the way, in the process, most of the rest of their industry – that Xi or Putin, sitting in bunkers if they survived the war, would be, like, well, I don’t have a state anymore, but I do have nuclear weapons. And so I don’t regret my aggression in the first place.
I would submit to you that’s pretty unlikely. They value their nuclear forces. They’re important. But I don’t see any concrete evidence that the nuclear forces are the thing that’s going to tip deterrence in our favor, especially when you factor in the costs and risks of targeting them. I do want to make one point though about what Xi and Putin value, because I think this matters. I’m not going to dispute with Frank that Xi and Putin don’t value their people’s lives intrinsically. They don’t subscribe to the notion that human life is precious. And they won’t mourn for their people as unique individual human beings.
I think they do value their populations instrumentally. Their populations, people are workers, people are fighters. I don’t think it’s much fun being a dictator if you don’t have anybody to dictate to. So I’m not going to hinge my argument on this, by any – in any way. The bulk of the deterrence value is going to come from war supporting industry and conventional military forces, targeting them. But I don’t think we should ignore that under either of our targeting policies there’s going to be immense collateral damage, and that – and that collateral damage, even if it doesn’t have intrinsic, will have instrumental cost to them.
Second point that I want to make is this. DOD advances, United States Department of Defense, advances an entirely different argument for counterforce, not – advances a second, additional argument for counterforce, which is damage limitation – which is limiting the damage that we would suffer in a nuclear war. Frank didn’t advance that argument today. He’s under no obligation to do so. I just want to say one thing about damage limitation. If you think damage limitation can be effective, and I’m going to disagree with you about whether it can be effective, it seems to me that if you think it’s going to be effective it really risks generating escalation pressures. Because you give the adversary a real reason to think that its nuclear forces could be vulnerable.
And I want to close by quoting the Scowcroft Commission from 1983, which Frank did as well. And it said the following, “Whether the Soviets prove willing or not, stability should be the primary objective of the modernization of our strategic forces and of our arms control proposals.” And note they define stability as the condition which exists when no strategic power believes it can significantly improve its situation by attacking first in a crisis, or when it does not feel compelled to launch its strategic weapons in order to avoid losing them. So, you know, I think the Scowcroft Commission Report is a great commission report. I think read holistically it makes stability concerns very clear.
Dr. Williams: James, thank you very much. Frank, over to you for a rebuttal, please.
Mr. Miller: Well, I think there are three things that James and I agree on. One is president needs to have range of options. Second is that Xi and Putin don’t have any real feelings for their people but view them as instrumentalities. And, third, the quote from the Scowcroft Commission Report on stability. That’s very important.
Where I disagree is that James says that, in his view, the CMI concept imposes sufficient costs. And I agree he believes that. I do not agree that that is what Xi or Putin believe. So let me go through a couple of points quickly. You know, the assertion that that U.S. counter-nuclear targeting in today’s to two-peer adversary world would require a significant growth in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, is, I think, simply not true. It’s not at all clear that we’re we to cover China and Russia simultaneously, as the Strategic Posture Commission has recommended, that there would need to be a major growth in U.S. nuclear forces.
And I would say that the article that you referenced, that I wrote in 2022, was about arms control. And it was about taking the 1,550 of New START and adding it to the 2,000 Russian short-range nuclear weapons, to come up with 3,500. It was about arms control and capturing all nuclear weapons. That’s where those numbers were derived from in the article. They’re right in the article. And then the arms race, of course, is without foundation, because Moscow and Beijing have been building up their nuclear forces for the past 10 to 15 years. So the notion that we’re now going to do something, and they’re going to react further, I just – I find, historically invalid.
But I do want to also talk about the notion that that U.S. counter-nuclear targeting would cause Putin or Xi to be trigger happy, thereby increasing escalatory or preemptive potential in a war. I think that is a completely speculative argument. And it presumes that Russian and Chinese doctrines are mindlessly reactive rather than deliberate. And I have never seen any evidence for that. I have seen a fair amount of substantial evidence that Russian and Chinese military leaderships formulate plans based on their own perceived requirements, which in some cases actually include preemption, regardless of what the United States and our allies are doing. So I don’t think the notion that we might target their nuclear forces would result in preemption or escalation in and of itself. They have their own plans. They have their own doctrines.
And I want to make two points in response to things James said. The U.S. counter-nuclear targeting policy is not based on preemption. U.S. policy has been based, since the end of the Kennedy-Johnson period, on having at least a secure capability to retaliate. And I, and people in this room, have spent hours, years ensuring that we had the capability to respond after we were attacked. We wouldn’t have done that if the notion was that U.S. policy is preemption. And second, damage limitation is a disputable point. But if you can, in a second – a second strike destroy reserve forces that would otherwise impose harm on our people and our allies’ people, that’s not a bad thing.
Another issue I have with what James said is that the – what he advocates will affect our allies. Our declaratory policy and our planning are intended to reassure allies. And any policy changes that are perceived to reduce the U.S. commitment to deter war will be viewed by allies as weakening our commission – our –I’m getting the hook. So allies are a problem.
Finally, and I want to turn to this, the most troubling thing is the belief that during and after a major nuclear war we would leave in sanctuary and enemy leadership unleashed a devastating attack against us and our allies and would also leave in place a residual nuclear force which was they could use again. Presented with this as an outcome, I do believe – and I think the intelligence indicates – both Putin and Xi would consider that a victory. And that is, in fact, absolutely dispositive to the argument for not targeting leadership and nuclear forces.
So, as I said, we must, at the end of the day, avoid aggression and nuclear war. We have to have a robust deterrence policy and hold at risk what the enemy leaderships value. And by leaving out the things that they value most of the four – their own survival, their ability to run a state, and their nuclear forces – we risk failure. And that’s why the current policy remains the best deterrent.
Dr. Williams: Thank you both very much for those reactions. There’s a lot of different angles that we could all start diving into. I am a bit encouraged but surprised that you both have said, here’s all the things we agree on. But there’s also some really deep points of disagreement. And so with that, I think now let’s start – we can start getting into the meat of a little bit more.
So, first, we’ll go over to Stephanie. Stephanie, if you could – let’s stick with one question for each of them for now. And so perhaps start with a question for Frank. And Frank will have about 90 seconds to respond. And then question for James, same thing. And then thank you all for putting your questions in through the QR code. There’s a lot of them coming in. And they’re really good. A few spicy ones. And so then I will start taking the questions from the audience. So, Stephanie, your first question for Frank, please.
Stephanie Stapleton: Yes, no, thank you so much for having me here today. Frank, I want to pick up on what you were just saying as far as allies and extended deterrence. And so, if – and I want to link that to the now forward-basing of nuclear weapons in Belarus, right? So if we were to have escalation, and let’s say we have targeting of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, what do you think that would mean for U.S. targeting policy and escalation, both vertically and horizontally, in a different theater?
Mr. Miller: Well, again, now we’re fighting the nuclear war, which you can’t do. It’s impossible to do that. Russia has placed nuclear weapons in Belarus. When we faced the Soviet Union, they were Russian – there were Soviet nuclear weapons in Belarus. One has to think about deterring Putin from exercising those forces. And one has to deter Putin’s use against our allies, which those forces are intended to be used against. So this is part of the overall deterrent picture. I don’t view the movement of nuclear force into Belarus as being under Belarusian control. I think they’re all Russian forces. And I think we’re back to having to deter Putin and to present him with an outcome after the war which is utterly unacceptable to him. Not to those of us who would want to think for him.
Ms. Stapleton: Thank you.
And for James, you were talking about targeting these different targets under a war supporting industry and CMI. And you talked a lot about collateral damage. So can you clarify how that view of affecting electricity and oil refineries doesn’t impact civilians, aside from killing them directly, right, in nuclear war, which we don’t want, would be different from countervalue targeting. For example, in Russia right now they’re starting to see some conventional attacks on their infrastructure. It’s cold in Russia right now. It’s wintertime. So when we think about civilian harm and that sort of targeting policy, how does that collateral damage still abide by the Law of Armed Conflict?
Dr. Acton: I mean, DOD says it does – (laughs) – is the short answer to that question. I mean, look, both Frank and I support targeting war supporting industry, right? Neither of us are targeting civilians explicitly. Both of us are targeting war supporting industry. And both of our targeting policies are going to cause massive amounts of collateral damage. I have been open – and I’m not going to back away from this position – in saying I don’t think the Law of Armed Conflict is a good guide for targeting policy.
That said, I understand as a practical matter that folks in DOD and STRATCOM are legally obliged to follow the Law of Armed Conflict. And targeting war supporting industry under DOD’s own guidance is a legitimate military instrument. The United States targeted electricity production, for example – or, the electricity grid in Serbia in, somebody help me here, ’99, was it, the bombing campaign over Serbia? You know, we targeted the electricity grid then. That that had huge collateral effects, but we viewed that as being a legitimate military target.
So as I said, this, I think, doesn’t actually distinguish Frank’s position from my position. And if you think that war supporting industry is not a legitimate target, your disagreement is really with the DOD Law of War Manual, rather than me personally.
Dr. Williams: Since you were both disciplined in your timing, Stephanie, let’s do one more round of questions from you. And we’ll – so we’ll go again to Frank first, then James, and then I’ll start changing up the order when we take questions from the audience. So if you have another question for Frank.
Ms. Stapleton: Yeah. Let’s see. Considering the differences and similarities in both of your positions, Frank, when we think about the kind of six tenets of U.S. defense policy – those are second strike, flexible response, tailored deterrence, extended deterrence and assurance, calculated ambiguity, and hedging against risk, right? We’ve heard a bit about hedging against risk. And I want to think more about the calculated ambiguity here. If the U.S. was more transparent in there – if we were to transition to, like, a more transparent statement of, oh, we’re going to explicitly target CMI and WSI – which is already implied in your War on the Rocks article. The myths that you have about counterforce, right? You know, how would keeping with our current targeting policy better hedge against risks than switching to something that’s more explicitly CMI and WSI?
Mr. Miller: Well, look, I mean, the general threat that if you start a nuclear war, you’re going to end up worse off than before the war is what we threaten. We can’t say that X will follow Y, because at the end of the day only the president, the United States can decide what he or she is going to do or not going to do. And so what we have to do is present enemy leaders with the notion that what they value is going to be destroyed. And we can tell them broadly what that’s going to be.
In my view, having watched the Russian leadership and the Chinese leadership make extensive preparations to survive nuclear war for themselves and for their support infrastructure – KGB, people’s armed militia, and the rest – and to have nuclear forces in reserve, these are truly important things to them. They would not want to be in a postwar world without their nuclear weapons or without the ability to run their country. So, to me, those are absolutely critical – in addition to the war supporting industry in the army.
But of the four, to me, from everything I’ve seen and known, those are the most important ones. And leaving them out of potential retaliation gives Putin and Xi, however perverted the view is, the notion of victory. That’s what they’re striving for with their multiple command posts and their multiple survivable nuclear weapons.
Ms. Stapleton: I’m going to pose pretty much the same question to you, right? How would your preferred strategy on targeting – you talked about the risks associated with targeting the leadership and the nuclear forces. Would that undermine calculated ambiguity of their decision calculus? So, like, if they feel like they’re going to be safe if we say we’re not going to target them?
Dr. Acton: So, day one, my policy will make no difference. They’re not going to believe what we say anyway. It will be very different at year one or year five, for the following reason. China is building up its nuclear arsenal. Russia, I think, is going to build up its nuclear arsenal, post New START. If we do what I regard as the sensible thing here, and don’t build up our arsenal, over time our arsenal will become manifestly incapable of large-scale counterforce, because their arsenals will be going up and we will do the sensible thing and keep ours at the same level. I am not asking Russia and China to believe what we say, because they won’t. The argument will be what we do, or rather what we don’t do, over time. And I want to be very clear and honest that what we say is not going to make very much difference on day one.
But I also kind of want to bring in this issue here about how much preemption really matters. Look, I think there’s two different ways of looking at why China and Russia have built buried leadership bunkers and hardened nuclear forces. You know, maybe it’s because they kind of value them intrinsically. Or maybe it’s because they worry about decapitation from us and want the ability to command and control their nuclear forces so that we don’t lock them off on a first strike. And I think it’s – the mirror imaging debate here cuts both ways. I think it is pivotally important that we don’t assume that what our leaders assume about value is theirs. Sorry, that was incomprehensible.
Like, I think our presidents, by and large, value human life intrinsically. We shouldn’t mirror image and assume that their presidents feel the same way. But equally mirror imaging implies understanding Chinese and Russian concerns for what they are, not assuming that because we know we’re America and our intentions are benign, they feel the same way. And accepting that, from their perspective, our nuclear forces pose a real threat to their survival, and that that’s why they’re digging themselves in to try to survive a nuclear war.
And, by the way, given the challenges of actually killing leaders – if you look at the National Academy’s report from a few years ago – even if we built a giant bunker buster, we couldn’t attack the leadership bunkers that Russia and China have built very deep. Aircraft operating deep over Russia and China for command and control are incredibly difficult targets. Like, I can’t rule out the possibility we might kill them. But I think it’s actually pretty unlikely. Like I think – I think that is something – protecting leaders is, on the scale of a nuclear war, some of the easiest things to protect.
Dr. Williams: OK. Thank you both. So, lots of questions coming in. Thank you. You can keep them coming in and we’ll keep tracking them. So first question will be for James. This is from Erica Fogerty at Los Alamos. And she – you did kind of tease a little bit that you might have some views about the size of the U.S. arsenal. So her question was, what would you say about the size – about the current numbers for the U.S. arsenal, it’s deterrence ability, and, I guess, how do you feel about U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons?
Dr. Acton: The bottom line is I wouldn’t change the size of our arsenal significantly. In an abstract sense, I think we could probably make do with somewhat fewer. I think that genuinely does risk sending the wrong signal to Putin right now. I think it would worry allies. So, you know, I would just keep roughly the same size of the arsenal we have right now. I think we want to spend money keeping it survivable. I’m, you know, an advocate for spending lots of money particularly on nuclear command and control, which I regard as being the least – sorry – the most vulnerable part of our current nuclear infrastructure. But force size-wise, I’m very comfortable where we are at the moment. I would just stay there.
In terms of low-yield warheads, this is something that I’ve genuinely changed my opinion on over the last 20 years in the field. I think it is useful for the president to have some low-yield options. My personal judgment is we don’t need four different low-yield options. The B61, ALCM/LRSO, the low-yield Trident, and then the SLCM-N that’s being advocated at the moment. I don’t think we need all four of those different options. But, like, this is not – to some extent, from the point of view of this debate, this is in the details. Like, I think a president – I think we should want some low-yield options for the – for the early phase – for trying best we can to manage escalation in the early phase of a nuclear war, not having any idea whether we’ll actually be able to do so. But, like, I’d rather give a president the tools to try and do it than not.
Mr. Miller: Hey, could I only just say, from my perspective, the size of the current force was decided in 2010 when China wasn’t even in the discussion and Russia wasn’t a threat. We’re now in a world where this administration acknowledges that China and Russia are very dangerous actors, and China has morphed into a major nuclear power when it wasn’t in 2010. To keep the arsenal sized to a deterrent threat from 2010 in 2024 seems to me absolutely inconsistent with the way the world has turned and reduces our ability to prevent war.
Dr. Acton: Listen, I think this is a crucially important point, and one that it’s really productive to us to engage on, right? Frank I agree the world has got more dangerous, right? I’m not going to tell you that I think the world is this benign, happy place. There’s a reason I work in a think tank rather than making a lot more money in a bank, right? (Laughs.) It’s because I genuinely worry about the state of the world and our security. And I want to try and do something about it. So, like, you know, Frank, and I agree we have a problem.
The question is whether a larger nuclear arsenal helps solve that problem or not. My view is even against two adversaries attacking us simultaneously we can impose such ginormous costs by targeting war supporting industry and conventional military forces that we can deter anything that can be deterred. Secondly, I think – you know, I’m interested, Frank, in understanding how, you know, earlier you said that in The Wall Street Journal op-ed you were talking about arms control and you think it’s not necessary for the U.S. to build – I don’t want to put words in your mouth here. But, like, you suggested that it wasn’t clear we needed to build more nuclear forces to cover all the targets in Russia and China.
Mr. Miller: No, I didn’t say that. I said that 3,000-3,500.
Dr. Acton: Ah, OK, OK. But you do accept the logic that if you’re targeting adversaries’ nuclear forces, the size of our force necessarily depends to some extent on the size of their forces?
Mr. Miller: Yes, obviously.
Dr. Acton: OK.
Dr. Williams: OK. Next, next question. This will be for Frank, but then if James wants to weigh in afterwards you’re welcome to. This one comes from Jon Wolfsthal at Federation of American Scientists. And Jon was quite a bit of the inspiration for putting this together. I’m not sure if your suggestion that we do this debate was a serious one or not, but thank you for making it. (Laughter.) And glad that we could – we could take it up.
Audience Member: Better James than me, so. (Laughter.)
Dr. Williams: So Jon’s question is, what evidence – what specific evidence do you have about Russian and Chinese thinking about what they value most that backs up your preferred targeting strategy?
Mr. Miller: What we have to do is see what potential enemy leaders spend their money on, what they spend their time on, where they engaged with their forces, and engage with their people. It’s manifestly clear that control of their countries is paramount. It’s manifestly clear that they have made extensive preparations to control the country even in the event of a war or a nuclear war. It’s manifestly clear that, first Russia and then China, have made major investments in building up their nuclear forces in the absence of any new U.S. nuclear force having been fielded, any new U.S. nuclear system having been fielded from the period that their buildups began.
So you watch where leaders put their money and spend their time. And that’s how you derive what they are seriously considering as their primary objectives. And that’s – you know, you can say that at the unclassified level. And there’s a lot more to back that up, as you well know, on the classified side.
Dr. Williams: Did you want to add anything on this?
Dr. Acton: I do. I do. Like, the first thing we should acknowledge here is evidence in this space is really hard to come by, OK? Let us be intellectually modest here and acknowledge that it’s really hard to know what adversary leaders value. I’ve never had access to the classified. But I want to point to three pieces of concrete evidence that, to my mind, suggest that CMI targeting will be sufficient. The first one I’ve already given you, the Berlin Airlift of ’48 to ’49. If you want to point to one dictator who’s – one Russian dictator who’s worse than Putin, like, it’s probably not controversial to say Stalin. Who, by the way, I think is a hero to Putin.
So, you know, under the logic of, you know, existing U.S. targeting policy, 170 warheads targeted against a population should not have been sufficient to deter Stalin from shooting down the U.S. aircraft resupplying Berlin. Most historians think it was. Secondly, during the Cold War, people made a very similar argument to the one that Frank has just made about, you know, the Russian – say Russia and China – the Soviet Union during the Cold War, had buried itself in, protected the leadership. You know, the argument was made that the Soviets really believed they could fight and win a nuclear war.
I encourage everyone to read a study called Soviet intentions by Hines, Mishulovich, and Shull, which was published by the Office of Net Assessment, that famous commie left-wing pinko organization, that was published after the end of the Cold War. When these folks, Hines, Mishulovich, and Shull, went and interviewed at the very end of the Cold War everybody they could speak to in the Soviet Union. And there was really very little – I guess everyone they could find with a knowledge of nuclear planning. And, you know, they concluded in that study that the Soviet Union really didn’t have much confidence it could survive, and fight, and win a nuclear war. It was – burying themselves in was a fundamentally defensive measure because they were worried about attacks by the U.S.
The third piece of evidence that I would give you for Russian thinking at the moment is compare the Russian reaction in the current Ukraine war – I mean, Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine – from when the Ukrainians did the drone attack against the Kremlin. We heard crickets. When the Ukrainians attacked population centers in Bryansk, Pskov, and Belgorod, we had huge Russian reactions. I’m not prepared to read anything into one single piece of evidence. I’m going to fully acknowledge there’s a lot of speculation here. But I think the evidence we have publicly available suggests that attacks against CMI, especially when you take into collateral damage account, would be enormously – the costs we could impose, if we chose to, would outweigh whatever conceivable gains the United States hoped to – (laughs) – the United – Russia or China hoped to achieve through aggression.
Dr. Willaims: We have about five minutes before we’ll turn to closing remarks. I’m going to try and squeeze in two questions here, if I can. Next question comes from Oleg Shakirov at Johns Hopkins SAIS.
And the question here is that the core of Russian nuclear doctrine is that Russia will seek to retaliate once it detects a U.S. attack. The threat of unavoidable retaliation is what’s supposed to deter the U.S., from the Russian perspective. How would that factor into your thinking about nuclear targeting? I’ll go to Frank first.
Mr. Miller: Yes. I assume that the Russians would retaliate if we struck them. The whole point is to put the leadership – that we got get into a war where we are forced to go first. Again, I do not and I will not get into a discussion of how to fight a nuclear war. Nobody knows how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that. So I will say that in even James’s instance of the Berlin crisis, the United States has had a nuclear monopoly. Stalin was dealing with the United States having a nuclear superiority. If we do nothing and we let the Chinese and Russian arsenals builds up, we do not want Xi and Putin, or their successors, to believe that they will have a nuclear superior capability against the United States president, and to unwisely start a conflict in the view that they could intimidate an American president into doing nothing or abandoning our allies in Europe.
Dr. Acton: Yeah. I mean, look, let me – let me respond to that last example. I agree Russian doctrine is what Russian doctrine says it is. And, you know, I think we should be cautious about giving Russia a reason to use its launch under attack capability. You know, historically countries with a complete nuclear monopoly, where one country has had nukes in its adversary haven’t, that’s actually undermined deterrence, right?
The U.K. was clearly unwilling to use nuclear weapons over the Falkland Islands. I think it’s highly questionable the Argentinians really were worried about that. You know, we were not willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and I don’t think the Vietnamese really thought we would. So, you know, I actually think that the fact that the Soviets had no nuclear weapons – our use of nuclear weapons against the Soviets in ’48 to ’49 would have appeared like, you know, aggression against a country without the nuclear arsenal. I think that actually hurt our ability to deter them. It didn’t help our ability to deter them.
And secondly, you know, fundamentally this issue about nuclear superiority comes down to what you think nuclear superiority is. You know, if it’s really true – and I’m inclined to agree with Frank here – that you can’t fight and win a nuclear war, providing your forces survivable superiority is kind of a meaningless metric. And, you know, that’s fundamentally why I say let’s focus on developing a survivable nuclear force that can inflict enormous quantities of damage on them. And if they have a bigger arsenal than us, I don’t think that deters – undermines the deterrence effectiveness of our arsenal because it’s still very survivable and capable of imposing enormous costs.
Dr. Willaims: Final question, from the audience, at least – assuming time – will be for James. And then we’ll get to closing remarks.
So, James, so the question here is: With your caveat that the U.S. must operate within just war, how do you justify that nuclear use against CMI targets is not more destabilizing than using conventional forces for conventional targets? Especially when nuclear weapons have not deterred provocative conventional behavior?
Dr. Acton: So, firstly, I haven’t mentioned just war theory so far. I mean, let’s distinguish between legal and moral aspects of warfare here. Secondly, I actually don’t think this is a distinction between Frank and me in this debate. I mean, you know, Frank – I’ve give Frank an opportunity to jump in if he disagrees with me here – but Frank is not going to say that we should only use conventional forces to attack conventional targets, right? Frank’s policy involves keeping open the option of using nuclear weapons against conventional targets. So I don’t think this issue particularly distinguishes between us.
Look, what I would say is this, that I do think what fundamentally – what leads nuclear weapons fundamentally to deter is that if everything gets out of hand and the proverbial hits the fan, the level of destruction is far beyond anything that could conceivably be achieved with conventional weapons. The societal disruption that a large-scale nuclear war would cause, whether or not we wanted that as the outcome, I think, is enormously deterring, even if you think Russian and Chinese don’t – leaders don’t particularly value their people, which I don’t.
And so, to my mind, the morality of this is I want a targeting policy that reduces the risk of escalation, both by reducing the probability of a nuclear war and by the probability that escalation occurs within a nuclear war. I think we best achieve that by not targeting nuclear forces. And that’s why I focus on war supporting industry and conventional military forces. And I see that as the most moral targeting option out of a really bad, difficult bunch available.
Dr. Williams: Did you want to weigh in on this point, or shall we move to closing –
Mr. Miller: No, I’ll just move to closing, I guess.
Dr. Williams: So we will move – thank you, to everyone, for the questions. And I apologize if I didn’t get to your question. There were a lot of really good ones. And I hope that means we can continue the conversation. But moving towards some final thoughts, Frank, 90 seconds and then James will get the last word.
Mr. Miller: Sure. So where James and I agree is that he has a view. (Laughter.) Where we disagree is whether his view is held by Xi and Putin and the people closely around them. I believe they are not. I believe that the notion of allowing Xi and Putin to comprehend that they could survive a nuclear war with nuclear forces intact is the wrong signal, that it is dispositive, that it makes nuclear war more likely not less, when people get pushed into very serious situations and think I’m going to go forward.
And that, to me, is the essence of the question. What we have to do is present potential enemy leaders who are prepared to go to nuclear war – and we know from the Soviet war plans that they were prepared to go first in Europe during the Cold War. We know that these people need to be told that what they rely on to rule the world after the war will not exist, and they will not exist. And therefore, you don’t go in the first place. James has a different view of their value structure. I am confident in my view of their value structure. And I believe that for eight administrations that view has held and has worked.
Dr. Williams: James, final thoughts.
Dr. Acton: Let me ask you two questions. Firstly, can CMI targeting impose sufficient costs that any gains an adversary might hope to reap through aggression would be outweighed by the costs they would impose – suffer in a nuclear war? I think the answer to that question is yes. I’m prepared to accept Frank’s metric that it’s critical that Xi and Putin believe they could not rule the world after a nuclear war. If we only target their war supporting industry and their conventional military forces, they will have no conventional military power, they will have no economy.
Building back the smoking radioactive wasteland of their homelands to the point that they can take over the world is a multigenerational exercise at that point. The fact that their nuclear forces may be intact at that point would not seem to provide much advantage to them in that post-apocalyptic world. And I think when you look at the Berlin crisis, when you look at how we misinterpreted Soviet views during the Cold War, when you look at Russian reactions to the Ukrainian attacks against civilian targets, I think you can find not just – not proof, but evidence for this position.
Second question I want to ask is, are there large costs associated with building an adversary – with attacking an adversary’s – with targeting an adversary’s nuclear forces? Again, both Frank and I agree here that if we do so our force size is necessarily tied to their full size. And I think that logic inevitably takes you to an arms race with three players, an enormously expensive arms race. And, secondly, does our targeting their nuclear forces risk escalation? You know, we can argue about the exact meaning of the term preemption. What I mean is it only worth our attacking their silos, for example, before those silos have fired their nuclear weapons out of them. There’s not much point attacking a silo if it doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.
And if we put ourselves in their shoes, if we don’t mirror image, if we put ourselves in the shoes of Russian or Chinese leaders and we ask: How would they react if they thought their nuclear forces were about to be attacked in a nuclear war? I think limited nuclear use doesn’t – is not a knee-jerk reaction. It is a coldly logical, brutally rational strategy. And one that I think we should try, to the extent possible, not to induce through our targeting policy.
Dr. Willaims: That brings us to an end, right on time. (Laughs.) And so I think that – I know that there are a lot more discussions coming in from you all. And I do also think this is somewhat just skimming the surface. I know you don’t want to keep talking about this topic, but I have a feeling – (laughter) – I have a feeling that we will continue with this conversation. And so I should have mentioned the beginning, we haven’t done PONI debates for a couple of years. PONI debates got put on hold, like many things, because of the pandemic. And so this is our first revival of PONI debates, and hopefully the first of many more to come.
And so with that, I do want to just do a quick – a couple quick thank-yous. The first thank you obviously really goes to Frank, James, and Stephanie for doing this. In doing the debate, and getting up on the stage, and putting your ideas out there. There’s a bit of bravery to it, especially on a sensitive topic. And so really, really do appreciate that. I really want to thank the PONI team, as always. In particular Diya, if you want to wave. Diya’s probably the one that you all have been interacting with. But really also want to thank all of you for coming. This was a really great turnout. Really excited to see the interest in this topic. And thank you to everybody on the livestream as well. And hope you will stay engaged with PONI. More debates to come. And so thank you all, again, for coming. (Applause.)