August 14, 2008

August 14, 2008 | Executive Summary on National Security and Defense

Executive Summary: Congressional Commission Should Recommend "Damage Limitation" Strategy

Section 1062 of the National Defense Authoriza­tion Act for Fiscal Year 2008 created a congression­ally appointed commission to review the strategic posture of the United States. The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States is charged with assessing the entire strategic posture of the U.S., including offensive and defen­sive forces and conventional and nuclear forces. It is chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger. The commission's initial report is due later this year.

The commission's review comes at a perilous time for U.S. strategic forces. The U.S. nuclear arse­nal and stockpile have been atrophying since the end of the Cold War. Strategic defenses, which were all but abandoned during the Cold War, con­tinue to lag behind the threat resulting from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and their delivery systems. Congress has been reluctant to pursue conventional strategic strike programs, which are also referred to as prompt global strike systems.

However, the commission's most pressing prob­lem is adapting the U.S. strategic posture to main­taining national security and stability in the multipolar world that has replaced what commen­tator Charles Krauthammer has called the "unipo­lar moment" that immediately followed the end of the Cold War. This multipolar world has resulted from the post-Cold War proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons and related delivery systems.

In this multipolar environment, the commission should recommend to Congress that the U.S. adopt a damage limitation strategy to replace the retalia­tory deterrence strategy that dominated U.S. policy during the Cold War. A damage limitation strategy would seek to protect the peoples, territories, insti­tutions, and infrastructure of the United States and its allies against attacks by defeating such attacks and, barring the outright defeat of such attacks, limiting their attendant damage to the greatest extent possible.

Three Schools of Thought. An engaged public debate on the proper U.S. strategic posture for the emerging multipolar world has yet to take place. The Strategic Posture Commission is designed to fill this intellectual vacuum. The three schools of thought that dominated the debate over the proper U.S. strategic posture after World War II and at the onset of the Cold War are reemerging in the context of today's multipolar world. While these schools represent distinct alternative approaches--nuclear disarmament, multilateralized retaliation-based de­terrence, and damage limitation strategy--particu­lar policymakers may attempt to draw on certain aspects of each, despite the contradictions inherent in this approach.

Given today's multipolar world, the Strategic Posture Commission should recommend that Con­gress adopt a damage limitation approach. How­ever, the commission will need to explain such a strategy to Congress.

A Damage Limitation Strategy for a Multipolar World. The best approach for explaining the dam­age limitation strategy, and by extension the strate­gic posture it advocates, is to describe the strategy's basic tenets in the context of today's multipolar world. Beyond describing these basic tenets, the Strategic Posture Commission could also suggest model legislative text to Congress, which would help Congress to codify the damage limitation strat­egy in law. The basic tenets of the damage limitation strategy are as follows:

  1. The purpose of the U.S. strategic posture is to limit the damage from attacks on the U.S. and its friends and allies, particularly damage from attacks with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
  2. A retaliation-based deterrence strategy is inap­propriate for today's multipolar world.
  3. An effective damage limitation strategy relies on a mix of offensive and defensive forces.
  4. An effective damage limitation strategy requires a global strategic target list that is constantly updated.
  5. The U.S. must modernize its strategic posture.
  6. The U.S. should promote international move­ment toward a damage limitation strategy.
  7. The U.S. should pursue arms control in a way that focuses on the most difficult targets.
  8. The U.S. should continue to pursue non­proliferation.

Conclusion. Since the end of the Cold War, Congress has operated in an intellectual vacuum regarding the policy governing the U.S. strategic posture. This was due partly to the less pressing demands during the "unipolar moment" that fol­lowed the Cold War and the Clinton Administra­tion's policy of neglect toward U.S. strategic forces.

Now, at the dawn of a multipolar era, Congress needs to act. The Strategic Posture Commission's purpose should be to help Congress fill this intellec­tual vacuum.

The commission will need to choose from three options in making its recommendation to Congress. The first option is to establish a strategy based on U.S. nuclear disarmament in the hope that others will follow the U.S. lead. The second is to adapt the Cold War strategy of the balance of terror to a mul­tipolar environment. The final and best option is for Congress to adopt a damage limitation strategy, which entails protecting and defending the United States and its allies against attack in service to a broader concept of deterrence than applied during the Cold War.

By recommending a damage limitation strategy, the Strategic Posture Commission will be urging that Congress honor its constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense. The people of the United States expect the federal government to pro­tect them. By adopting a damage limitation strategy, Congress can respond positively to that expectation.

Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy