Micah Zenko is the Douglas Dillon Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action (CPA) at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World
How has our nuclear arsenal changed since the Cold War?
At the height of the Cold War in 1986 to 1987, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had over 30,000 nuclear weapons. To this day, the U.S. and Russia have made ninety-eight percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on this, as did the Soviets and the Russians. And it’s just sort of been a managed drawdown from the heights since the late 1980s. Today the U.S. has some 2,100 deployed nuclear weapons; Russia has perhaps a similar number, although they have a lot of what we call, “smaller tactical nuclear weapons storage.” And we have a couple of thousands awaiting dismantlement. For the most part, we entered into the relationship where we would manage the threat that nuclear weapons pose to each country and other countries in the world in the way that allowed with transparency and verification. The real question is how do we get between the U.S. and Russia lower than today. So the current new star treaty caps both countries with 1,550 strategic weapons and the next we get to attack nuclear weapons and how low do you go. Because, once you get to mid-100s you’re in parallel with China, UK, France; Israel is believed to have between 150 to 200 nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan both have growing nuclear programs. The other threat is that in 2006 to 2009 North Korea tested two nuclear weapons and is now believed to have both plutonium and a highly enriched uranium program. Those are the two fissile materials that can make the bomb; they have both of them. And then there is an unanswered question about Iran’s pursuit of a covert enrichment program, which they were caught by the international community in 2002 for having perused. The United State’ position is that Iran has not made a decision pursuing nuclear weapon. But other countries may disagree, including namely Israel and they made a decision to attack Iran’s know nuclear program. The threat and total number went way down and it’s good news. The other good news is that in early 60’s President Kennedy estimated that they can be 20-25 nuclear weapons powers by 1970. We never got there, so we have nine nuclear weapon states today. And that’s the good news. Because there is something like 40 to 50 countries that have a capability to make a nuclear weapon if they wanted to quite quickly.
And the other good point: besides weapons themselves, is material that can make the bomb, and the materials as well as the nuclear know-how. And as a result of the threat of potential loose nukes from the former S.U. in the late 1990s, there has been a pretty significant bipartisan understanding by the Washington under president Clinton, Bush and then Obama that there needs to be a lot more work to secure fissile material all around the world where it exists, including Japan and South Africa. President Obama’s goal in 2009 was to secure all the world’s nuclear fissile material material by the end of 2013. Hard to say if we’ll get there, but it certainly removed a lot of countries’ fissile material, like Chile and Mexico, which once had highly enrichable uranium and now has none, which is good news. Countries like Serbia, where highly enriched uranium was stored at relatively insecure sites; they’ve been removed. And it’s also converting a lot of civilian nuclear energy reactors from highly enriched to low enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon. So there’s been a lot of progress on that front as well. But how you get to lower and lower numbers it gets really tricky.
As the threat of a nuclear confrontation goes down, has U.S. defense spending gone down as well?
It’s estimated that the U.S. roughly spends 30-40 billion dollars a year on its nuclear weapons program. And that includes maintaining the existing stockpile and replacing material. The big question is what is U.S. going to do in terms of its delivery systems. Now the U.S. can deliver by intercontinental ballistic missiles which are located in places like in Wyoming and North Dakota. They can deliver them by B52 bombers, or by nuclear submarines. The decision was made by the Obama administration to maintain all three of those delivery platforms, which are called the nuclear triad and we’re almost at the forefront of having to make a clear decisions whether or not we want to pursue a new ICPM, because the current one is just running out of its life cycle. Whether or not we want to peruse a new air delivery vehicle (because some of the 52s they fly now are over 50 to 60 years old frame), and just want to do it on subs (nuclear submarines are very hard to find, they provide you with a very reliable secure second strike nuclear capability). So they have to make a decision on what they want to do. The current decision is to pursue them all. I believe that given the fiscal constraints that exist one of these legs of the triangle will have to be cut and I would bet it’s the missile version because ICBMs don’t necessarily buy you that much more than ballistic missiles launched from nuclear submarines verses from North Dakota, for example. So we still spend a significant amount of money on this capability but we also spend a lot on dismantling and safely getting rid of the plutonium. And that will be costly forever because the half life of this stuff is hundreds of thousands of years. But we spend much less and given the threat that exists to the U.S. from perspective nuclear powers and the reasons why we would have nuclear weapons, I would contend that we can maintain our deterrence on much lower numbers and we don’t need to maintain the existing infrastructure and delivering vehicles to do so.
Are North Korea and Iran real threats?
Iran, in particular, is widely overinflated by lots of political leaders. Iran has been “on the verge,” people like to say, of having a nuclear weapon for over thirty years. They have pursued a covert uranium enrichment program outside the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards agreement and they’ve done this since roughly the mid 1980’s. So they did not live up to its agreements with IAEA, which is the UN’s nuclear energy watchdog, so they hid their program. The question is whether or not they are also trying to develop a nuclear weapon. The U.S. says the Iranians have not made the decision to do that, but the question is whether Israel agrees with the U.S. assessment or not. The other question then becomes: if Iran was able to obtain the nuclear weapon, to what extent does it threaten the United States and its interest in the region? A lot of people said at the time, in the early 1960s, during the very vigorous debate by the United States and by the United States and the Soviet Union in parallel, whether or not to bomb China’s nascent nuclear program. And there were very high level decisions about whether to do this and they decided not to. But the reason they said they had to because once China had the bomb Mao would behave crazy with it and he would threaten countries with it and he would export socialism all over the world. And it turns out that having a nuclear weapon didn’t provide China all that much more capability.
My position is that even if Iran does get the bomb, it will not be the end of the world for U.S. interests. It’s not going to be a good thing, because Iran envisions itself as a regional hegemony and is an active supporter of some international terrorist groups, specifically groups that have insurgency and resisting Israel as its core interests. To have Iran have a nuclear weapon and continue that is not a good thing. But the cost and consequences of attacking Iran’s nuclear program are pretty substantial.
What are your thoughts on the change of leadership in North Korea?
North Korea has been a nuclear state estimated since the 1990’s when they covertly reprocessed plutonium outside of IAEA inspection. Now, what had happened then in late 2002 is that they were kicked out IAEA. So there’s been no IAEA inspection of their known nuclear facilities- so that’s a problem. But they do allow these nuclear physicists to come and visit sometimes to sort of show off what they do and sort of stage manage. But we know that they’re still developing highly enriched uranium, so this is the other track that we can develop a nuclear weapon. The U.S. believes that North Korea is also pursuing a covert uranium enrichment program and it is estimated that the next time North Korea tests the nuclear weapon, it could be by highly enriched uranium, whereas the last too where believed to be at the plutonium level still developing a highly enriched uranium program. So this is very problematic, not just because North Korea having lots of facilities is a bad thing, but North Korea has a tradition of selling off anything that will garner hard currency out on the open market.
The Obama administration, just like Bush and just like the Clinton, attempted to broker a diplomatic agreement with North Koreans, and they should be credited for doing so. And as many people predicted at the time, it fell apart when the North Korean society tested ballistic missiles, which, like its last several long range ballistic tests, was a total failure, but still gives the North Koreans an opportunity to draw attention to themselves. Because ultimately, the only thing they have that provides them with any respect in the international community is their nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missiles.
Whether or not you can cut a deal that buys out that program requires a lot of coordinated diplomatic pressure to do so. The country that most people believe has the leverage to do so is China, but it doesn’t want to. And the United States has been somewhat inconsistent with how it engages in North Korea, including the recent decision to withdraw food aid to North Korea. The position is that we do not link food aid to progress on North Korea’s nuclear program and we’ve essentially done it. And again, this is the people of North Korea who are paying for the behavior of their leadership.
What are the major lessons that the military has learned from Iran and Afghanistan?
Everyone likes to claim that whatever the military is doing today is the new American way of war. But there’s always new American ways of war. The U.S. military is a very massive, impressive tool that can be used by policy makers for a wide range of foreign policy objectives. And so, if there was a need to deploy 170,000 troops as we did at the height of Iraq surge, I don’t doubt that we would do it again. Although, the cost of it — even in real dollars — the Iraq war cost more than Vietnam and we will spent the estimated trillions of dollars once the needs of veterans and service members, over two million who were deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 are met in precluded and the families are consoled. So it’s an incredibly costly thing.
Some of the capabilities that are being used now to a large degree simply didn’t exist before 9/11. So famously in the Afghanistan invasion the U.S. had two drones that were flying over Afghanistan – one was armed one was not. Today we have 7,500 drones and 400-500 of them roughly can be armed. So we have more capability. Special operations forces like Navy Seals who were involved in killing Bin Laden – their size and their budgets has almost tripled since 9/11. And so that’s become a more impressive and alluring tool to be deployed. But the U.S. military still has a vast number of capabilities – something like almost 285 navy ships and all the carrier battle groups that can be deployed (we have two in the Persian Gulf right now that can be deployed as people like to say, “four acres of sovereignty, anywhere in the world.”) And so that remains, but the real question is whether or not you’re going to draw down these capabilities when the budget cuts come into what risks you’re willing to assume in less geographic coverage with a smaller military as well as the belief of the U.S. allies (the countries we have formal defense treaties with) that the U.S. will protect them if they’re face emerging threats. And the primarily long-term emerging threat, which requires a large military according to some, is China. The Pentagon often says that right now the U.S. spends 5-6 times of what China spends on its defense spending and then the big question then becomes, “What are China’s intentions?” Now, China is more opaque than the United States. It’s harder to understand what China’s goals are. But the Chinese are very leery of the U.S. descriptions of its policy including phrases like: “pivot of the East Asia” and “the U.S. has always been the Pacific power.” The U.S. always says that this is not directed at any one country, but if I were a Chinese military leader I would take it to mean China specifically, and they do.
We are hearing about cyber security, economic warfare, biological weapons in the news- how substantial are those threats?
Cyber is a substantially over-inflated national security threat to the U.S. It’s estimated that 95% of all cyber attacks can be easily countered if corporations, in particular, as well as individuals can take very rudimentary steps to protect their networks and they are willing to share information and characterize the threats. The issue right now is that corporations do not want to share information of the attacks because they’re embarrassing. They don’t want to admit when they had to pay off people, they don’t want to admit how insecure their systems are. They also just constantly don’t encrypt passwords, for example. This is just amazing that there are large corporations where people’s passwords are being stolen over and over again. My easy solution to that is that the United States should require corporations to do that, it should be a legal mandate. Right now, it’s just all voluntary guidelines and they’re not doing them right. And that’s the problem.
The issue of the critical infrastructure; when the Department of Homeland Security is the lead executive agency to protect them, that’s a more potentially serious threat down-the-line. But right now, for all the talk of a cyber Pearl Harbor (which has been around for twenty years), there’s no evidence of it. Of course now we know, based upon David Sanger’s reporting, that the only countries to have taken offensive cyber operations against another country was the U.S. and Israel against Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. And so the real question is “What precedent was the United States taking doing that?” And when we talk about protecting our systems, someone has described it as: It’s like a person living in a glass house who has the biggest rocks. The U.S. has more offensive cyber capabilities than anyone else in the world but it’s also very vulnerable to the capabilities it has. So what are the rules of the road, code of conduct, that you can try to coordinate with other countries that will agree not to disrupt these critical infrastructures, not to disrupt these facilities, what networks we won’t exploit for information, and what sort of kinetic-like offensive attacks we will not take? We’re a long, long way away from that.
Are we spending where the real threats are?
The U.S. will spend about $550 billion dollars on defense which will not include the war in Afghanistan and it also doesn’t include some of the Department of Energy’s technology for nuclear weapons. The Congressional Budget Office had an estimate earlier this year, that they put the total U.S. spending for defense at $699 billion dollars. Now, that is twenty percent of all federal spending, that is more than half all discretionary spending. It’s a substantial commitment for the U.S., including $75 billion dollars just for U.S. intelligence agencies (the CIA side as well as the military side). And so, this capability is pretty massive but not sustainable. On current trajectories, if you are going to run trillion dollar deficits every year, if you’re not willing to raise taxes, if economic growth simply won’t bring any more money into the federal coffers; then you have to cut somewhere.
The agreement that the Obama administration and the congress made was to cut six percent of the defense budget, which is even if it was cut, would be well above what was pre 9/11 numbers. But part of justification for maintaining this at that level or higher is that there are always new threats around the corner. And I kind of call it the threat smorgasbord. The Secretary of Defense will often say that there’s political instability in the Middle East, in China, emerging powers, there’s cyber. You get to the question: what is the U.S. military really for? It’s not policing the world; not to simply look for monsters to slay, but the point is that the U.S. military should only be used and deployed in the ways that are critical to the U.S. national interests and in a way that has some sort of a prioritization. As I like to point out, the real issues facing America that need as immediate attention are not threat based, they’re challenge based. They’re issues that require substantial international cooperation. They’re not issues that the U.S. can resolve unilaterally nor are they issues where the military should be playing the lead role. So as I always point out, things with global public health for example – 1.5 children under the age of five will die this year from vaccine preventable diseases. You could vaccinate them all, for twenty five to thirty billion, which is about two months in Afghanistan. So if you are interested in saving lives you might prioritize your money there. The U.S. spends like six to seven billion dollars on this sort of issues. Bill Gates has without question saved more lives than the U.S. military in the last ten years just on his vaccine preventable commitments. And that might be things we want to pursue to a greater degree.
There’s also climate change that affects everybody and is a trigger towards potential political instability and violence in certain parts of the world and is hurting the U.S. economy. That is something that required a good amount of cooperation, nothing to do with the United States. Space — which is an issue I spend a lot of time on — the growing threat of space debris to communication satellites to manned space missions is growing significantly. The U.S. has a particular responsibility on this because the U.S. tracks all, sort of, softball-sized or bigger and provides information to the countries when their satellites might come under collision. But at some point, you need to clean this up. Because as it is right now, space debris hits other space debris and just creates more, indefinitely, and it just stays up there until it falls back into the atmosphere. Some of it will never fall back into the atmosphere. And this is not a solution for the United States, this requires international cooperation. So there’s issue after issue after issue, where the military is not a lead actor and the U.S. on its own cannot effectively deal with these challenges.